British Museum blog

Letting off steam: communicating through music, cloth and song in eastern Africa

Chris Spring, Curator, African collection, British Museum

When I began to prepare for the Asahi Shimbun Display Music, celebration and healing: the Sudanese lyre, I realised at once that zār ceremonies in Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia (which were aimed at calming the restless spirits within those possessed and at which lyres of the type featured in the show would have been played), represent one among several different ways for women to communicate a range of ideas and concerns which cannot be spoken out loud in daily society. My fieldwork in eastern Africa over the past 15 years has taught me that kanga cloth and taarab music are two other means of communicating widely used by women in the region.

Sudanese lyre. 19th century. H. 40.5 cm. British Museum Af1917,0411.1

Sudanese lyre. 19th century. H. 40.5 cm. British Museum Af1917,0411.1

Printed cotton manga, with inscription which reads 'You know nothing'. Tanzania, early 21st century. 105 x 154 cm. British Museum Af2002,09.4.

Printed cotton kanga, with inscription which reads ‘You know nothing’. Tanzania, early 21st century. 105 x 154 cm. British Museum Af2002,09.4.

The very first kanga I acquired for the British Museum on Zanzibar back in 2002 (pictured above) was not printed in Africa at all but in India and it looked more like a Damien Hirst spot painting than anything else. On it was printed the Swahili slogan HUJUI KITU ‘YOU KNOW NOTHING’, and that marked the beginning of a steep learning curve for me. ‘Who would wear such a thing?’, I asked my Tanzanian friend George Ngungulu. ‘Oh, maybe an older woman as a way of putting down her younger rivals’ he replied, ‘“You young people think you know everything, but HUJUI KITU – you know nothing!!” In other words, it’s a way of letting off steam without having to open your mouth or indulge in anything physical’, he explained.

That kanga, together with many other textiles from eastern and southern Africa, is currently in the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter as part of the Social Fabric: African Textiles exhibition which I originally curated at the British Museum and which is now one of its ‘Museum in Britain’ touring exhibitions.

The unspoken language of the kanga provides a way of suggesting thoughts and feelings which cannot be said out loud, and of relieving suspicions and anxieties which inevitably arise, very much in the way women benefit from zār ceremonies in Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia, though in zār women are permitted – even expected – to let off steam by behaving in outrageous ways which are definitely taboo in wider society. In common with zār, kangas regularly move between the realms of the secular and the sacred. They play a central role in all the major life-cycle ceremonies in a Swahili woman’s life, and yet may be used for the most mundane of functions. It is this ambivalence that makes kanga cloth almost emblematic of multi-faceted Swahili society.

While working in Tanzania and Kenya I also learned that there are interesting parallels between the development of kanga and of the style of musical performance known as taarab, which accompanies important occasions in coastal eastern Africa and on Zanzibar in particular – though the classical style of taarab originated in Egypt. I remember a wonderful performance by a taarab orchestra, fronted by a female singer, in a revered music club in Stone Town, Zanzibar. Listening to the singer, and watching women offering her money, I realised that there is a distinct similarity between the messages contained in kanga inscriptions and the sentiments expressed by the female taarab singers at the request of the women in the audience: both are vehicles which allow Swahili women to become involved in everyday personal or local disputes and rivalry by voicing opinions which cannot be overtly stated. So successful were both kanga and taarab in this role that legislation had to be brought in to regulate the vehemence with which they were being used in Tanzania!

Working with Emma Liwewa, vice-principal of the Bagamoyo College of Arts on the Tanzanian mainland, I learned how kangas are also worn in different styles to suit particular occasions or moods. One style known as ushungi is used when walking along the beach with one kanga wrapped tightly around the head; at home this headdress is removed and is draped loosely around the shoulders. When going to the market the style is known as kilemba, a name which derives from the turbans traditionally worn by Arab men, and refers to the way in which women wear the first kanga wound around their heads. You can see a video of the film I shot in the African galleries at the British Museum.

HAMWISHI KUNIZULIA HICHO NI CHENU KILEMA – ‘Your problem is that you can’t stop backbiting’, says the inscription on another wedding kanga. With a traditional design in black, red and white, the kanga would have been worn by the bride and all her friends and relations, and would be aimed at anyone who might be angry or jealous of the marriage. The inscription on another kanga from Tanzania (pictured below) reads MWEMBE TAYARI – ‘the mangos are ready’, an invitation from wife to husband to help himself!

Printed cotton kanga, with inscription which reads 'the mangos are ready'. Tanzania, 2003. 106 x 166 cm. British Museum Af2003,21.4.

Printed cotton kanga, with inscription which reads ‘the mangos are ready’. Tanzania, 2003. 106 x 166 cm. British Museum Af2003,21.4.

Preparing to travel up country from the main bus station in Dar Es Salaam, the largest city in Tanzania and indeed in eastern Africa, I noticed on the backs of buses and daladalas (minibuses) an interesting male response to the female-orientated battleground of kanga. The rear panels of the vehicles, particularly long-distance buses, were decorated with a variety of colourful images, while the bumpers carried inscriptions such as UKIWAONA KAMA WATU: ‘they look like reasonable people but they’re not’, NI HAYO TU: ‘that’s all we have’, or TUTABANANA HAPA HAPA: ‘we’re staying put’ – all three referring, according to my friend George back in 2003, to the government’s attempts to evict groups of migrant workers. These panels and their inscriptions are not only visually similar to the designs of kanga cloth, but they also fulfil one of the primary functions of kanga, of taarab music and of zār ceremonies in delivering messages and allowing behaviour which might otherwise be hard to articulate or perform.

As always, Africa provides food for thought on the way we go about things in the West.

The Asahi Shimbun Display Music, celebration and healing: the Sudanese lyre is on display in Room 3, at the British Museum from 18 June until 16 August 2015.

Chris Spring’s book African Textiles Today is available from the British Museum shop online.

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Instruments of community: lyres, harps and society in ancient north-east Africa

Jorge de Torres, Project Cataloguer, African Rock Art Image Project, British Museum

Sudanese lyre. 19th century. H. 40.5 cm. British Museum Af1917,0411.1

Sudanese lyre. 19th century. H. 40.5 cm. British Museum Af1917,0411.1

Until 16 August, lovers of African music and history (and all visitors eager to learn a bit about them) have another reason to visit the British Museum.  The Asahi Shimbun Display in Room 3 presents a wonderful 19th-century lyre from Nubia (northern Sudan), with strong spiritual associations. This type of lyre, known as kissar in the Islamic world, was used at important occasions such as weddings, but also in special ceremonies of a series of cults known generically as Zār, common in the area of Egypt, Sudan, and the Horn of Africa. These ceremonies were intended to heal spiritual possession (thought to be behind some medical conditions, such as epilepsy), the music being a key tool to placate and expel the evil spirits. 

Although the Zār cults seem to have appeared in Ethiopia during the 18th century and spread to other areas of Africa and perhaps the Middle East, the stringed instruments used in these ceremonies have a much older origin. Harps and lyres have been present in Africa for thousands of years, affirmed by their depictions in many Ancient Egyptian reliefs, paintings and papyri dating from as far back as the Old Kingdom (about 2686–2181 BC). Harps have been found and depicted in Egyptian tombs, such as those to be seen in Room 61 at the British Museum. These harps are usually known as bow or arched harps due to their shape, having a vaulted body of wood and a neck perpendicular to the resonant face on which the strings are wound.

 Harp. New Kingdom (mid 2nd millennium BC), Thebes, Egypt. British Museum 1888,0512.48

Harp. New Kingdom (mid 2nd millennium BC), Thebes, Egypt. L. 38 cm. British Museum 1888,0512.48

Harp. New Kingdom (mid-2nd millennium BC), Tomb of Ani, Thebes, Egypt. British Museum 1891,0404.162

Harp. New Kingdom (mid-2nd millennium BC), Tomb of Ani, Thebes, Egypt. L. 97.2 cm. British Museum 1891,0404.162


Harp, Sudan, possibly 19th century. H. 51 cm. British Museum Af1979,01.5963

The use of bow and arched harps seems to have been transmitted from Egypt to West and East Africa, where slightly different versions can be found from Mauritania to Uganda. Sizes vary but range from small harps that can be held against the body to bigger models that need to be placed on the ground. The shape, however, is almost always the same, and very similar to the Egyptian models made 4,500 years ago. The expansion and distribution of these harps can be traced in a perhaps unexpected way – through their depiction in rock art.

Musician playing the harp for a seated woman. Elikeo, Ennedi Plateau, Chad. British Museum 2013,2034.6861 (Photo: © David Coulson/TARA)

Musician playing the harp for a seated woman. Elikeo, Ennedi Plateau, Chad. British Museum 2013,2034.6861 (Photo: © David Coulson/TARA)

Although not very common, scenes of dancing and figures playing instruments exist in northern African rock art, and while cataloguing the collection of images from Chad as part of the African rock art image project, I came across several depictions of harps almost identical to those known through ethnographic collections and archaeological excavations. The paintings very accurately depict bow harps, either in isolation or being played by a musician. In some cases, the figures seem to be playing for other people in scenes surrounded by huts, cattle, women and children. In all cases, the neck of the harp is held near to the body of the musician.

So far, five examples of these painted harps have been found, all of them in the western side of the Ennedi Plateau in Chad, a sandstone massif near the border with Sudan, carved by erosion in a series of superimposed terraces, alternating plains and ragged cliffs crossed by seasonal rivers (wadis). The numerous cliffs and gorges of the Ennedi house images of many local styles, sometimes contemporary, sometimes corresponding to successive periods. These images and styles reveal an enormous richness of techniques, themes and artistic conventions, with some of the most original depictions in Saharan rock art. The harps are a very good example of this creativity, as they all appear concentrated in a relatively small area while they seem to be absent in the rest of the Sahara desert.

Scene with people and cattle near a hut, with a musician playing the harp to the top right. Gaora Hallagana, Ennedi Plateau, Chad. British Museum 2013,2034.6762. (Photo: © David Coulson/TARA)

Scene with people and cattle near a hut, with a musician playing the harp to the top right. Gaora Hallagana, Ennedi Plateau, Chad. British Museum 2013,2034.6762. (Photo: © David Coulson/TARA)

 Harp musician playing near a milking scene. Ennedi Plateau, Chad. British Museum 2013,2034.6483. (Photo: © David Coulson/TARA)

Harp musician playing near a milking scene. Ennedi Plateau, Chad. British Museum 2013,2034.6483. (Photo: © David Coulson/TARA)

It is difficult to know the contexts in which these instruments were played. Some of the paintings present the musicians in rather prosaic scenes (either near the houses or a person milking a cow, for example), but examples like the lyre displayed in Room 3 or those found in Egypt exemplify their use in complex rituals or ceremonies. It is most probable that the same object could have very different uses depending on the context, the audience or the music played. While in Western societies music is commonly associated with leisure or culture, and considered something to be enjoyed, in many cultures music is an integral part of daily life, used to keep and transmit knowledge, to summon protection, to remember ancestors or to regulate social and economic activities. The powerful presence of the Sudanese lyre displayed in Room 3 recalls the idea of music as a powerful tool in north-eastern African societies throughout history, used to heal and to build social narratives which explain and address the spiritual world.

Further reading

Rafael Perez Arroyo (2001): Egypt: Music in the age of pyramids, Madrid, Editorial Centro de Estudios Egipcios

The Asahi Shimbun Display Music, celebration and healing: the Sudanese lyre is on in Room 3 at the British Museum until 16 August 2015. The African rock art image project is supported by The Arcadia Fund.

For more information about the project, please visit our project pages on the British Museum website:

Through summer 2015 the British Museum is Celebrating Africa.  Explore and debate a variety of African cultural issues through a series of events and displays.

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The Sudanese lyre: an object with many voices

By David Francis, Interpretation Officer

Of all the objects I’ve worked with in my eight years as an interpretation officer at the British Museum, the Sudanese lyre is perhaps the most intriguing. Made in northern Sudan, probably in the late19th century, it would have been played by a male musician at weddings and harvest festivals as part of a small band. It may also have been used in zār ceremonies – healing rituals involving spirit possession that are still practised in Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia today.

Just as fascinating as the actual instrument are the coins, beads, shells and, as yet, unidentified objects that are attached to the lyre. In a sense, the Sudanese lyre is both a single object and an assemblage of many objects each with their own story to tell. In this blog I talk with some of the curators at the British Museum and the Royal Armouries in Leeds to identify what these objects are, and speculate on why they may have been attached to the lyre.

Sudanese lyre, probably late 19th century. British Museum

Sudanese lyre, probably late 19th century. British Museum

Detail showing the objects attached to the lyre which include coins, beads, shells and some (as yet) unidentified objects.

Detail showing the objects attached to the lyre which include coins, beads, shells and some (as yet) unidentified objects.

Chris Spring, Curator, African Collection, British Museum

DF: Chris why do we think the lyre player attached these objects to this instrument?

CS: They may have been given to the musician as gifts, or payment for his services. Many of the objects attached to the lyre are currency. Obviously we have the Turkish and British coins, but bead work in Africa was also used as a means of exchange. Millefiori beads – meaning ‘thousand flowers’ in Italian – were first mass produced in Venice and then the rest of Europe for this purpose. Cowrie shells were also cultivated on vast rafts in the Maldives and came to Sudan to be used as currency through Indian Ocean trade.

DF: The objects come from a wide range of places then, what’s the significance of this?

CS: For centuries Sudan has been a hub for the movement of people, goods and ideas. Port Sudan, in particular, is an important link in the Indian Ocean trade network, as well as being located on the pilgrim route to Mecca. For much of the 19th century, Sudan was also under imperial rule. From 1821 to 1885, Sudan was controlled by Ottoman Egypt and then with the building of the Suez Canal in 1869, Britain had an increasing interest in the region. The objects attached to the lyre reflect this history of trade and imperial ambition.

Two millefiori beads attached to the lyre.

Two millefiori beads attached to the lyre.

Ottoman coins

Vesta Curtis, Curator of Middle Eastern coins, British Museum

DF: The vast majority of coins attached to the lyre are from the Turkish Ottoman Empire. I’ve counted over one hundred hanging from the frame. Can you tell me what’s written on them?

VC: The coins are indeed Ottoman and were minted in in Egypt and Constantinople or, as it’s known now, Istanbul. They each have the names of the Sultans minted on them in the form of their tughra – a kind of imperial monogram. The inscription also contains the date indicating the start of their respective reigns. So we have the coins of Sultan Abdul Aziz with the date 1861 (AH 1277) and the coins of Sultan Abdul Hamid II with the date 1876 (AH 1293).

DF: Sudan was under Turkish-Egyptian rule at the time, yes?

VC: It was. It had been under the control of the Ottoman Empire since 1821. However, these were the last two Ottoman rulers of Sudan. In 1885 the capital of Sudan, Khartoum, fell to the forces of Muhammad Ahmed, the self-proclaimed Mahdi or ‘guided one’. This effectively ended Turkish-Egyptian rule in Sudan.

DF: The so-called Mahdi minted coins I believe, are there any attached to the lyre?

VC: We’ve found no coins attached to the lyre dating from his reign, or from the Anglo-Egyptian period which followed.

Coin of Sultan ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, Misr, AD 1861 (AH 1277)

Coin of Sultan ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, Misr, AD 1861 (AH 1277).

Lyre coin 7 (i)_JPG

Coin of Sultan ‘Abd al-Hamid II, Misr, AD 1876 (AH 1293).

British coins

Tom Hockenhull, Curator of modern money, British Museum

DF: There are a couple of British coins attached to the lyre, can you tell me about them?

TH: The first one is a British halfpenny, dating to 1861. On one side you can see the image of Queen Victoria (r. 1837‒1901) with her distinctive ‘bun’ hairstyle. This was the new portrait of the queen, which had only been introduced onto coinage in the previous year. The second coin is more unusual. On one side is the British East India Company crest as well as an inscription reading ‘Island of Sumatra’, and the date 1804.

British halfpenny, 1861.

British halfpenny, 1861.

Trade token with British East India Company crest, probably 1830s.

Trade token with British East India Company crest, probably 1830s.

DF: Okay, so it’s a lot earlier than all the other coins attached to the lyre?

TH: The date is likely to be false. Although the coin has got a British East India Company crest, it is unlikely to have actually been issued by the British East India Company.

DF: So it’s a forgery?

TH: It’s not really a forgery as there was no original to forge. It was probably made by a company in Birmingham to meet a demand for trading tokens around Singapore. Stamford Raffles had established the city in 1819 as a trading outlet and merchants in the region would have needed a currency to use for trade. This token fulfilled that function.

DF: Could you hazard a guess at the date for this coin?

TH: I’d say at least 1830s, perhaps later.

The mystery object

Jonathan Ferguson, Curator of Firearms, Royal Armouries

DF: One of the objects – a small metal mechanism – is yet to be identified. There’s been a lot of speculation on social media that it could be the firing mechanism for a firearm. Is this a possibility?

JF: I can’t tell you what it is, but I can tell you what it isn’t! I can understand why people might think this was a firearm mechanism; there is a superficial resemblance to a percussion hammer, and maybe, if you squint, a trigger! However, neither are shaped or positioned on the mechanism like a real hammer or trigger, to actually enable the operator to use them for their intended purposes of cocking and firing the gun.

The mystery object.

The mystery object.

DF: What particular features mean that this object couldn’t be used as a firing mechanism?

JF: A real flintlock or percussion gun lock is far simpler than this. The short ribbed cylinder could theoretically be some sort of barrel, but is far too short to be functional. On the outside you have either a hollow pan for priming powder or a simple nipple to which you’d fit a cap, as on a cap gun.

This device has a round hollow feature that could conceivably function as a pan for priming powder, but no other features of a flintlock mechanism – and no nipple that you could fit a percussion cap to. Finally, the mechanism is totally the wrong shape for a gun lock.

DF: Could it perhaps be a toy or imitation gun?

JF: Cap guns had been invented as early as the 1870s and were usually made of cast metal rather than the forged iron typical of real firearms, so I did wonder if this might be a toy. Unfortunately, if anything, cap guns were even simpler than the real thing, and this object has lots of extra bells and whistles that again, would serve no function on a gun – real or otherwise.

The charms and the zār ceremony

Chris Spring, Curator, African Collection, British Museum

DF: As well reflecting the various networks of trade and empire in 19th-century Sudan, there’s also a possibility that the objects attached to the lyre might have been used in the zār ceremony itself?

CS: Yes, many of the objects attached to the lyre, such as the prayer beads and Islamic amulets, have a religious function. The coins, beads and shells may have also have been attached to the lyre as charms to attract particular spirits. Zār spirits are believed to be invisible – in Sudan they’re referred to as ‘the red wind’. But they also take on specific human forms that have a special significance in Sudanese history. You get zār spirits that are Turkish officials, Ethiopian Christian priests, British engineers and enslaved Africans from the south to name but a few. These objects might have been attached to the lyre to appeal to these spirits.

DF: Can you tell me a little bit more about the zār ceremony itself?

CS: The zār ceremony is a healing ceremony closely associated with Islamic mysticism. Although it’s currently illegal in Sudan, it still occurs throughout the region today. Within the zār belief system, it’s thought that certain people, particularly married women, can become possessed by spirits. These spirits cause the possessed mental and physical discomfort, which conventional medicine can’t cure. Zār ceremonies are held to appease and in some sense celebrate these spirits. During a specific type of zār ceremony known as a zār tambura, lyres like this one are played to calm restless spirits and also put the patient into a rhythmic trance.

DF: Is the spirit exorcised during the ceremony?

CS: No, once a patient has been possessed the spirit will remain with them for the rest of their life. The ceremony is instead a means of allowing the sufferer to learn to cope with the spirit that has possessed them. During the trance phase of the ceremony the spirit manifests itself, becoming embodied in the movement and dance of the patient. The female leader of the ceremonies, known as a shayka, tries to identify the spirit and find out what it wants. She might give the patient clothing, or incense, or even alcohol if it was a Christian spirit, in order to appease it. The objects attached to the lyre come from many regions and could potentially appeal to a wide variety of spirits. They therefore might play a part in this process of spirit appeasement.

The Asahi Shimbun Display Music, celebration and healing: the Sudanese lyre is on display in Room 3 at the British Museum until 16 August 2015.

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Ming musical moments

detail of Ming vaseA Ming imperial porcelain flask visits Glasgow, by Tom Furniss

Large porcelain flask painted with underglaze blue decoration. Made in Jingdezhen, China. Ming dynasty, Xuande mark and period, 1426–1435

Large porcelain flask painted with underglaze blue decoration. Made in Jingdezhen, China. Ming dynasty, Xuande mark and period, 1426–1435. Gift of Sir John Addis.

In the deepest deeps of old slow time,
Five thousand miles from here,
Two continents of clay collide,
Two halves of China merge between
The Yellow and the Yangtze.

Twenty thousand years ago
Potters working in a cave
Formed and fired the southern clay,
Made pots in Jiangxi province:
Shards and bones remain.

In the Xuande reign of the Great Ming,
Six hundred years ago,
A peasant took a bamboo spade
And dug in beds of clay.

Women mixed the kaolin
With pottery stone and quartz,
Water from a mountain stream
And feldspar from the earth.

A potter took the earthen clay
And made a wonder with his hands,
A flask half a metre high,
Thin as eggshell, light as air.

Standing empty in silent halls
More than half a thousand years,
Dynasties rose and disappeared;
Civil wars and revolutions

Destroyed the world that made it;
On a slow boat from China’s shores,
Fifty years and more ago,
It came to the heart of an empire

On the point of breaking apart;
Stood empty in the echoing halls
Of cabinets and galleries;
Now it stands before us here.

Cobalt lotus leaves and tendrils
Stretch around its silent form,
Never living, never dying,
Ice-blue blossoms will not fade.

Frozen there six hundred years
By fired transparent glaze,
Never will lian1 be bare,
It cannot shed its leaves.

A beautiful porcelain flask reveals
A truth that’s not so beautiful,
That all who gaze upon chan zhi2
Will not outlive this piece of clay.

1 This lotus; Chinese, lian 蓮.
2 The decorative foliage on the flask; Chinese, chan zhi 纏枝.

For each venue of the Spotlight tour a contemporary artist is being commissioned to make an artwork to respond to the vase display. On Friday 11 April 2014 at a special event at the Burrell Collection in Glasgow, Tom Furniss’ poem about the Ming vase on loan from the British Museum, set to music by Eddie McGuire, was performed by the Harmony Ensemble with Fong Liu, vocal soloist. Eddie performed his own music on a porcelain flute and a xun, a kind of Chinese ocarina looking almost like a miniature Ming flask. Hooi Ling Eng played an array of Chinese percussion instruments and a zheng (a Chinese plucked zither). Laura Durrant played the cello and also the xun.

Dr Tom Furniss is Senior Lecturer in English in the School of Humanities, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow. His research interests include the Enlightenment and Romantic periods and the language of poetry. As well as writing poetry – including some for songs by Eddie McGuire – he has co-authored (with Michael Bath) Reading Poetry: An Introduction (Longman, 2007).

Read more about the Spotlight tour: Made in China: an imperial Ming vase
Supported by BP

The Spotlight tour was at the The Burrell Collection, Glasgow Museums, 12 April – 6 July 2014
It is now at Weston Park Museum, Museums Sheffield, until 5 October 2014
Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, 11 October 2014 – 4 January 2015
The Willis Museum, Hampshire County Council Arts and Museums Service, 10 January – 4 April 2015.

The BP exhibition Ming: 50 years that changed China is at the British Museum from 18 September 2014 to 5 January 2015.
Supported by BP

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Facing Enlightenment – reflecting after the event

Facing Enlightenment event
Peter Sheppard Skӕrved wrote a post in November about his then upcoming performance in the Enlightenment Gallery. Here he reflects on the event.

On 13 December, I returned to the British Museum for the next stage of my adventure with the wonderful Enlightenment Gallery. A joy of this unique room is that it is not only an exhibit concerning the histories of ideas, but a place in which to have ideas. As a musician, I well know that until I spend time in a space, I cannot predict what will emerge. Nowhere is this more the case than with ‘Room 1’.

Every time I work here, I am struck how the Enlightenment Gallery quietly shifts its visitors into a salon environment, whether they are expecting it or not! I decided to begin my salon alone. I arrived early, before opening, to sit with my violin, to play, watch and listen, to see what new ideas began to flow. At various points during the day, there were changes of pace: my harpsichordist, Julian Perkins came to hang out and play a little in the morning and it was a fantastic chance to watch him respond to the architecture, the sounds (this is, after all, a room which is about people), and the objects in close proximity. We worked on the 17th-century works by Walther and Matteis, and they began to change, in tangible and intangible ways, finding their way as the room found its way to them.

Peter Sheppard Skӕrved performing in the Enlightenment Gallery

Photo courtesy Benedict Johnson

Playing in this gallery informally affords me the opportunity to watch my audience: some people will, without doubt, find it a nuisance (they don’t want a violinist in a museum), and that’s their prerogative, which I respect. I watch others relishing a ‘counterpoint’ between objects and music – they’ll often talk to me about it; there was great excitement that the violin that I was holding was older than nearly all the objects in the cases, and even more that this 16th-century violin is a tool which can be used, and can continue to offer new sounds, new ideas, today. Many younger people have never been close to classical instruments played ‘live’. For generations brought up on digital recordings, there is a shock in the physical impact, the sheer quiddity (‘thing-ness’) of an ancient violin, or the excitement of a harpsichord, which clearly, for many people, is almost as weird a sound, and an object, as a UFO.

Peter Sheppard Skӕrved talking to the audience in the Enlightenment Gallery

Photo courtesy Benedict Johnson

A few hours into the day, filmmakers from The Economist appeared and talked to me about the excitement of the space, and my project. They filmed me playing Torelli, which became part of the opening sequence of a video, A world of new museums, about a new enlightenment spirit in today’s museums and museum goers.

Late in the afternoon, my string-playing colleagues arrived, and we played composer David Gorton’s new ‘transfigurations’ of Dowland, a few feet from Dr Dee’s ‘shew-stones’, with the box made for them by Horace Walpole. The trajectory of these objects – originally Aztec obsidian mirrors, re-imagined by Queen Elizabeth I’s geomancer, later treasured by the high-priest of the ‘gothick’, the coiner of the word ‘serendipity’ – epitomise the message of this room and the music we choose for it. How can we find our way to the future, through the many discoveries of the past? What tense do we choose to speak, to write in, and does it matter?

And then the chairs went in; the audience arrived. I looked out and saw, among all the new faces, filmmakers, craftspeople, writers, teachers and artists, a true salon, the essence of this marvellous room, and the kindly spirits who grace it – Merian, Hamilton, Delaney, Sloane, the whole crew – alive and inspiring us to creativity and optimism. After the concert, it dawned on me that I had played the violin, without stopping, for 7 hours. But I was not tired, but buoyed up, invigorated by the chance to practise my craft in such company.

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Facing Enlightenment: a musical conversation with the past

Peter Sheppard Skӕrved performing in the Enlightenment Gallery
Peter Sheppard Skӕrved, violinist

On Friday 13th December between 18.30 and 20.00, I am performing in a concert in the Enlightenment Gallery, setting up a musical conversation between past and present, one that is reflective of the ideas of renewal and rediscovery summed up in the word ‘Enlightenment’. Music of the 1600s and 1700s, by Giuseppe Torelli, Nicola Matteis, and Johann Jakob Walther will be played alongside brand new works, including one by leading composer David Gorton, responding to the challenge of the past.

Peter Sheppard Skӕrved performing in the Enlightenment Gallery

Peter Sheppard Skӕrved performing in the Enlightenment Gallery, 2006, photo courtsey of Richard Bram

David Gorton played a central role in my 2006 intervention in the Enlightenment Gallery, when 11 international composers created new work in conversation with my ideas about the space and the collection. Gorton’s new work takes a bold imaginative leap, inspired by the Enlightenment’s ‘discovery of the past’: how might we, in 2013, re-imagine musicians of the Enlightenment reviving, exploring, the music and the works of earlier epochs?

Gorton’s first work for the Enlightenment Gallery was inspired by the copy of the Rosetta Stone made for George III. The resulting Rosetta Caprice has been played hundreds of times worldwide, recorded and filmed, and most recently, I presented it at a TED Conference in Norway. Follow the link to see a short film of its first appearance in the British Museum, in 2006.

Some of the composers working with me were inspired by the layers of history, the ‘false leads’, overlaying some of the most ancient man-made objects in the Enlightenment Gallery. Nashville-based composer Michael Alec Rose was inspired by the Grays Inn Handaxe, at one time thought to have been a Roman weapon. The title, Palimpsest, is a reflection of these layerings.

The Enlightenment was as much a revolution of technology and science as ideas and discovery. One of its most enduring legacies proved to be the instruments of the violin family, pioneered and perfected in the Italian cities of Cremona and Brescia across this period. This concert will be performed on a beautiful early example by the ‘father of the violin’, Andrea Amati, whose grandson Niccolo, would later teach Antonio Stradivari.

Peter Sheppard Skӕrved is the dedicatee of over 400 works for violin, and has recorded over 70 critically acclaimed albums of works from the 17th century to the present day. He regularly performs in over 30 countries, and has a unique record of collaboration with museums, working regularly with the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Library of Congress, Washington DC and the National Portrait Gallery, where he curated a major exhibition, Only Connect, in 2011-12. To see more of his work, visit

The performance Facing Enlightenment is in the Enlightenment Gallery, Friday 13 December, 18.30–20.00, Free, just drop in.

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Filling the British Museum with sound

A recent musical performance by Anna Neale, as part of the 'Up Late in Pompeii' event. Image: Benedict JohnsonDaniel Ferguson, Head of Adult Programmes, British Museum

The Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM) first approached us in July 2012 with the proposal that eventually became Sound Histories. It was an enticing proposition from the very beginning.

A recent musical performance by Anna Neale, as part of the 'Up Late in Pompeii' event. Image: Benedict Johnson

A recent musical performance by Anna Neale, as part of the ‘Up Late in Pompeii’ event. Image: Benedict Johnson

We are open late every Friday evening at the Museum and it is our chance to host events that explore our permanent collection and temporary exhibitions. As well as a high profile lecture programme, we aim to shed new light on the Museum’s material and bring the collection alive for new audiences.

The idea of inviting students to compose original pieces directly in response to objects from the Museum collection, and for these pieces to be performed as part of a larger programme across the space of one evening, was exactly the interesting interpretive approach and scale of ambition that we aspire to.

Part of the attraction of this idea was the sense that the music would ‘take over’ the Museum for an evening, challenging our visitors with how they engage with the incredible objects displayed across the ground floor, while showcasing contemporary art works that have been inspired by them.

This is emphatically not a recreation of a concert performance in a Museum. There is no comfortable seating for the audience, no sense that someone has planned your programme for you. On 5 July something far more unique will occur. Musical interpretations will be performed across the ground floor galleries over two-and-a-half hours and it will be for the visitor to choose whether they drop in on a piece inspired by one of the Easter Island statues, the Sutton Hoo helmet or one of the Benin plaques.

Our partnership with the RNCM has meant we can bring a whole new layer of interpretation to our collections for one evening; an unforgettable experience for both new audiences and those who have known the Museum for much of their lives. Sound Histories showcases the very best of what is possible and unique in live events programming and I’d like to thank Toby Smith, all staff at the RNCM and, most importantly, the composers and musicians, for making this project possible.

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Read more about Sound Histories on the Royal Northern College of Music blog

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Creating sound histories at the British Museum

Students at the Royal Northern College of MusicToby Smith, Director of Performance and Programming, Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM)

Sound Histories is the latest and largest yet in the RNCM’s series of site-specific installations created to animate iconic public spaces with music. Having previously collaborated with the Imperial War Museum North, Manchester Piccadilly Station and Victoria Baths, Sound Histories sees us working in London for the first time, our stimulus and partner being the British Museum, our national museum and home to the most visited collection in the UK.

Students at the Royal Northern College of Music

Students at the Royal Northern College of Music. Image courtesy RNCM

For me, Sound Histories is all about using music to tell some of the stories of the objects and the galleries of the British Museum; bringing to life in sound the interweaving histories of cultures across the world and drawing upon almost two million years of human history.

We are currently weeks away from the show, which will take place between 18.00 and 21.00 on Friday 5 July, as part of the British Museum Lates series. We’ve been working for over a year now with the British Museum’s Adult programmes team to create an ambitious evening of music to be performed across most of the ground floor, embracing the collections focusing on Greece, Assyria and Egypt, Asia, Africa, North America, Mexico and much of the Pacific Rim. 200 musicians will be involved, together performing over 120 pieces, with music for strings, winds, chorus, guitars, harps and saxophones, including solos, duos, chamber music and ensemble pieces that span the last six centuries.

Spear thrower made from reindeer antler, sculpted as a mammoth. Found in the rock shelter of Montastruc, France. Approximately 13,000–14,000 years old

Spear thrower made from reindeer antler, sculpted as a mammoth. Found in the rock shelter of Montastruc, France. Approximately 13,000–14,000 years old

Over the next weeks I’ll be looking in more detail on the RNCM blog at just a few of the elements that will make up Sound Histories. I’ll look at just some of the 50 pieces that RNCM composers have written in response to a particular object in the collection, from an Ice Age spear holder carved in the form of a mammoth to El Anatsui’s cloth sculpture for the Africa gallery. I’ll also pick out just a few of the highlights from the rest of the programme – music ancient and modern, and most things in between as well. And we’ll take a look at how we will draw everything together with a specially-commissioned finale for the Great Court, a space that sits at the heart of the British Museum site, and at the heart of the world cultures that surround it.

The Enlightenment gallery at the British Museum

The Enlightenment gallery at the British Museum

We’ll start by looking at the Enlightenment gallery, a space we will be programming with music from the year 1828 to reference the creative world of the men who drew together the British Museum collection at this time.

In the meantime, do spread the word – as with all the Museum’s Lates, the event is free, and as it will only be happening once it’s certainly worth saving the date – Friday 5 July, 18.00 – 21.00.

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This post was first published on the Royal Northern College of Music blog.
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Enjoy our ‪#ChristmasCountdown every day until the 25th! First up: a wood engraving of snowflakes to mark the start of winter and our #advent calendar Vanished beneath the waters of the Mediterranean, the lost cities of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus lay at the mouth of the Nile. Over the last 20 years, world-renowned archaeologist Franck Goddio and his team have excavated spectacular underwater discoveries using the latest technologies. They will be seen alongside fascinating objects from major Egyptian museums for the first time in the UK in this blockbuster exhibition.

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Christoph Gerigk © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation Discover the remarkable relationship between the major ancient civilisations of Egypt and Greece, unveiled in our monumental new exhibition #SunkenCities – announced today! 300 outstanding objects will be brought together in this blockbuster exhibition, including many Egyptian objects shown in the UK for the first time. Preserved and buried under the sea for over a thousand years, the stunning objects range from magnificent colossal statues to intricate gold jewellery. They tell stories of political power and popular belief, myth and migration, gods and kings. Journey through centuries of encounters between two celebrated cultures, meeting iconic historical figures such as Alexander the Great, Cleopatra, Hadrian and Antinous on the way.

Book now for #SunkenCities, opening 19 May 2016

#archaeology #ancientegypt #history 
Christoph Gerigk © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation We are delighted to announce our first major exhibition on underwater archaeology! Submerged under the sea for over a thousand years, two lost cities of ancient Egypt were recently rediscovered. Their amazing discovery is transforming our understanding of the deep connections between the great ancient civilisations of Egypt and Greece.

Book now for #SunkenCities, opening 19 May 2016
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Christoph Gerigk © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation You can now discover thousands of British Museum objects in partnership with @googleartproject at We’ve asked staff members to highlight their favourites and explain what makes them special. Chris Spring, Curator of Africa Collections, describes why he finds the ‘Throne of weapons’ so powerful. ‘This war memorial celebrates the ordinary people of Mozambique, many of them unarmed, who stood up to a culture of violence. It represents both a human tragedy and a human triumph. The Throne's essential humanity is suggested right away by its anthropomorphic qualities - it has arms, legs, a back and most importantly a face - actually two faces. My first reaction was that these faces are crying in pain, though they could also be seen as smiling faces finally freed from conflict. These anthropomorphic qualities also link it immediately to the arts of Africa, in which non-figurative objects such as chairs, stools, weapons, pots etc are seen as - and described as - human beings. The Throne has toured the world, taking its message of peace to schools, churches, shopping centres and even prisons – and of course, to museums and galleries.’ #MuseumOfTheWorld We’re celebrating our partnership with @googleartproject, and have asked curators to tell us about their favourite objects. Hugo Chapman, Keeper of Prints and Drawings, explains why he chose this chalk drawing by Michelangelo. ‘One of the things I love about drawings is the way they sometimes allow a glimpse into the private, behind the scenes world of an artist, one unseen in finished works in paint or stone. An example of that is a red chalk drawing by Michelangelo of grotesque heads in red chalk that reveal that the Florentine Renaissance artist had a lively, if caustic, sense of humour. The three heads were probably drawn to amuse but at the same instruct his pupils, as the three studies show how slight changes can radically alter the reading of an image with the character and mood of each figure (paranoid anxiety; vacuous joy; and depressive gloom) signalled by the position and erectness of their donkey-like ears.  I wish my ears were as expressive.’ Discover many more incredible works of art in the Google Cultural Institute at

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