British Museum blog

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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Filed under: Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World, Exhibitions, , ,

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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Filed under: Exhibitions, Journey through the afterlife: ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, , , ,

The first ring of the doorbell

Hugo Chapman, Exhibition Curator

I’m writing on Thursday evening at the end of the first day of the public viewing of the exhibition. I was unusually nervous and keyed-up all day. I now realise my feelings were a bit like those I experience in that half hour before a party begins. The food and drink is all ready, but I can’t shake off a bat squeak of panic in my head that there’s been collective form of amnesia among my friends, or I told them the wrong date. Such nerves are quickly dispelled by the first ring of the doorbell. Would the Reading Room have only the warders in attendance on the opening day?

With these dark thoughts in mind it was heartening to step into the Reading Room around 11am to see it thronged with people. It was fantastic to witness the hushed concentration of the visitors as they looked intently at the drawings and at the explanatory films.

The scene made me think back to how panic-struck I had been three years ago when I was told that my proposed show was to be in the Reading Room. How could such a vast space be given the intimacy that drawings need? In the event the BM exhibition designer, Jon Ould, came up with a brilliant plan that gave the works space to be viewed without having a sense of the great void above.

Inside the exhibition

One of the thrills of the show was to see the transformation of the empty Reading Room platform to the exhibition space that Jon had designed. The discussions with Jon and other colleagues as to how the drawings should be structured and displayed mirrored many others that shaped the show’s formation. For me the collective, collaborative nature of creating an exhibition is the perfect antidote to the essentially lonely business of writing the book that preceded it.

I’ll definitely keep on returning to the show to savour the reaction of the viewer and to admire the drawings. Someone at the opening told me wistfully that they hoped that the Icelandic volcano would keep on erupting to allow the Uffizi drawings to remain. Volcanic ash or not the exhibition will, however, certainly close on 25 July so the clock is ticking…

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Image caption: Inside the exhibition

Filed under: Exhibitions, Italian Renaissance drawings, , , , , ,

Renaissance under review

Hugo Chapman, Exhibition Curator

Andrea Mantegna, Allegory of the Fall of Ignorant Humanity

I’ve just got back to my desk from the press launch of the exhibition and although it’s just gone midday I feel exhausted. I gave a 10 minute speech to the assembled journalists in the Reading Room and then fielded a few questions. Thankfully the grandeur of the setting, with Sidney Smirke’s Pantheon-inspired vault above us and the beauty of the Renaissance drawings, had a calming effect.

Only time will tell whether this will wear off once they return to their computers to write their reactions to the exhibition. So far the reviews have been excellent, but will the drawings of Verrocchio, Leonardo and the others conquer all?

Tonight it’s the launch party with hundreds of guests invited. Sadly all the curators at the Uffizi in Florence, who I was so looking forward to showing around the exhibition, have been prevented from coming by the volcanic ash. It’s a subject worthy of a Renaissance allegorical painting: Vulcan trampling on Mercury (the gods of volcanoes and the arts respectively) but with Fame blowing a trumpet, and perhaps the party loving Bacchus, providing a more positive spin on events.

In the exhibition there’s an eye-catching, if somewhat bleak, allegory of this kind showing mankind, represented by a blind woman, being led to a precipice by a variety of dodgy characters including Deceit, Ignorance and Folly. This is definitely an image one should keep in mind during this election period.

I imagine it will feel a little odd to be in the exhibition with quite so many people. Over the last weeks I’ve grown used to the space with just a handful of people putting up the drawings. An exhibition that has for the past three years existed first in my head, and then in the evolving plans of the designer, will finally be viewed.

Aside from the predicted laid-back and unimpressed reactions of my two teenage sons, I hope that the opening crowd like what they see.

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Image caption: Andrea Mantegna, Allegory of the Fall of Ignorant Humanity (‘Virtus Combusta’) About 1490-1506

Filed under: Exhibitions, Italian Renaissance drawings, , , , , , ,

A Renaissance cover-up

Hugo Chapman, Exhibition Curator

I’ve been ducking in and out of press previews as the opening day approaches so in a rare spare moment, I’m taking the opportunity to catch-up on our progress over the last week.

Inspecting the drawings

Before being carried up from the basement storage to the Reading Room to be hung, the 50 drawings from the Uffizi gallery were given some rest time to get over their long journey from Italy.

The handmade rag paper on which the majority are drawn (the exceptions are a couple of works on parchment made of animal skin) has the quality of a living organism. It expands and contracts according to the level of humidity in the atmosphere. Such minute changes need to be monitored and the first thing that happens when a drawing comes out of the crate is a thorough examination by a paper conservator from the British Museum.

As in the medical records that our doctors look at when we go for a check-up, the drawing’s condition is compared against a detailed report written by a paper conservator of the lending institution. Usually this consists of a photograph with the stains, tears, repaired holes, undulations and other scars of 500 years of existence marked.

The British Museum conservator and the Uffizi courier (the person who has overseen the transport of the works) check this condition report to see that nothing has altered during the drawing’s journey.

Drawing with a paper cover

Normally the toughness and resilience of paper means that it adjusts to the change in atmospheric conditions. In the rare cases where changes have occurred: for example the surface has become fractionally more undulating; the drawing will be put on a list to be monitored closely during the run of the show.

The condition checking over, the drawings were ready to be put on the walls. The position and spacing of each work has been worked out by the exhibition designer and once they’re on the wall, each of them is covered over with paper to protect them from light so that the inks and washes do not fade in the bright lights needed for the installation.

For a time the exhibition had the air of a contemporary art installation piece. With all the works on the wall and the lighting at the right level, we could start taking the covers off and with just days to go, I’m looking forward to seeing if our visitors are as excited by the result as I am.

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Images:
Inspecting the drawings
A drawing with its paper cover

Filed under: Exhibitions, Italian Renaissance drawings, , , , ,

One Leonardo – to go

Hugo Chapman, Exhibition Curator

For the last couple of weeks we’ve been carefully installing the exhibition in the Reading Room. It’s been an exciting – if slightly nerve-wracking – time as the plans we’ve had in place for so long are finally realised.

Statue of Bacchus

Perhaps strangely for a drawings exhibition, the first work to be installed was a first-century classical marble sculpture of the Roman wine-god, Bacchus. He’s one of the star pieces in our Greece and Rome department and has just returned from a world tour of British Museum masterpieces.

The revival of classical art and learning is central to the artistic revolution that occurred in Italy in the 1400s – the French word Renaissance that we use to describe the period means rebirth and was coined by artists and scholars of the period to claim that they had revived the ancient civilisations of Greece and Rome. In truth the classical world had never disappeared, but it is true that artists began to look at ancient sculptures with a new intensity.

Marble figures like Bacchus encouraged artists to recognise the sensuality and beauty of the human body. The sculpted Bacchus presents an idealised vision of the perfect male body. Such are his charms that lipstick has had to be cleaned off him more than once – I’m hoping he will continue to cast his spell without us needing to wipe off the lip gloss.

But now we’re turning our attention to paper – so much part of our lives that we tend to take it for granted, but this exhibition transports us back to the 1400s when it was a new and precious material.

The Chinese invention of papermaking had been brought to Europe via the Islamic world. The invention of the printing press in Germany in the 1450s gave a huge impetus for papermaking, above all in Italy which was the most literate and urbanised region of Europe.

Renaissance paper was handmade from cloth fibres (not wood pulp as today) obtained from old clothes, sails and ropes.

Drawings in storage

Fortunately for us paper’s durability makes it possible for centuries-old drawings like those we’re displaying in this exhibition to travel safely. However, like the venerable voyagers they are, the Renaissance drawings from the Uffizi need time to rest after their journey from Florence. After a few days to acclimatise the Uffizi drawings will be ready to be hung on the walls of the Reading Room.

I can’t wait to see them out of their crates and on the walls.

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Images:
Marble statue of Bacchus (Dionysus)
Drawings in storage, ready for display

Filed under: Exhibitions, Italian Renaissance drawings, , , , , ,

Fra Angelico to Leonardo: Italian Renaissance drawings

Hugo Chapman, Exhibition Curator

As curator of the soon-to-open exhibition, Fra Angelico to Leonardo: Italian Renaissance drawings I’ll be writing weekly about what’s happening behind the scenes as the show takes shape before it opens to the public on 22 April.

The exhibition consists of a hundred of the greatest Italian fifteenth-century drawings from the British Museum and the Uffizi in Florence.

The process of selection from the two best collections of Renaissance drawings came close to fulfilling my childhood dream of being locked in a sweet shop… the difference being that I was picking out Leonardos, not sherbet dib dabs.

For the last three years I’ve imagined how the drawings would look in the soaring space of the Reading Room. This week we’ve started to hang the drawings, so finally the waiting is over.

Will the drawings that I thought would work so well together turn out to be good neighbours? Time will tell.

Next week I’ll be back with an insider’s peek at the exhibition installation.

Hope you enjoy following our progress.

Filed under: Exhibitions, Italian Renaissance drawings, , , ,

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