Andrew Shore

Illustrating poetry on a 12th-century Chinese handscroll

One of the exciting changes to the newly refurbished Sir Joseph Hotung Gallery of China and South Asia (Room 33) is the creation of a space designated for Chinese paintings, calligraphy and prints. Before the refurbishment, the light levels and a lack of bespoke cases for scrolls meant we couldn’t regularly display scrolls. Six scroll paintings are now on display – highlights selected to showcase a range of styles and subject matter. In this post, I will introduce one of these – Illustrations to the Odes of Chen, a handscroll painted by Ma Hezhi (fl. c. 1131–1162) of the Southern Song dynasty (1127–1279).

The Southern Song emperor Gaozong (r. 1127–1162) commissioned the Illustrations to the Odes of Chen as part of an ambitious artistic project to illustrate all 305 poems compiled in China’s oldest poetry anthology, the Book of Odes (Shijing) (c. 1000–600 BC). It was intended to enhance the emperor’s legitimacy and to help revive the authority of the Song ruling household following the catastrophic loss of the capital and the northern part of China to the Jurchens, a semi-nomadic people from northeast Asia. Today 20 scrolls survive, but many are later copies. The art historian Julia Murray thinks that the British Museum’s version is likely to date to the Southern Song dynasty.

The scroll consists of ten scenes that illustrate odes (or short folksongs and ballads) about the ancient State of Chen, which existed in the plains of what is now Henan province. The scroll follows the ‘Mao edition’ of the poems, compiled in the Han dynasty (206 BC–AD 220) by scholars with the family name Mao. This edition gives a short moral commentary on each of the poems. These are written on the handscroll as a preface to each of the ten poems. The writing is in the style of Gaozong’s calligraphy.

The first two scenes of the scroll are now on display in Room 33. The first is titled ‘Wanqiu’, a place in the State of Chen.

The calligraphic text for the first ode ‘Wanqiu’, in Ma Hezhi (fl. c. 1131–1162), Illustrations to the Odes of Chen. Handscroll, ink and colour on silk.

The poem has been translated by James Legge:

How gay and dissipated you are,
There on the top of Wanqiu!
You are full of kindly affection indeed,
But you have nothing to make you looked up to!

How your blows on the drum resound,
At the foot of Wanqiu!
Be it winter, be it summer,
You are holding your egret’s feather!

How you beat your earthen vessel,
On the way to Wanqiu!
Be it winter, be it summer,
You are holding your egret-fan!

According to the commentary from the Mao edition, this poem criticises the ruler of the State of Chen for his lascivious and excessive ways. More recent interpretations take a different view and suggest that the poem expresses longing towards a dancing female shaman. The painter of the scroll has followed the Mao edition by depicting only men performing ritual music and dance in the scene.

Painting illustrating the ode ‘Wanqiu’.

The figure facing the front and holding a feathered banner or whisk is most likely the ruler of the Chen State. At first the moral judgement expressed in the Mao edition does not seem obvious in the painting, but details suggest otherwise. For instance, the two musicians seated at the front have uncertain expressions on their faces, while the loosely painted wavy lines of the landscape create a sense of instability that echoes the unrestrained actions of the ruler.

The second scene in the scroll is titled ‘White Elms at the East Gate’.

The calligraphic text for the second ode ‘White Elms at the East Gate’.

Here is a translation by James Legge:

[There are] the white elms at the east gate.
And the oaks on Wanqiu;
The daughter of Zizhong,
Dances about under them

A good morning having been chosen,
For the plain in the South,
She leaves twisting her hemp,
And dances to it through the market-place.

The morning being good for excursion,
They all proceed together.
I look on you as the flower of the thorny mallows;
You give me a stalk of the pepper plant.

The subject of this poem is romance: women dance in the streets and couples go on excursions together. But the Mao edition condemns this behaviour as symptomatic of social disorder. It argues that as a result of the bad example set by the ruler of Chen, lax moral behaviour has spread among ordinary people who neglect their work and instead sing, dance and court each other in the marketplace. This second scene shows the wider social consequences of the first scene.

Painting illustrating the ode ‘White Elms at the East Gate’.

In the painting, a young woman below a tall elm tree gestures towards a young man on the other side of the tree. She is probably holding a small stalk of the pepper plant mentioned in the poem. Clearly, she is interested in the young man. The response of the young man, however, is more ambiguous. Is he turning towards her or away from her?

Detail from the painting illustrating the ode ‘White Elms at the East Gate’.

This interaction reminds me of a famous scene in the Admonitions Scroll, which is also about proper interactions between men and women, and likewise open to different readings.

The Admonitions of the Instructress to the Court Ladies (detail) attributed to Gu Kaizhi (c. 344–c. 406). Panel mounted handscroll, ink and colours on silk, c. 5th–6th century AD.

In addition, the flowing lines, the fluttering ribbons and dress of the figures painted by Ma Hezhi are reminiscent of the Admonitions Scroll. This suggests the legacy of Gu Kaizhi’s style of figure painting in the Song dynasty.

The painter in the Illustrations to the Odes of Chen has followed the poem closely by setting the scene in a marketplace. There is a shop selling grains in the background. Men and women in the street, including the shopkeeper, look on with surprise and disapproval at the young couple and their actions. This scroll promotes a strict sense of morality and proper behaviour, in which the emperor Gaozong as calligrapher-patron is presented as the arbiter.

After the ten scenes, there is a colophon by the important late Ming painter Dong Qichang (1555–1636) and an inscription by the Qianlong emperor (r. 1736–1795). Seal marks indicate that this painting was once in the Qing imperial collections. At the end of the scroll is a seal that refers to the major connoisseur and collector of Chinese paintings C C Wang (1907–2003). The British Museum purchased this scroll in 1964 from Denise Ellenburger-Loo.

Due to the size of the case, only two scenes can be shown at a time, so different sections from the scroll will be displayed in future rotations. The gallery’s refurbishment marks a new era for displaying Chinese paintings in the Museum.


You can see this handscroll on display in the Sir Joseph Hotung Gallery of China and South Asia.

Haiti and Toussaint Louverture: the response must be a remix

I cannot recall when exactly I learned the revolutionary leader Toussaint Bréda had added Louverture to his name, declaring himself the opening. Undeniably, he was an avant-garde of Black freedom, and events in Haiti would turn into a contagion spreading throughout the hemisphere and beyond, eventually transforming parts of the world. He dared to proclaim himself Louverture, a striking act of Black self-determination that would give birth to a Republic. A rebel’s spirit. Kindred.

John Kay (1742–1826), Toussaint Louverture in A Complete Collection of the Portraits and caricatures Drawn and Engraved by John Kay Edinburgh From the year 1784 to 1813. Etching, 1802.

As both an artist and anthropologist, I remain curious about the motivation and potential of this exhibition in the current, racially charged, global political moment.  Living in the United States, the invitation to offer a response to the Asahi Shimbun Display A revolutionary legacy: Haiti and Toussaint Louverture has significance beyond the massive walls of the British Museum. In the 21st century, Black humanity is still in question. Black lives are still of less value and continue to be under siege everywhere. Haiti’s plight, and the exploitation of Haitians, is part of the current news cycle in the UK at the time of writing this. Moreover, the legacies of slavery often sanitised to the past outside of academic circles, continue to unfold in our daily lives.

For some years now, I have been working on how to express, give voice to, and textually represent, Black struggle, rage and liberation, informed by the late Haitian anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot. In his book Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, he asserted that, ‘none of us starts with a clean slate. But the historicity of the human condition also requires that practices of power and domination be renewed.’ According to Trouillot, we are, ‘caught in legacies of past horrors that are made possible only by their renewal.’

How does one react, create and meditate on subjugation, defiance, triumphs and re-subjugation when the past is now, when the past has become our present? Can such a creative performance be an intervention, an opening?

Only a remix will do, for performing this revolution will be live. After total immersion in my research process with the usual scholarly suspects, I have to admit that I have been actively excavating ghosts. Inspired by reawakened Ancestors. As feminist scholar M Jacqui Alexander has so eloquently noted in her book, Pedagogies of Crossing, ‘the dead do not like to be forgotten.’

The question that looms largest and grounds my work is a simple one: a revolution against what? Haiti is symbolic of Blackness globally. Colonial tactics in the Caribbean region were put into practice elsewhere. My task is to put interconnected histories of colonialism, slavery and rebellion in concert with more contemporary musings on freedom, from Suzanne Césaire and Frantz Fanon, to James Baldwin, Billie Holiday and Nina Simone, among others. I want to viscerally contemplate the unfinished business of a Black Revolution, which achieved what none of the preceding European revolutions, with their investment in enslavement, could: universal freedom for all races. An opening.

Perhaps no other place than the British Museum would be as fitting a site for this date with history. Historical amnesia may have effaced Britain’s role in Haiti’s revolutionary struggles, but we are still connected. Carrying out research at the British Museum, an imperial lakou (the Haitian Kreyòl word for yard, compound) with its origin and immense holdings, demanded I confront Empire as an outsider peering in. Every corner of the Museum was arresting in its own way. A living, breathing monument that has too many stories to tell. The Enlightenment Gallery (Room 1) with Sir Hans Sloane’s natural and artificial rarities made me curiouser and curiouser. The great Reading Room, where Karl Marx worked on Das Kapital, reminded me that the Communist Manifesto was recently translated into Kreyòl. The Money Gallery (Room 68) was a potent reminder that during the US Occupation of Haiti (1915–1934), Haiti’s gold reserves were confiscated by the Marines and brought to the vaults of the National City Bank of New York. Curiouser and curiouser. William Wordsworth’s sonnet To Toussaint L’Ouverture (1802) and John Agard’s response are also raw material for me.

Vodou boula drum of the Rada battery, seized during the US occupation of Haiti. Early 20th century.

Two objects continue to linger in my mind: a little boula drum, especially well cared for by the conservators, and the Akan drum, evidence of the transatlantic slave trade that, dare I say, belongs on a pedestal?

Akan drum. Made in West Africa and collected in the American colony of Virginia probably between 1710 and 1745.

Drums are instruments attuned to spirits. The 37 steps down to the African Galleries (Room 25) where the Benin bronze sculptures are on display got me wondering how they made the crossing after the 1897 Punitive Expedition. Bodies had been strewn across the depths of the Atlantic for centuries.

I felt a profound longing for cowries.

So I will bring my chants along with a textual rasanblaj (the Kreyòl word for gathering) — a remix of things that have been said or sung many times. I have nothing to disclose that has not been heard before. Will anything I say be remembered? As Ms Lauryn Hill sang with The Fugees, ‘Ready or not, here I come, you can’t hide. I’m gonna find you and take it slowly…’


The Asahi Shimbun Display A revolutionary legacy: Haiti and Toussaint Louverturesupported by The Asahi Shimbun, is in Room 3 until 22 April 2018.

Gina Athena Ulysse will perform her new piece in the Stevenson Lecture Theatre at 18.30 on Friday 16 March.

Rembrandt’s depictions of women

17th-century Dutch artist Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669) was a keen observer of the natural world. While contemporary artists idealised the world around them in their art, Rembrandt’s prints and drawings reveal a fascination with depicting unmediated reality. Rembrandt’s representation of women in particular demonstrates how he rejected the artistic conventions of the day.

Left: Rembrandt, Diana at the bath (print study). Drawing, black chalk with some light brown wash, c. 1630-1631. Right: Rembrandt, Diana at the bath. Etching, c. 1631.

Left: Rembrandt, Diana at the bath (print study). Drawing, black chalk with some light brown wash, c. 1630–1631. Right: Rembrandt, Diana at the bath. Etching, c. 1631.

This black chalk drawing of Diana is the artist’s earliest known study of a female nude (c. 1630–1631). Traditionally Diana, the chaste mythological goddess of the hunt, was portrayed in art as an epitome of female beauty. Drawing from a live model, Rembrandt depicts Diana caught in a private moment, her sagging, wrinkled skin on view. In the etching made after the drawing, Rembrandt details the surface texture of Diana’s dimpled thighs. Rembrandt removes Diana from the mythological narrative, and depicts the earthy flesh of the model before him. Rembrandt thus blurs the boundaries between myth and reality – in the drawing, only the roughly sketched quiver of arrows hanging behind the figure identifies her as the goddess Diana.

Left: Rembrandt, Woman lying awake in bed. Drawing, pen and brown ink, c. 1635-1640. Right: Rembrandt, Young woman sleeping. Drawing, brush and brown wash, c. 1654.

Left: Rembrandt, Woman lying awake in bed. Drawing, pen and brown ink, c. 1635–1640. Right: Rembrandt, Young woman sleeping. Drawing, brush and brown wash, c. 1654.

Rembrandt’s drawings of the domestic realm offer an intimate look at the women in his life. The pen-and-ink drawing, Woman lying awake (c. 1635–1640), is thought to represent his wife Saskia van Uylenburgh. She may have been confined to bed during child birth, or because of ill-health – she died in 1642, eight years after their marriage in 1634. In the drawing, Rembrandt concentrates on the drapery folds, turning a private moment into a careful examination of line. Rembrandt often used his wife as model for his historical and mythological paintings.

Almost 20 years later, Rembrandt depicts a young woman sleeping, almost certainly Hendrickje Stoffels, his common-law wife from his late years. The graceful brush-and-wash drawing evokes intimacy with minimal details – his loose brushstrokes, characteristic of his late style, frame the composition. The three drawings of women by Rembrandt span early, middle and late periods in the artist’s life – they have distinct functions, styles, and media. From a detailed representation of Diana’s flesh, through the careful study of drapery in Saskia’s bed, to a tender portrayal of the sleeping Hendrickje, they all exhibit an intimacy and directness that is characteristic of the artist.

Left: Rembrandt, Adam and Eve (state II). Etching, 1638. Right: Albrecht Dürer, Adam and Eve. Engraving, 1504.

Left: Rembrandt, Adam and Eve (state II). Etching, 1638. Right: Albrecht Dürer, Adam and Eve. Engraving, 1504.

In representations of the Fall of Man throughout western art, style takes on both theological significance and erotic charge. Traditionally, the first couple was depicted as an embodiment of ideal proportions and beauty – Albrecht Dürer, for example, modelled his figures on Greek statues to emphasise that humans were made in God’s image. Rembrandt was an avid art collector, and owned a portfolio of prints by Dürer. He took inspiration from the German artist’s composition, but rendered his figures in a characteristically unidealised way, adding a layer of psychological depth to the narrative. Rembrandt’s Adam and Eve lack the grace and beauty of Dürer’s figures – their hunched posture and contorted faces suggests the pair is shown at a critical moment of decision. Rembrandt emphasised the human element in his religious scenes – lifelike details provide fresh insight into well-known narratives. By including details observed from life (from live models and domestic moments, to exotic animals that passed through Amsterdam) Rembrandt’s careful study and unflinching representation of the natural world makes his work accessible and intriguing to the modern viewer.

Rembrandt’s depictions of women elicited harsh criticism in his lifetime and in the subsequent centuries. Shortly after his death, Dutch poet Andries Pels (1631–1681) complained that Rembrandt deliberately chose to represent ‘vulgar peasant women’ in place of a ‘Greek Venus.’ British author Benjamin Robert Haydon (1786–1846) wrote in the 18th century that Rembrandt’s ‘notions of the delicate forms of women would have frightened an arctic bear.’ The reception of Rembrandt’s women says more about the tastes and conventions of the day. In 19th-century France, for example, artists and printmakers were drawn to Rembrandt’s unmediated representations and innovative techniques. Rembrandt’s women have always been a source of fascination, and his stark and intimate portrayals of women make them captivating to modern audiences.

The British Museum holds one the most comprehensive collections of Rembrandt’s prints and drawings. Prints and drawings cannot be on permanent display due to the light-sensitive nature of works of paper. However, the collection can be viewed in the Department of Prints and Drawings Study Room by appointment – you can find out more about making an appointment here.

The Hindu festival of Holi

The Hindu festival of Holi is a colourful and vibrant celebration of the arrival of spring. It is celebrated across India and Nepal, and among the Hindu diaspora around the world.

Krishna squirting coloured water at Radha. Painting, Pahari School, early 19th century.

The three main myths associated with Holi involve the Hindu gods Vishnu, Krishna or Shiva. People in various parts of India focus on different forms of each of these myths. One of the most popular stories concerns Vishnu and his devotee, Prahlada. According to one version of this story, Prahlada was the son of an evil king named Hiranyakashipu who demanded that everyone should worship only him. Prahlada refused to worship his father and instead continued to pray to the god Vishnu. Holika, King Hiranyakashipu’s sister, grew angry at Prahlada because of his devotion to Vishnu and decided to kill him. She had been previously blessed by the gods so that she would not be harmed by fire, so she tricked Prahlada into sitting on her lap while she sat in a fire. Prahlada survived this ordeal because he prayed to Vishnu, while Holika perished. ‘Holi’, the name of the festival, is derived from the name ‘Holika’.

Another story linked with Holi is about Krishna’s love for Radha. Krishna’s skin was dark blue because a demoness had tried to poison him when he was a baby, and Krishna was worried that Radha wouldn’t like him because of his appearance. His mother, Yashoda, playfully suggested that he smear some brightly coloured powder on Radha’s face. After Krishna did this, Radha fell in love with him and they were later married.

A king with his favourite in a garden with attendants at Holi festival. Painting, Rajasthan School, mid-18th century.

There are two main parts to the festival of Holi. The first part is called Holika Dahan and falls on the night of the full moon during the month of Phalguna, which falls between February and March. Bonfires that have been built with an effigy of Holika on top are lit, recalling the moment that Holika perished in the flames while Prahlada survived. The following day, people gather outside to sing, dance and throw coloured powder and squirt coloured water at one another, which recalls the moment when Krishna rubbed coloured powder onto Radha’s skin. It is a day of fun and jollity when traditional social conventions are disregarded.

The playful throwing of coloured powder is commonly depicted in miniature paintings, and the British Museum has some beautiful examples. Some show the playful moment between Krishna and Radha, while others depict rulers and their attendants in their palace gardens throwing coloured powder and using long metal syringes called pichkari to squirt coloured water at one another.

In 2018, Holi will be celebrated between Thursday 1 March (evening) and Friday 2 March (daytime).

The British Museum Membercast: Egyptian art

The British Museum Membercast is a monthly podcast made available to ‘all studious and curious persons’. Comedian, podcaster and super-fan Iszi Lawrence (The Z List Dead List) presents snippets from exclusive Members’ lectures at the Museum, artfully woven together with interviews and her own musings.

Please share your comments and feedback about the podcast! You can talk to us on Twitter @britishmuseum using the hashtag #membercast or email

The British Museum Membercast: Currency, communism and credit

The currency of communism will run until 18 March 2018. research and acquisition for the exhibition have been made possible with Art Fund support.


Book now for the Member’s exclusive lecture, The Museum under the microscope

The British Museum Membercast is a monthly podcast made available to ‘all studious and curious persons’. Comedian, podcaster and super-fan Iszi Lawrence (The Z List Dead List) presents snippets from exclusive Members’ lectures at the Museum, artfully woven together with interviews and her own musings.

Please share your comments and feedback about the podcast! You can talk to us on Twitter @britishmuseum using the hashtag #membercast or email

Darius, Herodotus and the Scythians

High on most people’s list of the lessons taught by history would be the inadvisability of invading Russia. Napoleon’s Grande Armée and Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa both famously serve as warnings of what can go wrong. The vastness of the steppes, the refusal of the enemy to meet in pitched battle, the savagery of the winters – all have regularly combined to frustrate the ambitions of even the mightiest empires. In ancient times, before the building of settlements in what are now Ukraine and Russia, the challenges that faced any would-be conqueror were even more severe.

We have no cities – nothing that we need worry you might capture. We have no crops – nothing that we need worry you might destroy. Why, then, should we be in any rush to fight with you?

These words were supposedly spoken two-and-a-half thousand years ago by the king of a people named the Scythians, the nomadic lords of a vast swathe of territories that stretched from Central Asia to Eastern Europe. His defiance was flung in the teeth of the most powerful man on the face of the planet: Darius, the Great King of Persia.

Impression of the Darius seal cylinder seal showing Darius I. Found in Egypt, 6th–5th century BC.

Military adventures had long been a specialisation of the Persians. For decades, victory – rapid, spectacular victory – had appeared their birthright. Their aura of invincibility reflected the unprecedented scale and speed of their conquests. Once, they had been nothing, just an obscure mountain tribe confined to the plains and mountains of what is now southern Iran. Then, in the space of a single generation, they had swept across the Middle East, shattering ancient kingdoms, storming famous cities, amassing the largest empire that the world had ever seen. A man such as Darius was not lightly defied.

The landscape of southern Siberia that Darius would have faced. This photo includes a Scythian burial mound. © The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, 2017. Photo: V Terebenin.

Unsurprisingly, then, in the face of Scythian intransigence, he had decided to take the offensive. In 513 BC, Darius crossed the Bosphorus at the head of a vast army, bridged the Danube, and struck deep into what is now southern Russia. He did so not merely to uphold Persian interests, but in defence – as he saw it – of the moral balance of the universe. Truth, the principle of light and order which animated the entire cosmos, was always under threat. The spreading filth of the Lie, were Darius not there to stem and purge it, risked splashing the radiance of all that was good with the poison of its sewage. Accordingly, then, alerted to the fractious character of the the Scythians, he had recognised in their savagery something ominous: a susceptibility to the seductions of demons. ‘They were vulnerable, these Scythians, to the Lie’ – and so Darius, ever the dutiful servant of the Truth, had felt himself called upon to pacify them.

Gold plaque of a mounted Scythian, in the words of Darius, possibly ‘vulnerable to the Lie’. Black Sea region, c. 400–350 BC. © The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, 2017. Photo: V Terebenin.

In the event, he failed. Darius’ expedition did not suffer the humiliating rate of attrition endured millennia later by those of Napoleon or Hitler, but it did meet with stalemate. Although the Persians destroyed whatever of Scythian settlements and crops they could, they were unable to annex any territory, and ultimately, as winter drew in, found themselves with no choice but to withdraw. Darius himself, unsurprisingly, drew a veil over the whole business. The details of his expedition went unmentioned in any of his inscriptions. Forts that he had built deep within Scythian territory were abandoned. As the expedition passed out of living memory, it might very well have ended up forgotten altogether.

That it did not was due to a Greek who, some eight or so decades after Darius’ invasion of Scythia, wrote about it as part of his ‘researches’ – his ‘historia’ – into the wars between the Greeks and the Persians. Herodotus, when he put words into the mouth of the King of the Scythians, or imagined himself in the mind of Darius, was not relying on authentic testimony – but what he could find out about the Scythians, he did. The result was indeed, just as Herodotus had hoped that it would be, a supreme work of enquiry – not merely the world’s first work of history, but its first work of ethnography as well. It is thanks to Herodotus that a people who wrote no history themselves were enshrined in the memory of more settled people, and it is thanks to Herodotus that the efforts of archaeologists to redeem the Scythians from oblivion could to be cross-referenced with the writings of a man contemporary with them.

A glimpse inside the exhibition.

As a translator of the Histories, I always found that the Scythians lived most vividly for me in its pages. In my efforts to understand what they might truly have been like, I felt like Darius, in pursuit of a quarry that seemed destined forever to evade my clutches. That is why the British Museum’s exhibition has proven such a revelation – and so moving. At long last, I have seen the gold, and the clothes, and the horse fittings, and the tattoos, and the very nail clippings of a people I had always thought would exist for me only on the pages of Herodotus. Unlike Darius, I have got to grips with the Scythians at last.


The BP exhibition Scythians: warriors of ancient Siberia is on until 14 January 2018.
Supported by BP.

The British Museum Membercast: the BP exhibition Scythians: warriors of ancient Siberia


Book tickets now for the exhibition Living with gods: peoples, places and worlds beyond

Book now for the event Transforming a gallery: the major refurbishment of Room 33


The British Museum Membercast is a monthly podcast made available to ‘all studious and curious persons’. Comedian, podcaster and super-fan Iszi Lawrence (The Z List Dead List) presents snippets from exclusive Members’ lectures at the Museum, artfully woven together with interviews and her own musings.

Please share your comments and feedback about the podcast! You can talk to us on Twitter @britishmuseum using the hashtag #membercast or email

Living with gods: a new partnership project with BBC Radio 4

For the last 40,000 years – for as long as human beings have had the same sort of brain as we do – groups of people living together have tried to find patterns underlying the natural world on which they depend. All groups appear to come to a shared narrative, which seeks to explain their community’s place in the world, and to reconcile the transience of an individual life with the enduring existence of the group. They also seem to develop rituals which reinforce the belief in that narrative, and articulate the place of every individual within it.

Diptych of the Resurrection and Descent of the Holy Ghost. These miniature painted panels show Christ rising from the grave and his mother and followers receiving the spirit of God, shown as flames on their heads. Made in Swabia, Bavaria, Germany, 15th century.

Believing and belonging appear, everywhere in the world, to be closely connected phenomena. To be a member of a group has, throughout human history, been to share its story and to participate on a regular basis in its enactment. These communal expressions of faith have been manifested in the objects used in or for religious practices.

These stories appear to be a virtually universal phenomenon. They usually articulate social behaviour and accommodate both the dead and those not yet born within one narrative. They are valuable forces for survival where communities confront threatening natural phenomena, such as Ice Age winters, drought or disease, or recurrent dangers like war. The stories and the rituals together are powerful forgers and markers of a shared identity. Even today, groups confronted by other existential threats often choose to reaffirm this pattern of believing and belonging.

Neil MacGregor in Jerusalem overlooking the Old City. © BBC. Photo: Charlie Clift.

The British Museum is embarking on a 30-part radio series, written and presented by former Director Neil MacGregor, and an accompanying exhibition which seeks to explore this apparently global human phenomenon. The project is the fourth partnership between BBC Radio 4 and the British Museum, following on from A History of the World in 100 objects, Shakespeare’s Restless World and Germany: memories of a nation.

As Neil MacGregor says:

Questions of faith have, in recent decades, moved to the centre of the global political stage – an unexpected return to a centuries-old pattern. But what are the connections between structures of belief, and the structures of society? In this project, using objects from the British Museum, and talking to experts from many disciplines, we try to explore some of these questions, looking at communities from deep history to the present day, in Europe and around the world.

As always the starting point for the project is the British Museum’s collection. Its depth and breadth means it is possible to find objects that reflect both living religious practices and faiths long extinct. While the questions and predicaments of humanity remain fairly constant, there is a wide variety of narratives and responses which are embodied in stories told and the different objects produced as part of religious practice.

The Lion Man. Stadel Cave, Baden-Württemberg, Germany, 40,000 years old. The oldest known evidence of religious belief in the world. © Ulmer Museum.

The series and exhibition both begin with a remarkable 40,000-year-old mammoth ivory sculpture known as the Lion Man. Depicting a lion’s upper body on the lower half of a man, it is the oldest known image of a being that does not exist in nature. It is the earliest evidence we have of beliefs and practices, and shows humans’ unique ability to communicate what’s in our minds through objects.

Tiles from a Parsi home shrine showing the constantly burning fire of Ahura Mazda, god of Zoroastrians. Gujarat, India, 1990.

The focus moves from the emergence of societies to the elemental commonalities in all societies – fire, water, light and the seasons. The exhibition then looks at life and death, the protection of mother and infant, becoming an adult and the daily and weekly practices associated with faith. The show will also examine pilgrimage, looking specifically at Canterbury in Kent and Sarnath in India, festivals including the ancient Roman Saturnalia, Christmas, Kumbh Mela and the Siberian Ysyakh, and the concept of sacrifice, including ancient Greek animal sacrifice and Aztec human sacrifice. Objects will reflect polytheism, monotheism and atheism. The idea of living without gods is examined through objects from the French Revolution and the Soviet Union.

The Lampedusa cross made from pieces of a boat wrecked off the coast of Lampedusa, Italy, carrying refugees from Somalia and Eritrea. Made by carpenter Francesco Tuccio, 2014.

We conclude with the Lampedusa cross, a contemporary symbol of hope. The cross was made by Francisco Tuccio for refugees who had survived their boat sinking off the island of Lampedusa. At a time when the refugee crisis is placing huge extra demands on a small community, they are still able to think about the plight of others and go beyond protecting their self-interest, offering solace and hope through an expression of shared faith – transcending ethnic and cultural differences.


The radio series will broadcast from 23 October 2017.

The exhibition opens on 2 November 2017.
Supported by the Genesis Foundation. With grateful thanks to John Studzinski CBE.

Living with the gods by Neil MacGregor will be published by Allen Lane in March 2018.

The British Museum Membercast: Behind the scenes


Learn more about Scythian burial mounds and how they reveal what these nomadic warriors believed about the afterlife.

The British Museum Membercast is a monthly podcast made available to ‘all studious and curious persons’. Comedian, podcaster and super-fan Iszi Lawrence (The Z List Dead List) presents snippets from exclusive Members’ lectures at the Museum, artfully woven together with interviews and her own musings.

Please share your comments and feedback about the podcast! You can talk to us on Twitter @britishmuseum using the hashtag #membercast or email

Curator’s corner: Irving Finkel and the Lewis Chessmen

When you look them in the eye you realise that the chessmen from the Isle of Lewis are not just archaeological objects sitting obediently in a museum case like any others. They follow you if you try to look away. There are lots of them, waiting in a zoo-like cage. Bunched together, old and experienced, they seem anxious to be off into the fresh air, although they seem glad to be looked at, and fond of staring children down. Everyone who sees them wants to pick them up, and examine them, and try a game with them.

Their job, of course, was to do battle. They are early chessmen for a board game that had originated far across the world in ancient India where local chessmen were very different-looking. The Lewis pieces, skilfully carved out of walrus tusks somewhere in Scandinavia, are designed for life in Britain in the 12th century. Indian chariots and camels disappear and warders (rooks) on guard and bishops take their place, and no one could ever mistake the kings (stately) or queens (worried).

They were found in around 1831 on one of the world’s truly beautiful beaches, silver sand and sparkling sea, on the north side of the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. Curators have sometimes been back there looking for more chessmen, but so far have had no luck. And if you go, that water is cold beyond words, so no jumping in.

The pieces had various adventures in the 19th century before they ended up in museums, where they certainly belong. Some are in Edinburgh, the remainder here in the British Museum, although recently a small party of the chessmen has gone back to the Isle of Lewis on a long-term visit, to preside over the exhibits in the Stornoway Museum and delight locals and visitors alike.

Many years ago I wrote a small story book about the Lewis Chessmen. Clive Hodgson drew the pictures and Roderick Maclean translated the whole thing into Gaelic. When it was published I went to the Stornoway Museum with Roderick and we read the story out loud half in English, half in Gaelic, while children from all over the island sat around us in a ring. I remember asking one of the teachers how she had managed to choose the three children that she had brought to the reading from the other children. Weren’t the others cross? I asked. No, she said, I brought the whole school with me. That’s all there are!

If you’ve seen a very famous film about a boy wizard, you will have seen replicas of these fantastic figurines on the big screen. But, did you know why they picked these particular chess pieces? Well, I will tell you in my latest Curator’s corner:

There is nothing like the Lewis Chessmen. Once there was a television programme when the public had to vote on the top ten exhibits. Everyone expected the usual gold things to win, but no! The Lewis Chessmen were securely within the top five. And rightly so. Have a look for yourself.


Take a closer look at the Lewis Chessmen in our Object in focus blog.

Explore the Lewis Chessmen range on the online shop.

You can see some of the Lewis Chessmen on display in Room 40.

An audio CD of Irving’s book The Lewis Chessmen and what happened to them, read by none other than David Attenborough is available to buy from the British Museum shop.

A new acquisition: a magnificent drawing by Benozzo Gozzoli

It’s always a joy to welcome a new acquisition, but the drawing by Benozzo Gozzoli that the Museum has recently acquired, thanks to the government’s Acceptance in Lieu scheme, has particular resonance for me.

Benozzo Gozzoli (c. 1421/24–1497), Study of angels (recto). Pen and brown ink, brown wash, heightened with white and touches of gold, on rose prepared paper, 1459–1463.

On one level, of course, it’s a magnificent Renaissance drawing, the most important the Museum has acquired for many years. Gozzoli was one of the leading Florentine artists of his generation, and this is a significant addition to the Museum’s already spectacular collection of drawings from this period. Dating from around 1460, it shows a group of standing and kneeling figures arranged on a sheet of striking pink prepared paper. By using delicate strokes of white heightening, Gozzoli builds up the sense of three dimensionality, emphasising the ridges and swags of the cloth and hinting at the roundness of the forms beneath.

He focuses very much on the draperies – the figures themselves don’t interest him at this point. Some don’t even have heads – those would have been studied in other drawings. And there would have been many other drawings, because this little sheet of pink paper is a preparatory study for Gozzoli’s great masterpiece, The Journey of the Magi in Florence’s Palazzo Medici-Riccardi. None of them survive, though. This drawing is the only one we can identify with certainty.

Benozzo Gozzoli, Entourage of the Young King. Fresco from the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, Florence. Via Wikimedia Commons.

The Journey of the Magi is one of the great commissions of the Renaissance. The patron was Cosimo de’ Medici, grandfather of the famous Lorenzo de’ Medici (or Lorenzo the Magnificent). He commissioned Gozzoli to paint the little chapel in the family’s palazzo, which was completed in stages between 1459 and 1461.

The Journey of the Magi was an unusual subject to choose – family chapels in churches often focused on the lives of the saints – but this was a private religious space over which the Medici had full control. They were particularly devoted to the Magi – every year, at Epiphany (the feast of the three wise men), the Medici put together a splendid procession which would weave through the streets of Florence. They might have acted out the roles of the Magi themselves, but contrary to popular belief that isn’t the case in the frescoes.

That beautiful blond young man on the horse isn’t the young Lorenzo de’ Medici, as comparison with any portrait of Lorenzo will make abundantly clear. But the Medici are still there. Cosimo and his family are at the front of the Magi’s entourage, along with numerous other portraits which presumably show the great and good of Renaissance Florence. Gozzoli is there too, a dignified expression on his face and his name inscribed in gold letters on his red cap.

Benozzo Gozzoli, Angels Worshipping. Fresco, left and right side of the chancel, 1459–1460. Via Wikimedia Commons.

The Museum’s new drawing is a preparatory study for the angels who were frescoed around the altar on the fourth wall of the chapel, the point to which the rest of the procession is heading. They are shown in a beautiful garden, kneeling and standing in neat rows as if arranged for a group photograph.

We can identify several angels who must derive from the studies in this drawing. It must have been made at the very final stages of preparation, to make sure that everything was exactly right. It goes to show how carefully Gozzoli prepared his great composition. The angels may be divine, but they’re comparatively unimportant figures in the greater scheme of things. If Gozzoli took this much time over their draperies, then he must have made similar drawings for many other figures in the procession, not to mention portrait studies of the Medici and his other distinguished contemporaries who appear among the crowds.

Benozzo Gozzoli, Madonna and Child enthroned with angels (verso of Study of angels). Pen and brown ink, brown wash, heightened with white and touches of gold, on rose prepared paper, 1459–1463.

There’s a drawing on the back of the sheet as well, which isn’t related to The Journey of the Magi and, in fact, can’t be linked with any of Gozzoli’s known works. It shows the Madonna and Child enthroned with (more!) angels, sitting beneath an ornate canopy. It’s much less polished than the other side and suggests that Gozzoli was only working out ideas. It has resulted in some odd visual effects. For example, the candlestick held by the angel kneeling in the left foreground rises up and up, and seems to transform into one of the slender columns holding up the canopy.

I said that this drawing had particular resonance for me. The first time I ever saw Renaissance art was in a reproductive print hanging on the wall of the vestry in our village church. No one knew where it had come from or why it was there. But it showed two panels of angels in a beautiful garden, both sides facing inwards towards a tantalising gap. I spent my childhood looking at that picture. Now, of course, I know that it shows the two walls flanking the altar in Gozzoli’s remarkable chapel – the very frescoes for which this new acquisition is a preparatory study. For me, Gozzoli’s study of angels brings me full circle, to the picture which first made me fall in love with Florentine Renaissance art.

You can zoom in to this drawing and see all the fine details on our new Collection online here

The drawing by Benozzo Gozzoli is on display for a limited time in Room 90a, between 5 and 28 September 2017.

The British Museum Membercast: The man who collected the world

Watch Irving Finkel play the Royal Game of Ur!

The British Museum Membercast is a monthly podcast made available to ‘all studious and curious persons’. Comedian, podcaster and super-fan Iszi Lawrence (The Z List Dead List) presents snippets from exclusive Members’ lectures at the Museum, artfully woven together with interviews and her own musings.

Please share your comments and feedback about the podcast! You can talk to us on Twitter @britishmuseum using the hashtag #membercast or email

The British Museum Membercast: Friends, Romans, countrymen? – Part 2


The British Museum Membercast is a monthly podcast made available to ‘all studious and curious persons’. Comedian, podcaster and super-fan Iszi Lawrence (The Z List Dead List) presents snippets from exclusive Members’ lectures at the Museum, artfully woven together with interviews and her own musings.

Please share your comments and feedback about the podcast! You can talk to us on Twitter @britishmuseum using the hashtag #membercast or email

What lies ahead: new galleries to present a voyage of discovery and learning

It has been an extraordinary year, in many ways. With substantial changes in the world around us, public institutions such as ours need to think and reflect on what they mean, and respond. I’d like to share some highlights from my first year here as Director of the British Museum, and introduce some of our future plans.

We remain the leading international visitor attraction in the UK; one in five overseas tourists to London visits the Museum. For many, we are the place you visit in your first or second day in the country, where you look to have the links explained between your culture and others, where the great and small objects of human endeavor are displayed. Helping to shape our collective understanding of the human experience, that is our global mission.

We continue to play our role as the world’s most generous lender of artefacts, by helping to show over 2,200 objects in 113 museums and galleries across the world in the past year. The hugely successful touring exhibition, A History of the World in 100 objects, has now been seen by over 1.4 million people worldwide and produced record-breaking visitor numbers in Canberra (178,220), and the National Museum of China in Beijing (340,645).

Entrance to A History of the World in 100 Objects at the National Museum of China in Beijing.

The Museum is also at the forefront of efforts to preserve cultural heritage; our Iraq Heritage Rescue Scheme (funded through the Cultural Protection Fund) is now in its second year. Exciting discoveries have been made at two sites, Tello (Ancient Girsu) in the south near Nasiriya, and in Darband-i Rania in Iraqi Kurdistan – more on these to come. We are delighted that one alumnus of the training has been appointed to lead the archaeological assessment at Nimrud, and other sites recently released from devastating Daesh control.

Tello – panorama of the site.

Across the UK, we have continued to build our role as the leading provider of objects to the vibrant local museums sector. As a result of our partnerships, nine million people were able to see a British Museum object beyond Bloomsbury, bringing the wonder and experience of some of our most important artefacts into local communities. From Aberdeen to Wrexham, the Museum loaned nearly 3,000 objects to 156 venues in the UK in 2016–17.

In London our major exhibitions on Sicily, underwater archaeology in Egypt, South African art and American printmaking drew over 525,000 visitors. Access for students to engage and experience the unique collection through teaching resources, sessions and gallery visits is of central importance to the Museum, and has reached a nine-year high with the number of visits from UK schools totaling nearly 150,000.

Inside the BP exhibition Sunken cities: Egypt's lost worlds.

Inside the BP exhibition Sunken cities: Egypt’s lost worlds.

Research and scholarship have always been the bedrock of the Museum’s activities. In the past five years the Museum has published over 900 books and scholarly articles.  Last year we raised nearly £4 million in external funding for research, which has fed into the Museum’s current Hokusai exhibition; digital reconstruction work on the Jericho skull; and a project to transcribe and digitise the original catalogues from Sir Hans Sloane’s collection.

Turning to the future, in the coming year the Museum will open three major new or refurbished permanent galleries:

  • The Sir Joseph Hotung Gallery of China and South Asia will open in November, and will tell the story of China and South Asia up to the present day.
  • The Albukhary Foundation Galleries of the Islamic world will open in autumn 2018, and will demonstrate the global expansion of the faith from the advent of Islam to the present day. Drawing for the first time on the full breadth of the collections from the Middle East, Turkey, Africa, Central Asia and South and South East Asia, interconnectivity will be a key theme.
  • The Mitsubishi Corporation Japanese Galleries will also open in autumn 2018 – refurbished with improvements to design and infrastructure to allow regular rotations and showcase a vast range of rare and light-sensitive works, telling the story of Japan from prehistory to the present.

Rendering of the Sir Joseph Hotung Gallery of China and South Asia.

I am delighted that the British Museum continues to play its central role in the cultural life of London and the UK, and in projecting British excellence and scholarship across the globe.  In a fast-changing and sometimes troubling world, the Museum has to continue to play its part in explaining the connectivity of cultures and our shared human identity.  Never has this been more urgent.  The long heritage of the British Museum puts us in a central position to provide this bridge between cultures, and to paint a richer picture of our common humanity.

Our vision is to create a museum which tells more coherent and compelling stories of the cultures and artefacts we display and to allow comparisons to be made across cultures and timeframes. We want a walk around our permanent collection to be a voyage of discovery and learning for all.  This will involve a new narrative for the collections, an emphasis on the interconnectedness of cultures, the renovation of the building and improvement of facilities for our millions of visitors, and, of course, digital. Our ambition is to put the Round Reading Room at the heart of the Museum, to bring it to life again. We are at the very early stages of our thinking; this will be a major project over many years. But it is a project that fills me with excitement.

The Great Court showing the outside of the Reading Room.

You can read the 2016–2017 Annual Review online.

The British Museum Membercast: a night at the Museum

Photo: Benedict Johnson.

In this one-off special of Membercast, follow Iszi as she takes part in an evening of activities themed around the artist Hokusai and Japanese culture. At midnight when the lights go out, Iszi and the guests bed down in the Egyptian sculpture gallery to sleep beneath the colossal statues until morning!

If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like in the Museum after everyone has left (well, almost everyone) and we’ve put the mummies to bed, this Membercast episode will give you a taste! Although Iszi is a proper grown-up with a wealth of life experiences, she was excited and nervous about this adventure – take a listen to hear how she fares spending a night at the Museum!

Photo: Benedict Johnson

Sleepovers at the British Museum are available to Young Friends, a programme for children aged 8–15 years old. The next sleepover, themed around the artist Hokusai, takes place on 22 and 23 July 2017. Find out more about Young Friends and read our sleepover FAQS. Sleepovers are subject to availability and a ticket fee.

Follow Iszi Lawrence on Twitter @iszi_lawrence or on instagram  iszi_lawrence

The British Museum Membercast: The Holy Roman Empire

Featuring excerpts from his sold-out lecture for Members, Peter picks apart the nature of the Holy Roman Empire – the amorphous state at the heart of Europe for a thousand years. Touching on power, politics and identity, Iszi and Peter delve into the extraordinary story told in Peter’s recent book, The Holy Roman Empire: A Thousand Years of Europe’s History.

Look out for part 2 of the interview with Julia Farley coming next month.


The British Museum Membercast is a monthly podcast made available to ‘all studious and curious persons’. Comedian, podcaster and super-fan Iszi Lawrence (The Z List Dead List) presents snippets from exclusive Members’ lectures at the Museum, artfully woven together with interviews and her own musings.

Please share your comments and feedback about the podcast! You can talk to us on Twitter @britishmuseum using the hashtag #Membercast or email

Not fade away: preventive conservation on Hokusai prints

Light represents a great risk to many artworks, including Japanese woodblock prints from the 18th and 19th centuries. This is because they were often made using plant-based dyes, which can fade when exposed to light. Many Japanese prints have faded dramatically since they were made. Look at the two copies of a woodblock print by the Japanese artist Utamaro below. The copies were identical when the prints were produced. Now, most of the colours in the print on the right have faded.

Kitagawa Utamaro, (1754–1806), two impressions of A mother feeding her infant in front of a mirror. Colour woodblock, c. 1797.

Hokusai’s most iconic prints are ‘The Great Wave’ and ‘Red Fuji’ and the British Museum is fortunate to have impressions of both of them. The inks used in these prints had never been scientifically analysed, so in preparation for the exhibition Hokusai: beyond the Great Wave, we decided to investigate how likely they are to fade, to make sure we can display them safely.

Peter McElhinney, a PhD student from the University of Bradford, joined the Museum for a short period to work with me on these prints. Together we analysed the colourants of ‘Red Fuji’ and ‘The Great Wave’ using two techniques: X-ray fluorescence (XRF) and multispectral imaging (MSI). These techniques are well suited to the study of museum objects as they do not damage the objects or require removing samples.

XRF tells us which chemical elements are present in the inks, but not which compounds. For instance, if we detect the presence of lead in a pink paint, we need to do additional investigations to determine if the paint contains lead white (a white pigment containing lead) or red lead (a red pigment containing lead), or if it is a mixture of both pigments. XRF is also unable to detect lighter chemical elements, such as carbon or oxygen.

MSI involves exposing an object to different types of light (infrared, visible and ultraviolet) resulting in different images reflected from the print. Observing whether an ink absorbs or reflects the light gives us clues as to its identity. Combining the infrared or ultraviolet reflected image with the visible reflected image of the object produces a ‘false-colour’ image, which may help to identify the ink used in the print. For instance, in false colour infrared (FCIR) images indigo, a dark blue dye commonly obtained from a tropical plant, appears bright red.

Top: Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), Clear day with a southern breeze (Red Fuji) from Thirty-Six Views of Mt Fuji. Colour woodblock, 1831. Bottom: FCIR image.

The FCIR image of ‘Red Fuji’ is striking. We can clearly see where indigo has been used on the print: the title cartouche, the signature, the outline of Mount Fuji and the tiny trees on the mountain. The blue sky was coloured using a different ink, which contains a large amount of iron. This tells us it is Prussian blue (its common scientific name is ferric ferrocyanide). Prussian blue is the first modern synthetic pigment and it had just been adopted for commercial printing in Japan from China and Europe when Hokusai’s prints were made. Prussian blue was also used on the green area of the mountain, where a yellow pigment, orpiment, was added to Prussian blue to produce the green colour. Orpiment is an arsenic sulphide mineral used as a pigment for centuries.

Top: Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), Under the Wave off Kanagawa (The Great Wave). Colour woodblock print, c. 1831. Acquired with Art Fund support. Bottom: FCIR image.

In ‘The Great Wave’ we clearly see from the FCIR image above that, again, indigo was used to print the outline of the image, the title cartouche and the signature, but also the dark areas on the waves. This is evident from the offset at the bottom left-hand side of the print. Prussian blue was used to print the medium blue of the waves. More tests will be needed to find out which ink was used for the light blue of the waves. Arsenic was detected on some parts of the boats using XRF, which suggests the use of orpiment.

Peter McElhinney conducting microfading tests on ‘The Great Wave’.

Having gathered information on the inks of these two prints, Peter and I then investigated how light sensitive they are by conducting microfading tests. This technique involves focusing a tiny spot of very bright light (0.3mm wide – the width of a few human hairs) on an area of the print and measuring how much the colour changes using a spectrometer, an instrument which is much more sensitive to colour changes than the human eye. A microfading test is very fast: it usually runs for only 10 minutes. Because the spot of light is so small and the test is stopped immediately if the colour change becomes visible, this technique is completely safe to the print. Microfading is very useful to determine rapidly if an object is light sensitive and the method is used by many museums around the world.

Most of the inks are of low or medium light sensitivity in the microfading tests. However, orpiment, the yellow pigment present on both prints, is known to be very light sensitive. For instance, it was used on ancient Egyptian papyri and there are many examples where it has completely faded. You can see this in the images below. The fading of orpiment is a complex process and unfortunately represents a rare instance where microfading fails to detect its light sensitivity.

Sections of Book of the Dead of Ani. The papyrus on the left has been kept in storage while the papyrus on the right was on display for many years. You can see how the horizontal band coloured with orpiment at the top is yellow on the left and colourless on the right.

Based on these findings, Peter and I advised that ‘Red Fuji’ and ‘The Great Wave’ should not be on display for more than 20% of the time and exposed to only dim light (no more than 50 lux, which is the minimal amount of light required to view any object). This means that if these prints are displayed for three months at 50 lux, they should be stored in the dark for at least a year before they are displayed again. While these measures will not stop fading from occurring altogether, they will ensure that these world-famous prints fade so slowly that they will be seen by countless generations of visitors to the Museum in the future.


Hokusai: beyond the Great Wave is on display at the Museum from 25 May to 13 August 2017 (closed 3–6 July for conservation reasons), supported by Mitsubishi Corporation.

The technique of making a good impression

Thanks to the refined technique of woodblock printing, Japanese society during the Edo period (1615–1868) enjoyed a rich supply of books and pamphlets, pictures and artworks.

The technique is particularly associated with pictures of the ‘floating world’ (ukiyo-e) – those celebrated, full-colour depictions of courtesans, actors and famous places that collectors have long admired and that the Impressionists embraced as a source of inspiration.

Utagawa Kunisada (1786–1864), Shokunin (Artisans). Woodblock print showing the process of printmaking, 1857.

In the free Asahi Shimbun Display Japanese woodblock printing: a craft of precision, we’ve used the work of three different ukiyo-e artists to reveal the skill and craftsmanship that went in to creating a traditional Japanese woodblock print.

Utagawa Kunisada (1786–1864), Shokunin (Artisans). Woodblock print showing the process of printmaking, 1857.

Featured in the display is a full-colour triptych by Utagawa Kunisada (1786–1864). It offers a look into the workshops of a master block cutter and master printer. Kunisada takes us through the main stages of the woodblock printing process – from the cutting of the first outline woodblock through to printing on specially prepared mulberry-fibre paper.

Also on display is a rare brush-drawing that Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849) completed for a print. An artist’s final brush-drawing (or ‘block-ready drawing’) initiated the printmaking process, but few examples survive. They were usually pasted onto a woodblock and destroyed as the master block cutter traced the artist’s lines onto the block with a chisel. The master cut along either side of the lines, and then removed the surrounding wood to leave a network of raised ridges – the outlines of the final print.

Carved woodblock for a modern reproduction of Fuji-view Moor in Owari Province, from the series Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji, by Katsushika Hokusai.

A standard colour print might require four of five woodblocks cut on both sides, while a specially commissioned print (surimono) might require ten or more blocks.  Mountain cherry (yamazakura) was, and still is, the wood of choice for the process because its grain is dense and durable. The woodblock we’ve used in the display is a modern example, but examples of original ukiyo-e woodblocks are very similar – the technique has changed little since the time of Hokusai and Kunisada.

Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849). Fuji-view Moor in Owari Province. Colour woodblock, 1830–1833.

The pigments in traditional Japanese prints came from different sources. Many were derived from plants, such as safflower for red, and others from minerals. Around the late 1820s, the synthetic pigment Prussian blue (bero-ai) caused a sensation when it became widely available as it was a stable and lightfast pigment that resisted fading over time. The initial designs in Hokusai’s famous series Thirty-six Views of Mt Fuji (1831–33) were printed solely in Prussian blue and indigo.  Subsequent designs, including the iconic Great Wave (1831), began to incorporate other colours.

Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858), No 46, Shono haku-u. Colour woodblock, c. 1833–1834.

Master printers combined basic pigments to create a range of colours, and they were also skilled at creating special effects. For example, the rain-drenched scene Sudden Shower at Shōno by Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858) includes a beautiful example of a favourite printing technique – gradation (bokashi). This was used by artists to suggest depth and atmosphere. Gradation required the printer to wipe pigment from the woodblock in a controlled manner, bringing to life the range of tones in the artist’s original design. The process had to be done by hand, so no two examples of gradation are exactly alike.

The display shows how the exquisite detail and colour of Japanese woodblock printing was achieved, by revealing the little-known processes behind this beautiful art form.


Hokusai in Ultra HD: Great Wave, big screen

In our new cinema broadcast, British Museum presents: Hokusai – in cinemas across the UK on Sunday 4 June – Tim Clark, Head of the Japanese Section at the British Museum, compares curating the exhibition Hokusai: beyond the Great Wave to climbing Mount Fuji: a long hard slog rewarded by sublime views at the end. I could say the same for the documentary we have just made on Hokusai, with hopefully the same results.

I wanted to make a film about Hokusai because I think he’s the perfect subject to bring to our audiences. He’s an artist who has made works of art, including the iconic Great Wave and Red Fuji, that everyone recognises – and yet one who is still largely unknown in the UK. Surprisingly, this is the first UK film biography of him.

Hokusai literally worked with the cutting-edge technology of his time, designing exquisite woodblock prints that were a mass-market success. ‘The Great Wave’ ran to an edition of thousands and you could own a print for the same price as a double portion of noodles. Filming in Tokyo this spring, what struck me was the link between the technology of Hokusai’s time, 200 years ago, and that of today, a very Japanese success story.

Okada Takuya in the Takahashi studio recreating Hokusai’s Great Wave.

I wanted to show the skill and artistry that went into producing Hokusai’s prints as well as their widespread influence today. At the Takahashi studio in Tokyo we filmed master block cutter Asaka Motoharu and printer Okada Takuya recreating Hokusai’s Great Wave, sticking an outline drawing on to a cherry woodblock, meticulously reproducing the ink strokes of the drawing with the finest cutting tools and applying the pigments to produce a vivid replica of Hokusai’s iconic design.

We argue in our film that Hokusai was the father of the manga comics and anime films that dominate Japanese popular culture. Manga literally means ‘random pictures’ and Hokusai’s original manga were a series of drawing manuals. Uragami Mitsuru has been collecting Hokusai’s manga for almost 50 years and now owns 1,500 volumes. We filmed him at the Toppan printing company where Uragami’s collection has been digitised, to share the incredible richness of Hokusai’s imaginative invention and pictorial universe. Watching his creatures and characters dancing on the screen was a mesmerising experience.

Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849). Kohada Koheiji. Colour woodblock, published by Tsuruya Kiemon, c. 1833.

Hokusai’s parentage of the manga and anime genres also derives from his great success as an illustrator of popular adventure novels in which, then as now, superheroes and samurai warriors battled mythical monsters and demons. One of my favourite locations was the Oyha Shobo bookshop in the heart of Tokyo, a wondrous Aladdin’s cave of antique books and prints, where you can still buy these volumes and copies of Hokusai pictures.

A block-ready drawing inscribed ‘Strongman hero Benkei steals the bell’ from Picture Book: Japan and China in the Katsushika Style (Ehon Wakan Katsushika-buri) (c. 1836) by Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849). © The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Scala.

We were very fortunate that our partners at the Japanese state broadcaster NHK were keen to try out their prototype 8K video technology to support the British Museum’s research project on Hokusai’s work. This pioneering technology is by some magnitude the highest resolution image so far achieved, providing extraordinary high definition close-ups. A large team of expert technicians brought their equipment from Japan and installed it in the Museum, filming with a surgical precision some of Hokusai’s most celebrated prints and the remarkable painted scrolls that were his last works and the ultimate expression of his genius. The unprecedented level of close-up detail and clarity revealed secrets of Hokusai’s technique that astounded Tim and fellow Hokusai scholar Roger Keyes.

I like to think it was this meeting of ultra-hi-tech and Hokusai’s Japanese graphic elegance that appealed to David Hockney when he agreed to an interview for the documentary. Hockney is a lifelong Hokusai fan. Speaking as a mere 80-year-old to Hokusai’s 90, he shares the great artist’s absolute commitment to his art and I’m sure Hokusai would have exploited and revelled in today’s 21st-century technologies just as Hockney has done.


You can see many of Hokusai’s beautiful works made in the last 30 years of his life in the exhibition Hokusai: beyond the Great Wave, on display at the Museum from 25 May to 13 August 2017 (closed 3–6 July), supported by Mitsubishi Corporation.

British Museum presents: Hokusai is coming to a cinema near you. Find your nearest venue. Tickets are bookable through cinemas.
Distribution partner More2Screen. 
Co-produced by NHK.

The British Museum Membercast: Friends, Romans, countrymen? – Part 1

This is part one of a two-part podcast. If you would like to put a question to Julia for the second part, email by 14 June.


The British Museum Membercast is a monthly podcast made available to ‘all studious and curious persons’. Comedian, podcaster and super-fan Iszi Lawrence (The Z List Dead List) presents snippets from exclusive Members’ lectures at the Museum, artfully woven together with interviews and her own musings.

Please share your comments and feedback about the podcast! You can talk to us on Twitter @britishmuseum using the hashtag #Membercast or email

Stories for equality

In the UK almost 50 years ago – on 27 July 1967 – the Sexual Offences Act received royal assent. This important legislation partially decriminalised homosexuality in England and Wales and represents an important milestone in the campaign for equality.  This anniversary is being marked by many museums, galleries, libraries and archives in the UK (I’ve highlighted a few of these initiatives below if you’d like to find out more).

In Desire, love, identity: exploring LGBTQ histories we’ve taken a uniquely long and broad view by offering glimpses into global LGBTQ histories from very ancient times to the present day. Same-sex love and desire and gender diversity are integral to human experience; the way that they have been expressed culturally has varied widely across the world and over time.

The display builds on former British Museum Curator Richard Parkinson’s award-winning book A Little Gay History and is co-curated by Laura Phillips, Head of Community Partnerships, and me. However, developing the exhibition has been a collaborative process involving countless colleagues from across the organisation. The Museum’s longstanding relationships with LGBTQ organisations have also been key, with many individuals sharing their expertise and experiences to help shape the final displays.

The Ain Sakhri lovers figurine. The Levant, 9000 BC.

A small sculpture found at Ain Sakhri, near Bethlehem, is the oldest object in the display and the first object that visitors encounter. Dating from around 9000 BC, it represents the earliest known depiction of a couple having sex. The lovers are usually interpreted as a heterosexual couple. However on close inspection, the sculpture poses the question, should we make that assumption so easily? The genders of both figures are ambiguous, and the sculpture itself overall has a phallic character. The sculpture reminds us that we should not impose heterosexuality – or our own attitudes – unquestioningly onto the past.

The Museum’s collection does not represent all perspectives and experiences equally.  This partly reflects biases within cultures and societies, what has survived and what has been collected. However, it also reflects the way objects were catalogued by previous generations. Inevitably many of the objects in the Museum’s collection, particularly those from the more distant past, lack direct connections with specific people; most evoke the lives of people whose names are lost to us, but who collectively represent what the novelist E M Forster memorably described as a ‘great unrecorded history.’ There are some notable exceptions.

The relationship between the Roman emperor Hadrian (AD 76–138) and Antinous is now comparatively well known, partly thanks to the Museum’s 2008 exhibition Hadrian: Empire and Conflict. Although sexual relationships between men were not unusual in the Roman world, Hadrian’s outpouring of grief after Antinous drowned in the Nile in AD 130 was unprecedented.

The coin of the beardless Antinous reproduced here and displayed in the exhibition was issued after his death by a provincial city keen, perhaps, to curry favour with the grieving emperor.

Alloy coin featuring Antinous. Adramyteum, AD 130–138.

The exhibition includes a small section of work that reflects modern global and contemporary perspectives. These all represent recent acquisitions. Some of these works were produced by artists at a time when homosexuality was still illegal; others after decriminilisation. Drag Queen Deck by the Japanese artist and activist Ōtsuka Takashi  (b. 1948) is one of the most vibrant and colourful works included in the display. Each of the playing cards depicts a different individual creating a sense of community. The pack recalls, in a playful, humorous way, the theatrical traditions of classical Japanese culture.

Ōtsuka Takashi, detail of Drag Queen Deck. Paper, 1997.

The Museum’s impressive collection of LGBTQ campaign badges from the UK from the 1970s onwards provide a rich record of more recent social history. We felt it was essential to include some current campaign badges including those produced for Amnesty International and the United Nations’ Free & Equal Campaign. These help highlight the ongoing efforts to counter prejudice and discrimination, and to save lives, in the UK and around the world.

Gay News fights on! A Gay News Fighting Fund badge, 1977. Given to the British Museum in 1982. Right: Gay whales against racism. A Badge Shop badge, about 1980. Given to the British Museum in 1982.

We hope that the exhibition provides a gateway into exploring LGBTQ histories in the permanent displays and the wider collection. A trail highlighting 14 key objects in the permanent galleries is an integral part of the display, creating an exhibition that is actually dispersed throughout the Museum building rather than being contained in one location. The trail includes star objects like the Warren Cup, as well as lesser known objects such as chocolate cups and saucers belonging to the ‘Ladies of Llangollen’. We’ve developed a graphic approach for these objects that give us enough space to be able to tell these objects’ stories meaningfully. Can’t make it to the Museum? You can explore a digital version of the trail here.

The objects highlighted in the exhibition and trail have been included because the subject, maker or owner has an LGBTQ connection or has been adopted by the LGBTQ community. There are numerous other objects that we could have included and many other selections and juxtapositions are possible. Our main aim with the trail objects was to make a selection that most people would be able to visit during a single one-off visit, one that wasn’t too challenging in terms of navigating across the Museum site, and one that was as representative as it is possible to be with only 14 objects.

Can’t visit the Museum? Explore the trail online virtually by watching the video below.

Our research is ongoing. We’re continuing to look for – and to identify – other objects in the collection with previously unrecorded LGBTQ histories. You can help us with this endeavour by sharing with us your own selection of objects from the Museum’s collection that you feel have an LGBTQ connection on social media using #LGBTQ_BM


Desire love identity: exploring LGBTQ histories is on display in Room 69a, 11 May – 15 October 2017.
Supported by Stephen and Julie Fitzgerald.

You can buy Richard Parkinson’s award-winning book A little Gay History here.

Other exhibitions

Pride and PrejudiceNational Museums Liverpool
Queer British Art, Tate Britain
Pride of Place, Historic England
Prejudice and Pride, National Trust
Never Going Underground, People’s History Museum Manchester

Hokusai: old master

Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849) Head of an old man. Ink and slight colour on paper, early 1840s. Collection Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen, Coll. No. RV-2736-11/2.

Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849) died in Edo (modern Tokyo) on the 18th day of the fourth month, according to the pre-modern lunar calendar. This was equivalent to 10 May 1849 in London. He was 90 years old by traditional reckoning. In Japan at the time, people were considered to be one at birth and their age increased by another year at each New Year, so Hokusai would have been 89 by western reckoning.

Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849) Head of an old man. Ink and slight colour on paper, early 1840s. Collection Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen, Coll. No. RV-2736-11/2.

Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), Head of an old man. Ink and slight colour on paper, early 1840s. Collection Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen, Coll. No. RV-2736-11/2.

The aged artist was then living in a humble rented dwelling in the precincts of Henjōin temple, Shōden-chō, Asakusa, together with and supported by his daughter Eijo (art name Ōi, c. 1800–after 1857), who was herself a talented painter. Hokusai’s last words were recorded as follows: ‘If heaven will extend my life by ten more years…’ then, after a pause, ‘If heaven will afford me five more years of life, then I’ll manage to become a true artist.’

Eijo rapidly brushed a note to inform Hokusai’s pupil Hokushin that her father had just passed away: ‘Manji [Hokusai] was ill and treatment was to no avail. He died from his illness early this morning at the seventh hour [about 04.00]. I wanted quickly to inform you of this situation.’ She then added in smaller characters next to the name of the addressee: ‘Funeral tomorrow, 19th day, fourth hour [about 10.00].’

The first important biography of Hokusai, Katsushika Hokusai den of 1893 by Iijima Kyoshin, described the funeral. In an interview with Yomo no Umehiko (1822–1896) he recalled that Hokusai’s pupils and old friends contributed funds for a funeral with a modest coffin. About a hundred mourners proceeded to the mortuary temple Seikyōji, including samurai with retainers carrying spears and lacquered travelling boxes. This was unheard of for the funeral of someone living in the backstreets of the commoner districts of Edo and people in the neighbourhood were envious. Hokusai’s grave is still carefully maintained at Seikyōji today.

Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), Clear day with a southern breeze (Red Fuji) from Thirty-Six Views of Mt Fuji. Colour woodblock, 1831.

Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), Clear day with a southern breeze (Red Fuji) from Thirty-Six Views of Mt Fuji. Colour woodblock, 1831.

Hokusai’s fervent belief was that the older he got the greater his art would become. In 1834, when he was 75, he famously stated the following in a postscript to volume one of his extraordinary illustrated book One Hundred Views of Mt Fuji (Fugaku hyakkei):

‘…until the age of 70, nothing I drew was worthy of notice. At 73 years I was somewhat able to fathom the growth of plants and trees, and the structure of birds, animals, insects and fish. Thus when I reach 80 years, I hope to have made increasing progress, and at 90 to see further into the underlying principles of things, so that at 100 years I will have achieved a divine state in my art, and at 110, every dot and every stroke will be as though alive. Those of you who live long enough, bear witness that these words of mine are not false.’ [translation by Henry D Smith II]

Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), Tiger in the snow. Hanging scroll, ink and colour on silk, 1849. Private collection, USA.

Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), Tiger in the snow. Hanging scroll, ink and colour on silk, 1849. Private collection, USA.

The exhibition Hokusai: beyond the Great Wave culminates in a room of sublime painted works done when Hokusai was 88, 89 and 90, including this Tiger in the snow. Each scroll is signed with his age and bears a large red painting seal with a white character reading ‘hundred’. Hokusai was literally willing himself to live ever longer.

Buy the book to explore the sublime paintings and prints Hokusai created in the last thirty years of his life.

You can find out more about the flowering of Hokusai’s genius in his old age, and ageing artists in general, in the range of exhibition events.

You can see many of Hokusai’s beautiful works made in the last 30 years of his life in the exhibition Hokusai: beyond the Great Wave, on display at the Museum from 25 May to 13 August 2017 (closed 3–6 July), supported by Mitsubishi Corporation.

20 years of Treasure

On 24 September 1997 the common law of treasure trove, in place in England, Wales and Northern Ireland for more than 500 years, was replaced by the Treasure Act 1996. This marked a radical change in the fortune of objects found in these countries, allowing thousands of important finds to be acquired by public collections for all to enjoy.

A volunteer working with the Finds Liaison Officer on excavating the Watlington Hoard.

The British Museum has a central role in administering finds from England reported under the Act. As this year marks the 20th anniversary of the commencement of the Act, we are celebrating its success with a season of Treasure under the banner of our #Treasure20 campaign, in partnership with The Telegraph.

The Vale of York Hoard.

The Telegraph has kicked off the campaign by inviting readers to choose their favourite Treasure find of the last 20 years, from a shortlist of 20 compiled by a panel of expert judges:

Michael Lewis – Head of Portable Antiquities and Treasure at the British Museum
Mary-Ann Ochota – anthropologist, author and broadcaster
Steve Trow – Director of Research for Historic England
Mike Heyworth – Chairman of the Council for British Archaeology
Edward Besly – numismatist and Assistant Keeper at National Museum Wales
Tim Pestell – Curator of Archaeology collections at Norwich Castle Museum
Keith Miller – journalist for The Telegraph

Objects from the Ashwell Hoard.

The judges had a spirited debate as they discussed the virtues of a host of Treasure finds, but eventually they selected their 20, based on these criteria:

1. The find should advance archaeological knowledge, whether that be of a particular period of time or for the locality in which it was found.
2. The find should have been recovered in a way that is an example of best practice. (For more information, see the Code of Practice for responsible detecting.)
3. The find should add value to the national collection, whether that be of a national or local museum.

Coins from the Hackney Hoard.

Now it’s your chance to decide which of the top 20 deserves to be number one! Visit the Telegraph website to cast your vote before 14 May 2017.


For news and events relating to the #Treasure20 celebration, follow the hashtag on Twitter and check out the #Treasure20 webpage.

The British Museum Membercast: Capability Brown

Featuring snippets from Richard Wheeler’s sell-out Members’ lecture in October 2016, the fifth episode of Membercast is a wide-ranging ramble through the 18th century and the many aspects of life that impacted garden design.

With great thanks to Blenheim Palace for hosting Iszi and Richard.


The British Museum Membercast is a monthly podcast made available to ‘all studious and curious persons’. Comedian, podcaster and super-fan Iszi Lawrence (The Z List Dead List) presents snippets from exclusive Members’ lectures at the Museum, artfully woven together with interviews and her own musings.

Please share your comments and feedback about the podcast! You can talk to us on Twitter @britishmuseum using the hashtag #Membercast or email

Ali’s Boat: a story of migration

The Moving stories display tells the story of the long history of human migration through three very different elements; a projection of the million-year-old Happisburgh Footprints, the contemporary artist book and prints of Ali’s Boat by Sadik Kwaish Alfraji (b. 1960) and the film Édouard Glissant: One World in Relation focusing on the philosophy of Édouard Glissant (1928–2011).

This display came about through a number of conversations with the Museum’s Director, Hartwig Fischer, focusing on how the Museum could respond to contemporary events.

‘…the display poses questions about what connects these very different journeys. How can we learn from the long-term movements of people, often against all odds? It is through this study of people over time and across the globe, that we learn more about the impact of migration and people’s ability to adapt to and shape a new world.’  – Hartwig Fischer, Director of the British Museum

Sadik Kwaish Alfraji (b. 1960), pages from Ali’s Boat 1. Indian ink and charcoal on notebook paper, 2014. © Sadik Kwaish Alfraji. Reproduced by permission of the artist.

HW: When the project team first discussed the theme of migration as a focus for this display, we wanted to select objects from across the Museum to represent elements of this vast experience. I spoke to you, Venetia, at that point to try and find objects that could talk about the emotional experience of migration. One of the objects selected by the Director was Ali’s Boat an artist’s book by Sadik Kwaish Alfraji. When did you first encounter Sadik’s work?

VP: We acquired Ali’s Boat in 2015, I had heard about Sadik’s work before, but I was mostly familiar with his videos and so when I found out that these were based on drawings and artist books I wanted to learn more. When I saw Ali’s Boat I fell in love with it immediately, it felt like a really appropriate acquisition. All of Sadik’s work is bound up in his own history, his relationship with his country, his past and his family – it’s so personal. As well as being existential and universal. That is what is magical about this book. It is drawn in a childlike way, and emphasises the fragility of the subject. When we first spoke about the Moving stories display in February 2017, Sadik and I had actually just reconnected. He is included in the Ruya Foundation’s Iraq Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale and I was writing an essay about the work he is presenting there. Then when the Director asked if we could display the work as a set of prints as well, I contacted Sadik and his gallery, Ayyam, directly to ask about their availability.

HW: The entire display was produced in a very short time frame. It felt like such an urgent topic for us to discuss, and it is relevant in so many different ways. You discussed the universality of Sadik’s approach to his art, is there a key element of the work that you wanted to highlight in this display?

VP: What is so poignant about this work is that it is a meditation on the theme of migration and exile… It’s very sad actually. Sadik left Iraq in 1990 and returned for the first time in 2009. The book is inspired by a letter from his nephew Ali.

‘The morning I left Baghdad, he handed me a sealed envelope, which he asked me not to open till I returned home to the Netherlands.

‘I kept my promise, and I only opened his nicely decorated envelope when I reached home with my family. In it was a letter with the names of my children and his own name. In the middle was a drawing of a little canoe-like boat with one simple sentence “I wish this drawing takes me to you.”

‘One simple, honest sentence and a boat, which held his dreams… As if he hoped that these words and that letter, if opened in the right place, at the right time, would perform a kind of magic, his own Abracadabra or Open Sesame, which would take him far away just the way he used to go on this boat in his dreams. His letter in a sealed envelope was his attempt to escape reality, with a boat and a few words, to a strange world of fantasy.’ – Sadik Kwaish Alfraji

The text is written in the form of a letter to Ali: ‘I was like you Ali…I had a boat… it was the colour of dreams and it was studded with lapis lazuli’. But he warns: ‘Ali this boat will lead to delusion after delusion after darkness.’

Ali’s note with the drawing of a boat that inspired his uncle, the artist Sadik Kwaish Alfraji, to create Ali’s Boat diary five years later. © Sadik Kwaish Alfraji. Reproduced by permission of the artist.

HW: It’s an incredibly moving art work, and we were able to compare it with two other journeys within the display; the Happisburgh footprints, and the film One World in Relation of the poet and philosopher Édouard Glissant. Nick Ashton, Curator for Palaeolithic Collections, explained that ‘Happisburgh tells of a metaphoric journey where people have crossed the natural boundaries of their known world. It is a story of survival in a harsh environment, but also one of opportunity.’ Glissant too talks about these same experiences in One World in Relation, and it is not only the trauma of diaspora communities but also the transformations that occur that link all three together.

VP: Exactly. Sadik’s story is so personal, it’s about one person and yet it’s also an allegory. It speaks to the footprints and the deep history of human movement, and that same hope.


On Saturday 22 April 2017, 11.00–16.00 there will be free drop-in performances and activities inspired by the themes in the current Asahi Shimbun Display Moving stories: three journeys. Activities include a workshop led by artist Sadik Kwaish Alfraji.

A hoard of note: gold coins, a piano and a family mystery

Part of the ‘Piano Hoard’ discovered in Shropshire. © Portable Antiquities Scheme/The Trustees of the British Museum. Photo: Peter Reavill.

It’s no surprise that a lot of people are excited and intrigued by the discovery of the so-called ‘Piano Hoard’. We grow up with stories of hidden treasures and the brave or lucky people that find them, and it can be appealing to imagine ourselves in their places. The Piano Hoard story has the added excitement that it’s relatively recent – this is not a long-buried assemblage of war booty or grave goods, but a large sum of money hidden in plain sight less than 100 years ago. So what happened to the original owner and why was the hoard hidden in the first place?

First, to take a step back, it should be explained that despite its adopted title the Piano Hoard is not a collection of musical instruments(!) but rather a group of 913 gold sovereigns and half-sovereigns found stashed under the keyboard of a Broadwood & Sons upright piano, made in 1906. Martin Backhouse had been asked by the piano’s owners, the Bishop’s Castle Community College, to tune the newly acquired instrument and in the course of doing so he removed the keys and noticed seven cloth-wrapped parcels in spaces which should have been empty. Looking inside one, he noticed the gold coins and immediately informed the school. The school, knowing they hadn’t put the coins there, then in turn contacted HM Coroner for Shropshire, John Ellery, as required by law under the Treasure Act 1996.

The piano in which the hoard was discovered, donated to the school by Mr and Mrs Hemmings. Photo: Peter Reavill.

This sequence of events often perplexes people, who usually associate coroners with investigations into sudden and suspicious deaths (which in truth is a major part of their role). But in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, coroners also act as the Crown’s representative in cases of potential ‘Treasure’, a legal term defined by the Treasure Act (Scotland has a separate law of Treasure Trove).

It is also why you are reading about the Piano Hoard in a British Museum blog. The British Museum acts as the Treasure Registry for all finds of potential Treasure from England, and performs the secretarial work for the Treasure Valuation Committee (TVC), an independent body that recommends values for Treasure finds to the Secretary of State. Furthermore, the British Museum coordinates the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS), a network of regional Finds Liaison Officers (FLOs) who record archaeological finds discovered by the public on a free-to-use database.

Importantly for this story, FLOs also support coroners in their Treasure work, and the FLO for Shropshire and Herefordshire, Peter Reavill, has been heavily involved in this case. Peter took receipt of the parcels from the school and carefully opened them all, looking for clues about their owner and meticulously cataloguing the coins.

Finds Liaison Officer Peter Reavill recording part of the ‘Piano Hoard’. © Portable Antiquities Scheme/The Trustees of the British Museum. Photo: Emily Freeman.

The point of the Treasure Act is to ensure that important archaeological finds are reported, allowing everyone to benefit from the knowledge of their discovery, and to allow public collections (museums) the opportunity to acquire them. If a coroner agrees that a find meets the criteria for Treasure, then it belongs to the Crown, who may place it in an appropriate museum, with the finder and landowner being rewarded financially.

Most reported Treasure meets the criteria by being more than 300 years old, made of gold or silver, or constitutes a group of coins more than 300 years old or prehistoric base metal.  Over 1,000 discoveries of this type are reported and logged by the British Museum every year, and hundreds acquired by museums, enriching our culture and increasing our understanding of the past.

Part of the hoard. © Portable Antiquities Scheme/The Trustees of the British Museum. Photo: Peter Reavill.

But what about the Piano Hoard? The gold coins found within it date to 1915, so are much less than 300 years old. However, the Treasure Act also stipulates that items of any age, made substantially of gold or silver, whose original owners or heirs are unknown, and which are deemed to have been deliberately hidden with the intention of recovery, are also ‘Treasure’. This was the heart of the matter for the Coroner, who had to determine whether the Piano Hoard fitted all of these criteria. In practice, very few gold and silver items that are less than 300 years old do, because either their owners or heirs are known, or it is impossible to say whether they’d been hidden with the intention of recovery – most Treasure finds are thought to be chance losses.

Gold Sovereign from the reign of Queen Victoria – 1898 – Jubilee Bust of Victoria. Part of the ‘Piano Hoard’ discovered in Shropshire © Portable Antiquities Scheme/Trustees of the British Museum. Photo Peter Reavill.

Gold sovereign from the reign of Queen Victoria (1898 – Jubilee Bust of Victoria), from the hoard. © Portable Antiquities Scheme/The Trustees of the British Museum. Photo: Peter Reavill.

But central to the Piano Hoard’s story is that it certainly seems to have been put away for safekeeping. The coins are clearly made substantially of gold (the coins are all 91.7% precious metal), so the main concern for the Coroner was to investigate any information about a possible owner of the hoard or their heirs. Peter Reavill investigated leads in the archives of the piano maker, the Essex Record Office and even the Shredded Wheat company (whose packaging was found wrapped around one parcel of coins). He concluded that the coins couldn’t have been hidden earlier than the late 1920s, but nothing identifying the owner of the coins was traced.

Working with Peter and the British Museum, the Coroner issued several press releases appealing for more information. Over 40 claimants and others came forward with information but as we now know, none could prove their claim to the Coroner’s satisfaction. As such, the Coroner decided at the inquest on 20 April 2017 that the hoard met the criteria for Treasure.

That means that the Piano Hoard is now owned by the Crown, but that ownership is only exercised if a museum wishes to acquire all or part of the hoard. Saffron Walden Museum has expressed an interest in a small element of the hoard, as it would seem that it must have spent most of its life in that town.

The British Museum will now organise for the coins to be valued, first by an independent expert from the trade and then by the Treasure Valuation Committee. Saffron Walden Museum will have to pay that value to acquire the coins, with the money going to Mr Backhouse and the community college as a reward, should they wish to claim it (some rewards are waived by the finders and owners). The rest of the coins will be returned to them to do with what they will.

Some of the key people involved talk about the Piano Hoard’s discovery:

Despite the fact that the heirs of the original owner of the coins haven’t been identified, the Piano Hoard tells an intriguing story. Collections of gold and silver coins from the 19th and 20th centuries are not terribly unusual discoveries, and as recently as 2011 a hoard of gold sovereigns was found in a field in Twinstead, Essex. But that hoard consisted of just over 200 coins and indeed most others seem to be of similar or smaller amounts.

The Piano Hoard might be the largest hoard of its type found to date. It appears to have been collected over several decades and then kept safe after Britain first went off the gold standard in 1914, but it was only tucked away in the piano in the late 1920s at the earliest. Could this have been a reaction to the Depression, or events leading up to the Second World War, or to that conflict itself? What happened to the person who amassed this considerable wealth? Part of why this discovery strikes a chord with the public is that we may never know the definite answer to these questions, and we are free to wonder.


Find out more about the Portable Antiquities Scheme and the Treasure Act.

The day the mastodons left

Natural history objects were part of the British Museum from the start, having formed a significant part of Sir Hans Sloane’s founding collection. They continued to be displayed here for over 120 years, until 1881, when they began to leave for the new British Museum (Natural History) in South Kensington – known today as the world-famous Natural History Museum.

Three giraffes and a rhinoceros on the staircase of the ‘old’ Museum, Montagu House. Watercolour drawing by George Scharf, 1845.

Hans Sloane was a physician, so had a huge interest in natural history. When he died in 1753, his collection was bequeathed to the nation, and the British Museum opened in 1759. By 1807 the Department of Natural and Artificial Productions had become large and unwieldly, so the Museum’s Trustees decided to separate natural history from antiquities. Two new departments were formed – Natural History and Modern Curiosities and Antiquities. This decision coincided with the appointment of German botanist and mineralogist Charles König as Assistant Keeper of the natural history collections. He was to have a significant impact on these collections until his death in 1851.

A giraffe in the Central Saloon (now Rooms 38–39), with various other mammals in the cases behind. Photograph by Frederick York, 1875.

The natural history departments continued to grow and in July 1834 the Trustees asked the departmental officers to ‘make full and detailed reports upon the state of the several branches of their departments’. These reports showed, for example, that the minerals collection was considerable and comprised probably ‘the most extensive anywhere exhibited to public view’.

The zoology report stated that out of the 942 species of mammals then known, 330 were represented in the Museum. 4,109 species of bird were known and 1,831 were in the Museum. As well as exotic animals such as giraffes and rhinoceroses, the specimens also included extinct animals such as mastodons, megatherium and giant deer. Later in the 1830s the natural history material was further subdivided into the Botanical Branch, the Mineral & Geological Branch and the Zoological Branch.

Birds in the Eastern Zoological Gallery. Photograph by Frederick York, 1875.

The care and preservation of these collections then became a concern. A sub-committee for natural history was set up in 1838 and König reported that there was an extreme lack of space, both for display and storage of the current collections – never mind for any future additions. New galleries had been planned in the new museum building being constructed at Bloomsbury. The natural history collections had begun to be relocated there in the 1820s but lack of space remained an issue, as well as the storage and cataloguing of material.

The North Geographical Gallery, showing the level of overcrowding (and a couple of giant deer). Photograph by Frederick York, 1875.

In 1846 a solution was suggested by Lord Egerton, later the Chairman of the Royal Commission on the Museum. He wrote to the Prime Minister, Robert Peel, proposing that fossils and similar objects should be transferred to the Royal College of Surgeons. There, he reasoned, they could be better cared for under the curation of Richard Owen (who would later be employed by the Museum – but possibly most famous today for coining the term ‘dinosaur’).

Egerton felt the Museum should ‘be relieved from the burden of natural history in all its branches’ and options for its rehousing should be considered. This alarmed the scientific community, who wrote to the Prime Minister in 1847 to voice their concern that the promotion of the science of natural history within the Museum was inadequate, suggesting that the situation be improved. The Royal Commission, set up to investigate the Museum and how it was being run, made reference to the natural history collections, stating that they are ‘as a whole, equal, if not superior, to any in the world.’

The megatherium skeleton (far left) in the North Geographical Gallery (6th Room). The megatherium was an elephant-sized ground sloth that lived in South America until it became extinct about 10,000 years ago. The right of the picture shows the skeleton of a mastodon (an early relative of the elephant that lived in North and Central America and became extinct around 10,000 years ago). Photograph by Frederick York, 1875.

In 1856, with space still a problem, Anthony Panizzi, the newly appointed Principal Librarian (i.e. the Director), and Richard Owen, the new Superintendent of the Natural History Departments, began discussions about relocating the natural history collections.

They were determined to found a new museum, and favoured South Kensington as a location (just south of where the Great Exhibition took place in Hyde Park in 1851), although other sites considered included Crystal Palace (where the Great Exhibition structure had been moved to Sydenham in South London), Embankment and near Victoria Station. The option of extending the site at Bloomsbury was considered too expensive. Wrangling about the location of this new museum continued, but by 1870 the decision was made. By the end of the decade the natural history collections were being prepared for their move.

A shark and attendant! The attendant was presumably included to show the scale of the fish. Photograph by Frederick York, 1875.

The mineralogical collection was first to be transferred, in 1880, followed by the geology and botanic collections. The new museum was opened, without ceremony, to the public on 18 April 1881. The zoological specimens remained at Bloomsbury until 1883 – it took 394 trips by horse and cart over 97 days to move it! Although commonly referred to as the Natural History Museum, it was officially known as the British Museum (Natural History) as late as 1992, despite legal separation from the British Museum in 1963.

The Museum at Bloomsbury, primarily seen by the public as a natural history one, was now to be devoted to antiquities and the library collections. Of course, in time, the library was also to become too large for the Bloomsbury building – but that’s another story…


Happy Birthday to our fellow institution! Find out more about natural history in South Kensington.

Find out more about the Museum’s original collection in the Enlightenment Gallery.

The British Museum podcast: The purrrplexing story of the British Museum cats

This is the story of how the British Museum became a cat haven, and how they eventually came to be on the Museum payroll, thanks in large part to a British Museum cleaner affectionately referred to as the ‘Cat Man’.



The British Museum has been open to the public since 1759 – that’s 258 years! That makes it older than Napoleon (we have one of his death masks, which you should definitely check out), older than the steam locomotive, it even predates the entire industrial revolution. But my favourite thing that the Museum is older than? Sandwiches. Definitely sandwiches.

Why am I talking about the origin date of sandwiches in a blog about cats? Well they’re related, if not immediately obviously. When you’re a Museum employee, you get access to many of the areas the public aren’t allowed to go into, and this is one of my favourite things about working here. Because those areas are littered with outdated signs and staff notices from the Museum’s history. They frequently make little to no sense at first glance, because what they relate to has long since passed, but if you dig a little deeper, they tend to have fantastic stories attached to them. And there’s one in particular that had me so purrrplexed (sorry), that I had to find out more about it. It reads:

In my three years of working at the Museum I’ve never even seen a tin of cat food, let alone an actual cat that could be fed in an official or unofficial cat feeding area. In order to sate my cat-like curiosity I started asking some of the longer serving members of staff if they knew anything about the Museum cats.

They did. It turns out that between the 1970s and 1990s the Museum had between 4 and 7 cats – depending on what year we’re talking about – kept to deter mice and rats.

Pippin, Maisie and Poppet

The Museum cats frequently featured in newspaper articles. A feature on the British Museum cats having their Christmas dinner became a worldwide sensation in the 1980s, and in 1993 the New York Times had a double page spread on how some of our cats had developed the ability to catch pigeons in mid-air. All this proved that the cat feeding sign I had witnessed wasn’t an 18th-century Museum employee’s idea of a practical joke, but it didn’t tell me how the cats got the British Museum in the first place. That question proved a little harder to answer.

Next I went down to the Museum’s central archives where Archivist Francesca Hillier handed me a large box labelled: ‘Cats’ Welfare Society 1907–1993’.

The box was filled with half-conversations, chains of internal memos that came to an abrupt halt, references to telephone calls that weren’t recorded and a few newspaper clippings. It was incomplete, but workable. With a little time I started to piece together the events that seemed to lead to the official Museum cats. What I discovered was more than a little surprising.

It appears that the cats were not in fact invited to inhabit the Museum, but found their way to the site quite of their own accord. Sometime before 1960 a colony of stray cats (a frequent problem throughout London in the 1950s–1970s) found its way to the Museum and continued to breed and cause a nuisance for some 15 years. They were smelly, antisocial and at one point may have numbered over 100.

Rex the ‘Cat Man’ and Maisie

The Museum eventually decided to remove their feline inhabitants, and a dedicated group of volunteer staff brought the population down to just six (all through very humane means). At this point a cleaner called Rex Shepherd (who became known to staff as the Cat Man) formed the Cat Welfare Society. For the next 20 years, Rex and the Society kept the Museum cat population healthy and at a manageable number.

This group of cats consisted of Suzie, who spent much of her time prowling the Museum’s colonnade waiting to catch pigeons in mid-air, Pippin and Poppet who could roll over on command (all you had to say was ‘sayonara’) and Wilson, named after the British Museum director Sir David Wilson (who did not like cats). The cats even became an international phenomenon thanks to the coverage they received from the media during the 1980s and 1990s. But for all that coverage, the only reason I now know anything about them is thanks to an outdated sign stuck to a wall en route to the Museum canteen.

No cats were harmed in the making of this podcast.

Defacing coins like a suffragette

Stamped in crude lettering across the head of the king is the phrase ‘VOTES FOR WOMEN’, the slogan of the suffragette movement. The deliberate targeting of the king, as the constitutional monarch and head of the Church of England, could be likened to iconoclasm, a direct assault on the male authority figures that were perceived to be upholding the laws of the country. As Neil MacGregor wrote in A History of the World in 100 Objects, ‘this coin stands for all those who fought for the right to vote’.

The British Museum’s example was minted in 1903 but most likely circulated unaltered for ten years before it was defaced, shortly before the outbreak of the First World War in around 1913–1914. We know this from the date of other coins bearing the same slogan in identical lettering. It was said at the time, that the suffragettes had copied the practice from anarchists, who were defacing similar coins with the phrase ‘Vive l’Anarchie’. Precisely just how many coins were defaced is unknown: several other examples are known to exist besides the Museum’s ‘Votes for Women’ coin, but the effort required to deface a single coin means it is unlikely that many were made. It was probably carried out by a single person using just one set of individual alphabet stamps, a process that would have been repetitive and time-consuming. The perpetrator has never been traced, and no direct connection has ever been established between the coins and the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) or other suffragette organisations.

The First World War is commonly perceived as a watershed moment, when the sun finally set on the Victorian golden age: ‘never such innocence, never before or since’, to use the oft-quoted words of Larkin. Yet this is a romanticised and superficial view of pre-war Britain that conceals a more disturbing image, of a country beset by domestic crises and civil disorder. These included anarchist violence and the beginnings of the Troubles in Ireland, and chief among them was the campaign for women’s suffrage. Suffragette militarism, or ‘direct action’, as it was also known, was characterised by bombings, arson, window smashing and the destruction of cultural property. It reached a tragic climax when Emily Wilding Davison ran out in front of the king’s horse at the Epsom Derby, in June 1914. The simple act of defacing a coin can appear trivial in comparison with these more serious acts of sedition, but it nevertheless conveyed the same symbolic message of protest against a government that refused to extend women the vote.


The coin is displayed in the Citi Money Gallery (Room 68).

Hockenhull, Thomas. ‘Stamped all over the King’s Head: Defaced Coins and Women’s Suffrage’, British Numismatic Journal, 86 (2016), pp.238-245.

The British Museum Membercast: Footprints in time

Featuring snippets from Nick’s sell-out Members’ lecture in January, the fourth episode of Membercast examines the British Museum’s 15-year-old research project that began after the discovery of a family of footprints in Happisburgh, Norfolk.

The British Museum Membercast is a monthly podcast made available to ‘all studious and curious persons’. Comedian, podcaster and super-fan Iszi Lawrence (The Z List Dead List) presents snippets from exclusive Members’ lectures at the Museum, artfully woven together with interviews and her own musings.

Please share your comments and feedback about the podcast! You can talk to us on Twitter @britishmuseum using the hashtag #membercast or email

Change is good! A history of money

Electrum coin. Lydia, 7th century BC.

The history of money can be traced back over 4,000 years and includes a host of different objects – some you would expect and others that may surprise you. Think of this blog post as a dossier of dosh, a compilation of cash, a myriad of moolah…

Accountancy and beer

We tend to think of money in terms of numbers today, but it’s actually the written word that helps us understand its history. When writing was first invented, did the ancients write the stories of their peoples or great literature? No – it was used primarily for bureaucracy! This clay tablet from Mesopotamia outlines a purchase over 2,500 years ago by a person called Tupsikka who bought land with over 22,000 litres of barley, 16 pounds of wool and 16 quarts of oil.

Clay tablet recording beer given to workers.

Clay tablet recording beer given to workers. The symbol for beer is included three times – an upright jar with a pointed base. Mesopotamia, 3100–3000 BC.

This clay tablet is even older – it has some of the earliest writing from anywhere in the world. It was made around 3100–3000 BC in Mesopotamia. Rather pleasingly, the text records beer given to workers as part of their daily rations.

Mint condition

Electrum coin. Lydia, 7th century BC.

Electrum coin. Lydia, 7th century BC.

Getting paid in beer might seem like a good idea, but isn’t always practical. To help with transactions, some Mediterranean kingdoms started issuing pieces of metal that were the same weight. The example above is one of the earliest coins in the world, minted in the Kingdom of Lydia (in modern day Turkey) over 2,500 years ago. Made of electrum, a naturally occurring amalgam of gold and silver, these irregular shaped coins were issued to a strict weight standard, and stamped with symbols which acted as a guarantee of weight and purity.

Bronze money in the form of a spade. China, 5th century BC.

Bronze money in the form of a spade. China, 5th century BC.

At a similar time, coins began to appear in China for the first time. These coins take the shape of agricultural implements, in this example a spade. They bear inscriptions that refer to a geographical area, group or weight.

Heads and tales

Before the invention of printing, the coin was the great tool of mass communication. Following the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC, his betrayer Brutus issued his own coins to speak directly to the people of Rome. These coins featured his portrait on one side, with two daggers accompanied by a Pileus hat (a piece of headgear associated with liberation) on the other. Below the iconography ran the now infamous words EID MAR: The Ides of March. The coin celebrates the assassination of Julius Caesar and what the conspirators saw as the liberation of the Roman people from tyranny.

This coin celebrates the Roman emperor Claudius’ triumph over Britain. The back of the coin shows Claudius on a horse, on top of a triumphal arch. Romans built these in honour of a victorious general. The letters on the arch read DE BRITANN – the Latin for ‘[a triumph] over the Britons’.

Worth the paper it’s written on?

A note known as the Great Ming Circulating Treasure, China, 1375, with the detail of the string of coins, showing what the note was worth.

A note known as the Great Ming Circulating Treasure, China, 1375, with the detail of the string of coins, showing what the note was worth.

Coins are all very well, but the invention of paper money in China over 1,000 years ago is one of the true revolutionary inventions of human history. This note is worth 1,000 wen coins (coins that were confusingly called ‘cash’ by Europeans). They are shown on the note by a picture of a string of 1,000 bronze coins (in 10 stacks of 100 coins each). 1,000 coins would have been 1.5 metres long and would have weighed about 3kg(!), so having a paper note was much more convenient. However, the note also contains a strong warning to any would-be counterfeiters that their crime would be punishable by execution!

50 pfennig Notgeld. Issued in Müritz, Germany, 1922.

50 pfennig Notgeld. Issued in Müritz, Germany, 1922.

One of the problems with physical money through the ages has been that sometimes there’s too much of it, and sometimes not enough. During the First World War a shortage of coins encouraged towns and regions in several European countries to issue local notes worth small sums. In Germany this Notgeld (‘emergency money’) became popular with collectors who prized the notes for the great variety of designs, and by the 1920s these tiny notes were produced in vast numbers with collecting, rather than spending, in mind. Designs on the notes ranged from wartime propaganda to local views or scenes from folklore. This particular example depicts the German seaside resort of Muritz on the Baltic sea.

This Hungarian 100,000,000,000,000,000,000 pengő note is the largest denomination ever issued on a banknote. It was printed in January 1946 during a period of hyperinflation which saw denominations doubling every 15 hours. Count the zeroes!

Heavy metal and rolling stones

Copper plate money. Sweden, 1658.

Copper plate money. Sweden, 1658.

Paper money and coins are convenient as they are portable, but this isn’t always the case with money. Weighing in at 14kg and over 65cm long, this Swedish plate money from the 17th century is actually a coin! The country’s vast copper resources swelled the royal coffers and, fearful of a dip in international copper prices, Sweden aimed to absorb much of its own output in the creation of a copper currency, but its abundance meant it wasn’t very valuable except in large quantities (this example was worth about 2 kegs (tunna) of rye). This practice led one Danish visitor to comment, ‘Many people carry their money in a rope on their backs, others place them on their head and, in cases of large sums, they transport them on a wagon.’ This isn’t exactly tap and go…

Stone money. Yap, Micronesia, c. 1900–1940.

Stone money. Yap, Micronesia, c. 1900–1940.

Continuing our theme of big money this stone ring (rai) from the Pacific island of Yap is nearly half a metre in diameter which sounds big, but is small compared to some examples which could be up to 3 metres wide! The famous British economist John Maynard Keynes was fascinated with the money, which when in place was rarely moved but could still be spent. He described the Yap islanders as ‘a people whose ideas on currency are probably more truly philosophical than those of any country.’

Buried treasure

Before modern banks, what could you do with your money to keep it safe? For millennia people hid money or buried it in the ground. This generally worked as gold in particular kept its value, whether or not the currency itself did. When it was found in 1911, this jug was uncovered with two bronze coins in its neck, strategically placed to hide the true value of its contents, 160 Roman gold coins!

Buddhist reliquary vase. Wardak, Afghanistan, AD 178.

Although hoards were often buried with the intention of retrieving them at a later date, sometimes people buried coins for other reasons. While money’s primary function is economic, over the centuries it has become entwined with ideas of spirituality and devotion. This vase from Afghanistan contained bronze coins and was buried as an offering to the Buddha for the benefit of a man called Vagramarega and his family.

Plastic fantastic!

Bank of Americard Credit Card. USA, 1966.

Bank of Americard credit card. USA, 1966.

Around 50 years ago, another major change in the history of money took place. The first credit cards that we would recognise today were issued by Bank of America in 1958. To promote this new way to pay, the bank mailed a plastic card unsolicited to every customer in the Californian city of Fresno, California. The period between 1966 and 1970 became known as the great credit card race when 100 million cards were mailed to potential users. In Chicago in 1967 some people claimed to have received up to 15 separate cards!

The first experiments with electronic cash payments took place in the 1990s. Mondex electronic cash system was trialled in the British town of Swindon in 1995 and was promoted as an alternative to coins and banknotes. Perhaps Mondex was ahead of its time as the trials ended without a nationwide launch of the service, but the rise of cashless payments in the UK means that over half of consumer payments today are done without using coins or banknotes. People sometimes comment on ‘the cashless society’ but we’re not there quite yet. Whatever happens, the Museum will continue to collect and display objects that tell this constantly evolving and often fascinating story.


Trace the history of money from prehistory to the present day in the British Museum’s Citi Money Gallery.

Supported by Citi.

British Museum presents: Hokusai – coming to a cinema near you this summer

The Great Wave

Sunday 4 June 2017 will be the premiere of British Museum presents: Hokusai, a film focusing on the world-renowned Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849). Co-produced with NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation), this groundbreaking film will include an exclusive private view of the forthcoming exhibition Hokusai: beyond the Great Wave, supported by Mitsubishi Corporation – the first in the UK to focus on the later years of the life and art of this great artist.

Hokusai’s most famous image, The Great Waveis as widely known and copied as Leonardo’s Mona Lisa and, along with other works by the Japanese master, helped to shape modern art as we know it today, inspiring European artists such as Monet, Van Gogh and Picasso.

Filming Hokusai works in the Japan Study Room with Curator Tim Clark and the Great Wave.

Filming Hokusai works in the Japan Study Room with Curator Tim Clark and the Great Wave.

The documentary will spend time with Tim Clark, Curator of the British Museum exhibition, and leading scholars who have devoted themselves to the study of Hokusai’s paintings and prints. They will look at Hokusai’s prints and paintings in incredible detail using 8K ultra HD, the highest resolution and latest technology in film production.

‘Using 8K video will allow us to study the hand of Hokusai in greater detail, providing the opportunity to better understand his practice. This film will bring the exhibition to a wider audience in the UK and internationally who are not able to see it in London.’  – Tim Clark, Curator: Head of the Japanese Section

Born in 1760, when Japan was largely isolated from the rest of the world, Hokusai lived and worked mainly in the city of Edo (modern Tokyo). He trained in the popular ukiyo-e style – the art of the ‘floating world’, which featured courtesans, poets and actors. In his later work he focused increasingly on nature, above all on the celebrated volcano Mount Fuji. He suffered personal tragedy later in life. His wife died, he had a stroke, his grandson bankrupted him and he spent his final years living often in poverty with his daughter Oi. But he never stopped working and aiming at perfection.

Hokusai lived to 90 and in the last years produced some of his most beautiful and compelling works. He has achieved immortality through his beautiful works and his profound influence on artists, from the Impressionists to David Hockney and Georg Baselitz.


Hokusai: beyond the Great Wave is at the British Museum from 25 May to 13 August 2017.

Supported by Mitsubishi Corporation

Mary Beard’s top five powerful women in ancient Greece and Rome

Mary Beard. Lion TV and Brave New Media.

1. The Amazon queen Penthesilea

Black-figured amphora (wine-jar) signed by Exekias as potter and attributed to him as painter. Made in Attica, Greece, 530-525 BC. Found in Vulci, Italy.

Black-figured amphora (wine-jar) signed by Exekias as potter and attributed to him as painter. Made in Attica, Greece, 530–525 BC. Found in Vulci, Italy.

The Amazons were a wild race of warrior women, and women only, who were believed by the Greeks to live somewhere on the northern borders of the Greek world.  They were entirely mythical, of course – but they were still capable of striking fear into the hearts of Greek men, always representing a potentially deadly threat to male civilisation. Greek storytelling was full of accounts of conflicts between Greeks and Amazons, and how this dangerously female power base was eventually stamped on: the women were either defeated in battle, or ‘mastered’ in the bedroom when they finally saw the error of their segregated ways and opted for marriage with Greek men. Both versions are hinted at in this 6th-century BC pot, made in Athens. It shows the mythical hero Achilles killing the Amazon queen, Penthesilea. It was said that, at the very moment that she died, the pair fell in love. Too late.

2. A Vestal Virgin

Marble head of a Vestal Virgin. Roman, 2nd century AD.

Marble head of a Vestal Virgin. Roman, 2nd century AD.

Very few women had a powerful, public role anywhere in the ancient world. But this 2nd-century AD head shows one of those who did. She is one of the priestesses known as the Vestal Virgins, who had the important job of guarding the sacred hearth of the city in their temple in the Roman Forum. In return they were granted a range of privileges: from front row seats at the theatre to the right to free convicted criminals and special private transport arrangements around the city. But these privileges were hard earned. In addition to the obligation to remain virgins, they had to make sure that the fire on the sacred hearth never went out. If it did, it was a sure indication that the state was in danger and that one of the Vestals was no longer a virgin. And the penalty for that was burial alive.

3. The goddess Athena

Athena was the Greek goddess of wisdom and of everything that demanded human cleverness, from spinning and weaving to navigation; and she was the goddess who gave special protection to the city of Athens (the famous Parthenon temple on the Acropolis was dedicated to Athena). But it is hard to know quite how female she would have seemed to the average Athenian. As you can see on this 6th-century BC Athenian pot, she was a warrior (when, apart from the weird Amazons, fighting was man’s work in the classical Greek world). She was a virgin (when women were supposed to produce babies for the state) and she herself was not even born from a woman, but direct from head of her father, the god Zeus. She certainly did not provide a positive female role-model, in the Greek sense of the word ‘female’.

4. Egyptian queen Cleopatra

Cleopatra (VII) is one of the most famous women in the history of the world: queen of Egypt, lover of Julius Caesar (and mother of his child), and of Mark Antony (a relationship immortalised by William Shakespeare, not to mention Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton). Outside the heartlands of ancient Greece and Rome, there are queens and princesses with rather more power to their names. On this 1st-century BC coin, in the words around her portrait head, Cleopatra is described as ‘queen’ and ‘goddess’. But how much independent power she had is difficult to pin down. She is almost represented as the partner of some prominent Roman man. Was this equality? Was she their pawn? Or were they hers?

5. An anonymous Roman woman

It is important not to forget those ancient women who were not rich and famous, not mythical heroines or superhuman goddesses. This Roman woman lived sometime in the early 2nd century AD. We do not even know her name let alone what she did with her life (the panel at the bottom where her history was meant to have been inscribed was left blank). But she was important enough to someone to be shown on her tomb in the guise of Venus, the goddess of love: she is semi-naked and holds a dove and a palm as Venus was often shown. For some grieving husband or parents, she was a goddess.


Do you agree? Who would be in your top five? Let us know on Twitter, where you can also follow Mary. Her 2017 London Review of Books lecture from the British Museum, Women in power, is available here, and in an edited version on the BBC iPlayer.

The American Dream becomes reality… at the British Museum

A glimpse inside the exhibition.

The UK’s first major exhibition of American printmaking from the 1960s onward is now open. And it’s at the British Museum. Many people have asked why we are the venue for this extraordinary collection of modern and contemporary art. And why America? Why now? What does ‘the American Dream’ mean at the British Museum? In fact, it makes perfect sense – read on to discover why…

The American Dream at the British Museum?

The American Dream at the British Museum?

We want to hear from you! What do you think about the exhibition? Tweet us @britishmuseum using #AmericanDream

It might surprise you that the British Museum holds the UK’s national collection of prints and drawings. It’s a treasure trove of over 2 million works by everyone from Leonardo, Michelangelo and Dürer to Bridget Riley, David Hockney and Andy Warhol. The Museum has always collected contemporary art – in the 1750s this meant Canaletto and Hogarth, and in 2017 it includes works by American artists such as Kara Walker and Ed Ruscha.

Collecting the present is essential to the British Museum’s purpose. Recent acquisitions span the globe, from a Grayson Perry vase to original Japanese manga drawings, and from Indigenous Australian paintings to Jasper Johns’ Flags I (featured on the exhibition poster). Future generations will be able to reflect on these dynamic and turbulent times through these objects.

Jasper Johns Flags I in the exhibition.

Jasper Johns’ Flags I in the exhibition. Gift of Johanna and Leslie Garfield, on loan from the American Friends of the British Museum. Photo: Adam Lucy.

This exhibition traces the creative momentum of American art from the early 1960s through the medium of printing, charting the rise of movements like minimalism, conceptual art and photorealism, to the practices of living artists working today. More than 200 works by 70 artists are on display, highlighting the creativity of American printmaking that flourished over six decades. Thanks to a deliberate strategy of collecting these artists by our curators, 70% of the works in the show are in the British Museum’s collection. The biggest names in American art are represented: Roy LichtensteinRobert RauschenbergChuck Close, Louise BourgeoisAndy Warhol, all of whom innovated with printmaking to create some of their most memorable work.

It all starts with pop art, of course. Pop art sits in the public consciousness as representing all that was new and cool in the 60s, but it is not necessarily to everyone’s taste:

‘Surely pop art represents the triumph of superficiality, the death of profundity and careful looking… What, then, is the British Museum, that bastion of careful, scholarly scrutiny, doing warmly embracing and collecting such rubbish?’ Michael Glover, The Independent

With pop art, a revolutionary and enduring change in the production, marketing and consumption of art took place. Inspired by the monumental, bold and colourful imagery of post-war America (particularly the powerful medium of advertising), a young generation of artists created images that defined this period in the popular imagination. Pop art is integral to the story of printmaking, and to the story of America, so the exhibition couldn’t have begun with anything else.

Andy Warhol's 10 Marilyn Monroes in The American Dream exhibition.

Andy Warhol’s 10 Marilyn Monroes in the exhibition.

This exhibition has been several years in the making. Nobody could have anticipated the transformative world events that now inevitably shape our visitors’ perceptions of the meaning of ‘the American Dream’.

‘Looking at the art of Jasper Johns, including a print that gives a coat hanger the sublime authority of a Rembrandt portrait, not to mention at Robert Motherwell’s lithographs of abstract expressionist splash-marks or powerfully chaotic prints by Willem de Kooning, I understood two things very clearly. There is such a thing as American civilisation. And we are watching it die.’ Jonathan Jones, The Guardian

The confidence and assertiveness of America in the post-war boom years seems now to have disintegrated, and the very notion of the country’s exceptionalism has been critically questioned by artists. America has always been reinventing itself, and now is the perfect time to seek to understand what ‘the American Dream’ means today.

A glimpse inside the exhibition.

A glimpse inside the exhibition.

‘With a new administration establishing itself in Washington, it feels like an apposite moment to consider how artists have reflected America as a nation over 60 tumultuous years.’ Hartwig Fischer, Director of the British Museum

The creative momentum unleashed in the 1960s persists to this day. There is also much to celebrate about the present. As you move through the exhibition, the voices represented become increasingly diverse, showcasing the work of women and people of colour, reflecting the changing art world and the advances in social equality over this period.

Kara Walker prints in the exhibition.

Kara Walker prints in the exhibition. Photo: Kate Marsden.

Every artist in the exhibition – whether they were born in America or made it their home – has their own American Dream, which demands our attention and makes us re-examine our own ideas about this superpower.

‘There is still cause for excitement: the final prints in the exhibition are a set of etchings by the Ethiopian-born American artist Julie Mehretu, in which swirls of complex marks suggest a sense of inchoate energy and, perhaps, optimism, amid challenging, changing times.’ Alastair Sooke, The Telegraph

American artists continue to explore the vital and expressive potential of printmaking as an integral part of their aesthetic, with its ability to reach a broad and diverse audience, and address wider social and political issues.

Keith Haring's Ignorance is Fear in the exhibition.

Keith Haring’s Ignorance is Fear in the exhibition. Photo: Adam Lucy.

But don’t take someone else’s word for it – see it for yourself, make up your own mind, and let us know what you think.

The exhibition The American Dream: pop to the present runs at the Museum until 18 June 2017.

Sponsored by Morgan Stanley.
Supported by the Terra Foundation for American Art.

Buy the book to explore the unprecedented scale, boldness and ambition of American printmaking since the 1960s.

You can also browse a range of products inspired by the works in the exhibition, including a range of prints.

The Iraqi archaeologists saving their heritage

The British Museum has run the Iraq Emergency Heritage Management Training Scheme since 2015, in collaboration with the Iraq State Board of Antiquities and Heritage. Made possible through a £2.9 million grant from the UK’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the Scheme provides Iraqi archaeologists with the expertise and skills they need to face the challenges of documenting and stabilising severely disrupted and damaged heritage sites in their country.

The Iraq Training Scheme provides a long-term sustainable solution that will train a total of 50 archaeologists over five years. The idea is that they will then go on to share their skills in retrieval and rescue archaeology across Iraq. This is already happening at Nimrud and other sites in Ninawa (Nineveh) Province.

‘We wanted to do something positive and constructive in the face of the most appalling destruction that had been going on.’ Iraq Scheme Director, Jonathan Tubb, British Museum

The six-month training scheme sees Iraqi archaeologists spend three months in London and three months in Iraq. The UK-based part of the programme is largely undertaken at the British Museum. It introduces participants to the challenges facing cultural heritage, the legal aspects of cultural heritage protection, and the value of heritage conventions in combating illicit trade of antiquities. Participants are also trained in the use of satellite imagery and digital mapping, as well as tools for documenting buildings and monuments.

The three months in Iraq are spent on fieldwork, where the participants can put what they have learned in theory into practice. The British Museum has secured excavation permits for two sites in Iraq: Tello (ancient Girsu), a well-known and important Sumerian site in the south, and Darband-I Rania, a previously unexplored cluster of closely related sites in the Sulaimaniya province of Iraqi Kurdistan. These two sites provide the fieldwork venues for the duration of the Scheme.

Assessment of the site at Tello.

Assessment of the site at Tello.

As a result of the training and the Scheme’s profile, one of the trainees has now been appointed by the Iraqi State Board to lead the archaeological assessment of the Late Assyrian capital at Nimrud, and other sites in the area recently released from the control of Daesh*. The trainee was undertaking archaeological work at Tello when Nimrud was liberated by the Iraqi army in 2016. He and a team of 10 archaeologists, including other participants from the Scheme, travelled to Nimrud in November 2016. They began assessing and documenting the damage done to the site and its world-class Assyrian reliefs. This work is ongoing, and another trainee is working to assess other damage done at the later Assyrian capital of Khorsabad.

These early success stories from the British Museum’s Iraq Training Scheme demonstrate the value of hands-on training for colleagues. The Scheme provides them with the skills required to conserve, restore and preserve sites and objects that are both part of Iraq’s rich archaeological heritage and of global significance.


*Please note that throughout this article we have used the Arabic acronym Daesh to refer to the group often referred to in the media as IS, ISIS, ISIL or ‘so-called Islamic State’.

World Book Day: leafing through the pages of history

Book of the Dead of Hunefer. Ancient Egypt, 19th Dynasty.

What does the British Museum have to do with books? The British Library may have moved out in 1997 but there’s more to books and reading than just the books themselves. Manuscripts, codices, papyri – even clay tablets have transmitted words across the ages. Read on for a short exploration of a few book-related beauties…

Beer and libraries: the perfect mix

Clay tablet recording beer given to workers.

Clay tablet recording beer given to workers. The symbol for beer is included three times – an upright jar with a pointed base. Mesopotamia, 3100–3000 BC.

The Babylonians were trailblazers in many fields, including writing. This clay tablet was made around 3100–3000 BC in Mesopotamia (now southern Iraq) and features a form of writing called cuneiform. Cuneiform was some of the oldest writing in the world, but was likely created not for letters, literature or scripture, but for accountancy. This tablet records beer given to workers as part of their daily rations.

Part of the library of Ashurbanipal on display in Room 55. Nineveh, northern Iraq, 7th century BC.

Part of the library of Ashurbanipal on display in Room 55. Nineveh, northern Iraq, 7th century BC.

The oldest surviving royal library is also from this part of the world. Ashurbanipal, King of Assyria (r. 668–c. 630 BC), collected a library of thousands of cuneiform tablets in his palace at Nineveh. It included letters, legal texts, lists of people, animals and goods, and a wealth of scientific information, as well as myths and legends. The best known of these was the Epic of Gilgamesh, which features a great flood, prompting scholars to link the character of Utnapishtim with the Biblical Noah and his Ark.

Every picture tells a story

Book of the Dead of Hunefer. Ancient Egypt, 19th Dynasty.

Book of the Dead of Hunefer. Ancient Egypt, 19th Dynasty.

Usually when we think of books today, we imagine plenty of words. However, throughout history people have also used images to tell stories. This papyrus is from an ancient Egyptian ‘Book of the Dead’ belonging to a royal scribe who lived around 1200 BC. The ‘Book’ was not a single text but a compilation of spells designed to guide the deceased through the dangers of the underworld, ultimately ensuring eternal life. In this scene you can also see some hieroglyphs telling the story.

Mixtec codex comprising 47 leaves, made of deer skin. Mexico, c. 1200–1521.

Mixtec codex comprising 47 leaves, made of deer skin. Mexico, c. 1200–1521.

This is a scene from an incredibly rare Mixtec codex, made in Mexico before 1521. A codex is a book made up of handwritten pages. The whole document contains two narratives, starting at opposite ends of the book. The first describes the marriages and the political and military achievements of the awesomely named 11th-century ruler Lord Eight Deer Jaguar-Claw, and the second tells the history of Mixtec religious centres.

Writing on other things

Before societies became literate, stories were transmitted orally – by word of mouth, but also by putting scenes on objects. One example from ancient Greece is this depiction of the sirens and Odysseus from Homer’s Odyssey.

Silver coin. Minted in England, c. AD 10–40. 1988,0627.365.

Silver coin. Minted in England, c. AD 10–40.

Writing began in Britain in about 50 BC – around the time of Julius Caesar’s invasion. Imitating the Romans, powerful Celtic kings who ruled in south-east England had their names put on their coins. We don’t know whether ancient Britons did much writing elsewhere – nothing has really survived, certainly no books or manuscripts – nor whether many of them were able to read what the coins said. This coin names a ruler called Verica and calls him REX – the Latin word for king.

After the Romans had conquered Britain, they brought Latin with them, and a literate society. The Vindolanda tablets are a remarkable time capsule from the era of Roman rule. They were a series of letters written to and from people who lived in the fort of Vindolanda on Hadrian’s Wall. They even include a birthday party invitation! You can see a selection on display in Room 49.

Illustrating books

Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1864), illustration to The Tale of Genji. Woodblock print, 1868.

Utagawa Kunisada (1786–1864), illustration to The Tale of Genji. Woodblock print, 1868.

Some people think that The Tale of Genji was the world’s first novel. Written in AD 1007 by Murasaki Shikibu in Japan, it was still popular in the 19th century, when this print was made. It’s one of a series of over 50 accompanying the story, made by Utagawa Kunisada.

The prophet Elias (Elijah) rescuing Prince Nur ad-Dahr from drowning in a river. Opaque watercolour on cloth, India, 1556–1579.

The prophet Elias (Elijah) rescuing Prince Nur ad-Dahr from drowning in a river. Opaque watercolour on cloth, India, 1556–1579.

This illustration is from the Hamzanama (‘Book of Hamza’), a heroic romance about the legendary adventures of the Prophet Muhammad’s uncle, Amir Hamza. The young Mughal emperor Akbar (r. 1556–1605) enjoyed listening to the tales of the Hamzanama at his court, and in 1562 he ordered his artists to produce an illustrated version. The project took more than 15 years and had over 1,400 paintings!

Western books have also been hugely associated with their illustrators. Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice’ books were originally illustrated by John Tenniel, influencing how many thought of the stories.

Beatrix Potter (1866-1943), an illustration for page 8 of The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies. Drawing in pen and ink with watercolour, 1909.

Beatrix Potter (1866–1943), an illustration for page 8 of The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies. Drawing in pen and ink with watercolour, 1909.

Perhaps one of the most famous illustrator-authors is Beatrix Potter. Her short stories and illustrations continue to prove as popular as ever thanks to the enduring charm of Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny. The full set of original 1909 watercolours for ‘The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies’ is in the Museum’s collection.

Book bling

Silver book covers. Made in Ulm, Germany, c. 1506.

Silver book covers. Made in Ulm, Germany, c. 1506.

These silver book covers once decorated the Book of Epistles and the Book of Gospels on the altar of the Minster in Ulm, Germany. The Epistles cover (on the left) has the symbols of the four Evangelists with St Antony the Hermit and St Vincent. The Gospels cover (on the right) has the Virgin and Child with St Martin, Bishop of Tours, and the Empress Helena.

Paradise scene, spread over two leaves, on the frontispiece to the Amitābha Sūtra (illuminated manuscript of a Buddhist sutra). Goryeo Dynasty, Korea, 1341.

Paradise scene, spread over two leaves, on the frontispiece to the Amitābha Sūtra (illuminated manuscript of a Buddhist sutra). Goryeo Dynasty, Korea, 1341.

During the Goryeo dynasty‘s rule in Korea (AD 918–1392), the copying of Buddhist sutras was considered to have great spiritual benefit. The handwritten copies (sagyong) were made with great skill and care in calligraphy, usually by monk-scribes. This sutra manuscript has a dazzling frontispiece, spread over two leaves, and painted in gold. It shows the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, flanked by bodhisattvas and monks preaching to deities and other Buddhas.

A bookplate, or Ex libris, is a small print for pasting inside the cover of a book to express ownership. The first books were highly valuable and prestigious objects to own, and the first bookplates usually incorporated the coats of arms of the fabulously wealthy. By the late 19th century, bookplates had developed into a highly imaginative miniature form. This lovely book presents beautiful examples of the neglected art form by leading artists, from Dürer to Edward Burne-Jones. Maybe you can get a bookplate to go in the book about bookplates – very meta!

The British Museum’s list of 15 things you should know about Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol at his May 1971 retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Photo by Jack Mitchell/Getty Images.

1. He was born Andrew Warhola in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the son of working-class immigrants from Czechoslovakia.

He changed his name to Warhol about the time he graduated in pictorial design from Carnegie Institute of Technology, Pittsburgh, in 1949.

2. Before he became a famous artist, he had a successful career as a commercial graphic designer.

Warhol moved to New York in 1949 and during the 1950s he worked for fashion magazines, Manhattan department stores and for I Miller, a women’s shoe company.

3. He coined the widely used expression: ‘fifteen minutes of fame’.

The expression was inspired by Andy Warhol’s words ‘In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes’, which appeared in the programme for a 1968 exhibition of his work in Stockholm, Sweden.

4. In 1962 Warhol burst on to the New York art scene with his serial images of America.

Campbell's soup can

Campbell’s soup cans provided early inspiration for Warhol. Giuliano Del Moretto/Shutterstock, Inc.

He used mass advertising, the news media and the movies as inspiration. Emulating the method of a mass-production line, Warhol created a stream of paintings and prints of Campbell’s soup cans, horrific car crashes, Coca-Colas, Elvis Presleys and Marilyn Monroes (see below for more of her…). His unashamed use of pop culture references became a key element in the movement that became known as ‘pop art’.

5. His studio was called The Factory – a reference to the mass-produced nature of his artworks.

Andy Warhol In His Studio

The American artist Andy Warhol sitting in his studio. Some paintings depict Jacqueline Kennedy. New York, 1964. Photo by Mario De Biasi/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images.

The Factory was a well-known gathering place that brought together distinguished intellectuals, drag queens, playwrights, Bohemian street people, Hollywood celebrities, and wealthy patrons. The Factory was, in fact, located in three different places in New York City between 1962 and 1984. The name was apt – Warhol made more than 400 print editions, almost all screenprints, with various publishers throughout his life.

6. He used press and publicity photos as source material in his work.

The assassination of President John F Kennedy on 22 November 1963 shocked America and the world, and the event replayed continuously on television and in the press. In 1963/64, Warhol began his series of screenprinted, multiple-imaged paintings of the president’s widow, Jackie Kennedy, using pictures by Fred Ward from Life magazine (6 December 1963).

Andy Warhol (1928–1987), Jackie II from 11 Pop Artists, vol. II. Colour screenprint, 1966. © 2017 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London.

Andy Warhol’s  Jackie II in the Prints and Drawings Study Room.

The colour screenprint Jackie II, made in 1966, is on show in the exhibition The American Dream: pop to the present. In it, Warhol presents the veiled widow isolated in her bereavement in front of the world’s press. The coarse dots of the news photo are enlarged by photoscreenprinting to the point that her image appears to break up. The repetition of Jackie in black against a flat, metallic purple surface reinforces the subject’s tragic dimension.

7. His most expensive work sold to date fetched $105.4 million at auction in 2013.

The painting in question, Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster), shows a twisted body in the wreckage of a car crash, part of Warhol’s Death and Disaster series, painted in 1963.

8. His Marilyn Monroe diptych was voted one of the most influential works of modern art.

Andy Warhol's series of 10 Marilyns being installed in the exhibition The American Dream: pop to the present.

Andy Warhol’s series of 10 Marilyns being installed in the exhibition The American Dream: pop to the present.

One of the most recognisable images in the world, Warhol’s Marilyn series remains sensational after five decades. He made the series of 10 individual screenprints, shown here being installed into our American Dream exhibition, in 1967. Warhol used a cropped and enlarged publicity still as the source image for this work, taken by photographer Gene Kornman for Monroe’s 1953 film Niagara. Behind the glamour and fame of the Marilyn series lay tragedy. Recently divorced from playwright Arthur Miller, Marilyn had taken her own life with a drug overdose in August 1962. Warhol’s depiction of the alluring screen goddess became a memorial to a fallen idol.

9. Apart from creating graphic art, he also made more than 60 films, created the fashion magazine Interview, and wrote several books.

He also created around 500 ‘screen test’ portraits of visitors to the Factory – these were black-and-white short films.

10. He put the ‘pop’ into pop art – in more ways than one.

Although not musical himself, he was credited as the producer of The Velvet Underground and Nico’s eponymous first album, for which he designed the iconic banana cover. He also designed The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers album (a close-up shot of a model wearing jeans, complete with zip fly) and even hosted a programme on MTV between 1985 and 1987 called Andy Warhol’s Fifteen Minutes. He features in the songs ‘Andy Warhol’ (on David Bowie’s Hunky Dory) and ‘Andy’s Chest’ (on Lou Reed’s Transformer – inspired by the 1968 attempt on the artist’s life).

11. Warhol believed that his depiction of President Nixon led to him being investigated by the IRS.

Andy Warhol (1928–1987), Vote McGovern. Screenprint, 1972. © 2016 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London.

Andy Warhol (1928–1987), Vote McGovern. Screenprint, 1972. © 2016 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London.

For the 1972 presidential election Warhol made this print as a fundraiser in support of the Democratic candidate Senator George McGovern. Warhol pictured Richard Nixon, McGovern’s Republican opponent, with a livid green face, yellow lips and demonic orange eyes.

Warhol lifted the source image from a photo of the President and his wife on the front cover of Newsweek. He transferred the green colour of Mrs Nixon’s outfit to her husband’s face.

Warhol later complained that the print had so enraged Nixon that he was placed under continuous scrutiny by the Internal Revenue Service for tax audits, prompting him to begin his now-famous diaries as a daily log of expenditure.

12. He’s not all about pop culture and witty sayings – there’s a serious message in some of his works

This print uses a photograph of the riots that began in Birmingham, Alabama, as part of the civil rights movement. First published in Life magazine on 17 May 1963, the photo had been taken by press photographer Charles Moore two weeks earlier. It was the first time Warhol appropriated a current news photograph in his printmaking. He instructed the screenprinter to heighten the contrast between black and white in order to reinforce the message about race relations.

13. He considered all of life – and death – as a suitable subject for his art.

Warhol began to produce his screenprinted Electric Chair paintings in 1963, the year of the State of New York’s last execution by electric chair. He used a press service photo (published 13 January 1953) of the electric chair at the infamous Sing Sing Prison, Ossining, New York, as his source image. The empty chair sits in the chilling stillness of the chamber of death.

Andy Warhol's Electric Chair series. Radu Bercan/Shutterstock, Inc.

Andy Warhol’s Electric Chair series (1971). Radu Bercan/Shutterstock, Inc. The series will be on display in The American Dream: pop to the present (in a different arrangement to that shown here).

Warhol returned to the electric chair image in 1971 for a set of prints, which will be on display in the exhibition The American Dream: pop to the present. He repeated the source image he had used for his earlier screenprinted canvases. In these prints, however, the electric chair is positioned more prominently by cropping the source image. This has the effect of enlarging the chair, reducing the sense of being in an enclosed room. In this respect the prints are closer to his so-called Big Electric Chair paintings of 1967. The serial presentation of ten identical images in both positive and negative iterations and in different colour combinations has a hallucinatory, hypnotic effect on the viewer.

14. 2017 marks 30 years since his death.

He died on 22 February 1987 from a sudden post-operative cardiac arrhythmia following gall bladder surgery. He was just 58.

15. There is an Andy Warhol Museum in his native city – Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

It is the largest museum in the United States dedicated to a single artist.

The British Museum Membercast: Joan of Arc

Featuring snippets from Helen’s sell-out Members’ lecture in November last year, the third episode of Membercast examines the woman at the heart of the myth of Joan of Arc. Helen provides fascinating insights into the faith, trial and ultimate downfall of The Maid of Orléans, and together with Iszi, finds some surprising parallels with popular culture.


A history of love (and lust and sex) in 14 objects: a Valentine’s Day special

Curator Lloyd de Beer.

Curator Lloyd de Beer with a ring. Don’t get too excited…

This little stone sculpture was discovered in the Levant and made over 10,000 years ago. It is particularly relevant for a Valentine’s Day blog post as it is shaped a bit like a heart, and also shows two people ummm… getting it on (there is a lot of that sort of thing here at the Museum, as you are about to find out).

The Ain Sakhri lovers figurine. The Levant, c. 10,000 BC.

It is not completely clear whether this is a man and a woman, two men or two women, but that’s OK as Valentine’s Day is a time to celebrate love in all its beautiful forms.

Cosmetic jar. Thebes, Egypt, Middle Kingdom, c. 1900–1800 BC.

Cosmetic jar. Thebes, Egypt, Middle Kingdom, c. 1900–1800 BC.

Whoever you are, you have got to kick it up a notch for that special V-Day date. The ancient Egyptians were no different. This stone cosmetic jar, made around 1900 BC, would have originally held eye paint. Applying make-up was a sexual and erotic act and the monkeys that dangle from the edges of the bowl heighten the drama of application acting as symbols of love and sex (no, really).

Double spout pottery jar with two human figures. Nasca, Peru, 100 BC–AD 600.

Double spout pottery jar with two human figures. Nasca, Peru, 100 BC–AD 600.

These two figures from a painted Peruvian ceramic jar are clearly in love with each other as each one has a huge smile pasted across their face. It is only when we look at the back of the jar that we see why they are both so happy. For almost 2,000 years they have been locked in a sexual embrace and have never got tired. True love…

Terracotta lamp with a scene of women engaging in oral sex. Asia Minor (modern Turkey), 1st century AD.

Terracotta lamp with a scene of women engaging in oral sex. Asia Minor (modern Turkey), 1st century AD.

In the past homosexual love was imaged on a diverse range of objects. This terracotta lamp was made in what is now Turkey in the 1st century AD and shows two women enjoying oral sex. We don’t know if this was made to titillate men or women (or both).

Marble busts of the Roman emperor Hadrian and his lover Antinous. Hadrian's bust is from his Villa at Tivoli, c. AD 125–130. Antinous' is from the Janiculum Hill in Rome, c. AD 130–140.

Marble busts of the Roman emperor Hadrian and his lover Antinous. Hadrian’s bust is from his Villa at Tivoli, c. AD 125–130. Antinous’ is from the Janiculum Hill in Rome, c. AD 130–140.

An ancient relationship we do know a lot about is the one between the Roman emperor Hadrian and his beloved Antinous. Hadrian was devastated when Antinous drowned in the Nile in AD 130. Hadrian’s love for Antinous appears to have been deeply felt. Hadrian publically commemorated Antinous in statues set up across the Roman world. Hadrian proclaimed his lover a god, named the city of Antinoopolis after him, and also had his image included on coins which were distributed across the empire.

Architectural fragment of a temple frieze carved with human figures. India, 11th century AD.

Architectural fragment of a temple frieze carved with human figures. India, 11th century AD.

This lusty and provocative architectural fragment probably comes from western India and was made in the 11th century. The acrobatic display of sexual prowess on the left-hand side speaks to a culture of sexual openness that celebrates the act of love. Both scenes are all the more intriguing with the extra bit of information that this frieze originally adorned a temple.

Romance casket with ivory plaques carved with illustrations from the story of Tristram and Isolde. Germany, 1180–1200.

Romance casket with ivory plaques carved with illustrations from the story of Tristram and Isolde. Germany, 1180–1200.

The Middle Ages in Europe was a particularly romantic time period. The tale of the affair of Lancelot and Guinevere comes to mind, but another is the tragic love story between Tristram and Isolde. This casket, which was made in Germany in the 12th century, is the earliest representation of the tale. Tristram sets off to ask for Isolde’s hand on behalf of the King and on their way back they drink a potion which makes them fall deeply in love with each other. The whole thing eventually falls apart and Tristram is banished forever. (OK, this is probably not great inspiration for Valentine’s Day…)

Gold love ring. Probably made in France or England, 15th century.

Gold love ring. Probably made in France or England, 15th century.

In the 15th century a man named John Paston was away for a long time and his wife Margaret was forlorn. Margaret wrote to him and sent him a ring. The letter said: ‘I pray you that you will wear the ring with the image of St Margaret that I sent you for a remembrance till you come home. You have left me such a remembrance that makes me to think upon you both day and night when I would sleep.’ Although the ring above does not have an image of St Margaret, it does carry a playful (and grammatically witty) inscription about love in French, which translates as: ‘my love is an infinitive which wants to be in the relative’.

Phyllis riding Aristotle. Engraving, Germany, c. 1485–1500.

Phyllis riding Aristotle. Engraving, Germany, c. 1485–1500.

Sometimes you have to be careful with love, and also what you say about it and who can hear you. This 15th-century engraving shows Phyllis riding the great philosopher Aristotle as if he were an animal. The story goes that Aristotle told the young Alexander (yes, Alexander the Great) that he shouldn’t bother with women and should focus on his work instead. Phyllis having heard this committed herself to seducing Aristotle with the intention of embarrassing him in public. She told him that she would only give him what he wanted if he allowed her to ride him around town. Aristotle clearly couldn’t follow his own advice and gave in.

Two prophylactic sheaths. Britain, c. 1790–1810.

Two prophylactic sheaths. Britain, c. 1790–1810.

Sexual health and protection is not a recent phenomenon. These 18th-century condoms, made of animal membrane, would have been worn to prevent disease.

The accompanying print shows a sailor flinging objects from a prostitute’s window, including a condom just like the ones above.

Copper-alloy love token with inscription in four lines, late 18th century.

Copper-alloy love token with inscription in four lines, late 18th century.

This token and many others like it record the final words between two lovers. This one says: ‘When this you see/ Remember me/ Until I gain my/ Liberty’. Probably engraved in the late 18th century by a convict who had been sentenced to transportation, these two would have never been reunited and this piece of copper would have been the only reminder of their relationship.

Chokyosai Eiri (after Kitagawa Utamaro), Fumi no kiyogaki 婦美の清書き (Neat Version of a Love Letter (or Pure Drawings of Female Beauty)). Woodblock, 1801.

Chokyosai Eiri (after Kitagawa Utamaro), a cropped version of one of the prints from Fumi no kiyogaki 婦美の清書き (Neat Version of a Love Letter (or Pure Drawings of Female Beauty)). Woodblock, 1801.

Valentine’s Day today is a celebration of love, and nowhere is this celebration more apparent than in the explicit Japanese woodblock prints known as shunga. Shunga prints often show men having sex with women and even famously a sexual union between a woman and an octopus (or two). This print shows two naked women with the one on the right wearing a sex toy. (The version of the image above is slightly cropped – you can see the uncensored version online.) The Museum also has an almost contemporary example of the object imaged in the print which is catalogued as ‘toilet implements for sexual gratification.’

Krishna and Radha seated in a terraced garden with female attendants and musicians. Gouache painting on paper, Punjab Hills, India, c. 1830.

Krishna and Radha seated in a terraced garden with female attendants and musicians. Gouache painting on paper, Punjab Hills, India, c. 1830.

The colourful and decadent beauty of this painting serves to highlight the ideal love of the two central characters, Radha and Krishna. Looking closely at the image it is almost as if we can hear the little white birds in the trees across from the band who serenade the two lovers. The lovers themselves are not distracted by their surroundings and seem completely devoted to each other.

Made for and worn by supporters of gay liberation this little pink triangle badge is a fitting last object in our little history of love. It is a symbol and a reminder that love must be allowed to flourish in all its forms, and that no one should be denied that right based on who they love.

Finally, if you’ve had enough of Valentine’s Day – whether your love is unrequited, whether you think it’s a ridiculous modern invention, or whether you’re just happy on your own – here’s a cat on a cushion, just because. Think of it as a token of the Museum’s love to you.

Théophile Steinlen (1859–1923), L’Hiver, chat sur un cousin (Winter, cat on a cushion). Colour crayon lithograph, 1909.

Théophile Steinlen (1859–1923), L’Hiver, chat sur un coussin (Winter, cat on a cushion). Colour crayon lithograph, 1909.

The oldest portrait in the British Museum

Over many years, I’ve formed a particularly strong bond with one of the… older people in the British Museum. The Jericho Skull is arguably the oldest portrait in the British Museum – a human skull from the ancient city of Jericho which had plaster applied to it to form a type of early facial reconstruction. Watch my Curator’s Corner to discover how we have finally been able to reveal the man behind the plaster.

A vehicle for resistance

Artist Esther Mahlangu

I have been making art all my life because it is in my heart and in my blood. When I paint I am happy. I strived to show people from all over the world my work and to tell them my story as an artist, an Ndebele woman artist, who against all odds travelled the world … I know that long after I am gone, people will still go and see my paintings and they will remember there was an artist called Esther Mahlangu, and she came from South Africa.’ – Esther Mahlangu (born 1935)

Esther Mahlangu (b. 1935), BMW Art Car 12, 1991. © Esther Mahlangu. Photo © BMW Group Archives.

Esther Mahlangu (b. 1935), BMW Art Car 12, 1991. © Esther Mahlangu. Photo © BMW Group Archives.

In 1975 the French racing driver and art auctioneer Hervé Poulain approached BMW with the idea of inviting eminent artists to transform its cars into works of art. Art Cars were created by world-famous artists such as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Frank Stella and Alexander Calder. In 1991, as apartheid legislation was being repealed, BMW commissioned Esther Mahlangu to create an Art Car to mark this historic moment.

Esther Mahlangu (b. 1935), BMW Art Car 12, 1991.

Esther Mahlangu (b. 1935), BMW Art Car 12, 1991. © Esther Mahlangu. Photo © BMW Group Archives.

Mahlangu’s Art Car draws on her South African Ndebele heritage and her established practice of transposing Ndebele house-painting designs on to new canvases.

Under apartheid the Ndebele were forced to live in ethnically defined rural reserves – their designs are an expression of cultural identity, and can be read as a form of protest against racial segregation and marginalisation. In response to losing their ancestral lands, Ndebele women began to make distinctive beadwork for significant events, artworks that identified the Ndebele as a separate cultural identity. In the 1940s, the Ndebele adapted these designs and painted them on their homesteads.

Flickr - Francisco Javier Garcia Orts.

Flickr – Francisco Javier Garcia Orts.

Mahlangu’s Art Car can be seen as building on an Ndebele artistic tradition that emerged to define and communicate a cultural identity, first in beadwork, then in house painting, and subsequently on canvas. Her work illustrates how local artistic traditions can be used to engage with contemporary political situations and events in ways that communicate cultural and political identities to global audiences.

See Mahlangu’s Art Car on display in the Great Court, part of our exhibition South Africa: the art of a nation (27 October 2016 – 26 February 2017).

Chinese scroll mounting at Chinese New Year

We have recently witnessed a real surge of interest in the traditional methods of conserving Chinese paintings over in China, and as a result, our Senior Conservator of Chinese Paintings and Master Scroll Mounter, Jin Xian Qiu, has been inundated with publicity requests asking about her work here in the British Museum as well as the amazing story of how she came from Shanghai to London 30 years ago, bringing Chinese scroll mounting techniques to a European institution for the first time. For those Chinese speakers among you, check out this short film that was recently produced by Hua Plus’ UK team all about Qiu Laoshi (this is how we, her students refer to her and means ‘Teacher Qiu’). The video has been incredibly popular on various online platforms and at the time of writing has been viewed around half a million times.  For those not blessed with Chinese linguistic skills, you can see Qiu Laoshi in action with English commentary here on the British Museum YouTube channel as part of the World History Lab series.

Jin Xian Qiu toning repairs on a Ming dynasty silk painting, Eight Immortals by Zhang Chong. 1910,0212,0.503.

As well as these short films, Qiu Laoshi has been busy giving press interviews both here in the UK and in China, where she and our Head of Pictorial Art Conservation, Joanna Kosek, were recently invited to share their expertise at two conferences dedicated to the conservation of Chinese painting and calligraphy. There is currently huge momentum in China to train up the next generation of conservators, with the setting up of training courses and new conservation centres, as well as publicising the traditional techniques that have been previously somewhat invisible, behind the scenes, and, perhaps, closely guarded. The Palace Museum, based in the Forbidden City in Beijing, last year released a popular series of documentaries showing the behind the scenes work carried out by the many conservators there and we particularly enjoyed this one focusing on the work of their scroll mounters (Chinese commentary again).

Joanna Kosek (pictured) and Jin Xian Qiu presenting at The First Annual Conference on Appreciation, Collection and Conservation of the Ancient Calligraphy and Paintings of China Academy of Art, Hangzhou.

Jin Xian Qiu and Joanna Kosek with the organisers and other delegates of the International Academic Conference of Chinese Ancient Paintings’ Identification and Conservation at the Renmin University, Beijing.

The art of the scrollmounter is complex to master, and training takes around 10 years in a traditional apprenticeship set-up. We in the British Museum are incredibly lucky that Qiu Laoshi has trained up a number of conservators, including Valentina Marabini and myself, who have been with Qiu Laoshi for 13 and 6 years respectively. To learn this traditional Eastern craft here within a Western institution is a truly unique opportunity, made only possible by Qiu Laoshi dedicating her career to conserving the British Museum’s amazing and extensive Chinese paintings collection. She often says that her work enables these paintings to be brought back to life, rejuvenated like a tree in springtime, as they would otherwise be in too poor a condition to display. She really is a national treasure for both China and the UK!

Jin Xian Qiu training her two current students: Valentina Marabini (above) and Carol Weiss (below).

In a Western conservation culture that often practices ‘minimal intervention’ to museum objects, there is no denying that the traditional techniques of the Chinese scroll mounter are highly ‘interventive’ – in a full remounting treatment we remove old silk mounts (the borders framing the paintings), wash the paintings, replace old lining papers with new ones, repair missing areas and create new mount surrounds that display the painting beautifully as well as provide a fantastic storage system when rolled up and put away. It is only by this method of remounting paintings every hundred years or so that these paintings can survive for so long and be appreciated by so many generations, but the techniques are of course only safe when practised by a Master mounter such as Qiu Laoshi. Hence the long training process – Qiu Laoshi describes us as ‘surgeons’ for paintings – and the real need to preserve the training techniques themselves in order to preserve these paintings. To learn more, you can read how Valentina supplemented her own scroll mounting training at the Shanghai Museum for a year here, and to get a glimpse at some of the processes involved in a complete remounting treatment, look at this previous blog post.

Jin Xian Qiu preparing lining papers with her two current students Valentina Marabini (right) and Carol Weiss (left).

Recent Chinese scroll mounting projects in the Hirayama Studio have included a beautiful silk handscroll in the style of Han Huang 韓滉, a Ming dynasty silk album leaf painting, and two huge Ming dynasty silk painting hanging scrolls that we worked on in collaboration with scroll mounters from the Shanghai Museum, 八仙 (Eight Immortals) and The Lion and His Keeper. One of these is scheduled to be displayed in the newly renovated The Sir Joseph Hotung Gallery of China and South Asia (re-opening in November 2017), another project which is currently keeping us very busy!

Two Ming dynasty silk paintings before and after treatment: The Lion and his Keeper (left) 2014.3032.1; and Eight Immortals by Zhang Chong (right) 1910,0212,0.503.

Do keep your eyes peeled for upcoming blog posts from the Hirayama Studio, with our Japanese scroll mounting colleagues telling you about the projects they have been working on recently, as well as an exciting live broadcast with our conservators who’ll go behind the scenes in our incredible Studio space.

So wishing you a very happy year of the rooster from all at the Hirayama Studio:

新年快乐 Xīnnián kuàilè!


새해 복 많이 받으세요 Saehae bog manh-i bad-euseyo!

The British Museum Membercast: Brains, objects and deep history

Using the oldest objects in the British Museum to illustrate his argument, Clive explores the development of the human imagination in a lively and wide-ranging interview. The conversation is interspersed with excerpts from Clive’s sell-out Members’ lecture from 2016, Brains, objects and deep history.

Spear thrower made from reindeer antler, sculpted as a mammoth. Found in the rockshelter of Montastruc, France. c. 14,000 years old.

South Africa: an exhibition of two halves?

John Giblin, Head of the Africa Section at the British Museum, and lead curator of the exhibition South Africa: the art of a nation:

‘My background is in African archaeology and I joined forces with Chris Spring, who has a background in contemporary art, to tell a long story of South Africa through artworks. As a curator, my role is to construct the narrative and to select the objects that will express the different parts of the story that we want to communicate to the visitors. South Africa has one of the richest art histories of any country in the world and a fascinating history and this exhibition introduces that depth and diversity to a British and international audience. By collapsing the artificial divide between archaeological, historic, and contemporary objects, and by reframing all of these as art made by artists, we aimed to present a fresh slant on a complex past.’

Mapungubwe gold rhinoceros, made about 1220–1290. On loan from University of Pretoria.

Mapungubwe gold rhinoceros, made about 1220–1290. On loan from University of Pretoria.

Gerard Sekoto (1913–1993), Song of the Pick. Oil on board, 1946. South32 SA Limited. © The Sekoto Foundation.

Gerard Sekoto (1913–1993), Song of the Pick. Oil on board, 1946. South32 SA Limited. © The Sekoto Foundation.

Chris Spring, Curator of the Museum’s collections from eastern and southern Africa, and co-curator of the exhibition South Africa: the art of a nation:

‘I am responsible for developing the Museum’s collections of contemporary art from across the African continent and from ‘global Africa’. My role as co-curator of the exhibition was to suggest works by contemporary artists – as well as historical works – which might help people to appreciate in depth the particular periods in South African history through art. In some ways our approach mirrored that in the Sainsbury African Galleries (Room 25) at the Museum, where works by contemporary artists help to illuminate, mediate and curate the other works in the galleries, which represent longstanding artistic traditions. In the exhibition we applied this approach to a historical narrative in which artists take ownership of South African history, from the deep past to the present day. I have always wanted to introduce Africa’s deep past into the African Galleries, so I was extremely excited to work with John when the opportunity arose to do this in relation to art from South Africa – and I’m glad to say that there has been an overwhelmingly positive critical response.’

Jeni Couzyn (artistic director), Sandra Sweers (lead artist), The Creation of the Sun. A collaborative piece from Bethesda Arts Centre, textile, 2015. © The Bethesda Foundation Limited.

Jeni Couzyn (artistic director), Sandra Sweers (lead artist), The Creation of the Sun. A collaborative piece from Bethesda Arts Centre, textile, 2015. © The Bethesda Foundation Limited.

In this video, John, Chris and Project Curator Laura Snowling explore some of the highlights of this unique exhibition.

Facing the past: the Jericho Skull

The Jericho Skull, a plastered human skull from 8200–7500 BC

The Jericho Skull was discovered among a group of seven other skulls in 1953 by archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon – you can learn more about the surprising discovery in this podcast. Kenyon thought that the skulls were portraits of some of the earliest people to live at Jericho, and was thrilled with this new discovery. The skulls she found had been decorated with plaster to recreate human faces, and had shells as eyes. Some showed traces of paint.

Explore the Jericho skull in 3D

At the time this person was alive, around 9,500 years ago, Jericho was one of the largest settlements in the Middle East. Mourning the dead was one of the shared rituals that helped bind the society together. Initially each plastered skull would have been a known individual, but as time passed they likely became ancestor figures who may have been worshipped. It’s thought they were safely reburied as portraits of community forebears long after their individual identities were forgotten.

Finding out more about the person underneath the plaster was challenging – the soil packing the inside of the cranium meant little internal detail could be made out using conventional X-rays. Museum Curator Alexandra Fletcher brought together a team of researchers in order to discover more about the skull – experts in studying human remains, digital imaging and 3D modelling.

Micro-CT scan

A Micro-CT scan at the Natural History Museum in London provided amazing new insights. © The Trustees of the Natural History Museum.

Fortunately, progress was made in 2009 when the skull went to the Natural History Museum for a Micro-CT scan. This type of non-invasive scan allowed the research team to see the interior of the skull, and digitally remove the layers of plaster and soil. The detailed imaging revealed some surprising facts about this individual’s life.

The team found out that the skull belonged to a man who was over 40 years old when he died. He had broken teeth that were badly decayed, and abscesses that must have caused him pain. His nose had also been broken, but this injury had healed before he died. The most striking feature found from the Micro-CT scan was the man’s head shape – varying thicknesses of bone indicated his head was tightly bound as an infant, permanently changing its shape.

Studies of the scan results gave Curator Alexandra Fletcher details about how this person may have lived – his health, diet, and religious practices. But the face of this person that had been so carefully modeled in plaster over 9,500 years ago remained unknown.

The 3D printed skull used to start facial reconstruction (left). An early stage in the reconstruction process – applying the muscles to the skull (right).

The 3D printed skull used to start facial reconstruction (left). An early stage in the reconstruction process – applying the muscles to the skull (right). © The Trustees of the British Museum. Photos by RN-DS partnership.

That was until 2016, when the data from the Micro-CT scan was used to make a 3D printed model of the man’s skull. From this starting point, a lower jaw, created by copying other examples of a similar size and date, was added to the model. The painstaking process of reconstructing this person’s face then began, with specialists building up facial features muscle by muscle, layer by layer – a method originally created to make forensic reconstructions for the police.

The final reconstruction of the person portrayed in Jericho Skull.

The final reconstruction of the person portrayed in Jericho Skull. © The Trustees of the British Museum. Photo by RN-DS partnership.

The face of a man that lived and died over 9,500 years ago can now be seen for the first time since his plaster likeness was created in ancient Jericho. Alexandra Fletcher describes the journey to the reconstruction as being ‘like the ancient process in reverse.’


Want to find out more about the Jericho Skull? Listen to our podcast.

Welcome to the new British Museum blog

Welcome to the new British Museum blog, a place where we’ll share with you the Museum’s many stories.

This is not just a redesign, but a rethink of what a blog is for. As we’ve been going through the process of replacing our websites over the last year, starting with the new search portal you can find at, we’ve been thinking deeply about what each of these destinations is for.

A blog needs to tell stories – that much is obvious – but what kinds of stories and why? The beauty of the Museum is its diversity – from new research about the collection, to the work carried out by our scientists and conservators, and from our social media videos and podcasts to exhibitions and public programming, there is a world to discover and a world we’re proud to share.

This blog’s role is to capture that diversity and make it accessible to our readers in as many ways as possible. From long-form articles exploring subjects in great detail, to listicles about things you didn’t know about the Museum (and there are LOTS!), we want to find the right ways to share stories with you.

Increasingly the readership of this blog will be drawn from our social media audiences on Facebook, Twitter and beyond, and that means we’ll be using new functionality like Facebook’s Instant Articles to make it faster for you to read, wherever you are.

I hope that you’ll find the British Museum blog to be an exploratory resource and a go-to site for relevant and thought-provoking posts about not only wonderful objects, but all the areas in which the Museum works.

At this early stage in the blog’s life, we’d love to get your feedback and to know what you think works and doesn’t work. Once you’ve had a look around the site, please take a few moments to fill in our survey so that we can continue to improve on our digital output.

New exhibition announced – Hokusai: beyond the Great Wave

The Great Wave

Hokusai produced works of astonishing quality right up until his death at the age of 90 and this exhibition will be the first in the UK to focus on Hokusai’s later years, when he produced some of his most famous masterpieces. Starting with the iconic print ‘The Great Wave’, which Hokusai created when he was 70, the exhibition will include outstanding examples of the artist’s work demonstrating his creative breadth and depth during this prolific period.

Weeping cherry and bullfinch.

Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), Weeping cherry and bullfinch. Colour woodblock, c. 1834. British Museum. On display from 7 July – 13 August.

Hokusai’s later career will be explored thematically as well as chronologically in the exhibition. The subject matter of the works on show will be extraordinarily varied – from dramatic landscapes to intimate domestic scenes and exquisite birds and flowers to supernatural and mythological creatures. The exhibition will also explore Hokusai’s personal beliefs, giving a fascinating insight into the artist’s spiritual and artistic quest in his later years.

Mirabilis jalapa and grosbeak

Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), Mirabilis jalapa and grosbeak. Colour woodblock, c.1834. British Museum. On display from 7 July – 13 August.

The exhibition will bring together works from the British Museum’s superb collection of Japanese art with significant loans from Japan, Europe and the USA, making this an incredible opportunity to see these extraordinary works together.

Amida waterfall

Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), Amida waterfall, deep beyond the Kiso highway. Colour woodblock, 1833. The Tōyō Bunko, Tokyo. On display from 7 July – 13 August.

There will be a rotation of about half the artworks during the exhibition run for conservation reasons. Due to their light sensitivity, some works can only be displayed for a limited amount of time, to preserve the vivid colours. Each rotation will tell the same story, but you will be able to see a selection of different works in each half. The exhibition will be temporary closed between 3 and 6 July for this rotation.

Watch our behind the scenes Facebook Live broadcast with Exhibition Curator Tim Clark

The British Museum Membercast: South Africa

In our first episode, Iszi sneaks into the back of the lecture theatre to hear curators John Giblin and Chris Spring present an overview of the special exhibition South Africa: the art of a nation at the exclusive Members’ lecture earlier this year. Iszi also tracked down the project curator Laura Snowling – with the conversation taking a rather unexpected direction… Expect to learn about some of the key objects in the exhibition as well as how to say ‘I love my rabbit’ in Bulgarian. No, really. You have been warned…

The British Museum podcast: The Walls of Jericho

The ideal scenario for any archaeologist? Finding something different. Something unexpected. Something that had never been found by anyone before.

But what if you made this discovery in the middle of the Jordan Valley, on the last day of excavations, with most of your equipment already packed up and only a handful of staff still on site?


This is exactly what happened to the archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon at Jericho in April 1953. One of her team, Peter Parr, had finished the final recording for the work done that year and pointed out that a stone protruding from the side of his trench was a skull. Concerned that it might be damaged through being left exposed, he and Kenyon decided to excavate. What they found continues to fascinate archaeologists – and the wider public – today.

Explore the Jericho skull in 3D

Maggi Hambling on life, death and drawing

Although mainly known for her paintings and sculpture, drawing is at the heart of Hambling’s artistic practice. This exhibition is a unique opportunity to follow Hambling’s development as a graphic artist, from her early student works including her compelling ‘portrait’ of Rosie, a stuffed rhinoceros, to celebrated prints of the sea and a new climate change drawing completed just last year. A drawing and sculpture celebrate the flamboyant Soho personality and muse, Henrietta Moraes and there are intimate drawings of Hambling’s father as he aged and on his deathbed. As Hambling says, ‘I’m well known for painting and drawing people long after they’re dead… artists are lucky in that they can grieve in a very positive way. I’m trying to make these drawings as alive as possible even though the subject is dead, because they’re still alive inside me.’

The British Museum podcast: The Suicide Exhibition

The British Museum before 10 May 1941

It wasn’t only people that were evacuated from London during the Second World War. Antiquities and works of art were moved outside of the capital in their thousands. Relocated to stately houses, abandoned tube stations and purpose-built, climate-controlled bunkers – this is the story of how the British Museum pulled off ‘the biggest, mass evacuation of objects in any museum’s history.’

The British Museum on 11 May 1941

When war broke out in 1939 many of the British Museum’s most valued objects had already been evacuated to safe locations across the UK. However, as war developed, it became apparent not all of these depositories were as safe as originally thought – and the dangers weren’t always caused by enemy forces. Meanwhile, back in London, the Director presented the ‘Suicide Exhibition’…

Find out more about the British Museum’s activities during the Second World War. Watch the video below to find out how an unused tube tunnel, in an underused and unfinished London underground station, was used to protect thousands of British Museum objects from the Blitz.

Copts of the Nile: the Coptic community in Egypt today

In 1986, the artist, Nabil Boutros, decided to return to Egypt after living in France for ten years to explore what it meant to be Egyptian. He had trained as a painter but he decided to take up photography because he found it more useful in studying his identity as an Egyptian.

“The camera was and remains for me an instrument that allows me to go to places where I would not go otherwise. Of course, the point is to collect images; that is the compensation. Without photography, I would not have made the exploration, and I would have not had those contacts…”


Salam, from the series Coptes du Nil, by Nabil Boutros, composition of three photographic prints, 1997–2004 (© Nabil Boutros/The British Museum) donated by Rose Issa, 2015,6028.1.5-7

Boutros grew up in a Coptic Christian family and decided to document the community in Egypt in order to better understand his own roots and to highlight the modern aspects of Coptic religious practice. Copts are one of the oldest Christian communities in the world. According to tradition, the church was founded by Saint Mark in Alexandria during the reign of the Roman emperor Nero (r. AD 54–68). Today, Copts make up about ten percent of the Egyptian population with a large diaspora living elsewhere.

Boutros spent seven years, from 1997 to 2004, photographing the Coptic community around Egypt. He visited major historic sites such as the Monastery of Saint Paul (founded 5th century AD) and Deir El-Maymoun (founded AD 361–363), and attended ceremonies that have continued for thousands of years. As a Copt himself, he wanted to highlight the contemporary individuals who visit and worship at these locations, or as he says, “to get as close as possible to the quotidian.”

He always includes people in his photographs, noting that Western photographers often depict these monuments without figures, as if they are no longer in use. His photographs often only show one or two people, even in the midst of large ceremonies. For example, he portrays a single woman in front of a small statue of the Virgin Mary at the pilgrimage to Deir Dronka, near Assiut, which draws thousands of people in August each year. In this way, he draws attention to individual worship and personal stories.


Vendredi Saint, from the series Coptes du Nil, by Nabil Boutros, composition of four photographic prints, 1997–2004 (© Nabil Boutros/The British Museum) donated by Rose Issa, 2015,6028.1.1-4

“I knew it was a part of me, from my upbringing and my culture, but to be able to make the connection between things from the distant past with more contemporary things strengthened me. To know the history of things that I experienced personally, to understand the historical links allows me to find the foundation; that comforts me a lot, fulfils me.”

Boutros arranges his photographs in the same way as they are found in the screens of Coptic churches where Biblical stories are depicted (polyptychs). However, unlike church paintings, his compositions do not form a clear narrative. Instead each photograph in a composition is taken from a different time and place. Boutros explains that his photographs are not meant to be documentary but instead resist the viewer’s preconceptions about the Coptic community. In his early photography exhibitions, he presented his photographs individually and allowed researchers to add text. However, he found in this case that the researcher’s words took over the images and did not convey his original intentions.

“This experience was a good lesson for me: I understood that if I did not engage in a discourse with the images, the written discourse would take the place of my intent. After that, I started to reclaim my photographs – on Copts, the city, etc. – and to create new compositions working with polyptychs. I also started adding titles, to indicate what I was talking about, but I could no longer content myself with the image alone…I started to complicate things, first by combining groups of black and white images, and then by introducing strips of colour photography in-between the black and white photographs.”

In response to an attack on a Coptic church in December 2010, Boutros and the artist Moataz Nasr, created a poster using another series by Boutros called Egyptians, in which he portrayed himself with different identities throughout the year. The poster included the slogan “We are all Egyptians” (كلنا مصريون), and was popular in Tahrir Square during the revolution.


Nabil Boutros and Moataz Nasr, All Egyptians, 2010 (© Nabil Boutros)

Nabil Boutros was born in Cairo in 1954. He studied decorative arts in Cairo and then painting at l’Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris (1973). He worked as a painter and lighting designer for theatre before committing himself to photography in 1986.


The mystery of the Fetter Lane hoard

In 1908 workmen excavating foundations for a house in Fetter Lane (City of London) found 46 coins in a pot. The Rev’d FD Ringrose purchased the hoard and published an account in 1911 but focussed on describing the coins rather than the circumstances of the find. By the time the coins were bequeathed to the British Museum in 1914, there was no trace of the pot and no description of it either. There is no full account of exactly how the hoard was found and whilst Roman hoards are often uncovered in Britain (for example the Didcot, Hoxne and Beau Street hoards), the Fetter Lane hoard remains something of a mystery.

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