British Museum blog

‘Wayfinding’: The Bridget Riley Art Foundation and Central Saint Martins at the British Museum

Sarah Jaffray, Project Officer: Bridget Riley Art Foundation, British Museum
A new display entitled ‘Wayfinding’ has been put up in Room 90 as part of the Bridget Riley Art Foundation (BRAF) Programme at the British Museum. For this exhibition of 14 works I have paired the drawings of BA Fine Art students from Central Saint Martins with the works that inspired them during their visit to the Prints and Drawings Study Room. The display explores drawing as a tool that artists, both emerging and established, use to find their way. Their ‘way’ may be an examination of their artistic process, the development or destruction of a personal style or the path to a finished work. Regardless of what form the path takes, drawing is a method through which an artist can clarify their direction.

Students drawing in the Prints and Drawings Study Room. (Photo: Sarah Jaffray)

Students drawing in the Prints and Drawings Study Room. (Photo: Sarah Jaffray)

The BRAF Programme is a three year project in the Department of Prints and Drawings that supports two posts: a project curator, Isabel Seligman, and myself as project officer. A key part of the programme is to research the drawing practice of emerging artists, specifically university art students. In the past year we have brought almost 500 students into the Prints and Drawings Study Room to take inspiration from drawings. We do this through curating and leading workshops, and selecting works from the Museum’s rich drawing collection, one that stretches from the fifteenth century to the present day. Responses from the students and tutors have been invaluable to our understanding of the role of drawing in contemporary arts practice and education. These insights have also contributed to Isabel’s curation of an exhibition of British Museum drawings that will tour the UK in 2016–2017.

Throughout the project, we have been privileged to work with many bright and engaged young artists, but we were particularly lucky to spend a significant amount of time with a small group of second year students from Central Saint Martins. Organised by their pathway leader Anne Eggebert and led by their tutor, artist Rachel Cattle, the course was entitled ‘On not knowing – drawing at the British Museum’. The title comes from Bridget Riley’s essay ‘At the End of My Pencil’, published by the London Review of Books in 2009. In the essay Riley states that, for her, ‘drawing is an inquiry, a way of finding out – the first thing that I discover is that I do not know.’

Students drawing from drawings in the Prints and Drawings Study Room. (Photo: Sarah Jaffray)

Students drawing from drawings in the Prints and Drawings Study Room. (Photo: Sarah Jaffray)

The course encouraged students to discover more about their own practice through the journey of drawing rather than working towards a defined, end point. By recognising that they ‘do not know’, the artists were freed from any limitations that might stifle true exploration.

Over the course of three months, we witnessed the students’ drawing practice reveal new directions in their work, as they responded to artists exploring similar ideas. The following works are just a few examples.

The Boxer, by Leo Claudon, acrylic on paper, 2015. (© Leo Claudon)

The Boxer, by Leo Claudon, acrylic on paper, 2015. (© Leo Claudon)

Leo Claudon found resonance with Picasso’s idea that in the metamorphosis of a picture ‘one might discover the path followed by the brain’. Instead of working from a defined concept, Claudon lets his drawing unfold through a series of reactions to line and form. This allows Claudon to draw without restriction; the work that emerges is a response to the energy of the moment in which it was drawn. The raw, overlapping lines that construct the muscular energy of the boxer show the artist’s process, the metamorphosis of his picture.

Conversing to/about form and surface. - Blue You & An introductory artist’s lecture, by Jordan Mouzouris, 2015, mixed media. (© Jordan Mouzouris)

Conversing to/about form and surface. – Blue You & An introductory artist’s lecture, by Jordan Mouzouris, 2015, mixed media. (© Jordan Mouzouris)

Jordan Mouzouris was inspired by the pulsating rhythms of a drawing by Mannerist artist Bronzino. Mouzouris’s piece was created with a method known as concrete poetry. In this practice, the artist uses visual composition to guide interpretation of text. Mouzouris frequently works from this method, sketching and arranging word and image in his notebook. It is no surprise that the artist connected to Bronzino, an artist who was not only a painter, but an accomplished poet.

Untitled, by Aurélie Poux, 2015, graphite on BFK Rives paper. (© Aurélie Poux)

Untitled, by Aurélie Poux, 2015, graphite on BFK Rives paper. (© Aurélie Poux)

Aurélie Poux drew Untitled shortly after working from a drawing by British abstract artist Paule Vézelay. Poux’s modulations of grey and subtlety of line are experiments drawn from what the artist has called ‘Vézelay’s silent delicacy’. The stability of Poux’s monumental figures is undone by the cracks and fissures that materialise from the drawing’s gradation of tone. Her meticulously drawn surface is intended to create an unsettling contradiction between youth and decay. Through exploration of Vézelay’s graphic mark-making and tonal variation, Poux found the artistic language she needed to confront the difficult subject of sickness and abuse through aesthetically pleasing form.

Beyond these artworks, visitors can also see the drawings of George Grosz, Frank Auerbach, Sol LeWitt and Giuseppe Galli Bibiena paired with responses from emerging artists Katherine Illingworth, Isabelle Cole, Pooja Patel and Rianne Owen.

The works in the display demonstrate the diversity of artistic experience that drawing can unlock. In drawing from drawings these artists were able to examine and explore their own artistic process from a different perspective. Much more than direct copying, their responses were pathways to discovery.

I hope this blog inspires people to come and see the display of student work and the works that inspired them. I also hope this inspires people to come and use the Study Room, where over 2 million works on paper can be seen first-hand. The display is in Room 90 through the first week of November. Appointments to draw in the Study Room can be made by clicking here.

Filed under: British Museum, Exhibitions, Prints and drawings, , , ,

Coming of age: The Hirayama Studio celebrates 21 years conserving the British Museum’s magnificent Asian paintings collection

Carol Weiss, Conservator of Chinese Paintings and Joanna Kosek, Head of Pictorial Art Section, Conservation and Scientific Research, British Museum

Anyone who has ever visited the Hirayama Conservation Studio in the British Museum has seen what a unique and impressive place it is. For within its venerable walls an old room found new life as the centre for the most delicate and artistic operations: the care, conservation and mounting of uncounted precious scrolls and similar art on paper and silk from East and South Asia.

This autumn the Hirayama Studio comes of age. For twenty-one years now work has been carried out in this studio and every year it is busier and busier. We have no idea how we would have coped had Professor Ikuo Hirayama and the Five Cities Art Dealers Association of Japan not come to our rescue in 1994, and given us our specially-designed studio housed in the Grade I listed building, once home to the Bloomsbury Savings bank.

The Hirayama Studio on its opening 21 years ago, with conservators (left to right) Sydney Thomson, Jin Xian Qiu, Andrew Thompson, Winnie Fleming (Head of Eastern Pictorial Art) and Ann Evans. (Photo: (c) The Trustees of the British Museum)

The Hirayama Studio on its opening 21 years ago, with conservators (from left to right) Sydney Thomson, Jin Xian Qiu, Andrew Thompson, Winnie Fleming (Head of Eastern Pictorial Art) and Ann Evans. Photo: (c) The Trustees of the British Museum

Over the last year, four conservators from Japan have been working with us. Sent from the Association for Conservation of National Treasures (Kokuho Shuri Sokoshi Renmei), thanks to the generous sponsorship of the Sumitomo Foundation, the conservators have been working with us on our Collaborative Project for the Conservation of Japanese Paintings in the British Museum, now in its eighth year.

Conservators from the Association for Conservation of National Treasures working in the Hirayama Studio (clockwise from top left: Aya One inpainting; BM textile conservator Anna Harrison discussing treatments with Masanobu Yamazaki and Keisuke Sugiyama; Iwataro-Yasuhiro Oka, Tim Clark (Curator of Japanese Collections) and Makoto Kajitani selecting mount silks; Keisuke and Jun Imada lining a handscroll)

Conservators from the Association for Conservation of National Treasures working in the Hirayama Studio (clockwise from top left): Aya One inpainting; BM textile conservator Anna Harrison discussing treatments with Masanobu Yamazaki and Keisuke Sugiyama; Iwataro-Yasuhiro Oka, Tim Clark (Curator of Japanese Collections at the British Museum) and Makoto Kajitani selecting mount silks; Keisuke and Jun Imada lining a handscroll. Photos: (c) The Trustees of the British Museum

A recent highlight of the project has been collaborating on remounting the newly-acquired and breathtaking painting by Kitagawa Utamaro (c.1753–1806). Old and beautiful kimono silks used in the 19th-century mount were refurbished, combining modern textile conservation techniques with traditional Japanese scroll-mounting skills (watch out for our next blog for details on this).

At the same time, with generous support from the American Friends of the Shanghai Museum, three scroll-mounting experts from Shanghai Museum visited us. These experts worked with us, assisting and enabling our own Master Chinese scroll-mounter, Jin Xian Qiu, to conserve and remount two huge Chinese silk paintings (both measuring around 3.5 m x 1.5 m).

Visiting scroll-mounters from Shanghai Museum (from left to right): Chu Hao adhering a painting to the drying board with Jin Xian Qiu; Hirayama Studio conservators Mee Jung Kim and Joanna Kosek assisting Huang Ying and Jin Xian Qiu remove a painting’s backing papers; and Shen Hua and Jin Xian Qiu preparing new backing papers

Visiting scroll-mounters from Shanghai Museum (from left to right): Chu Hao adhering a painting to the drying board with Jin Xian Qiu; Hirayama Studio conservators Mee Jung Kim and Joanna Kosek assisting Huang Ying and Jin Xian Qiu remove a painting’s backing papers; and Shen Hua and Jin Xian Qiu preparing new backing papers. Photos: (c) The Trustees of the British Museum

Thanks to this collaborative help, several paintings which were previously inaccessible due to their poor condition are now fully conserved and remounted.

This year was also a time of great change for the Hirayama Studio, as our Senior Conservator of Japanese Paintings, Keisuke Sugiyama, who has worked with us for the past eight years, returned to Japan to take up a teaching position. Keisuke is sorely missed. Our consolation is that Kyoko Kusunoki from the National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, Tokyo will join the team next spring, to continue the fantastic tradition of Japanese scroll-mounting that the Studio enjoys.

At the same time we are busily responding to the daily needs of the Museum. This means that every Asian painting, print, album, fan or screen in the Museum galleries (or any of them out on loan round the world) has been carefully checked and probably treated by us. Highlights in the last year have included the wonderful BP exhibition Ming: 50 years that changed China, the newly refurbished Korea Foundation Gallery, The Prince and the Pir Middle-Eastern painted miniatures display, and the soon-to-be-displayed remarkable paintings by contemporary artist Qu Leilei (watch out for a short film on this on the BM YouTube channel in November.

Jin Xian Qiu in conversation with artist Qu Leilei about mounting his recently acquired paintings

Jin Xian Qiu in conversation with artist Qu Leilei about mounting his recently acquired paintings. Photo: (c) The Trustees of the British Museum

Over the year, staff have contributed to a number of major international conferences, especially the International Institute for Conservation (IIC) congress in Hong Kong. We have given talks and welcomed many groups of students, hosted student placements – one an Institute of Conservation (Icon) intern – and continued our own specialist training under the watchful eyes of our scroll-mounting masters. (Remember that there is normally a ten-year training period to qualify as a scroll-mounter in East Asia).

Jin Xian Qiu and Carol Weiss performing the final backing of a Chinese hanging scroll whilst Camberwell College Conservation students observe; Icon intern Marie Kaladgew presenting Japanese tools and materials to visitors

Jin Xian Qiu and Carol Weiss performing the final backing of a Chinese hanging scroll while Camberwell College Conservation students observe; Icon intern Marie Kaladgew presenting Japanese tools and materials to visitors. Photos: (c) The Trustees of the British Museum

And we are never short of visitors at the Studio: colleagues, VIPs, journalists and cameramen come from all over to visit us and learn more about scroll-mounting work.

This sums up this last momentous year, while the highlights over our first twenty-one years include:

  • Work for the Mitsubishi Corporation Japanese Gallery displays (opened in 1990; refurbished in 2006)
  • Work for the Korea Foundation Gallery displays (opened in 2000)
  • Conservation of a six-fold Toyoharu screen by Mitsuhiro Abe, Andrew Thompson, Sydney Thomson and Sara Burdett, filmed as Secrets of the Screen, narrated by Sir David Attenborough (2001)
  • Conservation and mounting of around 100 fragmentary Dunhuang paintings by Jin Xian Qiu and Zhu Pin Fang from Shanghai Museum (2002)
  • The remarkable Sumitomo Foundation-funded Collaborative Project for the Conservation of Japanese Paintings in the British Museum which has to date allowed 14 conservators from the Association for Conservation of National Treasures to come and treat with us important paintings, including the imposing Tiger painting by Gan Ku which we have filmed and you can see here and here
Sumitomo Project (clockwise from top left): invited visitors observing the mounting of Gan Ku’s Tiger by Yukihiro Takegami, Takao Miyata and Keisuke Sugiyama; Hisashi Hakamata, Sara Burdett, Eoin Kelly and Keisuke removing the backing papers of a Japanese painting; Dazaifu ceremony celebrating the newly mounted painting Sambo Kojin; and Winnie Fleming observing the finishing of a folding screen

Sumitomo Project (clockwise from top left): invited visitors observing the mounting of Gan Ku’s Tiger by Yukihiro Takegami, Takao Miyata and Keisuke Sugiyama; Hisashi Hakamata, Sara Burdett, Eoin Kelly and Keisuke removing the backing papers of a Japanese painting; Dazaifu ceremony celebrating the newly mounted painting Sambo Kojin; and Winnie Fleming observing the finishing of a folding screen. Photos: (c) The Trustees of the British Museum

Admonitions Scroll (l-r): photography of the Admonitions Scroll by Valeria Ciocan; discussing treatment options with experts from the Association for Conservation of National Treasures, British Library, China National Silk Museum, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, National Museum of Korea, Tokyo National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, Peking University, The Beijing Palace Museum, School of Oriental and African Studies, Shanghai Museum, Taipei National Palace Museum; and treating the painting in preparation for its redisplay

The Admonitions Scroll (from left to right): photography of the Admonitions Scroll by Valeria Ciocan; discussing treatment options with experts from the Association for Conservation of National Treasures, British Library, China National Silk Museum, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, National Museum of Korea, Tokyo National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, Peking University, The Beijing Palace Museum, School of Oriental and African Studies, Shanghai Museum, Taipei National Palace Museum; and treating the painting in preparation for its redisplay. Photos: (c) The Trustees of the British Museum

  • Cooperation with the Shanghai Museum’s scroll-mounters
  • Re-papering of the Korea Foundation Gallery’s Saranbang and the Mitsubishi Corporation Japanese Gallery Tea House
8_Re-papering

Mee Jung Kim and Valentina Marabini re-papering the Museum’s Korean saranbang; and Eoin Kelly and Keisuke Sugiyama re-papering the shoji of the Museum’s Japanese tea house. Photos: (c) The Trustees of the British Museum

  • Work for major British Museum exhibitions including The first emperor: China’s terracotta army, Kuniyoshi from the Arthur R. Miller Collection (at the Royal Academy of Arts), the BP exhibition Ming: 50 years that changed China, and Shunga: sex and pleasure in Japanese art
  • Training in both Japan and China for our conservators (to learn about Valentina’s year at Shanghai Museum, click here)
  • Hosting numerous Masterclass workshops, including those by Jin Xian Qiu, Andrew Thompson, Yukio Yamamoto (sponsored by the Daiwa Anglo-Japan Foundation), Keisuke Sugiyama as well as many experts of the Association for Conservation of National Treasures in Japan, including Yukihiro Takegami, Itawaro-Yasuhiro Oka and Ryoko Kamei (sponsored by the Sumitomo Foundation)
  • Countless talks, lectures and publications including ‘The study and conservation of the silk painting Death of the Buddha’ by Keisuke Sugiyama et al. in the BMTRB vol 8

It is never quiet in the Hirayama Studio! So as we celebrate our 21st birthday we look forward with new energy and excitement to all the projects that the coming months and years will bring.

9 Finale

Hirayama Studio staff (from left to right): Valentina Marabini, Keisuke Sugiyama, Jin Xian Qiu, Mee Jung Kim and Carol Weiss. Photos: (c) The Trustees of the British Museum

Filed under: Conservation, , , , , , ,

Who were the Celts?

Julia Farley, Curator, European Iron Age collection, British Museum

As lead curator of the project, I am extremely excited that the exhibition Celts: art and identity at the British Museum is now open. Organised in partnership with National Museums Scotland, this is the first major exhibition to explore the full history of Celtic art and identity – but who were the Celts?

Classical authors conjure up a fantastical picture of a strange people, unfamiliar to the civilised inhabitants of Greece and Rome. The Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, writing in the first century BC, tells us that they were prone to arrogance and overindulgence – addicted to wine and frequently drinking so much that they fell into a stupor. The men grew their moustaches so long that when they were drinking, it was as if the liquid passed through ‘a kind of strainer’. They dressed ostentatiously in brightly coloured shirts and trousers, and striped or checked coats. They were hospitable hosts, welcoming strangers to their feasts, but they were fierce warriors, and quick to take offence at the smallest provocation. In battle, some charged into the fray naked, while others wore elaborate horned or animal-crested helmets, perhaps like the example below, dredged from the River Thames near Waterloo. Yet Diodorus also remarks that, for all their warlike swagger and boastfulness, these were not an uneducated people. He writes that they spoke in riddles, hinting darkly at their meaning and using one word to stand for another. Among their number were poets, and philosophers who could foretell the future and were so well respected that they could halt an army in full charge.

Horned helmet. Bronze, glass, c.150–50 BC. Found near Waterloo, along the River Thames, London. W. (between horns) 42.5 cm. British Museum 1988,1004.1

Horned helmet. Bronze, glass, c.150–50 BC. Found near Waterloo, along the River Thames, London. W. (between horns) 42.5 cm. British Museum 1988,1004.1

This is an immediate and engaging picture, but it leaves us with more questions than answers. These ancient descriptions might be very rich, but they are varied, and very few are based on first-hand evidence, so the real people behind these stereotypes continue to elude us. Sources vary on where and when these people lived. There are few objects to show us how the Celts represented themselves, although the extraordinary silver cauldron from Gundestrup in Denmark (pictured below) shows people wearing and using Celtic objects, and coins made in the Celtic world reveal a complex and varied iconography. The Celts left no written records of their own to tell us about their society, or whether indeed they were a unified group. It is much more likely that their lives revolved around smaller tribal, ethnic or family units. Much of their world is lost to us, but archaeology is gradually filling in the details of how these peoples lived.

Cauldron. Silver, partially gilded, 100 BC–AD 1. Gudestrup, Denmark. Diam. 69 cm; H. 42 cm. (c) The National Museum of Denmark.

Cauldron. Silver, partially gilded, 100 BC–AD 1. Gundestrup, Denmark. Diam. 69 cm; H. 42 cm. (c) The National Museum of Denmark.

Celts: art and identity tells the story of the Celts through the incredible objects they made. Shortly after 500 BC, around the time the Parthenon was being erected in Athens, a very different art was taking shape north of the Alps. In contrast to the clean, naturalistic lines of Greek art, the peoples that Greek writers would come to call the Celts were inventing their own way of representing the world. Theirs was an abstract, shapeshifting art, which writhes and transforms in the eye of the beholder. From one angle a sinuous line might resemble leafy tendrils, from another perspective it resolves into a hidden beast or bird. On close inspection, the swirling plant-like decoration on the circular shield boss from Wandsworth (pictured below) becomes two waterbirds, rearing back with wings outstretched, each with a single webbed foot curling down in front of its hooked beak. Like the riddling speech alluded to by Diodorus, the simple lines and curving forms of this Celtic art hint at complex meanings which could only be decoded by those familiar with its mysteries, a knowledge now long forgotten.

Shield boss. Copper-alloy, 350–150 BC. Found in Wandsworth, on the bed of the River Thames, London. Diam. 32.8 cm. British Museum 1858,1116.2

Shield boss. Copper-alloy, 350–150 BC. Found in Wandsworth, on the bed of the River Thames, London. Diam. 32.8 cm. British Museum 1858,1116.2

By around 300 BC, versions of this art style had spread across Europe, from the Atlantic to the Black Sea. Although Britain and Ireland were never explicitly referred to as Celtic by the Greeks and Romans, they were part of this world of shared art, values and beliefs. Where the Greeks, and later the Romans, saw a single people, archaeology reveals a mosaic of communities, connected but also locally distinct.

The torc (a kind of metal neck-ring) is one example of how our understanding has changed. To the ancient Greeks and Romans, torcs were a universal symbol of Celtic identity, but in fact it was not an exclusively Celtic phenomenon. Men and women across Europe and beyond wore torcs to display their power and status. Even within the Celtic world, the shape, design and decoration of these neck-rings varied from region to region, and it is likely that they were used to express local identities, rather than a universal ‘Celtic’ one. A stunning example (pictured below), a silver torc from Trichtingen in Germany on loan from the Württembergisches Landesmuseum in Stuttgart, weighs over 6 kg. The terminals are made in the shape of cow or bull heads, each wearing a tiny torc of its own.

Torc. Silver, iron, 200–50 BC. Trichtingen, Germany. Diam. 29.5 cm. (Photo: P. Frankenstein/H. Zweitasch; (c) Landesmuseum Wurttemberg, Stuttgart 2015)

By around 50 BC, life across much of Europe was changing. From around 200 BC, Roman control had gradually expanded to create an empire that extended from Spain to Syria and across North Africa. After the conquest of Britain in AD 43, the lives of the local inhabitants were dramatically transformed, both within the Roman province of Britannia and beyond its frontiers. In the south, the Roman army led the construction of forts, towns and cities with new facilities like amphitheatres and bathhouses. Local people mixed with invaders and settlers from around the empire, creating a cosmopolitan world where Roman and indigenous ways of life combined to create a unique Romano-British culture. Ireland and northern Scotland were never conquered, but people were still affected by the impact of Rome. Communities here found themselves the neighbours of a powerful empire, and responded by creating objects that reflected their independent, non-Roman identities. One such example is the massive armlet (the technical archaeological name!) from Belhelvie, on loan from the National Museum of Scotland. It was made in Scotland while southern Britain lay under Roman rule, and is decorated with a distinctive local style of art that echoes earlier Iron Age motifs.

Massive armlet. Copper-alloy, AD 50–150. Belhelvie, Aberdeenshire, Scotland. H. 11.5 cm. National Museums Scotland, Edinburgh.

Massive armlet. Copper-alloy, AD 50–150. Belhelvie, Aberdeenshire, Scotland. H. 11.5 cm. National Museums Scotland, Edinburgh.

After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, a distinctive form of Christianity emerged in Ireland, Scotland and western Britain, regions which were outside the old heartlands of Roman control. Monasteries in these areas stood out as European centres of art and learning. Although connected to wider Christian communities across Europe, they continued to develop their own local traditions, and their languages, art and religious practices set them apart.

The name ‘Celts’ had fallen out of use after the Roman period, but it was rediscovered during the Renaissance, when people became more interested in understanding their own local histories. From the 16th century, ‘Celts’ was used as shorthand for the pre-Roman peoples of western Europe. In the early 1700s, the languages of Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Cornwall, Brittany and the Isle of Man were given the name ‘Celtic’ to reflect their pre-Roman origins. In the context of a continually shifting political and religious landscape, ‘Celtic’ acquired a new significance as the peoples of these Atlantic regions sought to affirm their difference and independence from their French and English neighbours, drawing on long histories of distinctive local identities. Over the following centuries, a Celtic revival movement led to the creation of a rich, reimagined and romanticised Celtic past, expressed in art and literature.

Although the Celts are not a single people, a distinct race or genetic group that can be traced through time, the idea of a Celtic identity still resonates powerfully today, all the more so because it has been continually redefined to echo contemporary concerns over politics, power and religion. The word Celtic continues to strike a chord, both nationally and globally. For most people, it has now come to stand for the distinctive local histories, traditions, music and languages of the modern Celtic nations: Brittany, Cornwall, Ireland, the Isle of Man, Scotland and Wales, and for people around the world who trace their ancestry back to these regions. ‘Celtic’ is still a word that creates a sense of difference, but what began as a label applied to outsiders by the ancient Greeks has now been proudly embraced to express a sense of shared heritage and belonging, reflecting a long history of regional difference and independence.

Celts: art and identity is at the British Museum until 31 January 2016.
Organised with National Museums Scotland

Supported by
In memory of Melvin R Seiden
Sheila M Streek
Stephen and Julie Fitzgerald
Fund for the Future donors

The accompanying book is available from the British Museum shop online

Filed under: Celts: art and identity, Exhibitions, , , , , , , ,

The art of the masters: drawing in silver and gold

An Van Camp, Curator, Dutch and Flemish drawings and prints, British Museum

Our latest Prints and Drawings exhibition recently opened in Room 90: Drawing in silver and gold: Leonardo to Jasper Johns. Organised in collaboration with the National Gallery of Art, Washington, the show brings together over one hundred stunning works of art, around half of which are from the British Museum’s own superb collection; the other half includes some of the most spectacular pieces from museums and private collections around the world. For the curatorial team involved in this show (Hugo Chapman, Giulia Bartrum and me) it was incredibly exciting to see all the drawings we’ve been researching for the past four years displayed together at last, and reproduced in the beautiful accompanying catalogue. It was also exhilarating to finally welcome the couriers who had flown in from museums all over the world to unpack, condition check and hang the drawings they had brought with them.

In this picture you can see the conservator Kim Schenck condition checking some of the drawings from the National Gallery of Art.[HYPERLINK TO NGA Exhibition Webpage].

In this picture you can see the conservator Kim Schenck condition checking some of the drawings from the National Gallery of Art, Washington.

Every one of the works on display are masterpieces in their own right, made by Dutch, Flemish, Italian, German, British and American artists, dating from the late 1390s up until the present day. Some of our highlights include Leonardo da Vinci’s Head of a Warrior and Jean Fouquet’s Portrait of a Man. 

All these drawings are united by one unique feature: they have all been made using one particular drawing technique, called metalpoint. It is quite unusual to stage an exhibition around a specific drawing technique but we felt so compelled by these metalpoint drawings that we wanted to show examples from all around the world. The show reveals how the most brilliant artists in history used this technique and how it has evolved from its earliest use up until the present day.

So what is it? Metalpoint is quite a complicated but mind-blowing drawing technique in which the draughtsman draws with a metal stylus or rod, either in silver or gold (hence the exhibition title). We all know it is impossible to draw with metal on a sheet of paper; you can even try to draw with some of your silver or gold jewellery to test this… So the paper first needs to be prepared with a special layer which will abrade the metal. This abrasive ground is made of glue mixed with burnt animal bones which have been crushed into powder. The mixture is then brushed onto the paper, after which the artist can start drawing. As the stylus is drawn over the surface it leaves tiny traces of metal particles, resulting in a visible drawing.

Different metals used for drawing in metal point.

Different metals used for drawing in metalpoint.

Washington conservator Kim got slightly obsessed by this metalpoint technique and started experimenting herself. This resulted in a fascinating essay in our beautiful exhibition catalogue and Kim herself even features in our exhibition as she can be seen in a video demonstrating the technique.

Some artists working in metalpoint prefer a coloured ground, and so may add pigments to the mixture. When you visit the exhibition, see if you can spot some of these beautiful drawings on yellow, orange, pink, red, green and blue grounds. In fact, some of my favourite drawings in the exhibition are made on a brightly-coloured ground: for instance the Self-portrait by the Dutch artist Hendrick Goltzius is made on a yellow tablet, while the female saint by the Italian Fra Filippo Lippi is drawn on salmon pink.

So why did draughtsmen decide to use this complicated drawing technique? The answer varies from century to century. Initially metalpoint was used in the workshop as a drawing tool to make very fine and precise lines as other drawing tools, such as a chalk sticks or quill pens, were not accurate enough. The preciseness of metalpoint allowed for highly-detailed drawings and this made it a very suitable technique for young artists learning how to draw, or for more experienced artists who copied other works of art for reference. From the beginning of the sixteenth century onwards artists started to take metalpoint outdoors for use in their small sketchbooks. As the metal stylus did not smudge or require liquid, it was of course very useful to artists who were travelling around to make topographical views or portraits of their patrons. Although most of these sketchbooks were taken apart in later centuries, we show three intact examples in our exhibition. With the discovery of graphite in the late sixteenth century, the use of metalpoint diminished as it was now possible to use a cheaper and easier material, while at the same time producing precise lines as the point of a graphite pen could be sharpened. Surprisingly, however, metalpoint continued to be used in the Netherlands, mainly by artists recording snapshots of their family life and their travels. Only a few metalpoint drawings by the famous Dutch artist Rembrandt have survived and they were made during a trip in 1633 to the north of the Netherlands, when he got engaged to his future wife, Saskia van Uylenburgh. Some of the drawings on show are of typical cottages from that region and give us a glimpse of the world of Rembrandt. There are almost no metalpoint drawings from the eighteenth century but the technique underwent a revival in England in the nineteenth century as artists wanted to copy and learn from the techniques of the Old Masters. For example, in the exhibition you can compare a study of the Virgin and Child by the Italian artist Raphael, made around 1509 with an almost exact copy made after the original in the British Museum by Alphonse Legros around 1885/90. Contemporary artists also still use metalpoint, especially in the United States, as a way to test their artistry and master this long-forgotten technique.

Apart from the three sketchbooks in the show, we have also included other objects related to the drawings: a few prints, a silver statue and even a cat mummy!

Here is a great picture of the Keeper of the Prints and Drawings Department, Hugo Chapman, installing the showcase.

Here is a great picture of the Keeper of the Prints and Drawings Department, Hugo Chapman, installing the showcase.

Photo 4 - Mummified cat eyeing up some dead mice.

And we also experienced another great moment during the installation when the cat went after some of the mice drawn by the British artist Charles Hazelwood Shannon.

It was such a great relief to finally see all the drawings hanging on the walls, and here is the moment when the last frame was installed:

It was such a great relief to finally see all the drawings hanging on the walls and here is the moment when the last frame was installed.

I really hope that these small insights into the preparations behind this show have inspired you to come and see the show yourself, and perhaps even experiment with metalpoint too. One of the contemporary artists who is featured in the show will come and give a demonstration of metalpoint, so why not come and give it a go yourself?

Drawing in silver and gold: Leonardo to Jasper Johns is on until 6th December 2015. For associated events, see our Events programme.

Filed under: Drawing in silver and gold, Exhibitions, Prints and drawings, , ,

Linking cultures: Sudan, Egypt and Nubia at the British Museum

Anna Garnett, Amara West Project Curator, British Museum

The land of Nubia, the ancient name for the Nile Valley in the far south of Egypt and northern Sudan, was the vital link between the ancient Egyptian and Mediterranean worlds and the cultures and raw materials of sub-Saharan Africa. Although heavily influenced by Egypt over millennia, the Nubian and Sudanese cultures along the Nile were distinctly different from that of their northern neighbour, Egypt. During certain periods, Nubian states conquered parts of Egypt.

The Egyptian pharaoh Kamose, who reigned 1555–1550 BC, spoke of his struggle to reunify Egypt at the end of the Second Intermediate Period (1650–1550 BC):

‘To what end am I to understand this power of mine, when a chieftain is in Avaris, and another in Kush, and I sit in league with an Asiatic and a Nubian, every man holding his slice of Egypt?’

Earlier this year, new displays in Room 65: The Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Sudan, Egypt and Nubia were created with the aim of showcasing the diversity of the Nubian and Sudanese civilisations, and to further highlight the great cultural and political flowerings in this region over more than six thousand years of history. As part of my role in the Future Curators programme at the British Museum, I worked closely on the initial planning stages of this refreshment project with Derek Welsby, Assistant Keeper of Sudan and Egyptian Nubia.

These displays include the first public exhibition of a number of objects excavated by the Sudan Archaeological Research Society in collaboration with the British Museum. Contextual images have been introduced to complement the objects, including panoramic views of Sudanese and Nubian landscapes, such as the Kushite royal pyramids at Nuri.

Kushite royal cemetery at Nuri, Sudan. (Photo © SARS Archive.)

Kushite royal cemetery at Nuri, Sudan. (Photo © SARS Archive.)

The refreshed display is chronological. It begins with the story of Prehistoric Sudan with a focus on tools, weapons, pottery and items of personal adornment from the Neolithic period (4900–3000 BC). The oldest object in this display is a quartzite hand axe dating to around 100,000 BC (British Museum 1935,1109.208).

The narrative continues with the development of early food-producing societies in Sudan, known as the A-Group, C-Group and the Pan-Grave cultures, who lived along the Sudanese Nile Valley between around 3700 and 1070 BC. A selection of objects including jewellery, pottery and stone tools demonstrates the increasing sophistication of the material and funerary cultures of these distinct groups of people.

The Kingdom of Kush, the first urban society in sub-Saharan Africa, flourished from around 2500 to 1450 BC. Excavations at the site of Kerma, the ancient capital of the Kushite kingdom, have revealed residential and industrial areas, cemeteries, palaces and two huge mud-brick buildings (known as deffufa) which may have had a religious function, perhaps as temples. The most iconic objects of the Kerma culture are the delicate handmade pottery vessels, which highlight the technological sophistication of this period.

Western Deffufa at Kerma (Photo © SARS Archive.)

Western deffufa at Kerma (Photo © SARS Archive.)

Kerma Moyen period burial containing sacrificed goats/sheep and ceramic grave goods (Northern Dongola Reach Site P37) (Photo © SARS Archive.)

Kerma Moyen period burial containing sacrificed goats/sheep and ceramic grave goods (Northern Dongola Reach Site P37) (Photo © SARS Archive.)

Another key aim of the refreshed displays is to draw visitors’ attention to the evolution of burial customs in Sudan: a reconciled tomb-group excavated from the A-Group cemetery at the ancient town site of Faras and dating to around 3000 BC, is presented alongside a showcase containing a reconstructed burial based on the typical layout of a Kerma Moyen period grave (see above). The grave, dating to around 2050–1750 BC, was excavated in the region of the Northern Dongola Reach in Sudan.

Kerma Classique period spouted beaker. British Museum EA 65577 (Photo © Trustees of the British Museum.)

Kerma Classique period spouted beaker. British Museum EA 65577 (Photo © Trustees of the British Museum.)

Moving to more recent times, a display of weaponry and items of personal adornment from the period of the Kushite Empire includes objects dating from the late 1st century BC onwards when the Roman Empire increased contact and conflict with the Kingdom of Kush, a vast political entity extending from the Butana region in central Sudan to Lower Nubia. Due to the extraordinary level of preservation at Qasr Ibrim, a major religious centre and Roman garrison during the Kushite Period, we were able to richly illustrate the theme of everyday life and conflict during this period with a variety of objects including weaponry and leatherwork. A figure of a bound prisoner dating to the late 1st century BC (pictured below), preserving an inscription which calls him the ‘King of the Nubians’, also demonstrates how the Kushites typically represented their defeated enemies during this period.

Figure of a bound captive. British Museum EA 65222 (Photo © Trustees of the British Museum.)

Figure of a bound captive. British Museum EA 65222 (Photo © Trustees of the British Museum.)

It is hoped that these new displays will enable visitors to better understand the developments in Nubian and Sudanese history while also gaining a new appreciation of the beauty and diversity of the material cultures of those who lived and died along the Nile Valley in ancient Sudan.

You may also be interested in this upcoming event at the British Museum on 7th September.

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

The mystery of the Fetter Lane hoard

Amelia Dowler, Curator of Greek and Roman Provincial Coins, British Museum

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.

Map London 1900

Extract from Pocket Atlas and Guide to London 1900 showing the British Museum and Fetter Lane (bottom right)

The Fetter Lane coins were all minted in Alexandria, in Egypt, between AD 58 and AD 284. At this period in the Roman Empire, official coins were produced at centrally controlled mints for use across the empire. However, many other mints also produced civic coins, usually in copper alloys, to be used in the local area. Coins had first been minted in Alexandria under the Ptolemaic dynasty (c.312–30 BC), which continued after Egypt became a Roman province in 30 BC. Unlike in most other provinces, Alexandria was a centrally controlled mint and the coins were initially made of debased silver before declining into a mainly copper alloy coinage. They circulated locally in the eastern Mediterranean and did not form part of the official Roman denomination system.

The earliest dated coin in the hoard (Year 5: 58/59 AD), depicting Nero. British Museum 1914,0403.2

The earliest dated coin in the hoard (Year 5: 58/59 AD), depicting Nero. British Museum 1914,0403.2

Coins used in the Roman province of Britannia were from official Roman mints and we know this both from coin finds and from references to coins at the time, such as at Vindolanda. Why then would these Alexandrian coins be brought to Britain where they formed no part of the currency system?

Over the past 200 years or so when unusual coins like these have been found in Britain they have often been dismissed as modern imports, perhaps brought back to the country as souvenirs from the Grand Tour, or by soldiers returning from service. There is a long history of these finds being dismissed, particularly by coin experts in museums and universities. I am compiling a catalogue of this material to look into this question further: are coins from the Mediterranean world (and sometimes further afield) modern losses or did they arrive in Iron Age or Roman times? These are coins – minted between the 5th century BC up to the end of the 3rd century AD – which would not have been part of a currency system in Britain.

The latest dated coin in the hoard (Year 2: 283/4 AD), depicting Carinus. British Museum 1914,0403.46

The latest dated coin in the hoard (Year 2: 283/4 AD), depicting Carinus. British Museum 1914,0403.46

This is a particularly relevant question today when the Portable Antiquities Scheme is regularly listing coins with similar origins to the database. The steadily increasing number of ‘foreign’ coins means that it is important to readdress this question rather than dismissing it out of hand. There are examples both of coins being found in known contexts, such as in the Sacred Spring in Bath, and also where we know that coins were modern imports, such as the Alexandrian coins found on the wreck of the HMS Pomone. For the majority of coins however we have no clear information about their findspots.

Where does this leave the Fetter Lane hoard? The fact that the coins were found together is also unusual: when ‘foreign’ coins like these are found they are usually single finds or are a rare foreign inclusion in a group of imperial Roman coins. The coins look in similar condition so it is quite likely that they were a group for some time despite the date range of the coins from AD 58 (during the reign of Nero) to AD 284 (during the reign of Carinus). It is unfortunate that the pot they were found in has been lost, as that might have supplied more information about what period they were deposited. There are a few plausible options to consider.

The coins could have been brought back as a souvenir group from Egypt by a Grand Tourist or by someone, perhaps a soldier, transiting through the Suez Canal. Souvenirs of this sort were fairly common and would have been reasonably cheap to buy locally in Egypt. After this they may have been put into a pot as a foundation deposit for a house in Fetter Lane at some point in the 1800s and were then found in 1908 during further works.

The coins could have been collected together in antiquity and deposited together during the Roman occupation of London (Londinium) after AD 50. From the dates of the coins themselves, this would have to have been after AD 284 when Londinium was a thriving Roman city. But why would this have happened? It is possible that these coins were collected together by a traveller or trader coming to London at this period. We know that the population of Londinium contained many foreigners who arrived during this time so the city was quite well connected to the rest of the Roman world. Perhaps these were kept as a memento of home or travels, or deposited for safe-keeping or as an offering for a safe journey to London.

Another intriguing proposition is that during the 3rd century AD there was a monetary crisis across the Roman Empire and at the turn of the century Roman coinage was reformed. At this point, local coinages ceased, leaving only the official Roman imperial mints producing coins. In Alexandria minting ceased in AD 297, shortly before the official reforms. It is possible that the coins were gathered together and brought westwards to fill gaps in the available currency, officially or unofficially. Or simply that when these coins became defunct they were gathered together to be used as a source of metal or kept by people thinking that one day they could use them again. However, there is no contemporary, corroborating evidence for these proposals other than the fact that there was a monetary crisis and a coinage reform.

Without any further context for the Fetter Lane hoard it is, for the moment at least, likely to remain an intriguing puzzle. By collecting together further evidence across the country, I hope to build up a picture of what kinds of coins arrived in ancient times and which arrived more recently.

Image of the Fetter Lane hoard at the British Museum. (Photo: Ben Alsop)

Image of the Fetter Lane hoard at the British Museum. (Photo: Ben Alsop)

The Fetter Lane hoard is currently on display in the Citi Money Gallery.

The Citi Money Gallery is supported by Citi.

Further reading:

FD Ringrose (1911) ‘Finds of Alexandrian Coins in London’ The Numismatic Chronicle (4th series) vol. 11, pp. 357–8

Filed under: British Museum, coins and medals, Collection, Money Gallery, Research, , , , , , ,

The Blackfoot at the British Museum

John Davy, Collaborative Doctoral Student, Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, British Museum

With the generous assistance of art brokers C S Redlick, the British Museum has recently been able to acquire the painting Event II by the Siksika Blackfoot artist Adrian A Stimson. The Blackfoot are a Native American tribe whose home is on the plains of historic Saskatchewan, now Saskatchewan and Alberta in Canada, and Montana in the United States. They have a long history of subsistence on the land, and Stimson – also known by the pseudonym ‘Buffalo Boy’ – produces artworks which engage with conceptions of what it means to be Native in the modern world.

Event II, Adrian Stimson, 2015, 121.9 x 61 cm. British Museum 2015,2023.1

Event II, by Adrian Stimson, 2015, 121.9 x 61 cm. British Museum 2015,2023.1

Event II depicts two American bison, commonly known as buffalo, a mother and calf, playing in deep snow. The cow rolls in the snow as the calf leaps excitedly beside her. In the background the featureless while plains stretch for miles underneath a wide expanse of sky studded with dark clouds. It is a timeless natural scene, broken by one small feature: in the far distance, on the horizon, a tiny nodding-donkey pumpjack beats away, draining oil from far below.

The painting is part of a series of artworks Stimson has produced which illustrate the effects of mineral exploitation on traditional Native landscapes, each depicting buffalo on snowy plains against a backdrop of pipelines and factories. Mineral extraction has become a major issue for the Blackfoot in recent years, as mining companies have increasingly sought to gain access to mineral deposits on historic tribal lands. Although there is substantial wealth to be made, the potential damage to the environment and upheaval in the traditional way of life are significant concerns, reflected in these paintings in which the buffalo stand for the Blackfoot peoples.

The British Museum is particularly pleased to be able to purchase this artwork as the Museum already contains important historical collections from the Blackfoot peoples, most notably the Deane-Freeman collection. At the turn of the twentieth century Maude Deane-Freeman, wife of ration distributer Frederick, lived among the Kainai Blackfoot, on what was then known as the Blood Reservation of Alberta. At this time, the Kainai were under pressure from the Canadian government to abandon traditional religious and social beliefs. Many people, faced with the threat of starvation, disposed of the regalia used in Blackfoot ceremonial life. Rather than see this beautiful material destroyed by the reservation agents, Maude purchased it from its original owners, building a substantial collection. She wrote that:

They are giving up the old life and customs, and trying to earn their living by toil like the white man, consequently the things that belong to their old life and religion are getting very scarce. As the old people die their belongings are buried with them and the younger generation seem to have lost their desire of making them, particularly as every obstacle is put in the way of their holding their religious dances.

Ceremonial Kainai tomahawk from the Deane-Freeman collection, c.1900, 93 x 37 cm. British Museum Am1903,-.82

Ceremonial Kainai tomahawk from the Deane-Freeman collection, c. 1900, 93 x 37 cm. British Museum Am1903,-.82

When Maude’s collection was discovered by her husband’s superiors, Frederick was summarily dismissed from his post and the couple moved to Toronto, where Frederick died soon afterwards. There, Maude’s collection was recognised by Governor-General of Canada Lord Minto as of great importance, and he arranged for it to be purchased by the government in 1903, dividing the collection between Victoria College in Toronto and the British Museum. A century later, the collection was reunited for an exhibition at Lethbridge, close to the Kainai Reservation, where the visitor interpretation and labels were provided by the families whose ancestors had once owned the material. This information continues to inform the presentation of the collection in the Native North American gallery at the British Museum.

Adrian Stimson’s provocative painting joins a growing body of modern Native American artwork which can be exhibited alongside and in direct dialogue with the existing historic collections of Native American artefacts at the British Museum, illustrating both the continuity of tradition and the modern environmental, political and social concerns of America’s First Peoples.

Filed under: British Museum, Collection, , , ,

Spicy stories: the case of a clove boat model

Charlotte Dixon, Collaborative Doctoral Award PhD Student, British Museum and University of Southampton

 Model boat made from threaded cloves before conservation, AD 1700s–1900s, probably from Indonesia, L 58 cm, H 30 cm, D 23 cm. British Museum As1972,Q.1944


Model boat made from threaded cloves before conservation, AD 1700s–1900s, probably from Indonesia, L 58 cm, H 30 cm, D 23 cm. British Museum As1972,Q.1944

Since closure of the temporary exhibition Connecting continents: Indian Ocean trade and exchange, the exhibited objects, including a model boat made from hundreds of dried cloves, have been returned to storage. However, out of sight does not mean out of mind…

The world of clove models is a mysterious one: little is known about these exciting, unique and strongly scented objects. This leaves us with questions such as what are they, where did they come from, when and why? Very little was known about the British Museum’s clove boat model before it was displayed, including its origins. Research was thus carried out to start to piece together information, but many questions are still unanswered. Intrigued by these objects research continues and you are invited to be a part of it!

Through this blog I will highlight what we currently know about these models before moving on to explore what we are yet to learn and, importantly, how you can help.

Clove boat model on display at the temporary exhibition Connecting continents: Indian Ocean trade and exchange curated by Dr Sarah Longair, open from November 2014 to May 2015. (Photo: David Agar, British Museum)

Clove boat model on display at the temporary exhibition Connecting continents: Indian Ocean trade and exchange curated by Dr Sarah Longair, open from November 2014 to May 2015.

What were they for?

It can be suggested clove models would have been made as souvenirs. Research has shown it was not just model boats that were made from cloves but other items such as a horse and cart, baskets, and even a tea cup were produced in the Molucca Islands in Indonesia.

So what do we know about the British Museum model?

This model can be identified as a kora kora, an Indonesian boat used for trade and warfare, and is thought to broadly date between the 18th and 20th centuries. Further evidence for the origins of the model can be seen in the materials used, as cloves are native to the Moluccas in Indonesia, also known as the Spice Islands.

Using examples of other models in museums, such as Kew Gardens and the Ashmolean in the UK, Tropenmuseum in Holland and the Kunstkamera in Russia for example, we can start to build up a broader picture of the art of clove model making. However, there are still many unanswered questions such as when did this practice start, how many were made, who were they for and how many exist today?

Image of Indonesian boats, including a kora kora being paddled in the centre from Edmond Paris Essai sur la construction navale des peuples extra-européens, 1845.

Image of Indonesian boats, including a kora kora being paddled in the centre. From Edmond Paris, Essai sur la construction navale des peuples extra-européens, 1845.

Benefits of social media

Despite these unanswered questions, a blog post by Verena Kotonski, Conservator for Organic Artefacts, invited readers to help determine the positioning of clove figures on the model which sparked international interest. The responses have been very insightful and revealed clove boat models in private collections in the UK and Australia, confirmed one of the models had been collected as a souvenir and encouraged the only known collector of clove boat models, Loed van Bussel, to get in touch and share images of his fleet with us. In addition, a current website shows some clove models are still being made today on Ambon Island in the Moluccas.

The British Museum clove boat model was clearly not a one off specimen; there are various models of boats, as well as other objects, in existence in museums and private collections internationally. However, these evidences are still few and far between.

Torsos of drummers positioned on the roof of the model after conservation. This image was used in Verena’s blog post inviting reader’s to share information. (Photo: Verena Kotonski, British Museum)

Torsos of drummers positioned on the roof of the model after conservation. This image was used in Verena’s blog post inviting reader’s to share information. (Photo: Verena Kotonski, British Museum)

Can you help?

Do you own a clove boat model or know someone who does? If so, do you know anything about the model and how it came to be in your possession? Or perhaps you have seen such models in a museum that has not been mentioned or in a shop window or auction house. If you have any information about clove boat models please do get in touch by emailing cd405@soton.ac.uk or cdixon@britishmuseum.org. With your help we can start to understand how many models like this really are out there which may, in turn, help us understand this particular form of craft and trade.

Further research: a world of model boats

Whilst I am fascinated by clove boat models my research as a doctoral student is not wholly concerned with these objects. I am instead using a whole range of model boats from the Indian Ocean, from East Africa through to Western Australia, to see what we can learn from them in terms of boat building, maritime cultures and collecting. Working collaboratively with the British Museum and University of Southampton I get the opportunity to go behind the scenes and explore museum collections and have been fortunate enough to see many weird, wonderful and intricately crafted boat models. Through my research I hope to promote the use of boat models for research and display, including those made from cloves.

Researching other model boats in the stores at the British Museum. (Photo: Imogen Laing, British Museum)

Researching other model boats in the stores at the British Museum. (Photo: Imogen Laing, British Museum)

My thanks go to Dr Sarah Longair, curator of Connecting continents, and Verena Kotonski for their continued help and enthusiasm during and after the exhibition. Thank you also to Imogen Laing, Museum Assistant in the Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, for access to the model and to my supervisors Dr JD Hill, Dr Lucy Blue and Dr Helen Farr for their continued support.

Charlotte’s research is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council through the Collaborative Doctoral Partnership scheme.

Filed under: British Museum, Conservation, Research, , ,

House of memories: an app and the material culture of money

Ben Alsop, Project Curator, Coins and Medals collection, British Museum

Objects which trigger memories can be peculiar things. Often it is not the finest, most visually arresting things that spark a particular memory. For me it is a pipe – the kind that has a small bowl and shiny black plastic stem. Whenever I see a pipe like this I immediately think of my grandpa who used to love to dedicate his time to cleaning, refilling and smoking the brown tangled tobacco he used to squash down into the end of it. To be honest most of the time it wasn’t even lit, just an object which he could chew in contemplation, or use to point at something else on the opposite side of the room. When he died I remember the family meeting in the flat where he had lived with my Grandma. When I walked in the pipe was on its own on the side table by the telephone. I sometimes wonder what happened to it.

The British Museum is, in part, renowned for objects that are often viewed as the pinnacle of human artistic expression. These objects are made using the finest materials, for or at the behest of the most influential and powerful in society. And yet the Museum is also full of objects that don’t speak of privilege and wealth. They speak of the lives of ordinary people, what they may have worn, what they believed, what they ate and drank from and most interestingly for me, what they used to pay for things.

A few months ago my colleague Mieka Harris (The Citi Money Gallery Education Manager) and I worked on a project with National Museums Liverpool where we were asked to suggest objects from the Coins and Medals collection at the British Museum which could be used in an app. The app was to be produced as part of the House of Memories project which aims to support the carers of people living with dementia. The app, now in its third incarnation, includes objects from National Museums Liverpool, The Cinema Museum in Elephant and Castle, Brighton Pavilion and Museums, Bexley Museum and Heritage Trust and the British Museum.

Our brief was to suggest objects that would have been used in ordinary life. The Coins and Medals collection is perfect for this. The material culture of money not only touches almost everyone in society but can also be very evocative. This fact, when combined with the great variety of objects in the collection, made the decision-making process rather tricky.

Collection of Co-operative tokens

Co-operative plastic tokens selected for the House of Memories app. British Museum

As an example, one group of objects we suggested were co-operative plastic tokens which people used to leave out to pay for deliveries instead of coins. These small, brightly-coloured plastic discs would be the stuff of everyday life and pass through people’s hands on a daily basis. Other objects included a leaflet from Camden council explaining how to pay the poll tax, a three-pence coin (threepenny bit), a ten-shilling note (ten bob), a collection of cardboard toy-money and a National Savings money box. In total we suggested twenty objects, all with associated images and sounds to give context and encourage discussion between carers and those living with dementia.

Cardboard toy-money. British Museum

Cardboard toy-money included in the House of Memories app. British Museum

National Savings money box selected for the House of Memories app. British Museum

National Savings money box selected for the House of Memories app. British Museum

The user can explore the app thematically or simply browse the objects, saving those which they have an affinity with to a memory tree, memory box or timeline. These objects can then be saved to a personal profile so they can be looked at and chatted about again at any time. It was a really fantastic project to be involved with and demonstrates the power of museum collections to act as a catalyst to memories and conversation.

The House of Memories app is now available to download for free from the iTunes store or Google play.

The British Museum’s involvement in this project has been supported by Citi through the Citi Money Gallery.

Filed under: coins and medals, Collection, Money Gallery, , , , , ,

Letting off steam: communicating through music, cloth and song in eastern Africa

Chris Spring, Curator, African collection, British Museum

When I began to prepare for the Asahi Shimbun Display Music, celebration and healing: the Sudanese lyre, I realised at once that zār ceremonies in Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia (which were aimed at calming the restless spirits within those possessed and at which lyres of the type featured in the show would have been played), represent one among several different ways for women to communicate a range of ideas and concerns which cannot be spoken out loud in daily society. My fieldwork in eastern Africa over the past 15 years has taught me that kanga cloth and taarab music are two other means of communicating widely used by women in the region.

Sudanese lyre. 19th century. H. 40.5 cm. British Museum Af1917,0411.1

Sudanese lyre. 19th century. H. 40.5 cm. British Museum Af1917,0411.1

Printed cotton manga, with inscription which reads 'You know nothing'. Tanzania, early 21st century. 105 x 154 cm. British Museum Af2002,09.4.

Printed cotton kanga, with inscription which reads ‘You know nothing’. Tanzania, early 21st century. 105 x 154 cm. British Museum Af2002,09.4.

The very first kanga I acquired for the British Museum on Zanzibar back in 2002 (pictured above) was not printed in Africa at all but in India and it looked more like a Damien Hirst spot painting than anything else. On it was printed the Swahili slogan HUJUI KITU ‘YOU KNOW NOTHING’, and that marked the beginning of a steep learning curve for me. ‘Who would wear such a thing?’, I asked my Tanzanian friend George Ngungulu. ‘Oh, maybe an older woman as a way of putting down her younger rivals’ he replied, ‘“You young people think you know everything, but HUJUI KITU – you know nothing!!” In other words, it’s a way of letting off steam without having to open your mouth or indulge in anything physical’, he explained.

That kanga, together with many other textiles from eastern and southern Africa, is currently in the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter as part of the Social Fabric: African Textiles exhibition which I originally curated at the British Museum and which is now one of its ‘Museum in Britain’ touring exhibitions.

The unspoken language of the kanga provides a way of suggesting thoughts and feelings which cannot be said out loud, and of relieving suspicions and anxieties which inevitably arise, very much in the way women benefit from zār ceremonies in Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia, though in zār women are permitted – even expected – to let off steam by behaving in outrageous ways which are definitely taboo in wider society. In common with zār, kangas regularly move between the realms of the secular and the sacred. They play a central role in all the major life-cycle ceremonies in a Swahili woman’s life, and yet may be used for the most mundane of functions. It is this ambivalence that makes kanga cloth almost emblematic of multi-faceted Swahili society.

While working in Tanzania and Kenya I also learned that there are interesting parallels between the development of kanga and of the style of musical performance known as taarab, which accompanies important occasions in coastal eastern Africa and on Zanzibar in particular – though the classical style of taarab originated in Egypt. I remember a wonderful performance by a taarab orchestra, fronted by a female singer, in a revered music club in Stone Town, Zanzibar. Listening to the singer, and watching women offering her money, I realised that there is a distinct similarity between the messages contained in kanga inscriptions and the sentiments expressed by the female taarab singers at the request of the women in the audience: both are vehicles which allow Swahili women to become involved in everyday personal or local disputes and rivalry by voicing opinions which cannot be overtly stated. So successful were both kanga and taarab in this role that legislation had to be brought in to regulate the vehemence with which they were being used in Tanzania!

Working with Emma Liwewa, vice-principal of the Bagamoyo College of Arts on the Tanzanian mainland, I learned how kangas are also worn in different styles to suit particular occasions or moods. One style known as ushungi is used when walking along the beach with one kanga wrapped tightly around the head; at home this headdress is removed and is draped loosely around the shoulders. When going to the market the style is known as kilemba, a name which derives from the turbans traditionally worn by Arab men, and refers to the way in which women wear the first kanga wound around their heads. You can see a video of the film I shot in the African galleries at the British Museum.

HAMWISHI KUNIZULIA HICHO NI CHENU KILEMA – ‘Your problem is that you can’t stop backbiting’, says the inscription on another wedding kanga. With a traditional design in black, red and white, the kanga would have been worn by the bride and all her friends and relations, and would be aimed at anyone who might be angry or jealous of the marriage. The inscription on another kanga from Tanzania (pictured below) reads MWEMBE TAYARI – ‘the mangos are ready’, an invitation from wife to husband to help himself!

Printed cotton kanga, with inscription which reads 'the mangos are ready'. Tanzania, 2003. 106 x 166 cm. British Museum Af2003,21.4.

Printed cotton kanga, with inscription which reads ‘the mangos are ready’. Tanzania, 2003. 106 x 166 cm. British Museum Af2003,21.4.

Preparing to travel up country from the main bus station in Dar Es Salaam, the largest city in Tanzania and indeed in eastern Africa, I noticed on the backs of buses and daladalas (minibuses) an interesting male response to the female-orientated battleground of kanga. The rear panels of the vehicles, particularly long-distance buses, were decorated with a variety of colourful images, while the bumpers carried inscriptions such as UKIWAONA KAMA WATU: ‘they look like reasonable people but they’re not’, NI HAYO TU: ‘that’s all we have’, or TUTABANANA HAPA HAPA: ‘we’re staying put’ – all three referring, according to my friend George back in 2003, to the government’s attempts to evict groups of migrant workers. These panels and their inscriptions are not only visually similar to the designs of kanga cloth, but they also fulfil one of the primary functions of kanga, of taarab music and of zār ceremonies in delivering messages and allowing behaviour which might otherwise be hard to articulate or perform.

As always, Africa provides food for thought on the way we go about things in the West.

The Asahi Shimbun Display Music, celebration and healing: the Sudanese lyre is on display in Room 3, at the British Museum from 18 June until 16 August 2015.

Chris Spring’s book African Textiles Today is available from the British Museum shop online.

Filed under: Collection, , , ,

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Around 3 million years ago our early ancestors collected and valued objects for their appearance. This pebble was perhaps picked up by an Australopithecus africanus because its natural shape suggests a face. Objects like this identify South Africa as one of the places where modern human behaviour began.

Experts have different views on whether this found object might be the first evidence of artistic thought. What do you think – is this art?

Discover this deep history in our #SouthAfricanArt exhibition – follow the link in our bio to find out more about this special exhibition.

The Makapansgat Pebble. Collected about 3 million years ago. On loan from Evolutionary Studies Institute, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. 
#SouthAfrica #history #prehistory This is a great shot of a sarcophagus by @ss.shri – it shows how well preserved the 2,600-year-old craftsmanship is. It was made for Sasobek, who was the vizier (prime minister) of the northern part of Egypt during the reign of Psamtek I (664–610 BC). His face is naturalistic and shows the use of makeup, but it’s probably not an accurate likeness. Many human-shaped sarcophagi had exaggerated facial features during this period. 
Don’t forget you can share your photos with us by using #mybritishmuseum
#regram #AncientEgypt #statue #sculpture #Egypt #history #BritishMuseum Our Egyptian Sculpture Gallery (Room 4) spans over 3,000 years of history! The gallery contains iconic objects such as the Rosetta Stone – the key to deciphering ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs – and the colossal 7.25 ton statue of the pharaoh Ramesses II. What’s your favourite object in this gallery?
#AncientEgypt #Egypt #Thebes #RosettaStone #sculpture #statue #history #BritishMuseum #mybritishmuseum We love this strong image taken by @nickyhofland. These powerful figures of King Senwosret III stand in our Egyptian Sculpture Gallery (Room 4). He reigned from 1874 to 1855 BC. These representations of him are interesting because they aren’t idealised – you can see expressive lines and furrows on his face. This contrasts to earlier kings who appear youthful throughout their reign. The king also has peculiarly large ears in these statues, which perhaps symbolised his readiness to listen. If you’d like your photos to be regrammed, tag #mybritishmuseum

#regram #AncientEgypt #statue #sculpture #Egypt #history #BritishMuseum This striking mosaic was made around 500 years ago in Mexico. It’s a pectoral – a type of jewellery designed to be worn on the chest. Double-headed serpents (known as maquizcoatl) were considered to be the bearers of bad omens and were associated with figures of authority who may have worn this type of jewellery as part of a ritual process. The object is expertly decorated with tiny pieces of turquoise that create textures and shapes on the serpent’s ‘skin’. The eye sockets could have been inlaid with dark gemstones giving the impression of flickering eyes. 
#turquoise #Aztec #Mixtec #serpent #jewellery #Mexico #🇲🇽 Eagle costumes were worn by prestigious warriors in Mixtec and Aztec culture, and the handle of this knife, made around 500 years ago in Mexico, represents a crouching eagle warrior. In mythology the eagle represented the power of the day and was believed to carry the sun into the sky from the underworld each morning. This object is decorated with turquoise, malachite, and four types of shell, with a flint blade. Highly decorated knives like this one were probably used in ceremonies or symbolically rather than for practical tasks – the construction of this knife suggests it wouldn’t be sturdy enough to be used for cutting.

#Aztec #Mixtec #knife #eagle #turquoise #Mexico #🇲🇽
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