Mary Beard's top five objects
I am very excited to become a Trustee of the British Museum (after some hiccoughs along the way). And I am realistic that there is going to be quite a lot of work involved. In part I see this as a way of paying back my debts to the Museum. I first went there with my Mum, making the trip from Shropshire in 1960, when I was just five years old. I remember being amazed by the sculptures from the Parthenon, asking myself how people could possibly have made something as good as that so long ago. It was I think the first time I realised that human history hadn’t simply been a story of continuous progress!
What really made my visit, though, was a small piece of ancient Egyptian cake or bread, thousands of years old. I was amazed that a bit of cake could have survived from the time of the pharaohs and was desperate to get a closer look.
Back in 1960 museum displays were nothing like so child-friendly as they are now, and this particular case was too high for me to see into clearly. But, as my Mum struggled to lift me up, a man walked past and asked what was going on. When we explained, hesitantly, that I was trying to get a proper view of the cake, he reached for some keys, opened up the case, took the cake out, and held it right in front of my eyes.
I’ve never forgotten the excitement of that first close encounter with the distant past. I have no idea who the kind man was (a curator presumably), but he played a big part in setting me on the road to a career in history. His message was clear – if you really wanted to explore the ancient world, there were people who would act as your guides; whether literally or metaphorically, museum cases could be opened.
So here I have chosen five objects from the Museum’s collection to take out of their cases. It’s been a tough choice out of the eight million there are (and I am already regretting not having some of the Roman soldiers’ letters from Vindolanda near Hadrian’s Wall, or a Lewis chessman, a replica of which has stood on my mantelpiece for decades).
Trying to come down to a final five, I have gone not only for those with wow factor – but also those that challenge our assumptions, open our eyes, and encourage us to think differently about the world. For, partly at least, that challenge is what museums are for.
Of course, I have to start with that piece of cake. The truth is, as I have since discovered, that the British Museum has quite a collection of genuine foodstuffs from ancient Egypt, preserved in the hot dry sand (which has also preserved all those wonderful papyrus documents that have given us such vivid information about daily life there, from shopping lists to letters home from travellers). Anyway, I think that this is what I saw; it’s identified as a piece of bread from around 2000 BC, found in excavations of a temple in the early twentieth century, not far from the modern town of Luxor.
This one really is wow factor. It’s one of Michelangelo’s preliminary chalk drawings for Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, dated to 1511. We featured this in a recent BBC documentary on the Nude (The Shock of the Nude). We were lucky not only to film this (one of the most valuable drawings in the world – ‘valuable’ in all senses), but also to have former Museum Director, Neil MacGregor talk us through it.
I remember Neil explaining that what was extraordinary here was the way Michelangelo made Adam’s whole body expressive. Many artists can get expression and emotion out of, for example, hands or feet – but here Michelangelo can make even the muscles of the abdomen speak to us. 60 years on it was another eye-opening moment outside the case; but on this occasion we were able to share the fun with the TV viewers at home.
A bronze head of the Roman emperor Augustus (who died in AD 14), and one of the classic images of Roman power. Here, as in all his other portraits, at whatever age, the emperor appears as a youthful image of perfection – parading the face of Roman rule to millions of his subjects across the Roman world. This is a rare specimen, partly because of the survival of his inlaid eyes (in most surviving ancient sculptures these have not survived, giving the subject a rather vacant expression).
The survival in this case is thanks to the unexpected find spot. For the head was discovered at the ancient city of Meroë, in what is now Sudan – it had been carefully buried under the steps leading up to a major temple. Meroë lay outside the borders of the Roman empire, and almost certainly this head was a trophy from a statue that the local people had destroyed on a raid into the Roman province of Egypt. That’s partly what I mean by ‘challenging assumptions’. How unexpected is it that one of the most famous portraits we have of a Roman ruler actually survived, because it was the triumphant war loot of Rome’s enemies?
A reminder here that the Museum is not just full of precious, expensive, ancient objects. Part of the collection is the revealing bric-a-brac of modern times, the kind of thing that any one of us might have owned, that will become the history of the future. These include any number of cheap badges, celebrating political leaders from Ronald Reagan to Chairman Mao, warning of climate change, or acting as souvenirs of a visit to the Museum itself (‘Veni Vidi Museum Britannicum’, runs one of my favourites; ‘I’ve been to the British Museum’).
But I have chosen a souvenir from the Lyme Regis Museum in Dorset, decorated with the figure of local woman Mary Anning, the early-19th-century geologist and ‘fossil hunter’, who made all kinds of important discoveries in the area. She is one of the many women whose efforts, often unsung, underlie the collections in museums across the world. They are worth being taken out of their cases too!
There’s wow factor here too – the expertly modelled brass head of a man wearing an elegant headdress, once painted bright red (you can still see the traces). It was made in the 14th or 15th century in the ancient town of Ife, in Nigeria, and was found by accident along with a number of other brass heads during the course of house-building in the 1930s in the modern town. This one was bought by the editor of the Nigerian Daily Times, who took it to Britain; the rest remained in Nigeria (with copies now in the British Museum).
It goes without saying that these extraordinary works of art must have played an important part in Ife culture. But this one has opened people’s eyes in the UK too. When it first went on display, critics almost refused to accept that it could be what it really was. So reluctant were they to believe that the people of Ife 600 years ago were ‘capable’ of making something of this quality, that they invented all kinds of tall tales (like they had with the ‘Benin Bronzes’) about them being made by Europeans. This head, in other words, has been a powerful challenge to common assumptions about cultural hierarchy, pulling the wool from the eyes of Western complacency about its own ‘artistic superiority’.
That thought, of course, raises all kinds of questions about where objects belong, who ‘owns’ them, and what their cultural purposes are (complicated questions often rolled up together under the title ‘restitution’). I have no doubt that, during my time at the Museum, the Trustees will be engaging with all these questions (indeed they already are), and I hope I can add a useful perspective of my own. But don’t let’s imagine that debates like this are new in the history of museums across the world.
Museums have always been controversial. Who should be allowed in? And on what terms? What should they put on display? Who has the right to choose? And many more. I guess that one job of a Trustee is to ensure that those debates continue – constructively.
Have you been inspired by objects you’ve visited in museums or galleries?
Do you have a favourite object with an inspirational story?
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