British Museum blog

Pompeii and Herculaneum: two ordinary cities with an extraordinary story

Portrait of baker Terentius Neo and his wife. Pompeii, AD 55–79. © DeAgostini/SuperStock

David Prudames, British Museum

In AD 79, late in the year, two cities – Herculaneum and Pompeii – along with various small towns, villages, and farms in the south of Italy were wiped out in just 24 hours by the catastrophic eruption of the nearby Mount Vesuvius. This event ended the life of the cities, but preserved them to be rediscovered by archaeologists nearly 1,700 years later.

These were not extraordinary cities; they died in an extraordinary way, but they were ordinary ancient Roman cities, and because of this they have been able to become a lens through which we can see and understand a whole civilisation.

Portrait of baker Terentius Neo and his wife. Pompeii, AD 55–79

Portrait of baker Terentius Neo and his wife. Pompeii, AD 55–79. © DeAgostini/SuperStock

In spring 2013, these two cities and their unique story will be explored in a major exhibition at the British Museum, that will – in the words of Museum Director, Neil MacGregor – be a chance ‘to visit the cities and to visit the houses in the cities; to be inside a Roman household, inside a Roman street; to know what it felt like, to know what was going on.’

Through objects from the British Museum collection and an immensely generous loan of 250 objects from Naples, Pompeii and Herculaneum – many of which have never been seen outside Italy – the exhibition will focus on the daily lives of the ordinary people who lived there.

Exhibition curator, Paul Roberts explained how in exploring daily life we have a chance to see how people like us would have lived in an ancient reflection of our own lives:

‘Daily life; the home, and domestic life, it’s something that we all share. The home gives us a wonderful opportunity to explore how people like us lived in Roman times: perhaps they didn’t all go to the baths, or the amphitheatre, but poor or wealthy they all had a home.’

Through some of the most famous objects to have emerged from the two cities, and finds unearthed during recent archaeological work there, the exhibition will look at the make-up and activity of homes – and the people who lived in them – at both Pompeii and Herculaneum.

Gold bracelet in the form of a coiled snake, 1st Century AD, Pompeii

Gold bracelet in the form of a coiled snake, 1st Century AD, Pompeii

Often the stories revealed are surprising. For example, from Pompeii, the large industrial centre of the region with a population of around 12-15,000, comes a statue of a woman commemorating her funding – with her own money – of the largest building in the forum, the heart of the city. This, in a male-dominated society where women might not usually be known as the rich patrons of civic monuments.

While at the same time, the more mundane elements of life are revealed in objects such as an extraordinarily well-preserved loaf of bread that, in Paul’s words, ‘went in the oven in AD 79 and came out in the 1930s’.

But of course the reason we know this story and can see these wonderful objects is because of the tragedy which struck in AD 79. Incredible finds from Herculaneum, a smaller seaside town of some 4-5,000 inhabitants, include food, leather, and wooden furniture – from a table to a baby’s cot – and survive only because they were carbonised (turned into charcoal) by the 4-500 degree Celsius volcanic avalanche that engulfed the city.

As Paul explained:

‘We can’t imagine the horror of that day, but we can see what people did. Some of them were practical, taking a lantern or a lamp to help them stumble through the total darkness of the volcanic blizzard. Other people took gold and silver in the form of coins or jewellery. One little girl took her charm bracelet with pieces from all over the Roman world and beyond, such as cowries from the Indian Ocean, amber from the Baltic, rock crystal from the Alps, faience from Egypt. She had this with her when she died on the beach at Herculaneum with hundreds of others.’

Some 2,000 years later that charm bracelet will be among the objects on display at the British Museum next year, allowing us as it does to recall and remember the real people whose lives we are so privileged to be able to see and understand:‘We had to have the death of Pompeii and Herculaneum to know so much about the people who lived there, but it’s their lives that we will be celebrating in this exhibition.’

Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum is open from 28 March 2013.

The exhibition is sponsored by Goldman Sachs.
In collaboration with Soprintendenza Speciale per I Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei.

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A wooden O



Alan Farlie, Exhibition designer,
RFK Architects Ltd

Explaining the job of an exhibition designer is not straightforward as it depends on the type of exhibition and the type of story being told. For a paintings and drawings show we may work with existing gallery walls and the job is about placement and selection of wall colours. Designing Shakespeare: staging the world was far more complicated than that.

We were finishing the installation of Treasures of Heaven in 2011 when I was asked if we would pitch for the Shakespeare exhibition. The British Museum was already working with the Royal Shakespeare Company and one of the reasons for the pitch was to see how we would work with Tom Piper, Associate Designer at the RSC. At RFK we believe there should be an intellectual foundation to all of our design work and the first stage, before putting pencil to paper, is research. In the case of Shakespeare that involved research into the objects and the story, but also a look at Tom’s work for the RSC and thoughts on the differences between exhibition design and theatre design.

People often talk about ‘theatrical’ design, as shorthand for flamboyant, noisy and in many cases over-blown design. Tom’s designs for the RSC are consciously modern and often stripped back, which immediately struck a chord with us. And an interview with the Guardian reinforced the sense that Tom had a similar approach to his work: “Perhaps surprisingly, Piper starts with the text: reading the script, picking out words, themes, politics – any hook that might snag an idea”. For us it’s the objects rather than the text but the principle is the same. Unless you understand the objects and the curatorial story any exhibition will just be a repeat of some standard formula.

In our pitch to the BM we included sketches that illustrated the principle differences between exhibition and theatre design.

Sketches showing one of the fundamental differences between Theatre and Exhibition – the narrative in a play is defined by the passage of time; the narrative in an exhibition is defined by the visitor passing through space.

In the theatre, the audience remains in a fixed location as the spectacle changes everyone starts the play at the same time and finishes at the same time. The experience is a shared one that unfolds over time.

In an exhibition, the spectacle is fixed. It tends to be an individual experience that unfolds as the visitor moves through the space at his or her own pace, encountering new points of view with every step. Our challenge was to blend the visual language of performance-based stage design with that of object-based exhibition design and to come up with something new and unexpected.

The original section titles as briefed and a diagram showing visitor circulation with London at the heart and non-linear circulation.

The exhibition is structured around the idea of nine ‘Imagined Worlds’ each of which represents different aspects of Shakespeare’s plays. Our first sketches showed the first of these ‘London 1612′ at the heart of the exhibition with all the other sections linking to it. As the design developed it became apparent this would not work practically but we felt it was important to retain the sense of London being at the exhibition’s heart, if not its physical centre.

Early sketch illustrating the idea of seeing through to the books.

We were also struck by the resonances of an exhibition about ‘the text’ being staged within the Round Reading Room, which is still a working library and from the outset wanted to express that connection. In the final design this was achieved by cutting a series of slot windows that give views onto the bookstacks.

The first draft of the design model

To develop the design, we used a series of models at various scales. Models are perfect for collaborations of this kind and allow for immediate exchange of ideas. They are not precious and are there to be cut and carved as part of the process. The first draft, shown here, has just four elements (the large ring is the lighting ring originally installed for The First Emperor exhibition): at bottom left is London or the ‘Wooden O’ as it became known; at top right is a second curve that enclosed ‘The New World’ and in the centre of the room, two large walls that carried two of the largest objects (Fialletti’s view of Venice and the Sheldon Tapestry Map, which featured in previous blogs) and also began to define Venice, Arden and Great Britain. This basic structure of circles, arcs and straight walls was overlaid and developed to become the exhibition now on display.

Final version of the model

This photo of the (almost) final design shows how the circle of the ‘Wooden O’ breaks down and is repeated at different scales in combination with the flat painted walls to create the different worlds. In the first section the curved walls are finished in stained plywood fixed vertically to reference the architecture of Shakespeare’s Globe theatre. In the next section the plywood breaks up to form the ‘trees’ of the Forest of Arden with a sandblasted and stained finish. In medieval England and the Classical world of Julius Caesar the plywood is laid on its side and whitewashed to reference monumental stonework. And to represent the world of Macbeth a charred and blackened finish combines with a deep red and a series of slots to create a sense of menace and uncertainty.

The final section focuses on the strange and foreign New World of The Tempest. As the new lands were so full of surprises for the Elizabethan and Jacobean explorers, so this final space in the exhibition speaks of a blank canvas, a liminal space, full of potential and wonder. This is invoked using the vocabulary of contemporary art galleries and cinema. The walls, floor and ceiling are white and the lighting is diffuse so that this space evokes the starkness of the White Cube and the other-worldliness of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001.

This is just a taster of the work that went into the design and there are many other collaborations that are an essential part of putting together an exhibition of this scale. In particular we worked closely with the lighting designer (Zerlina Hughes of Studio ZNA) and digital media consultant (David Bickerstaff at Newangle) as well as the in house graphic designer at the British Museum. So finally – a couple of images of the completed exhibition – I hope you get a chance to see it.

“Can this cockpit hold the vasty fields of France? Or may we cram within this wooden O the very casques that did affright the air at Agincourt?” (Henry V prologue). Above the First Folio the ceiling beams radiate to reach out, beyond the wooden O, to Shakespeare’s imagined worlds. © Nick Rochowski Photography

The final section takes its cue from the white walls of modern gallery spaces to invoke ‘the shock of the new’. Strange objects and creatures from the new world are displayed in a soft diffuse light. © Nick Rochowski Photography

Shakespeare: staging the world is open from 19 July to 25 November 2012.

The exhibition is supported by BP.
Part of the World Shakespeare Festival and London 2012 Festival.

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The tale of a tapestry



Maggie Wood, Keeper of Social History,
Warwickshire Museum Service

The Sheldon Tapestry Map of Warwickshire was woven in the 1590s, and was one of a set of four tapestry maps made to hang in Ralph Sheldon’s house in south Warwickshire.

It’s a rare and wonderful pictorial representation of Elizabethan Warwickshire – a bird’s eye view of Shakespeare’s landscape.

Before arrival at the British Museum for the exhibition Shakespeare: staging the world, the tapestry has spent over a year undergoing conservation. This work has enabled us to get close to the tapestry, and make exciting discoveries!

Removing the old lining revealed the vibrant original colour – it was very green! Light has faded the yellow colour from the green wool, so that the tapestry front now looks blue instead of green.

Original green and yellow on reverse of tapestry, contrasted with faded colour on the front

The tapestry’s border was replaced in the 17th century. Removing the lining revealed fragments of the original Elizabethan border – much more lively and colourful than the later replacement.

Original tapestry border

In April 2011, the tapestry went to Belgium to be wet-cleaned. De Wit is a famous tapestry workshop which has developed a safe and fast method of wet-cleaning large textiles. The Sheldon Tapestry was washed, rinsed and dried in one day!

Water samples taken during the wet-cleaning, with dirtiest on left!

Gently sponging the tapestry during wet-cleaning

Wet-cleaning didn’t restore the original bright colour, lost through light damage, but it did make tiny details easier to see.

The Rollright Stones, a Neolithic monument built at a similar time to Stonehenge, appear on the tapestry in the lower right corner. They are very hard to spot!
This is probably the first known visual depiction of this ancient site.

Rollright Stones – just below the windmill

We’ve now noticed that this bear’s claws are blue and that there are many tiny cottages hidden in the Forest of Arden.

Left: Bear with blue claws Right: Cottage in the Forest of Arden

We have made many new and fascinating discoveries during the last year, which has helped to build our knowledge of this wonderful object and its history.

Raising the tapestry into place with pulleys

See related article published 30 August 2012 in The Art Newspaper: Ancient Stones revealed on tapestry (This information was added on 13 September 2012)

Shakespeare: staging the world is open from 19 July to 25 November 2012.

The exhibition is supported by BP.
Part of the World Shakespeare Festival and London 2012 Festival.

Tweet using #ShakespeareExhibition and @britishmuseum

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Installing Shakespeare: staging the world


Becky Allen, Project Curator: Shakespeare

The three-week installation of the British Museum’s major new exhibition Shakespeare: staging the world has just finished, and the Reading Room has been transformed.

With over 190 objects, and 38 lenders, there has been a lot of work to do. One of the most impressive aspects of the experience has been witnessing how many colleagues, both within and outside the Museum, have come together to bring the exhibition to life. It is a real team effort to create an exhibition on this scale, and it calls on skills and experience of all kinds, from conservation specialists to lighting technicians, heavy object handlers to designers.

The exhibition features a huge range of objects, including coins, armour, textiles, sculpture and much more. One of the most exciting, and perhaps surprising, aspects of the show is how many paintings it includes – 21 in total from many different lenders. For me, watching the paintings being hung has been a highlight of the installation. One of my favourites is the enormous 1611 bird’s-eye view of Venice from Eton College. The painting has only travelled twice: first from Venice to Eton, where it was hung in 1636, and then from Eton to the British Museum.

As you can see from the photograph, hanging the painting safely required careful coordination and teamwork. Venice is one of Shakespeare’s most important imagined places, and is often the setting for his brilliant examinations of outsiders in society – Shylock the Jew and Othello, the ‘moor of Venice’, being powerful examples. The painting is populated with figures and really brings the Venice section to life – it’s a great pleasure seeing it each morning.

Museum assistants and specialist art handlers hanging the ‘Bird’s-eye view of Venice’ by Odoardo Fialetti, 1611. (Eton College, Windsor)

Another remarkable painting comes from the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Siena. It is a beautiful portrait of Queen Elizabeth I known as ‘The Sieve Portrait’, by Quentin Metsys the Younger, dated 1583. In the portrait Elizabeth holds a sieve, symbolic of chastity. This association comes originally from the story of the Roman Vestal Virgin Tuccia who proved her own virginity by carrying water in a sieve. It’s a beautiful and striking painting which makes a real statement about the presence and theatricality of Elizabeth, queen at the time Shakespeare moved to London and began to write and act.

Museum assistants from the British Museum hanging ‘The Sieve Portrait’ by Quentyn Metsys the Younger, 1583. (Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena)

Shakespeare: staging the world is open from 19 July to 25 November 2012.

The exhibition is supported by BP.
Part of the World Shakespeare Festival and London 2012 Festival.

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When the world came to London


Dora Thornton, Exhibition Curator

Four centuries ago, the world began to come to London, which was reaching for the status of a world city. It was a time in which so many aspects of the modern world have their origins. In the forthcoming exhibition, Shakespeare: staging the world we explore these developments though the lens of Shakespeare’s plays. It was above all in the London playhouse that Shakespeare’s generation explored the strangeness and variety of humankind. Shakespeare gave his people, and London’s visitors, a vocabulary and a vision with which they could explore who they were and what it meant to be English, British, or a citizen of the world.

Looking at the Moor’s Head Cup, made by
Christoph Jamnitzer in Munich around 1600,
Bayerisches Nationalmuseum, Munich

As curator of the exhibition, I have had an exciting time over the last four years thinking my way into Shakespeare’s world with objects. It is a new kind of undertaking, and I have had to feel my way between objects and texts, to the extent that it would be impossible to say which came first in articulating the imagined places of Shakespeare’s plays for our visitors.

The exhibition is structured around Shakespeare’s real and imaginary locations — a brilliant concept put forward by the Shakespearean consultant to the exhibition, Professor Jonathan Bate. Through the innovative design of the display, visitors will travel through different settings as they were imagined in the London playhouse. Each place will have its own distinctive feel and atmosphere so that the visitor journeys with Shakespeare’s original audiences.

Following on from the approach of A History of the World in 100 objects, we have chosen objects which take the visitor directly to issues that mattered to Shakespeare and his original audiences. The objects express things that were new; things that had been lost or destroyed; things that were changing or challenging; new cultural encounters and human traffic in a period of expanding global contacts; contested or even explosive political ambitions.

The aim is to create a dialogue between Shakespeare’s imaginary worlds, and the real world as his generation experienced it.

Our collaboration with the Royal Shakespeare Company allows us to introduce an element of performance into the display in evoking “this wooden O” of the London playhouse. It also enables us to bring Shakespeare’s words into the exhibition through digital interventions which our visitors can experience both independently and in juxtaposition with the objects.

The first object is The First Folio of 1623, which preserved Shakespeare’s output as a dramatic artist for all time and assured his classic status. It is not just a text, but an iconic object in its own right, entirely appropriate to a British Museum exhibition in that we work with objects which are also texts; texts which are also objects (think of the Rosetta Stone, the Franks casket, or the Cyrus cylinder.)

We end with another iconic object which is also a text: ‘the Robben Island Bible’: a cheap edition of the Complete Works of Shakespeare which was secretly kept in the Robben Island jail by Sonny Venkatrathnam, hidden beneath Diwali cards and circulated among the political prisoners there. They found a common bond in Shakespeare as they did in their fight against apartheid, and many of them autographed their favourite passages; Shakespeare texts which meant something to them. The book will be open at Nelson Mandela’s favourite passage from Julius Caesar: “Cowards die many times before their deaths: The valiant never taste of death but once.” Unpacking that book on its arrival from South Africa has been the single most moving part of installing the exhibition for me. The arc from the First Folio to the Robben Island Bible is surely a journey worth taking.

Dora Thornton (right) and Becky Allen reading the Robben Island Bible

Shakespeare: staging the world is open from 19 July to 25 November 2012.

The exhibition is supported by BP.
Part of the World Shakespeare Festival and London 2012 Festival.

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St Baudime reliquary arrives at the Museum

By James Robinson, Exhibition Curator

Today the installation began in earnest with the placing of one of the most significant and compelling reliquaries of the exhibition. The statue reliquary of St Baudime had never left France before its inclusion in the Treasures of Heaven exhibition. It’s normally kept in the church of St Nectaire deep in the Auvergne in the centre of France where, sadly, relatively few people have seen it.

Statue reliquary of St Baudime in the church of St Nectair, Auvergne, France

Imagine the excitement when the packing case was opened and the eyes of this exceptional figure were exposed again to the light. The eyes were designed to hold the gaze of the onlooker and still command attention today. Made of ivory, horn and wax, they are slightly mobile and move in their sockets – a miracle of medieval technology. The beautifully expressive hands were made to extend benediction and welcome. The right hand may have once held a phial of the saint’s blood. Despite its remarkable delicacy, its solid walnut core makes it extraordinarily heavy and it required concentrated effort to place it safely in its display case.

The reliquary arrives at the British Museum and is carefully removed from its crate and prepared for conservation work.

Although this reliquary of St Baudime has always remained in France and has stirred rarely from the church it was made to furnish, it has experienced its fair share of trauma. The settings for the jewels that once adorned the figure are now almost all empty, robbed of their riches at the time of the French Revolution. Later, the reliquary itself was stolen by the infamous Thomas brothers in May 1907 but was recovered in a wine cellar!

A slideshow showing every step of the installation is now online.

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Treasures of Heaven: saints, relics and devotion in medieval Europe opens on 23 June 2011. Book tickets online or become a Member and gain free entry to all special exhibitions.

Treasures of Heaven: saints relics and devotion in medieval Europe is sponsored by John Studzinski.

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Afghanistan exhibition opens 3 March

Constance Wyndham, Assistant Exhibition Curator

On the eve of the exhibition opening, we’re now very excited about seeing this exhibition opening to the public too.

Over the last month, we have been working with eight colleagues from Afghanistan who, as curators, conservators, archaeologists and specialists, travel with the objects on loan from Afghanistan’s National Museum to oversee their installation and deinstallation at each exhibition venue.

At the Museum, they were welcomed by the Middle East department and introduced to many other departments across the Museum before we got down to working on the objects themselves, which range from Greek style Corinthian capitals to delicate gold jewellery.

We established a system of condition checking each object with Yahya Mohibzada (Deputy Director, Kabul Museum) and Abdullah Hakimzada (Conservation Dept, Kabul Museum) with our Curatorial and Conservation departments before installing the exhibition. This checking process can sometimes give the opportunity for us to learn a bit more about the objects before installing them in the exhibition space.

One of the display cases in the exhibition will show the first tomb to have been discovered at the first century AD site at Tillya Tepe. The skeleton was of a woman aged between 20 and 30 years, buried lying on her back. Her clothes were covered in hundreds of gold ornaments, stitched on to the cloth.

British Museum scientists and conservators worked with Afghan colleagues to analyse four black beads on a necklace from this hoard. The beads had been previously described as wood – but there was some doubt about this. Although they were covered in consolidant (which made it difficult to obtain accurate readings as we weren’t able to take samples) the team discovered that the beads were in fact probably made of jet.

With this discovery made, the Museum assistants Sarah Price and Xavier Duffy were then ready to recreate within the exhibition space the layout of the earrings, headdress and gold appliqués on the figure as she appeared in the tomb.

In addition to working on the installation, we have also been visiting some of the many museums and institutions in the UK that have wonderful collections of material from Afghanistan acquired from the nineteenth century onwards.

We visited the British Library where curator John Falconer showed us photographs by John Burke, official photographer to the British Army in Afghanistan during the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-1880) and detailed drawings by Charles Masson, the first of the European travellers to Afghanistan to record sites and monuments. Masson deserted the East India Company in 1827 and pioneered archaeology in Afghanistan. His accurate drawings of monuments such as Babur’s Tomb, Minar-i-Chakari and the Buddhas at Bamiyan have helped with modern research.

We also went to Oxford to look at Gandharan Buddhas and Kushan coins in the Ashmolean Museum. In the Pitt Rivers Museum we were shown wooden carved figures from Nuristan. The National Museum in Afghanistan has a collection of these figures on display, some mounted on horseback, but several were damaged by the Taliban.

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For more information about the exhibition, visit the British Museum’s website

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Dismantling the crown

Sarah Price and Xavier Duffy, Museum Assistants

Early in January we travelled to Bonn, the venue of the previous Afghanistan exhibition to assist with the de-installation and transport of the objects to London. In the British Museum we will be responsible for installing Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World and it has been months in the planning. Our trip to Bonn was the first time we would actually see the objects rather than in the photographs we’d been carefully studying. It was also our first opportunity to meet the eight Afghan couriers who accompany the exhibition and who we will be working with closely in London.

It was then with a sense of anticipation and nervous excitement that we arrived at the museum to start work. We were able to look around the exhibition before de-installation began and this was a valuable chance to see what the objects are actually like and how they can be displayed.

One object that surprised us was the gold crown from Tillya Tepe that features on the British Museum exhibition poster. It is a most beautiful, delicate piece and had been cleverly displayed in Bonn. We were puzzled by how this object might be packed for transport given its fragile nature. The answer came when the conservator started dismantling it.

The crown’s shape is given by the mount it sits on during display. The top five sections come loose and are detached from the headband which itself then lies flat. Each piece had a series of loops on the back which thread onto corresponding spikes on the mount. These six sections are held in place with pins in travel boxes to stop them from moving during their journey to London.

Once all the objects had been safely packed into their crates it was time to transport the cargo to London with us and the Afghan delegation always close at hand. After a long day travelling across Europe the crates would still have to be unloaded at the British Museum. However, the Heavy Object Handling team and members of the Middle East department were thankfully on hand to assist with this final part of the process. The crates were placed in a secure storage area where they will remain until the (much anticipated) time comes to open them up and remove the objects for display in London.

Meeting the Afghan couriers was a great pleasure and assisting them with the de-installation of the exhibition in Bonn will certainly ensure the smooth running of the installation at the British Museum.

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A magnificent collection comes to London

St John Simpson, exhibition curator

Years of quiet behind-the-scenes conversations and negotiations through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, accelerating as the months passed, are now about to come to fruition. On 4 November 2010 an official loan agreement was signed in Kabul by Dr Sayed Raheen, the Minister of Information and Culture, and Sir William Patey, the British ambassador to Afghanistan, followed by a second signing in London on 23 November by Neil MacGregor and witnessed by Mr Homayoun Tandar, the Afghan ambassador to Britain.

Signing of the official loan agreement in Kabul

The purpose of this is to enable the bringing to London of the magnificent collection of objects from the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul which have been touring the world for the past four years. This is the first and only opportunity to see these pieces in Britain.

The objects number over 200 and come from four of the most important archaeological sites in Afghanistan: Tepe Fullol (also known as Khosh Tapa), Ai Khanum (meaning ‘Moon Lady’ in local Uzbek language), Begram and Tilla Tepe (‘Hill of Gold’, better known as Tillya Tepe). They were found between 1937 and 1978 and were previously exhibited in the National Museum in Kabul.

All were feared destroyed or lost during the decades of war and unrest following 1978, during which time the collections were regularly moved, the museum occupied by the military, its upper floors destroyed in a rocket strike, pagan wooden carvings from Nuristan burnt as firewood, and finally its surviving collection of ancient figural sculpture systematically destroyed by fundamentalist Taliban in 2001.

The destroyed state of the National Museum of Afghanistan, Kabul 2001

The whereabouts and safekeeping of these objects was only confirmed in 2003, after the fall of the Taliban government, when newly elected President Hamid Karzai announced they had been mostly hidden in unmarked safes in vaults beneath the presidential palace.

The objects were then inventoried the following year, partly conserved and re-exhibited in Paris in December 2006. Since then they have travelled to Turin, Amsterdam, Washington, San Francisco, Houston, New York, Ottawa and are currently exhibited in Bonn. The exhibition is a remarkable story of Afghans hiding their own culture in order to preserve it and now proudly displaying it to the world. I’m looking forward to working with the Afghans on this magnificent exhibition.

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What is a Book of the Dead?

John Taylor, British Museum

I’m the curator of the exhibition Journey through the afterlife: ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, which opens at the British Museum on 4 November 2010. The exhibition is the result of years of work behind the scenes in planning, preparation and research. It’s exciting to be able to focus on these special documents and to have the rare opportunity to display such a variety of them.

‘Book of the Dead’ is a modern term for a collection of magical spells that the Egyptians used to help them get into the afterlife. They imagined the afterlife as a kind of journey you had to make to get to paradise – but it was quite a hazardous journey so you’d need magical help along the way.

The Book of the Dead isn’t a finite text – it’s not like the Bible, it’s not a collection of doctrine or a statement of faith or anything like that – it’s a practical guide to the next world, with spells that would help you on your journey.

The ‘book’ is usually a roll of papyrus with lots and lots of spells written on it in hieroglyphic script. They usually have beautiful coloured illustrations as well. They would have been quite expensive so only wealthy, high-status people would have had them. Depending on how rich you were, you could either go along and buy a ready-made papyrus which would have blank spaces for your name to be written in, or you could spend a bit more and probably choose which spells you wanted.

Some of the spells are to make sure you can control your own body after death. The ancient Egyptians believed that a person was made up of different elements: body, spirit, name, heart, they’re all embodiments of a person, and they were afraid that these elements would disperse when you died. So there are a lot of spells to make sure you don’t lose your head or your heart, that your body doesn’t decay, as well as other spells about keeping alive by breathing air, having water to drink, having food to eat.

There are also spells about protecting yourself because the ancient Egyptians expected to be attacked on the journey to the afterlife by snakes, crocodiles, insects – an idea very much based on the threats they knew in real life only much more frightening and much more dangerous.

As well as the animals, you could be attacked by gods or demons who served the gods. In the next world there are a lot of gods who are guarding gateways that you have to get through, and if you don’t give the right answers to their questions at the gates, they can attack you because they have knives and snakes in their hands.

Without the correct spells to protect you, you could be punished in a variety of ways: you could be put on to the slaughter block, you could be decapitated, or you could be turned upside down (which meant your digestive process worked in reverse so you had to eat faeces and drink urine forever!).

The worst thing that can happen is what is called the second death. This meant you were killed and your spirit couldn’t come back and so you would have no afterlife at all.

It was a world of great fear that they believed they were going into, and the Book of the Dead provided guidance and protection on this journey.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be writing regularly about the aspects of the exhibition that I’m most excited about – and there’ll also be updates from some of the many people working on the exhibition behind the scenes here at the British Museum.

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