British Museum blog

Farewell to Curious Beasts

Alison Wright, exhibition curator, British Museum

Curious Beasts at Compton Verney, the first venue on the tour

Curious Beasts at Compton Verney, the first venue on the tour

The British Museum touring exhibition Curious Beasts: Animal Prints from the British Museum is in its closing weeks at its final UK venue, Ferens Art Gallery in Hull (7 June – 26 August 2014). Since October 2013, 86 prints made between the 15th to the early 19th centuries and containing sometimes beautiful, sometimes bizarre animal imagery have been exhibited at three venues across the UK, opening at Compton Verney in Warwickshire before travelling to the Ulster Museum (National Museums Northern Ireland) in Belfast, and Hull. The exhibition is part of the British Museum’s Partnership UK programme, which is committed to sharing collections and expertise with museums and organisations outside London. In 2013–2014 over 2,792 objects were on loan at 187 venues throughout the country.

Curious Beasts explores humankind’s curiosity about the natural world, as it was expressed in the vibrant print culture of the early modern period. Printmaking emerged as a major art form and communication tool in the 15th century, coinciding with an increasing interest in and investigation of flora and fauna. The exhibition looks at how printmakers contributed to knowledge of animals, but also at the wildly different ways in which the animal subject inspired graphic artists. Our enduring fascination with animals also proved to be a good way to bond with like-minded colleagues in other museums, and to make the most of their own collections – leading to some novel encounters between the British Museum’s prints and objects such as stuffed rabbits and rhinoceroses.

Jan Saenredam, A beached whale near Beverwijk, engraving, 1602 (1871,0812.1545)

Jan Saenredam, A beached whale near Beverwijk, engraving, 1602 (1871,0812.1545)

The idea for Curious Beasts was sparked many years ago when, working as a Museum Assistant in the Department of Prints and Drawings, I opened a box of 16th-century Dutch and Flemish prints – while looking for something else entirely – and was startled to discover Jan Saenredam’s magnificent engraving of a beached sperm whale, from 1602.

The remarkably accurate representation of this mysterious giant is bordered by an equally remarkable frame that gives us broader insight into the ways people thought about whales: images of eclipses, earthquake and plague tie into the idea that the monstrous sea creature dying on land was a bad omen. The whale is surrounded by a crowd of sightseers, testifying to the intense curiosity about strange and rare creatures in this period – some of these people would no doubt have been among the intended audience for the engraving, too.

Saenredam’s whale is now at the heart of Curious Beasts, and I have greatly enjoyed showing it, in all its peculiarity, to new audiences. The exhibition takes inspiration from the complexity of Saenredam’s print, drawing on the diversity of the British Museum’s collection to put natural history studies in the context of people’s wider relationships with the animal world. The range of material covers everything from religious subjects (e.g. Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden) to political satire and practical objects – one etching of a rabbit was designed as a target for archery practice. Dürer’s 1515 woodcut of a rhinoceros is probably the best-known object in the exhibition, and a 1620 impression is shown alongside prints by Rembrandt, Goya and Stubbs, and an array of fascinating and striking works by lesser known artists, the majority of which have never been loaned before.

Albrecht Durer, Rhinoceros, colour woodcut, first published 1515, this edition after 1620 (1877,0609.71)

Albrecht Dürer, Rhinoceros, colour woodcut, first published 1515, this edition after 1620 (1877,0609.71)

Working with our three partners has been educational and inspiring – there have been so many great responses to the beauty and quirkiness of the British Museum beasts. Our lead partner Compton Verney brought taxidermy into their galleries for the first time, including a baby Indian rhinoceros borrowed from Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum: an intriguing comparison with Dürer’s woodcut of the same species (he famously never saw the rhinoceros in real life).

Curious Beasts at Compton Verney: the stuffed rhinoceros

Curious Beasts at Compton Verney: the stuffed rhinoceros

Compton Verney also wanted to put on a complementary display that would feature their edition of the designer Enid Marx’s linocut series, Marco’s Animal Alphabet. A collaboration with Leicester Print Workshop brought printmaking up to the present day with an exhibition of new works titled A Fantastical Animal Alphabet, and a pop-up print studio run by their very appropriate Artist in Residence, Kate Da’Casto: I have fond memories of conversations about our mutual love of old master prints and the more gruesome relics of natural history.

The exhibition has changed at each venue. In Belfast the Ulster Museum decided to include Lorenzo Lippi’s lovely painting, Allegory of Fortune with a monkey, and also to display taxidermy from its extensive natural history collection, much of it prepared by the respected Belfast firm Sheals, established in 1856. The museum’s famous exhibit Peter the polar bear, prepared in 1972 after he died at Belfast zoo, was in a nearby gallery.

Curious Beasts at Ferens Art Gallery, Hull: the rhinoceros wheelbarrow, made by Hull furniture makers Richardson & Sons, 1862

Curious Beasts at Ferens Art Gallery, Hull: the rhinoceros wheelbarrow, made by Hull furniture makers Richardson & Sons, 1862

The exhibition’s present incarnation at Ferens Art Gallery is in the largest gallery space yet, and the curators at Hull Museums were keen to use Curious Beasts as an opportunity to bring some of their objects out of storage and into conversation with the British Museum’s prints. Over 30 objects were eventually selected, including a delightful rhinoceros-shaped ceremonial wheelbarrow made in 1862, a sperm whale tooth with scrimshaw carvings, and artworks including the truly bizarre and difficult-to-display 1960s wooden sculpture Criletic Delay Adjust (‘Zebra Legs’) by Mark Ingram, which triggered much reminiscence among the curators and technicians.

Sadly it’s the end of the road for this particular UK travelling exhibition, but the beasts have life in them yet. Halfway through the tour, we received word that San Diego University Galleries were interested in taking the show for October 2014. I can’t wait to see what they decide to do with it.

Curious Beasts is at the Ferens Art Gallery in Hull until 26 August 2014, and then at the San Diego University Galleries from 2 October – 14 December 2014

Filed under: Collection, Exhibitions, , , , , ,

The future of the Norwich shroud

Faye Kalloniatis, Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery

The Norwich Shroud before conservation and research. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

The Norwich Shroud before conservation and research. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

    This is the latest in a series of posts about the unfolding of the Norwich shroud, a joint project between the British Museum and Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery

Well, this will be the final blog entry for the Norwich shroud and what a way we’ve come over the past few months

As the project got underway, one highlight followed another. The first was the initial unrolling, when we watched the small and crumpled scrap unfurl to become a good-sized fragment of shroud. Then we saw that it had not merely a few columns of text but, rather, was filled with it – an epigrapher’s dream.

John Taylor, British Museum curator, gives a lecture at the Norwich Shroud Study day. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

John Taylor, British Museum curator, gives a lecture at the Norwich Shroud Study day. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

Then came the cartouche of Menkaure, which sent us all into paroxysms of delight. No sooner had we come to terms with this when we discovered the name of the shroud’s owner – a certain Ipu, daughter of Mutresti.

Yet there was more to come.

We found that other fragments of her shroud existed at Cairo Museum. This was a key moment as it significantly increased what we would be able to learn about the Norwich portion. For instance, from that stemmed the very distinct possibility that the shroud came from the Royal Cache of 1881.

Had we written the script for the Norwich shroud project we couldn’t have devised anything more – or even as – wondrous as that. But with the shroud’s rarity comes a responsibility – not only to ensure that it is preserved and made accessible for future generations but also that we continue to study it and set it within the wider context of the religious and funerary practices of the ancient Egyptians.

Some of this work has already begun. The shroud is now stabilized; having been mounted on a fabric-lined board and secured with a semi-transparent net stitched over it. This has meant that it can be stored and studied safely, and even be displayed and loaned.

Visitors to the Study day examine the shroud as Melina Plottu (far left), British Museum conservation intern, explains the techniques used to conserve the shroud. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

Visitors to the Study day examine the shroud as Melina Plottu (far left), British Museum conservation intern, explains the techniques used to conserve the shroud. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

We’ve also worked to publicise the shroud as widely as possible – through this blog and through two study days reporting the findings of the project. The shroud has now returned to Norwich, and in the long-term, it’s hoped that it’ll be exhibited at Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery as the focus of a temporary exhibition.

Still to come are a couple of articles in various publications, and these are currently being written by several of us in the project team. But this, we hope, is only a start.

The Egyptological community is beginning to hear about the shroud and curiosity is being roused. In particular, members of the Totenbuch Projekt, based at Bonn, are keen to see the shroud and to study it.

This is very good news because they will bring their high level of expertise to the endeavour and will publish it further. Through such publication the shroud will find its place in the small corpus of such artefacts and will play its part in adding to our knowledge about the religious practices of the ancient Egyptians.

So, one phase is ending but another is beginning.

Much of what has been achieved has been thanks to Partnership UK – a scheme which made it possible for curators, conservators and scientists from the British Museum and the Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service to share their skills and professional knowledge.

And thanks, of course, to all those who have followed the blog over these past few months.

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Filed under: Conservation, Norwich shroud, , , , , ,

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