British Museum blog

Beyond propaganda? North Korea in the British Museum

Sascha Priewe, curator, The British Museum

When the embassy of the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea (DPRK) opened its doors for an art exhibition in November, here at the British Museum we were busy preparing the Korea Foundation Gallery for its re-display, which opens today. Given the curiosity about the mysterious state and the artists working there, it seemed timely to write about the British Museum’s collection of art from North Korea.

Silver coin commemorating the meeting of the leaders of South and North Korea in 2000, Pyongyang, DPRK, 2000. In June 2000 South Korean president Kim Dae-jung (1924-2009) met North Korean leader Kim Jong-il (1941-2011) in the first Inter-Korean Summit in Pyongyang. As one result, working level talks continued between the governments and tourist visits to the Diamond Mountains for South Koreans became possible. (British Museum OR.9666)

Silver coin commemorating the meeting of the leaders of South and North Korea in 2000, Pyongyang, DPRK, 2000 (British Museum OR.9666)

In June 2000 South Korean president Kim Dae-jung (1924-2009) met North Korean leader Kim Jong-il (1941-2011) in the first Inter-Korean Summit in Pyongyang, the DPRK capital. It was the time of ‘sunshine’ relations between the north and the south. Although north-south relations have iced over in recent years, this brief period allowed the world a glimpse into one of the planet’s most inaccessible societies.

In 2001 and 2002 colleagues from the British Museum and the British Library visited the DPRK. Jane Portal, then the curator of the Korean collections (and now the BM’s Keeper of Asia) built of one of the largest collections of DPRK works of art in a Western museum. On her first trip Portal collected woodblock prints, ink paintings, oil paintings, posters, calligraphy, ceramics, lacquer and commemorative coins. On her second visit she collected mostly prints and posters. Thanks to this initiative the British Museum now has about 80 objects from the DPRK.

The Steelworker, Song Chan-yong (b. 1930), Oil on canvas. Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, about 1990-99 (British Museum 2001,0607,0.6)

The Steelworker, Song Chan-yong (b. 1930), Oil on canvas. Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, about 1990-99 (British Museum 2001,0607,0.6)

The DPRK’s regime leaves artists few of the freedoms that artists in other parts of the world take for granted. Art from the DPRK is usually seen as a state-controlled propaganda tool. Often there has been little room to appreciate the works as works of art. But once we understand the context and constraints in which art is produced, we have the opportunity to think about their qualities as works of art. One example is The Steelworker, an oil painting by Song Chan-yong (b. 1930). The portrayal of a worker is naturally in tune with the tenets of a socialist country, however, with Song’s own words we can add a layer of appreciation to the work:

I have dedicated all my artistic life to drawing the subject of the working classes. The base of our society is the working class so I should draw them. I always like to place my easel in a glaring blast furnace not in a splendid studio. Then it seems to be more realistic. I intended to be an artist of the workers in the world of workers.

This and other works in the collection permit glimpses into an isolated world, which for most of us seems like a different universe.

Celadon-glazed porcelain with inlaid decoration. From Pyongyang, DPRK, c. 2002. (British Museum 2002,0930.1)

Celadon-glazed porcelain with inlaid decoration. From Pyongyang, DPRK, c. 2002. (British Museum 2002,0930.1)

When I visited the Pyongyang and other parts of the DPRK as a tourist in 2005, I felt as if I was stepping into the photographs, footage and stories of 1970s China. The place felt otherworldly, but realising that this physical manifestation is a reality for millions of people held me firmly on the ground. But it is within this context that great works of art are being created. There is politics behind some art, but there is also art behind some politics.

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The Meroë Head of Augustus: statue decapitation as political propaganda

David Francis, Interpretation Officer, British Museum

In his Twelve Caesars, the Roman historian Suetonius describes how the emperor Augustus’ eyes ‘shone with a sort of divine radiance’ and that it gave him profound pleasure ‘if anyone at whom he glanced keenly dropped his head as though dazzled by looking into the sun.’

The Meroë Head. Roman, 27–25 BC (British Museum 1911,0901.1)

The Meroë Head. Roman, 27–25 BC (British Museum 1911,0901.1)

The Meroë Head, the only bronze portrait of Augustus to have survived with its original inlaid eyes, perfectly captures the enigmatic gaze of the Roman emperor. Depending on how the light falls, the expression of the head can vary from haughty disdain to melancholic introspection. The whites of the eyes are further emphasised by the dark green sheen of the emperor’s skin and hair. This is a result of the oxidation process that has covered the original bronze surface with a deep marine green patina. This otherworldly quality is fitting for a man who was deified as a god upon his death.

The Meroë Head. Roman, 27–25 BC (British Museum 1911,0901.1)

The Meroë Head. Roman, 27–25 BC (British Museum 1911,0901.1)

The Meroë Head is one of the great treasures of the British Museum, selected as one of the objects featured in the the British Museum and BBC Radio 4 series A History of the World in 100 objects in 2010. However, it was but one of many portraits of Augustus, which were mechanically copied and sent to the far-flung corners of the Roman Empire as a form of imperial propaganda. Today, very few bronze statues from the Roman world survive; most were melted down due to the value of their metal. The story behind how the Meroë Head avoided such a fate is a fascinating one and told in the new display in Room 3, The Meroë Head: Africa defies Rome.

One of the first photographs of the Meroë Head taken in the field, December 1910. © The Garstang Museum of Archaeology, University of Liverpool

One of the first photographs of the Meroë Head taken in the field, December 1910. © The Garstang Museum of Archaeology, University of Liverpool

The head was first unearthed in December 1910, during an excavation led by Professor John Garstang (1876–1956) of Liverpool University, on the site of the ancient city of Meroë in what is now modern-day Sudan. Meroë was the capital of Kush, a powerful African kingdom that from 1070 BC onwards rivalled Egypt for control of the region. Like their neighbours they built vast pyramid complexes, which can still be visited today. What made this find so unexpected was that Meroë was located close to the sixth cataract of the Nile, hundreds of miles from the Roman border in Egypt. What could the head of a Roman emperor be doing here?

Clues lie in the writings of the Greek historian Strabo who reported that in AD 25, a Meroïte army led by King Teriteqas and the one-eyed queen Amanirenas attacked the Roman garrisons at Syene, Elephantina and Philae, ‘enslaved the inhabitants’ and ‘threw down the statues of Caesar’. Caesar here refers to the Roman title for emperor and it was thought that the Meroë Head may have once belonged to one of the statues plundered during these raids, before it was decapitated.

Remains of the building where the Meroë Head was discovered at the beginning of the 1910 season. © The Garstang Museum of Archaeology, University of Liverpool

Remains of the building where the Meroë Head was discovered at the beginning of the 1910 season. © The Garstang Museum of Archaeology, University of Liverpool

Lord Kitchener (1850–1916) and other British officials visit the site during the excavation (Kitchener is second from left, Professor John Garstang on the far right). © The Garstang Museum of Archaeology, University of Liverpool.

Lord Kitchener (1850–1916) and other British officials visit the site during the excavation (Kitchener is second from left, Professor John Garstang on the far right). © The Garstang Museum of Archaeology, University of Liverpool.

Garstang and his fellow archaeologists found the head buried in the doorway to a building, which was located outside of the main city. The building was decorated with frescoes showing the king and queen enthroned, while a line of bound, kneeling slaves are presented to them. Some of these slaves have the distinctive helmets and tunics of Roman soldiers. It was therefore thought that the building may have been a victory monument, or a temple. In burying the head, the Meroïtes ensured that everyone who entered the building would trample this image of the emperor Augustus beneath their feet, thereby ritually perpetuating the Meroïte victory over the Romans. Ironically, it was this act of desecration that ultimately preserved Augustus’ portrait for future generations to appreciate.

Although we might regard such acts of iconoclasm as the preserve of the ancient world, in fact the decapitation of statues has occurred with surprising regularity over the past 30 years. Targets range from the London Guildhall’s marble Margaret Thatcher, decapitated using a metal rope by protestor Paul Kelleher in 2002, to a statue of Lillestrøm SK football club’s star striker Tom Lund, whose bronze head was stolen by rival fans in 2013. The beheading of statues even features as a plot line in The Simpsons The Telltale Head ((season 1 episode 8, first aired in February 1990), in which Bart chops off the head of the statue of Jebediah Springfield, the eponymous founder of the Simpsons’ home town.

Contemporary acts of statue decapitation have the advantage over the Meroïtes in having mass media to spread their message. In April 2003, the toppling of a statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square in Baghdad became one of the defining symbols of the Iraq War. Initially, a former Iraqi champion power-lifter attacked the huge statue with a sledgehammer, but was only able to break off a few chunks of concrete. American troops then intervened, toppling the statue with the aid of rope and a tank. Once on the ground the head of Saddam was beaten with shoes and eventually wrenched from the statue’s body. The toppling was presented as a spontaneous event symbolising the fall of Saddam’s regime by the newly liberated Iraqis. However, it was in fact carefully planned by the US military and broadcast on news bulletins worldwide.

The demolition of the Firdos statue by American troops may itself be a symbolic act of revenge, for the regime’s placement of a portrait of US President George W. Bush on the floor of the Al-Rashid hotel in Baghdad. All visitors to the hotel, particularly Western politicians and businessmen who used to stay there, were forced ritually to trample the face of the leader of the biggest power in the West – just as the Meroïtes did with the face of Augustus outside their victory shrine 2,000 years earlier. Unlike the Meroë Head or the head of Jebediah Springfield, however, the Firdos Head of Saddam has not yet resurfaced. But who knows, perhaps it lies hidden somewhere, waiting to be rediscovered and become a museum piece in the future.

The Asahi Shimbun Displays The Meroë Head of Augustus: Africa defies Rome is in Room 3 from 11 December 2014 to 15 February 2015, admission free.
 

Filed under: Archaeology, Collection, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The sinking of the Lusitania: medals as war propaganda

medalHenry Flynn, Project Curator, British Museum

The Money and Medals Network is an Arts Council England-funded project that exists to build and develop relationships between UK museums that have numismatic collections. As the project curator, I travel to these museums to meet the members of staff who care for such collections. One object that I have seen time and again in museums all over the country is the Lusitania medal by Karl Goetz.

RMS Lusitania coming into port, possibly in New York, 1907-13, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

RMS Lusitania coming into port, possibly in New York, 1907-13, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The sinking of RMS Lusitania on 7 May 1915 was a hugely significant event during the First World War. The ship was sunk by a torpedo, a fact indicative of the increased use of submarines in marine warfare, which helped it become even more dangerous than it had been previously. The tragedy of the loss of life that included civilian passengers had global repercussions that contributed to the eventual decision taken by the United States to enter the conflict. It also sparked something of a medallic propaganda war.

Bronze Lusitania medal, by Karl Goetz (1916,0707.9), obverse

Bronze Lusitania medal, by Karl Goetz (1916,0707.9), obverse

The German artist Karl Goetz was so incensed by the mere idea that a passenger liner might have been used for military purposes that he decided to produce a medal satirising the subject. He mistakenly stated on the medal that the date of the sinking was 5 May – two days earlier than the actual event. This caused an outcry in Britain and accusations that the sinking had been premeditated by the Germans. This use of the wrong date was in fact a mistake, but copies of the medal were made and distributed in Britain in protest against the Germans’ use of medallic art to effectively celebrate a tragedy. The British copy had its own presentation box that also included a document detailing the reasons behind its production. Many of these medals have since found their way into the collections of museums across the country and will be featuring in commemorative displays this year and in 2015. The British Museum has an example of the German original and the British copy and both will be displayed in the new exhibition The other side of the medal: how Germany saw the First World War. Alongside my work on the Money and Medals Network, I have had some curatorial input into this exhibition curated by my colleague Tom Hockenhull.

Bronze Lusitania medal, by Karl Goetz (1916,0707.9), reverse

Bronze Lusitania medal, by Karl Goetz (1916,0707.9), reverse

The medal itself is a fascinating object that is laced with satirical symbolism. On the obverse, the ship is depicted sinking under the waves. Weapons appear on the deck, a direct accusation that the ship had been carrying munitions, thus putting the lives of its passengers at risk, the notion that had so infuriated Goetz. The reverse shows unsuspecting passengers queuing up to buy their tickets from a personification of Death who sits inside the ticket booth. The warnings of a German man stood in the background and the ‘U-Boat Danger’ headline on a newspaper go unnoticed by the crowd. The inscription above the scene means ‘business above all’ and makes the message of the medal doubly clear. The presence of Death playing an active and malevolent role in the events is a theme that pervaded German medallic art during the First World War and this will be explored in the exhibition.

Propeller from RMS Lusitania, National Museums Liverpool, author’s photo.

Propeller from RMS Lusitania, National Museums Liverpool, author’s photo.

In 1982 one of the four propellers from the vessel was salvaged from the wreck and subsequently acquired by National Museums Liverpool. The Lusitania has a strong link with Liverpool and the propeller, now part of the collection of the Merseyside Maritime Museum, is displayed on the quayside at the Albert Dock. Services of remembrance are held next to it every year on the anniversary of the sinking of the ship.

The other side of the medal: how Germany saw the First World War is on display in Room 69a (admission free) from 9 May to 23 November 2014

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