British Museum blog

Poetry and exile: contemporary art from the Middle East

Holly Wright, administrator, British Museum

The current temporary display in the John Addis Gallery: Islamic World, Poetry and exile: works by Abdallah Benanteur, Ipek Duben, Mireille Kassar, Mona Saudi and Canan Tolon, curated by Venetia Porter, brings together the recently acquired work of six artists all exploring the phenomenon of exile. In a gallery predominantly populated with Islamic art and objects dating as early as the 7th century, it could be said that this display of contemporary art is incongruous. So why is it here?

Ahmed Mater, Magnetism,2012 One of four photogravures showing different stages of the installation of the magnet and iron filing (2012,6018.3, Funded by Abulaziz Turki). © Ahmed Mater

Ahmed Mater, Magnetism, 2012. One of four photogravures showing different stages of the installation of the magnet and iron filing (2012,6018.3, Funded by Abulaziz Turki). © Ahmed Mater

I first became interested in the modern and contemporary collections of the Middle East department in 2012, while visiting Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam. The work of Ahmed Mater immediately stood out to me, as it added an unexpected emotional interpretation of the pilgrimage to Mecca which was unique and surprising to me as a visitor. I would later go on to study the collection of modern and contemporary Middle Eastern art in greater detail for my MA, still barely scraping the surface; as it continues to grow and to be used in increasingly imaginative and diverse ways.

In this display the concept of exile is approached through the personal experiences of each artist and their political and humanitarian views. Each work directs the viewer to the incidents that have inspired them and it is these references which place the art within a broader context. Not only do the works inspire an emotional response but they also ignite curiosity as to what inspired those artists. It is this emotional engagement and varied approach which makes the pieces so important and interesting to me, and hopefully to the visitors who will see the display.

Ipek Duben, Refugee, 2010, photoprint and hand-stitching on synthetic silk on Canson paper, (2011,6029.1, funded by CaMMEA, the Contemporary and Modern Middle Eastern Art Acquisitions group). &copy Ipek Duben

Ipek Duben, Refugee, 2010, photoprint and hand-stitching on synthetic silk on Canson paper, (2011,6029.1, funded by CaMMEA, the Contemporary and Modern Middle Eastern Art Acquisitions group). © Ipek Duben

The works in the display were not created in isolation; their influences overlap whether it be on specific political or personal events or the work of poets such as Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008) and Farid al-Din Attar (c. 1145–c.1221). The works are all united by difficulty, whether that of the artist or the experiences of others. Ipek Duben formulates this difficulty in her book Refugee by overlaying images of suffering with delicate gauze and simple embroidered text and in doing so she starkly contrasts the hardship shown in the images. The simplicity of the technique employed gives the work a scrapbook feel, rendered incredibly moving as it highlights the experiences of refugees from Kosovo, Pakistan, Liberia and elsewhere.

Mona Saudi, Homage to Mahmoud Darwish, The Poem of the Land, 1979, silkscreen on watercolour. (2014,6026.2, funded by CaMMEA). © Mona Saudi

Mona Saudi, Homage to Mahmoud Darwish, The Poem of the Land, 1979, silkscreen on watercolour. (2014,6026.2, funded by CaMMEA). © Mona Saudi

Mona Saudi’s work Homage to Mahmoud Darwish, one of three displayed on the opposite wall, is inscribed with the poetry of the renowned and revered Palestinian poet (1941–2008). The one illustrated here is The Poem of the Land. For me, an interesting element of this work is that the style of Saudi’s drawings echo posters which she created for the Plastic Arts Section of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, some of which are displayed alongside Homage and are part of a group that have been donated by the Palestinian Poster archive. This is a unique quality of the British Museum’s collection of Middle Eastern art, in that the works often contain references that extend beyond the collection itself and in doing so give even small displays the ability to explore more widespread elements of history and human experience.

Canan Tolon, Futur Imparfait, 1986-9. Ink and graphite on Mylar (2013,6039.1.1-33 funded by CaMMEA and SAHA, an association which supports artistic projects connected to contemporary Turkish art). © Canan Tolon

Canan Tolon, Futur Imparfait, 1986-9. Ink and graphite on Mylar (2013,6039.1.1-33 funded by CaMMEA and SAHA, an association which supports artistic projects connected to contemporary Turkish art). © Canan Tolon

In Canan Tolon’s series, Futur Imparfait, her exile is more singular and personal. Inspired by her experience of illness as a child, the series acts as a memory of her protracted stay in a French hospital when she was separated from her home. The thirty delicate drawings on Mylar add a voice from another perspective. It is a series executed in ethereally light washes of ink and graphite, reflecting the removed reality she experienced while in a strange country and environment. Tolon’s own words are relevant regarding not only her own work but of the artists in the exhibition as a whole:

… it is not the misfortune of others which fascinates and astonishes but the extraordinary will of a child to live…

This sentiment is characteristic of the message and draw of the works in this display; there are painful and violent stories here, but predominantly it is the human reaction to these events and not the suffering in itself which is explored. The aftermath of war, illness and displacement is discussed through delicate drawings and through poetry. This alone is reason enough for these pieces to be here.

This space within the gallery of Islamic art is used for rotations of works on paper from across the collection that we are not able to put on permanent display. These include Persian or Mughal paintings, even shadow puppets as were featured in a previous display. With the ever-expanding collection of Middle Eastern art, this small area will continue to host increasingly diverse and exciting exhibitions, so watch this space! Further information on this collection and the Middle East department as a whole can also be found on the Museum’s collection online.

Before joining the Museum as an administrator in the Middle East Department in 2013, Holly Wright studied for the MA in Museum and Artefact Studies at Durham University. Her dissertation was ‘Collecting the contemporary: modern and contemporary art in the Middle East Department of the British Museum’.

Poetry and exile: works by Abdallah Benanteur, Ipek Duben, Mireille Kassar, Mona Saudi and Canan Tolon is on display in Room 34 until 1 March 2015, admission free.

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

Dinggedicht poetry competition

Godela Weiss-Sussex, Senior Lecturer and Convenor of German Studies, Institute of Modern Languages Research (IMLR)

It all started when I attended a lecture given by Neil MacGregor about the British Museum’s forthcoming exhibition Germany: memories of a nation in January at Queen Mary College, University of London. I was inspired by his bold and perceptive approach to exhibiting German history and by the clarity of vision achieved by relying on the narrative power of objects. As soon as I came home, I sat down to write a long letter to him, suggesting that we at the Institute of Modern Languages Research could set up an event to complement the exhibition. I was convinced that language, and in particular literary texts, should have a place in this exhibition project, not only to complement the objects presented, but also to enhance their narratives.

Refugee cart from East Pomerania, probably early 20th century. © Deutsches Historisches Museum

Refugee cart from East Pomerania, probably early 20th century. © Deutsches Historisches Museum

Neil MacGregor put me in touch with the Museum’s Learning team, and we started to discuss how best to represent Dinggedichte within the exhibition public programme. Should we just collect existing texts on the exhibition’s themes and offer them as a reading? An extract from Goethe’s play Iphigenie auf Tauris might complement the Goethe portrait by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein in the exhibition: both emphasise the writer’s place in the classical tradition. Bertolt Brecht’s exile play Mother Courage and Her Children (1939) could add a further dimension to the significance of the refugee’s cart lent for the exhibition by the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin.

Ernst Barlach, Der Schwebende  (Gustrow Cathedral) © Archiv Ernst Barlach Stiftung Güstrow (Foto: Uwe Seemann)

Ernst Barlach, Der Schwebende (Gustrow Cathedral) © Archiv Ernst Barlach Stiftung Güstrow (Foto: Uwe Seemann)

Of course, some of the exhibits coming to London this autumn have directly elicited literary texts: notably Ernst Barlach’s sculpture Der Schwebende, a bronze memorial to the dead of the First World War. The beautiful stark expressionist bronze sculpture, which hovers over the altar in the cathedral of the North German town of Güstrow (and in another copy in the Antoniterkirche in Cologne), has inspired numerous texts, poetic and discursive, including a ballad by the legendary East German singer Wolf Biermann. Banned from songwriting because of his oppositional stance, Biermann illegally recorded the ‘Barlach song‘ in the late 1960s, in which he refers to the climate of political repression as a time when ‘the angels fall to their death’.

All of these are fascinating texts – and they would lend themselves beautifully to a reading accompanying the exhibition. In the end, however, we decided that best of all would be to hear a whole variety of fresh, original and individual responses to the objects coming together for Germany: memories of a nation. This is when Cecile Reese of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) joined me to devise a Dinggedicht poetry-writing competition.

Dinggedichte (‘thing poems’), a particularly German form of poetry, are texts that zoom in on particular objects. The genre was pioneered by writers such as Conrad Ferdinand Meyer and others in the late 19th century, and then developed further in modernist writing of the early 20th century, most famously by Rainer Maria Rilke. The Dinggedicht writer attempts to recreate the object in the medium of language and poetic form, and by doing so creates a new work of art. The poet may aim for an objective, distanced presentation of the object, or he/she may attempt to express the object’s essential nature by finding the language that is specific to the object and letting it ‘speak’ for itself. Of course, the writing of a Dinggedicht also implies a personal, subjective interpretation or reaction, and the object may spark off reflections that go well beyond its own particular shape or meaning.

This is what the competition is trying to do: to trigger these personal responses. All you need to do is choose an object featured in the exhibition and write a Dinggedicht of up to 250 words. Entries are accepted in either English or German, and there are some special prizes to be won. Please note that the deadline for entries is 14 November 2014. If you are unable to come to the British Museum and see the exhibition itself, you can still participate in the competition. Simply use one of the images shown on the British Museum website and exhibition blog, and let yourself be inspired. We would love to see as many poems as possible!

And finally, please save the date! On Friday 12 December, the Museum is hosting an exciting BM/PM evening of festivities inspired by German folk and folklore. As part of the programme, the winning entries will be read out and celebrated. In addition, Berlin author Annett Gröschner, whose work combines literary and historical approaches to German history and to iconic objects representing it, will read her own response to one of the objects in the exhibition.

So, get writing!

Full competition brief and further information

The German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) is a German national agency for the support of international academic cooperation. DAAD supports students, researchers, and academics worldwide and plays a major role in promoting the German language at higher education level.

The Institute of Modern Languages Research (IMLR) is part of the School of Advanced Study at the University of London. Its remit is to facilitate, initiate and promote dialogue and research for the Modern Languages Community.

Germany: memories of a nation (16 October 2014 – 25 January 2015) is sponsored by Betsy and Jack Ryan, with support from Salomon Oppenheimer Philanthropic Foundation.

Accompanying the exhibition is a 30-part BBC Radio 4 series written and presented by Neil MacGregor. Starts Monday 29 September.

Filed under: Germany: memories of a nation, , , , , , , , , ,

The divided self: Germany, art and poetry

Edward Doegar, General Manager, The Poetry Society

When the British Museum contacted the Poetry Society about commissioning an event responding to their exhibition Germany divided: Baselitz and his generation, we were thrilled. It seemed particularly fitting as the fate of the artists represented was shared by so many of the poets of the period. The exhibition traces the work of a generation who were all, at some point, forced into exile moving from East to West Germany. This unwelcome journey was also familiar to many of East Germany’s dissenting poets, most famously in the case of Wolf Biermann who found himself stripped of his citizenship in 1976 while on an officially organised tour in the West. Sarah Kirsch, Reiner Kunze and Kurt Bartsch all followed soon after.

If the challenges of artistic life in the GDR were shared by many, this certainly didn’t reduce the vitality and range of the art (and poetry) that it produced. Indeed, the author of the exhibition catalogue, John-Paul Stonard, has explained (in a post on this blog) how the sense of division that exile created was often intensely personal and psychological in its effect, so the highly individual artwork that resulted seems inevitable. With this in mind, we decided to broaden the commission to an evening of poetry exploring the theme of the ‘divided self’ and asked three remarkable poets to write a new poem responding to this. The poems were then premiered during an evening of readings in the Museum’s Clore Education Centre as part of the British Museum’s BM / PM series. The event was held on 11 April and was tremendously successful; below you can listen to each of the commissioned poems.

Sam Riviere is a formally inventive poet whose work often engages with new media. His first collection 81 Austerities was published by Faber in 2012 and won Forward Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection. His recent work ‘Kim Kardashian’s Marriage‘ was published as a blog series which was available online for only 72 days, mirroring the length of Kardashian’s marriage.

Ohne Titel (Selbstportrat), ('Untitled (Self-portrait)'), 1975, A R Penck (b.1939), grey and black ink wash on paper. Presented to the British Museum by Count Christian Duerckheim © A.R. Penck / DACS 2013

Ohne Titel (Selbstportrat), (‘Untitled (Self-portrait)’), 1975, A R Penck (b.1939), grey and black ink wash on paper. Presented to the British Museum by Count Christian Duerckheim © A.R. Penck / DACS 2013

His commissioned poem, ‘Preferences’, seems to recall A R Penck’s Ohne Titel (Selbstporträt). In Penck’s ink drawing the self-portrait emerges from an almost-uniform blanket of spaced dots, recalling a dot matrix printer. Likewise, Riviere’s poem is designed to completely fill a piece of A5 paper with a one inch margin, yet out of this seemingly arbitrary setting he makes the language flex with meaning and wit.

Kathryn Maris’ many awards include Academy of American Poets University & College Prize and a Pushcart Prize. She has published two highly-acclaimed collections, the second of which, God Loves You, was published by Seren in 2013. Maris’ work couples a fierce intellect with an emotionally resonant lyric fluency. Her commissioned poem, ‘The House with Only an Attic and a Basement’, seems to originate principally from the idea of the theme itself, taking an epigraph from R D Laing’s book The Divided Self.

Georg Baselitz, Zwei Streifen ('Two Stripes'), charcoal, watercolour and graphite on thin laid paper, 1966

Georg Baselitz, Zwei Streifen (‘Two Stripes’), charcoal, watercolour and graphite on thin laid paper, 1966

The wonderful symmetry and asymmetry of the poem keeps us oscillating between laughter and a shocked silence. In its polarising verticality the poem seems a match for Baselitz’s Zwei Streifen (Two Stripes).

Finally, Michael Hofmann is an award-winning poet whose Selected Poems appeared from Faber in 2008. In addition to his own work he is also one of the world’s leading translators from the German and has introduced Anglophone audiences to the work of Dürs Grunbein, Gunter Eich and Gottfried Benn. We were very lucky to be able to persuade Hofmann to come over from Florida in order to deliver his commissioned piece in person. His poem, ‘Baselitz and his generation’, offers a sort of multiple choice version of the lives of the artists in the exhibition. The language of biography is wittily turned on its head, so that the phrases with which we usually distinguish individual lives become a means to amalgamate them.

All three of the commissioned poems are available on the Poetry Society website and were printed in The Poetry Review 104:2. The exhibition is now in its final weeks and is not to be missed.

Germany divided: Baselitz and his generation is on show at the British Museum until 31 August 2014.

Read more about this period of art and history in the beautifully illustrated catalogue which accompanies the exhibition, written by John-Paul Stonard.

Filed under: Germany Divided: Baselitz and his generation, , , , , , , , , , ,

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.

Notes
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

Filed under: Ming: 50 years that changed China, , , , ,

Reading an ancient Egyptian poem

The opening sections of the poem written on a papyrus in the British Museum collectionRichard Parkinson, curator, British Museum

Reading an ancient poem is often a difficult experience, and academic traditions do not always help.

The Tale of The Eloquent Peasant, was written in Egypt around 1850 BC and is a darkly passionate work, concerning a peasant’s quest for justice after his goods are stolen. But its elaborate style has made many academics regard it as simply a source of ancient words/vocabulary and grammar and not as a poetic work of art.

The opening sections of the poem written on a papyrus in the British Museum collection

The opening sections of the poem written on a papyrus in the British Museum collection

So once, when teaching a class in Germany, I was struck that when I asked ‘what does this verse of poetry mean?’ a student replied ‘it is a perfective verb-form’. Which is an important fact, of course, but it is not the total meaning of the poetry (and not at all the answer I was looking for!).

Last year I published a new commentary on The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant to try and encourage a deeper engagement with the poetry. As well as notes on its construction and language, I included, among other things, pictures.

In the poem, the peasant hero is beaten with a stick of iser, ‘tamarisk’. It is a minor detail, unless you visualise the shrub as you read, and remember both that it is very whippy and that it grows everywhere on river banks. The poet uses this particular plant to characterise the action as not only highly sadistic but also opportunistic: the villain grabs whatever is to hand to attack the hero. Everywhere in the poem, a concrete visualisation of the imagery allows the reader to realise the vivid interconnectedness of the poet’s thought.

A tamarisk in the Wadi el-Natrun

A tamarisk in the Wadi el-Natrun

The new commentary also placed text, translation and all the notes on a single page to help the process of reading as a single integrated experience: the reader does not have to flick between different sections for comments on the grammar, historical allusions, or possible meanings. Everything the reader needs appears together in one glance, and I look forward to seeing if this has worked for students when I take up a new job teaching Egyptology in Oxford.

The ability of the poem to still speak to audiences is nowhere better sensed than in the mesmeric prize-winning film of Shadi Abd el-Salam (1970), recently restored by the World Cinema Foundation, and they have generously allowed us to include an image of the actor Ahmed Marei as the frontispiece.

Ahmed Marei as the peasant in Shadi Abd el-Salam’s film; courtesy of the World Cinema Foundation and the Egyptian Film Centre.

Ahmed Marei as the peasant in Shadi Abd el-Salam’s film; courtesy of the World Cinema Foundation and the Egyptian Film Centre.

This is a gesture towards the humanity of the original — a reminder that the poem was written by an individual for his contemporaries (and not for Egyptologists). This may even be the first time that an Egyptological commentary on a literary text has included a photograph of a living person. And this living and subtle work of art gained new resonance with the Egyptian revolution of 2011. As author Ahdaf Soueif noted then, it represents an Egyptian tradition of non-violent protest against any abuse of authority, and it is, in the words of Shadi Abd el-Salam, ‘a cry for justice, a cry that persists throughout the ages’.’

Find out more about the Reading Ancient Egyptian poems research project

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Collection, Egypt and Sudan, Research, , ,

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This is Room 56, the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Mesopotamia 6000–1500 BC. It's the next in our gallery series for #MuseumOfTheFuture. Between 6000 and 1550 BC, Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (now Iraq, north-east Syria and part of south-east Turkey) witnessed crucial advancements in the development of human civilisation during the evolution from small agricultural settlements to large cities.
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