Museum stories
Janina Ramirez: four objects for Museums in Quarantine

As we see history written before our eyes I can’t help but wonder how these events will be preserved in centuries to come. What facts and inaccuracies will future historians read about the events of 2020, and how will artists, writers and thinkers present them?

I learn about our present and future by looking to the past – that’s why I am a historian. In the documents of lost civilisations and the creations of long-dead individuals I try to understand both the exceptional and the enduring aspects of life. Humanity has faced disease, famine, war and more over the millennia. Cities have fallen and societies have disappeared. Yet despite moments of devastation and annihilation, there are more humans on the face of the earth than at any other time. Humanity is resilient. We do leave our mark.

Our beloved galleries and museums have shut their doors – something only done previously as an extreme measure during wartime. We can’t get inside them at the moment, but in our remarkable digital age we can at least explore them virtually.

I have long been bewitched by many of the British Museum’s treasures. I have my favourites – those objects that I can lose hours in front of and weave countless stories around. I’ve been asked to curate my own mini tour for you. Some well-known treasures will make an appearance, but I wanted to share those lesser known, often overlooked pieces that have captured my heart.

1. Suffragette penny
A penny with the profile of King Edward VII, over which is stamped 'votes for women'
Penny of Edward VII defaced to promote the suffragette cause c.1913.

For me, what makes an artwork enduring is its ability to capture a shared experience or sensation that speaks to our deeper needs as human beings – those timeless things that bind us across time. But the British Museum also preserves objects that document specific moments. It can be a moment that heralds new hope and change for the better, as this simple coin records.

This English penny shows the face of a man – King Edward VII – defaced by women. It’s an act of civil disobedience, a rebellion on a small scale but still a criminal act. Each letter has been individually stamped to create the words ‘VOTES FOR WOMEN’ covering the face the head of government and the church – the king. This simple penny helps connect us directly with the powerful aims of the suffragettes. It certainly has shock value and brings home the importance of what women were fighting for at the turn of the 20th century. I for one thank the women who turned this coin into a political protest. I wouldn’t be speaking to you today if it wasn’t for their efforts.

2. C R W Nevinson’s A Dawn
A print of World War One soldiers marching through a street in Flanders. They hold their bayonets upwards.
C R W Nevinson (1889–1946), A Dawn. Drypoint, 1916.

The impact of the two world wars are still very real nearly a century later. Our modern world has been shaped by them. As women gained the vote, millions of young men were sent to their deaths. We can read about their experiences in their letters, their poems, their diaries. But I find the art produced after the wars some of the most moving testaments to the horrors and brutality experienced by so many.

C R W Nevinson went to the front line in 1914 and as an ambulance driver saw the violent results of war carved on the bodies of those he helped. This evidence of the destruction modern weapons could do stayed with him his whole life and led him to create some of the most moving images from this time. His Vorticist style shows a seething mass of soldiers reduced to mechanical forms.

In the unforgiving light of an autumnal morning in Flanders overloaded soldiers march to a life in the trenches with no one to cheer them on. They are downtrodden yet stoic, part of a machine of destruction and Nevinson’s powerful style captures this with such bite and immediacy that is very hard to forget.

3. Day of the Dead figures
A papier mache sculpture of a red-and-white skeleton wearing a horned helmet and cape, riding a red horse with flaming hair.
Workshop of the Linares family (1980s onwards), The Atomic Apocalypse. Day of the Dead figure made from papier mâché over cane framework, 1980s.

The British Museum continues to add to its collection, preserving artworks and objects that will tell future generations of our present time. These Day of the Dead models made in Mexico by the Linares family and called Atomic Apocalypse walk a fine line between laughter and terror. Here the skeletons reflect on actual events, like the bombing of Hiroshima, while the four horsemen of the apocalypse – War, Pestilence, Famine and Death – ride horrifying creatures around a small and fragile-looking planet earth. The bright colours and antics of the skeletal figures give a carnival feel to the scene. But for me it captures the glaring horrors of our modern world which all too often feel all too close.

4. 16th-century tabernacle
Miniature boxwood tabernacle, carved in Flanders 1500–1530.

I include this last one for no reason other than that its technical virtuosity never fails to blow me away. The miniaturist detailing exhibited on this 16th century tabernacle not only invite a kind of spiritual play – unravelling the various parts while contemplating the religious scenes depicted – but also makes me ask time and again ‘how was it possibly made’?

As I stare dumbfounded at the minute spears held by the soldiers in the crucifixion scene, as I look at the drapery which almost needs a magnifying glass to be seen, I wonder at the skills our predecessors possessed. This wonder is a source of hope. This search for beauty is a worthwhile quest.

As part of BBC Arts’ Museums in Quarantine series, which starts on Monday 27 April, tune in to BBC Four at 19.30 BST on Thursday 30 April as Janina goes behind locked doors at the British Museum, telling you more about her favourite objects from the collection and how they resonate today.

Watch Museums in Quarantine: British Museum online on BBC iPlayer here.

The British Museum allowed a small crew into the Museum to film a selection of objects. Social distancing and health and safety guidelines were followed at all times.