Celts: Art and Identity (British Museum Exhibition)

At the end of 2015 the British Museum put on an exhibition about the Celts, looking at both the original culture in its historical context and the way it was later re-imagined. The overall take home message from the exhibition was that the ancient people we now call Celts probably didn’t think of themselves as such, and the modern peoples who we call Celts don’t necessarily have that much to do with the ancient Celts. The Greeks were the first to refer to “the Celts”, and the Romans later took up the term. They used it for the barbarians to the North and East of Greece & Rome – in modern day Spain, France, Eastern Europe and Turkey; not Britain (at least not intially). It’s not known if the Celts saw themselves as single culture, nor if they used the term Celts to describe themselves, but it seems unlikely.

To set the tone the exhibition opened with three iconic (modern) Celtic symbols: an Irish harp, the Druid’s flag and a Pictish stone. And then around the corner were some examples of ancient Celtic art, and video showing the changes in what Celt has meant through the ages – covering along the way the noble barbarians of Roman writings, the Christian monks of Ireland, the national folk heroes of the 19th Century. After this the exhibition fell into two parts: first the historical Celts and then the later re-imagining of Celtic identity.

The ancient Celtic artifacts were laid out in several cases in one long sweeping room, with curved trails on the ceiling which you could use as a guide for how to travel between the cases. I hope they did that on purpose (I’m sure they did), because it seemed awfully thematically appropriate. The central theme of this whole room was that the ancient Celts were many different peoples & tribes, but they were linked by shared culture, art style and languages. So it seemed appropriate to be moving between the disparate cases following a line drawn from their art style. An important difference between Celtic art and the contemporary Greek art was that the Celts weren’t interested in naturalistic representations. Of course the abstract swirls and so on aren’t naturalistic, but even their portrayals of animals (as in the jug I have a picture of below) are stylised rather than realistic. (That jug is one of the Basse-Yutz Flagons, found in France dating to 400-360BCE – I took this picture a couple of years ago, one of the pair is on display in the Iron Age Europe room in the British Museum, and it’s one of my favourite items to go & see.)

Jug With Hunting Dogs and Duck Decoration

The items in this room were grouped thematically rather than by culture, to emphasise the commonalities. Near the beginning of the space was a reminder that they shared so much because the world was a connected world then as it is now – trade links people – and one of the cases that was particularly striking was a selection of torcs from right across the Celtic region. They were all recognisably the same thing, but different areas had different styles. Some were big and powerful looking, some were beautiful and delicately made. I particularly liked a big silver one from southwest Germany which had bulls heads as the terminals. And then as counterpoint to that case there was a hoard of torcs that was discovered in Scotland – there are several different styles of torc in this hoard, but all were made locally and inspired by exotic foreign designs.

As well as traders the Celts were also warriors. One of the items in the exhibition for this theme was a carynx – a boar headed warhorn. They had both an original and a replica, and a recording of a replica being played, which was rather cool. They also had a replica chariot, based on fittings found in a grave in Wetwang, Yorkshire dating to c.200 BCE, which I was a bit surprised to see had some basic sort of suspension rather than being completely solid.

The Celts also went in for feasting in a big way – the Greek writers thought the Celts were very fond of their wine. And to serve their feasts they had ornate vessels, some of which have also been discovered in graves for feasting in the afterlife. The pièce de résistance here was the Grundestrup Cauldron, which I would’ve loved to’ve taken photos of but had to settle for a postcard instead – which shows the same bit of decoration as the photo below (which I found on wikipedia with a licence that meant I could use it). It’s not actually my favourite bit of the decoration – that was the bit with the warriors playing carynxs.

Picture of the Gundestrup Cauldron
Gundestrup Cauldron Decoration, photo by Malene Thyssen.

The next section of the exhibition looked at the impact of Roman conquest on Celtic art, and identity. In continental Europe the Celtic style pretty much vanished in favour of Roman art. The situation in Britain was more complex – Britain was conquered relatively late, and never completely, so it was more of a frontier and never fully assimilated culturally into the Empire. There was definitely some Roman art in Britain of course – for instance they had on display a statue of Nero found in East Anglia around the time of Boudicea. And there was also some amalgamation of gods (and associated iconography). But Celtic art styles and culture also became a badge of “not Roman”, particularly around the periphery of the Empire on both sides of the border. Torcs, for instance, became more elaborate and are used as a statement of cultural identity (as opposed to just of status within the culture).

The exhibition then moved on to a time after the Romans left and after the Anglo-Saxons arrived. In this period the Celts were once again the periphery of the main culture of the British Isles – the “not Anglo-Saxon” peoples living at the western & northern edges. These post-Roman Celts were Christians, and their Christianity had an art & devotional style that was distinctively Celtic. The items that caught my eye in this section were a large (replica) stone cross from Iona, and at the other end of the scale the St Chad Gospels. For all their Christianity they still kept telling some of their original mythological stories – we know this because they were written down later in the medieval period in manuscripts like the Book of the White Earl.

The last couple of sections of the exhibition left behind the historical Celts and moved on to the later rediscovery & re-imagining of Celtic identity. There’s no evidence that the historical Celts ever thought of themselves as Celtic, and once the Romans had left Britain no-one else called them Celts either. This changed with the Renaissance, when scholars returned the old Greek/Roman term to use, but redefined it as specifically the people of the north-west of the British Isles rather than a Europe-wide culture. Books from the 17th Century tended to depict the ancient Celts in a very similar way to the way contemporary artists depicted Native Americans, and this theme continued through to some Victorian art as well. Even down to skin tone in some cases, as if the peoples met on the other side of the world had to be physically similar to ancient peoples because all were considered “noble savages”! The mind boggles.

From the 1750’s onwards the Celts and their mythology & history were retold in romanticised tales. For instance in 1760 there was a book publised by James Macpherson which purported to be a translation of work by the Celtic bard Ossiam. It was enormously popular, inspiring paintings and sculpture, and admired across Europe by people such as Goethe & Napoleon. Even after it was revealed to be the fabrication of Macpherson and not remotely ancient nor Celtic it still retained a lot of influence. The later 19th Century Celtic Revival was based a little bit more in fact – archaeological discoveries like the Tara brooch inspired jewellery designs and pattern books. Rennie Mackintosh’s work is a part of this movement and the part that I like. The part that I’m rather less fond of is what I’d characterise as Victorian twee-ness, and they had several examples of such things. There’d been a Victorian statue of Caractacus earlier in the exhibition that fell into this category, and also a few rather twee paintings of Celtic myths (like John Duncan’s The Riders of the Sidhe). And they also had the regalia of the National Eistedfodd in the exhibition, all my notes say is “Victorian invention, twee beyond belief!”.

The exhibition finished with a look at Celtic identity today. Again, it’s political and political in a “we’re not that lot” sense just as it was back in Anglo-Saxon times or Roman times. Nowadays of course it’s English that a Celt is not. As the English born & brought up child of Scottish parents I personally don’t see myself as either English or Scottish, preferring to call myself British. But the parts of the Celtic diaspora that headed to the US in particular have a different way to look at it. The exhibition noted that there are more people who identify as Irish in the US than there are in Ireland! And in Ireland itself Celtic identity is a powerful political statement – the mythological Irish hero Cúchulainn is now a big part of Irish Nationalist identity.

I really liked this exhibition (I even went to see it twice!), although I preferred the earlier sections about the historical Celts to the later parts about the re-imagined Celtic identity 🙂

Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy (Exhibition at British Library)

While I was in a London for a few days in July 2015 I visited the Magna Carta: Law, Liberty and Legacy exhibition at the British Library, which was put on to mark the 800th anniversary of the original issue of the charter. The items displayed in the exhibition were mostly written documents (as you might expect in a library) although there were also some other things, including paintings and examples of seals. There were also several short films each of which had someone talking about a particular aspect of the charter & its legacy. The talking heads were a variety of historians, lawyers and politicians. I did like these, they added quite a bit to the exhibition, but they also broke up the flow a bit – there wasn’t always enough space for people to walk past those who were standing and watching them, so at times the galleries felt clogged up.

The first section of the exhibition put Magna Carta into its original historical context. There were some examples of charters issued by previous kings (such as one by Henry I), and some contemporary accounts of King John. One of these was written by Matthew Paris, who really didn’t much approve of John – something he wrote after John’s death included the quote: “Hell foul as it is, is made fouler still by presence of John”! In this section they also displayed some earlier drafts of the charter, made as it was being negotiated at Runnymead. And they had several examples of seals, including the one used by John to seal the Magna Carta. Almost immediately after the Magna Carta was issued John repealed it – asking the Pope to declare it invalid in a Papal Bull (which was there to see in the exhibition). When he unexpectedly died during the ensuing civil war his young son Henry came to the throne at the age of 9. He began a period of using reissuing the Magna Carta as a means of legitimising the authority of the King which continued over the next century or so.

They had a rather neat animated graphic in the exhibition which showed the various clauses being weeded out over time until only the last few more general ones remained. This covered up until the modern day, despite it’s placement at this point in the exhibition – I think because after this the exhibition moved on to looking at the legacy rather than the actual thing itself. The common theme tying together the rest of the exhibition was that “Magna Carta” came to represent more as an idea and a totem than was actually present in the original document.

After the 13th Century the importance of the Magna Carta faded – to the extent that when Shakespeare wrote his play about King John in the 16th Century he didn’t even reference the document. There was a revival of interest in it in the 17th Century which is the beginning of the modern prominence of the document. It was used to justify rebellion against a tyrant King during the run up to the Civil War and subsequently used against Parliament when they were felt to be becoming tyrants.

Magna Carta has become extremely important both in US culture and US law. The Declaration of Independence draws on the charter and uses language that directly references it. Even before that the laws of the early colonies were based on Magna Carta. It’s still important in the US legal tradition today – one of the talking head videos was explaining that it has been used as part of the legal argument against the incarceration of people in Guantanamo Bay.

During the 18th & 19th Centuries radicals within the UK continue to use Magna Carta when challenging the government, for instance the Chartists write a new revised version suitable for their times (and agenda). Magna Carta was generally not applicable in the British Empire, and one of the things that the 20th Century sees is the the newly independent ex-colony states issuing documents to grant these rights to their citizens. And there’s a tendency for grants of legal rights to be referred to as the Something Magna Carta (i.e. the Maori Magna Carta) even tho the content of the documents is very far from the content of the original Magna Carta (which is really quite specific and parochial in scope despite the later reputation). More recently it has also been invoked by Nelson Mandela and by Aung San Suu Kyi. In contrast to Shakespeare’s day the Magna Carta is now also likely to show up in popular culture. The penultimate section of the exhibition displayed several examples of this – including thoroughly anacronistic representations of King John signing the charter!

The exhibition then finished with the showpieces – two original copies of the Magna Carta. One of these was from Canterbury and had been very damaged, whereas the other one was in much better condition. Of course, it was in Latin (and abbreviated wherever possible) so even being able to see the text didn’t mean I could read it!

It was an interesting exhibition – although I think I was more interested in the beginning sections about the medieval history (and the very end) rather than the bits about the legacy. I was interested enough overall to buy the book tho! 🙂

Painting Paradise: The Art of the Garden (Exhibition in The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace)

Painting Paradise Exhibition

Last summer I went to an exhibition about paintings of gardens – Painting Paradise: The Art of the Garden – in the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace. Mostly I went because I had free entry to it (having been to the From Cairo to Constantinople exhibition earlier in the year (post)), and I was in London for a few days. I’m not entirely sure what I was expecting, but there were some interesting paintings to see. I think they way they do these exhibition is to pick a theme, see what the Queen owns that fits, and then put together some sort of coherent narrative for the exhibition. So this was all about gardens, and there was art ranging from Persian garden scenes through to paintings of Royal Garden Parties of the Victorian era. The narrative thread holding it together was the changing way that gardens are perceived over time. In general I liked the first couple of rooms of the exhibition, and found it got duller & twee-er as we got towards the later Hanoverans and Victoria. This quite possibly just reflects my biases about what history I find most interesting, rather than the exhibition 😉

It started with a couple of Persian garden scenes to set the scene and to explain the title of the exhibition. The word “paradise” comes in to English from Persian via Greek. The Greek word paradeisos (παράδεισος) is of Persian origin, based on two words meaning “to form” and “around”. The key features of a Persian garden are that it had walls around it, and a water feature. So a somewhat different conception of garden than the modern one, which has much more of an emphasis on plants.

Painting Paradise Exhibition

The main part of the first room concentrated on the Renaissance Garden – much to my tastes, particularly as one side of the room was dominated by a large painting of Henry VIII and family (with the gardens of Whitehall visible behind them; sadly I couldn’t get a decent straight on photo of it). The themes explored were: the garden as an expression of princely power (as in said painting); the garden as a religious symbol; the garden as a place to grow exotic and/or useful plants. Obviously the religious symbolism of the garden ties in to the title of the exhibition – the garden of Eden as an earthly paradise. But gardens also show up in the art of the time in reference to the image of Christ as a gardener (both symbolically and to illustrate Mary Magdalene mistaking the risen Christ for a gardener when she came his tomb). And the Virgin Mary is often painted in a garden. As well as important symbolism tapestries depicting gardens were used to bring colour & life to interiors particularly in the winter.

Painting Paradise Exhibition

The next little section of the exhibition displayed some (rather ugly) china (in my view) with garden themed decoration. And some stunningly beautiful Fabergé flowers, which I liked a lot.

The next room looked at the Baroque garden – in particular the formal gardens of the Stuarts and the early Hanoverans. Gardens in this period were still primarily expressions of princely power and status – “look how well I bend the world to my whim”. There was a particularly striking picture of Hampton Court Gardens during the time of William III: a birds eye view of how well nature had been tamed and formally organised. I also liked the tulip vases – pagoda-like structures with each flower in a separate hole.

Painting Paradise Exhibition

The Hanovers continued into the next room – more pictures of rigidly laid out gardens, where it almost seemed like the plants were an irrelevant extra. I confess to spending rather more time looking at the sunflower clock in the middle of the room, which was surrounded by a large number of rather fine porcelain flowers.

Painting Paradise Exhibition

Gardens gradually became more informal, and the paintings also change to suit this new perspective – eye level and intimate views rather than overhead or otherwise formal points of view. By the Victorian era a garden was seen as a place of family relaxation. This was also the period when the culture of Royal Garden Parties started, and so the Royal Collection has paintings of those as well as of Victoria and her family enjoying their garden.

Painting Paradise Exhibition

For me the exhibition gradually tailed off – the last bit was pictures of floral borders or baskets of flowers. Some of which were painted by members of the Royal Family, I think. But not nearly as interesting to me as the first couple of rooms had been.

As well as the photos in this post I have a small album of photos up on flickr, here.

Indigenous Australia: Enduring Civilisation (British Museum Exhibition)

In June we visited the Indigenous Australia: Enduring Civilisation exhibition at the British Museum. The premise of the exhibition was to display the art and showcase the culture of the indigenous peoples of mainland Australia & the Torres Straits Islands from their own perspective. Whilst the later sections of the exhibition inevitably looked at the impact of the arrival of the British the exhibition didn’t begin there as if it was the British discovery of the continent that mattered. Instead it started with the art & traditions that had existed for millennia before that.

The opening section of the exhibition had two purposes – it was trying to convey a sense of the scale and diversity of the continent, and it was introducing the key concept of country. It’s easy (from the perspective of all the way over here) to think of modern White Australia as a monolithic entity – beaches, barbies, sunshine, ex-pats & their descendents. So down one wall of the first section of the exhibition was a series of exhibits to point out the diversity in terms of environment and culture across the continent. This included a set of videos of different parts of Australia, with Aboriginal people walking through them or living in them. It also included a map of Australia divided up by the languages spoken at the time the first Western explorers came to the continent. The other side of this area had several pieces of art by several different groups of Aboriginal people. These showcased the variety of styles across the continent, and also began to introduce the idea of country.

The Aboriginal idea that we translate as the word “country” isn’t the same as the normal meaning of the English word, it’s not country like England is a country. The concept isn’t about a nation-state or a large scale political division of land, nor is it a sort of land (as in countryside). It includes not only land but also the people, animals, plants and other resources on that piece of land. It also includes the myths and the stories associated with that place. There’s a sense of ownership to it – a person or a family has “their country” – but that goes both ways, the people also belong to the land as much as the land belongs to them. A lot (all?) of the artwork in the exhibition was also tightly linked to the country of the artist(s). The art is a visual representation of the mythology and the geography of country. Several of the larger artworks were created by more than one artist – this is because each person paints their own country so as a story or artwork moves across different countries different people are involved. The exact meanings of the symbolism in the art will also only be known to the people whose country it is. Only the senior members of those people will know all the nuances – possibly not even then, as men and women may have different knowledge of their country. Which meant that while some things were explained in the exhibition labels other things were noted as something private to the artists.

I’m not sure I’ve explained country very well – it feels slippery to me because it’s a completely different way of looking at the universe so neither I nor the language I use have the right words for the concepts. I’m also not personally particularly attached to places – less so than J, for instance – so I only grasp the idea on an intellectual level not an emotional one. Starting the exhibition with country as the key idea helped to put the last part of the exhibition – after the arrival of the Westerners – into sharper relief. Taking land from Aboriginal people, displacing communities, taking and using up the resources of the land isn’t just about forced removal of property and inadequate compensation. It’s also damaging and breaking something fundamental about how people’s sense of self is structured.

The next two sections of the exhibition looked at using country (resources, trade) and tending country. Nobody’s country has every resource, so trade between countries and even outside the continent was an important part of the economy. And it was an economy of reciprocal gift-giving with expectations and understandings about obligation which wouldn’t necessarily (ever?) be spelt out – which lead to miscommunication once the British arrived. In order to make best use of the resources country needs to be tended both ritually and physically (although I suspect that’s a division that isn’t made). So this section of the exhibition included examples of ritual actions but also discussion of things like setting controlled fires to stimulate new growth of the local plant life. One of the exhibits was a photo of a chap in his ceremonial gear, sat on a chair taking a selfie with his iPad. While I was looking at it, I overheard a somewhat posh sounding older lady remarking to her companion “I suppose that’s one time when it would be permissible to take a selfie!” which made me laugh (not out loud tho).

At the centre point of the exhibition, marking the transition from the Aboriginal Australia to the Colonial Australia was a memorial pole. These pieces of art were once funerary pieces for individuals the artist & his or her community wanted to remember, but in more modern times they’ve changed to be less associated with a particular person. This one had two figures at the top, one on each side of the pole. Both figures were planting a staff which ran down the whole of the pole through the rest of the design. One of these figures is an important ancestor of the artist, and his staff represents the law of the indigenous people enforced on the land. The other figure represents Captain Cook planting the British flag and enforcing the law of Britain on the land. The artist hasn’t said which figure is which. It was a striking and thought provoking piece (once the symbolism was explained).

And so then the exhibition moved on to the era of British and White Australian rule over the continent. This was divided into two sections – first “encounters in country” which looked at the early settlement days, and then the exhibition finished with a look at post-independence Australia. The early settlement section had as one of its main themes how the indigenous people have been written out of the narrative of this period. Like the reports of explorers discovering new bits of the continent as if they’d gone out and walked alone through the wilderness. When actually they’d been taken by guides, along pre-existing trade routes to communities who they had negotiated to visit. And of course the claiming of the continent for Britain by Cook as it was “owned by nobody” when in actual fact every piece of land was somebody’s country. One of the most striking pieces of art in this section was a modern painting done in an old-fashioned Western style – the ship on the ocean with its sails aflutter, the beach and the heroic figure in 18th Century uniform clearly having just landed on virgin territory. And yet this is not Cook the intrepid Westerner, this is an Aboriginal man.

The last part of the exhibition was pretty grim viewing – it documented the ways in which the Aboriginal peoples of Australia have been treated as less than human since independence. Starting with the constitution of the new country which outright states that when you do a census you don’t count indigenous people. Until shockingly recently Indigenous people weren’t citizens – they were “wards of the state” who were much more restricted in what they were permitted to do, as if they were children. There was art in this section relating to the forced removal of people from their country, of the massacres of Aboriginal people and of the Lost Generation who were systematically removed from their families and adopted by White families to break the cultural ties of these children. Again the exhibition took care to remind us that Australia is not one monolithic place and there were many experiences of colonialism by different communities – in some cases these things were long enough ago that they are history; in others it has happened within living memory. Just before the end of the exhibition the timeline moved on to contemporary times, and highlighted both the ways that things are getting better and the debate within Aboriginal communities nowadays about their art in our museums. As the art and the artifacts are so closely linked to country some people feel that they shouldn’t be taken away and put in a museum somewhere else. But others feel that so long as there is respect for the meaning of the piece and so long as there is an attempt to educate the people who come to see it (not just “oh look at this exotic thing from foreign parts”) then it’s OK. I didn’t, however, really get the impression of enthusiasm for the idea from any of the stated positions … which made for a rather uncomfortable sensation having just walked through this exhibition.

As a sort of palette cleanser the exhibition finished with a short but charming video of a man who is one of the last master basket weavers of particular type of basket we’d seen earlier in the exhibition. We also went to a short talk that evening by one of the curators, Lissant Bolton, who gave us a sense of the artists who’d made some of the contemporary art we’d seen in the exhibition. One thing she said that stuck with me was that it was notable that when she was visiting Australia during the set up phase of the exhibition she would bring objects and they would reciprocate by taking her to country associated with them. A sort of micro-scale view of the difference in the two cultures.

Defining Beauty (Exhibition at the British Museum)

Back in April J and I visited the Defining Beauty exhibition at the British Museum which finished in early July. It’s the only one of their exhibitions where I’ve been as ambivalent about it on the way out as I was on the way in – which says rather more about me than the exhibition, I think. The subject of the exhibition was Ancient Greek sculpture and the incredible impact it has had on the modern Western definition of beauty. And I’m afraid that when it comes to Greek sculpture I’m somewhat of a heretic – I find all those gleaming white idealised bodies rather … bland. Even as I grant that it has indeed had a major impact on the art of more modern times (modern here meaning in the last five or six hundred years) and a worthwhile subject for an exhibition.

(You might be asking why on earth I went to see it! But there’s been exhibitions at the British Museum in the past where I’ve not been enthused in advance but have been by the end, so it was worth a try. And as we’re Members we have free entry so it’s easy to pop into an exhibition just because it’s there.)

The exhibition opened with a bit of scene setting. Part of this was a map of the extent of the Greek world in Alexander the Great’s time (after he did his conquering bit) – despite knowing he conquered vast swathes of the known world I’m always a bit taken aback at how big that is on a map. The other piece of information that particularly struck me was that what’s known about Greek sculpture mostly comes from Roman copies of Greek originals. And one of the pieces in this room was Lely’s Venus (normally on display near the Assyrian Galleries in the BM), which is one of these Roman copies. The other sculptures in this introductory room illustrated the range of styles of sculpture – using three pieces by three different artists who were all training & active in the 5th Century BC. The variation came in whether they were interested in things like mathematically perfect proportions of bodies, or representing the fluidity of movement.

The first half of the next room was the stand out highlight of the exhibition for me. They had half a dozen replicas of sculptures painted as we think they would’ve been at the time. And given my “complaint” about this art form is that it strikes me as bland, well this was anything but. Perhaps a little garish, but so much more interesting. One of the pieces was a large (plaster replica of a) bronze of Athena – it’s easy to remind oneself that the dull green of bronze was once a shiny gold, but it’s quite another thing to see it. I also liked an Athene wearing her snake-trimmed cloak, in a vivid green with the snake heads picked out in colours. And did you know the Persians wore brightly coloured onesies? Me neither!

The next room looked at what made Greek art different from other contemporary (or just older) cultures art styles. One section was a compare and contrast with Egyptian and Cypriot sculpture – three statues in a row each of a young man striding forward, one from each culture. The Greek one was noticeably more natural in appearance, with the Egyptian and Cypriot ones looking very stiff and stilted in comparison. The Greek one was also naked, which came up again in more detail in the other compare & contrast – this time between Assyrian reliefs and Greek reliefs. Again the subject matter was similar, both reliefs were battle scenes – and again the Greek example had more fluidity and motion. The use and meaning of nudity was markedly different between the two cultures. In the Assyrian example it was the defeated prisoners who were naked – a sign of their low statues, shame & humiliation. In the Greek example the heroes are naked to show off their virility and their virtue.

The third room also had a few other themes, although they made slightly odd bedfellows. One of these was a case talking about women in Classical Greek art – most of what I remember from this is the juxtaposition of male nudity as virtue and women clothed for their virtue. There was also a section about representation of the gods, where the key point was that the gods were people. Impossibly beautiful, divine people, but people nonetheless.

The next room started with a look at representation of the stages of life, and ended with the erotic in art – again a slightly odd juxtaposition. The stages of life looked at were birth, marriage and death and my favourite piece in this section was a stunning representation of a baby. The labels here talked about how representation of childhood and children as they really were was a departure from previous art styles. The section on marriage was mostly concerned with how marriage was thought of for women – analogised with abduction (which I was previously aware was a trope) and with death. Having side by side pieces where women are moving from girlhood to wifehood as if they’d died next to gravestones for young warriors slain in battle was quite striking.

In the penultimate room we moved forward in time past the golden age of idealised beauty (or blandness, depending on taste) to sculptures that had more differentiation. Faces in particular began to look like real people – although quite probably not the person they’re were supposed to be. The room ended with a pair of pieces representing knucklebone players, with very different flavours. One of these was two girls playing a peaceful friendly game as a last hurrah before marriage and womanly respectability. And the other was the remains of piece where two boys had come to blows over a disagreement about the game. Only one of the boys was still intact, all that remained of the other was the arm that the first boy was biting – which made the piece very striking in a way the artist wouldnt’ve expected.

That room also had a case looking at the representations of (North?) Africans in Greek sculpture – sometimes as caricature, but sometimes in a more nuanced and human fashion. The piece that caught my eye here was a centrepiece for a table of an acrobat and a crocodile. This part of the room neatly segued into the start of the last room, which looked at the way that Greek art changed as it met the other cultures that Alexander the Great brought into the Hellenistic world – in particular India.

The exhibition finished with two large reclining male nudes which had a particular impact on the Renaissance. The thematic statement for the exhibition, if you will. These pieces when discovered changed the way artists represented bodies in Western art. Think of the way that Medieval art has these stiff clothes horses that don’t really look like they’d move like people, and then think of the art of Michaelangelo or Leonardo da Vinci and you’ll see what a difference this renewed interest in the idealised beauty of Greek sculpture had.

As I said at the beginning, this exhibition wasn’t really my cup of tea. Which doesn’t mean it was bad, far from it – just I’m a bit of an uncultured barbarian 😉 What I came away from it thinking was that I would like to see more of the painted replicas – knowing they were painted and seeing what they looked like are two very different things.

Ming: 50 Years that Changed China (British Museum Exhibition)

Ming: 50 Years that Changed China is the new British Museum exhibition which is open till 5 January 2015. It covers 1400-1450 AD which is close to the beginning of the Ming Dynasty period, and is regarded as one of the Golden Ages of Chinese history. The exhibition opens with a short film which gives a brief overview of the historical events during (and immediately before this period) and puts it into context in terms of how it lines up with British history. The Ming Dynasty as a whole lasted for more than 250 years, from roughly the time of Chaucer through to the English Civil War. The founder of the Ming Dynasty, the Hongwu Emperor, had fought against and eventually driven out the last of the Yuan Dynasty (a Mongol dynasty founded by Kublai Khan). He chose the name of the dynasty – Ming, which means “bright” or “shining”. He was succeeded by a grandson, who was then deposed by one of the Hongwu Emperor’s other sons. This son, the Yongle Emperor, is the first of the period that the exhibition covers. The next Emperor was the Hongxi Emperor, who died after only a year in power. His son, the Xuande Emperor, ruled for the next 9 years and was succeeded in turn by his own son, the Zhengtong Emperor. This Emperor ruled until 1449 when he was captured in battle against the Mongols (he was eventually released from house arrest and ruled once more). The catastrophic defeat of the Ming army in 1449 which included the Emperor’s capture and the deaths of several senior members of court brings the Golden Age of the early Ming to a close.

The first room was concerned with court and royal life of the period. A lot of this is known from some relatively recently discovered intact tombs of minor members of the royal family. Ming Dynasty tombs for royalty are constructed as palaces for the afterlife – laid out like a place to live and containing the things one would want in the afterlife either as actual objects (like clothes) or as a models (like servants or transport). The objects that caught my eye most in this room were the yellow silk robe that one of the princes was buried with, and the model carriages. The robe was interesting both because survival of cloth for that long is always impressive, and because the formal portraits of royalty in China are always wearing a yellow silk dragon robe so it was nice to see an actual example. The carriages were interesting for what they represented about changes in the royal culture over the 50 years – they were labelled as “carriages like this were used during the early part of the period for travel between courts, but in later years princes were confined to their households” (I paraphrase). The Ming Emperors generally had a lot of children – for instance, I think the Hongwu Emperor had 26 sons – and the custom started by the founder was to set up each son in a province about the size of a European country of the time and they would act as the representative of the Emperor in that province. But this allowed the princes to build up their own power bases, which the Yongle Emperor used to his advantage when deposing his nephew. As a result over time the freedom of the princes to leave their palaces was curtailed.

The dynasty was founded in war, and war remained an important part of the court culture of the time – partly out of necessity and partly because that was a part of what defined a good ruler or noble during this period. Interestingly for all that the Ming were positioning themselves as a new Chinese dynasty who had overthrown the Mongols, nonetheless there was continuity with the Yuan dynasty particularly in what sorts of warrior activities were practised. The Ming continued to emphasis horsemanship as an important skill for a ruler. One of the items in this room was a scroll that showed the Yongle Emperor practicing various sports with his eunuchs – football (not like our football, more a competition to keep a ball in the air using only the feet), golf, polo, archery and so on. All of which had a significance as practising for a particular part of being a warrior (the football was a good way to build agility and leg strength for instance). They also had a portrait of an Emperor hunting, which has continuity as a portrait type (and activity) with the Yuan dynasty. The other objects that caught my eye particularly in this room were the weapons which included gunpowder based weapons like cannons. These weren’t actually used that often, because when fighting against the Mongolian horseback archers agility and flexibility counted for more than firepower.

The Ming golden age was not all about war, and the next room focussed on the peaceful arts of court culture – calligraphy, painting, poetry – often undertaken by the same men as were practising the warlike arts (particularly the Emperor). Dominating this space were two long scrolls, each a single artwork. One was of plum blossoms by moonlight, the other a landscape piece. Apparently normally they would be kept rolled up, then the viewer would unroll a section to contemplate a scene rather than how they are displayed these days with the whole piece on view. Which I think explains why the compositions of these sometimes seem repetitive – it’s intended to be seen almost as a selection of overlapping/intertwined variations on a theme.

The next room was on the theme of religion. There were several religions co-existing in China at the time, and the same person might use rituals and observances from different religions for different parts of their life. The three major religions during this period were the state religion (which included shamanic practices and ancestor worship, and in which the Emperor was regarded as the Son of Heaven and thus divine), Buddhism (primarily the Tibetan strand) and Daoism. There were also a significant number of Muslims, and Muslim clerics were accorded the same official respect and legal status as monks or clerics of the other religions. The objects in here included statues, and other things given to temples and monasteries as gifts. And some religious texts – in particular there was a very fine copy of some Buddhist texts written and illustrated in gold on a black background.

Throughout the whole exhibition there was an emphasis on how the influence of Ming court fashions and customs spread out to the surrounding countries, and how other countries influenced Ming fashions. The last room of the exhibition was explicitly about this theme, as a sort of conclusion. Early Ming China had trade connections not just with neighbouring countries but also with places as far afield as Kenya (by sea) and Central Asia by land. The Ming court liked to display their cosmopolitan tastes, so throughout the exhibition there were objects inspired by other places – for instance porcelain candlesticks modeled after Iranian metal candlesticks. During this period the Emperor Yongle also sent out vast trading fleets under the command of Admiral Zheng He. The Chinese perception of the trade that went on was that the Ming court were receiving tribute from the countries the fleet visited, and graciously proving gifts to these leaders who acknowledge Chinese superiority. Which is presumably not how the other side were seeing it!

I really liked this exhibition and found it very interesting. I shall be going again at least once before it shuts as I rushed the last room a bit due to running out of time.

The Cheapside Hoard: London’s Lost Jewels (Exhibition at the Museum of London)

Last week we went into London to visit the exhibition at the Museum of London of the Cheapside Hoard before it closes on 27th April. The first thing that struck us, before we even got into the exhibition, was just how much security there was – the entrance to the exhibition was secured with great big turnstiles, security was provided by the Ghurka Security Services (who seem from a quick google to be made up mostly of ex-Ghurka soldiers) who lurked in the shadows throughout the exhibition. And not only could you not take photos in there, you also couldn’t take in coats or bags. I guess this is all because the jewellery of the hoard is valuable not just for the historical interest, but also inherently due to being made up of gold and jewels.

The exhibition opened with a little bit about the discovery of the hoard – it was found in 1912 when workmen were demolishing some 17th Century buildings. There were cellars under these buildings from the original buildings that had been there before the Great Fire of London, and the jewellery itself was found beneath the floor of one of these cellars. So this indicates it was buried before the fire, so pre-1666. Later in the exhibition they pointed out that one of the items must date to after 1640 (due to having a coat of arms on it that didn’t exist before that). So there’s a fairly narrow range of dates for when it was buried: 1640-1666. At the end of the exhibition there was a short section on why the hoard might’ve been buried but although they try and suggest possibilities, really no-one knows. All that’s known is that at that time the houses on Cheapside were occupied by jewellers, and that period of time is a fairly turbulent time in the history of London.

The first third of the exhibition provided context for the jewellery, which occupied the remaining two thirds of the space. We were shown what London was like during the time that the jewellery was fashionable – so Elizabethan and early Stuart era. Something that particularly struck me in this section were the shop and house signs. In London at the time houses weren’t numbered, instead people hung carved wooden signs from the wall. In the exhibition they had (amongst others) a Black Boy and a leopard. These are the forerunners of pub signs, I guess – actual carvings rather than painted signs tho. Other highlights included a mockup of a jeweller’s workshop – most of the houses on Cheapside were occupied by jewellers or goldsmiths during this time period. The two terms were used fairly interchangeably at the time, but were beginning to separate (and people were beginning to specialise in a particular part of the goldsmithing trade rather than necessarily being all-rounders). I was also much taken with the chests they had on display – in particular an enamelled one that was as much a work of art as any jewellery it might once’ve contained.

The jewellery itself was very impressive. This is the first time in a hundred years that the whole lot has been on display at once, and there’s really quite a lot of it (it’s a shame I don’t have a photo at this point, it’s hard to give an impression of the scale of it in words). The first things you see as you come into that section of the exhibition were some of my favourites – a collection of long delicate chain necklaces made up of enamelled flower and leaf motifs. The exhibition provides one with a magnifying glass so you can properly look at these, and it’s astonishing to think they were made by people working with less high quality lenses for magnification and using only natural light. There are also rather fine jewelled pendants, large jewelled earrings, a selection of rings. And some rather fascinating fan holders – these are about the same size as the pendants, and covered in jewels. It took me a little while to figure out how they worked – but after peering at the objects and the picture of someone with a fan I think I worked it out. The fans were ostrich feathers (or something like that) and these stuck into an opening in the broader end of the holder. They were displayed with that opening downwards, which confused me at first!

After the cases of “all the things of type X” they had a large selection of unique items. Most of these were cameos, including some that were ancient but set in Elizabethan fashion. I must confess I didn’t spend much time looking at these (although I did look at all of them) as I don’t find them as interesting as the other things. However there were also some other unique items that stood out. In particular there was a watch set in an emerald, which is taking ostentatious display of wealth to extremes! The label for this pointed out that emeralds are particularly tricky for this sort of item, as they are prone to cracking, so this wasn’t just inherently expensive it was also hard to make. I also liked a little salamander brooch with the body made up of several oval emeralds. And J liked a small pendant carved in the shape of a squirrel. Another highlight of this section was an exquisite scent bottle. And they had had a modern perfumer make up a perfume inspired by the sorts of ingredients used at the time, and there was a little door in the exhibition wall to open so you could smell it. Rather nice, I thought, but I couldn’t begin to describe it.

As well as the jewellery in this room they also had several portraits around the walls showing people wearing the sorts of jewellery that were on display. Particularly striking was the way that ruffs and hair-dos were used to display the pieces – even rings could be worn attached to a ruff rather than on a finger. The delicate chains I’d been admiring could be worn pinned up on the bodice of a woman’s gown, so they were well displayed and not in danger of catching on things and breaking. There were also video screens around the room showing closeups of the jewellery and something of the techniques used to make them – I wasn’t particularly impressed with these, none of them caught my attention enough to make me want to stop and watch them rather than look at the items themselves.

It’s only on for another few days, but worth a visit if you can get there 🙂

Vikings: Life and Legend (British Museum Exhibition)

The current big exhibition at the British Museum is Vikings: Life and Legend. It only just opened and runs through till 22 June. We’ve actually visited twice – first time on opening day when it was shutting early so we ended up not having enough time to see things properly, so we went back a week later. This is the first exhibition they’ve had in their new exhibition space, so it was interesting to see what the new room was like. Of course the way it’s laid out this time will be totally different for another exhibition, but the final space with the whole ship in it was striking for its sense of wide open space. Otherwise my impressions were that, really, it’s a big rectangular room but that’s not a bad thing – it gives them a lot more flexibility with layout than the circular space they were using before.

The overall theme of the exhibition is to show the Vikings as being more than just marauding warriors. The emphasis was on their trading and settling activities rather than just raiding, and on the cultural exchange between the Vikings and the various places they visited. I was a little disappointed with the first couple of areas of the exhibition, not helped by the huge number of people when we visited the second time. The exhibition opened with a small collection of illustrative objects found in the Viking homelands, then looked at Viking influenced objects from a variety of the areas they interacted with. Most of the objects were quite small (and spaced out) and the labels weren’t visible till you got right up near them – this meant there was a lot of time queueing to see things. And I didn’t think they’d made enough use of the wall space in that area – there were some pictures (and a rather good video) and a handful of quotes but more to look at while you waited to get a chance to see the objects would’ve been nice. There also wasn’t quite enough context in the labels for some of these objects – like the jewellery, where it would’ve been nice to have some pictures showing how it would be worn.

However, criticisms about the layout and labelling aside, they did have a lot of interesting things (and later sections of the exhibition were much better). One thing I particularly liked in the first area was a video screen that was showing the various trade & raiding routes of the Vikings. The sheer scale of the area that the network covered was astonishing, and particularly so when you remember the sorts of ships they were sailing in. The first room and a half had objects of Viking origin or with Viking influenced design that had been found across their trading network. As well as a selection of things from the British Isles and north western Europe there were also items from a variety of Slavic countries where the Vikings settled fairly early on. And from as far away as the Byzantine Empire and the Islamic Caliphate. Many of the quotes round the walls throughout the exhibition were from Islamic writers, talking about the barbaric habits of the Rus (the name they gave the Vikings). In many ways that told us as much about how the Islamic intellectual elite of the time wanted to see themselves as it did about the Vikings, but it was interesting to see someone else’s mythology of the Vikings and how it was and wasn’t like ours.

The next section of the exhibition looked at the sorts of goods that the Vikings took on their trading runs, and the sorts of things they got back. This included a couple of large hoards of silver – one found in England, one in Sweden. These included whole pieces of jewellery, jewellery that had been hacked up (to use as currency) and coins. Some of these coins were Islamic dirhams from the Middle East, showing again the widespread nature of Viking contacts. The English hoard had been buried in the north of the country just around the time that Æthelstan (Anglo-Saxon King, grandson of Alfred the Great) united the whole of England under his rule. Presumably left behind by one of the defeated Vikings. This section of the exhibition also included samples of amber and fur of the sort that the Vikings would’ve taken to trade in Byzantium or the Middle East. And examples of the shackles that they kept their slaves in as they took them to the same markets – many of these slaves were picked up on raids on places like Ireland. Some were taken to Viking settlements (genetic analysis of people in Iceland shows a lot of Irish influence) and others were sold on in the Middle East. They had a quote from an Islamic writer talking about how impressively well the Vikings looked after their slaves, after all they were valuable trade goods.

After this there was an area devoted to the way that the Vikings displayed wealth and status. As well as some ornately decorated swords there were several very large pieces of gold jewellery. This included a cloak pin for a man to wear which was huge and must’ve been really quite cumbersome when in use. There was also a gold necklace that looked big enough to be a belt, and must’ve weighed far too much to wear regularly. And there were several objects associated with feasting – I was particularly struck by the decoration to go round the top of a drinking horn.

And then after walking through a couple of fairly narrow corridors you come out onto a balcony overlooking the centre piece of the exhibition – the longest Viking ship ever found. It’s really quite impressive to see. About 20% of the actual wood was found, mostly at the base of the ship – including the whole of the keel (I think that’s the right word, the piece of wood at the centre of the base that goes from end to end). Because they have that particular piece they can recreate the size and shape of the ship (knowing how Viking ships are designed) and they’ve created a metal frame to fill in the gaps that gives you a real sense of scale. While it’s the longest ship ever found, they don’t think it was the biggest in existence because sagas refer to ships with more pairs of oars than this one would take. But it’s still one of the biggest, and was a great display of status for the man who had it built. It’s thought that this was either Cnut (the one that ruled England for a while in the early 11th Century) or a rival of his in Norway. On the one hand it looks incredibly large as you stand there looking at it (37m long), but on the other hand when you think about how far the Vikings went in ships like these it seems awfully small for such long voyages. There were also some other pieces of other ships (like a shield that had hung over a burial ship’s side, and a steering oar). And a fascinating little audio snippet of an interview with a man from Shetland (interviewed in the 60s I think) talking about the names of pieces of ships – which are apparently very similar in old Shetland dialect to Viking names for the same things. Partly this was fascinating because for most of the way round the room till I got to it I could half hear it and it sounded like a foreign language not English. But when I sat down for a moment to listen it was suddenly understandable, even if heavily accented and full of “foreign” words.

Around the ship there are several collections of objects that give much more of a sense of the Vikings as people than the previous rooms had done. These started with a look at the warrior culture of Vikings, and included many swords and pieces of armour. There was also a jawbone from a warrior that showed how they filed their teeth. I’d known they did this, but somehow I’d though that meant filed to points – that’s not the case though, what they did was to etch horizontal grooves in the front teeth. These would be filled with blue pigment, and were an extension of the decoration of their tatoos – intended to make them look fierce and intimidating on the battlefield. And also to demonstrate their ability to handle pain. In this section they also had evidence that the Vikings weren’t as unbeatable as their reputation at the time and in the modern day might suggest. A mass grave somewhere in England with the bodies of several Viking warriors, all of whom had been decapitated – this was clearly an execution of people captured in battle, not a sign of victorious Vikings.

The last section looked at the move from warriors to soldiers, and the concurrent move from their older pagan beliefs to Christianity. By the end of the 11th Century the Viking era was over – often the endpoint chosen is the defeat of the Norwegians by Harald Godwinson the day before William the Conqueror defeated Harald in his turn. What remained were countries that were just like other European countries of the time (the Normans are a good example of this). In this section they had a replica of the stone erected by Harald Bluetooth with a very Viking looking piece of Christian imagery on it – Christ on a cross but surrounded by a snake motif. The replica was coloured as the original would’ve been when it was set up and was very striking.

Despite finding the first couple of rooms disappointing I’m pleased we went to see the exhibition. It might not be one of their best but it’s still good and worth seeing 🙂 And the ship is awesome!

The Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination (Exhibition at SOAS)

The Brunei Gallery at SOAS housed an exhibition on Zoroastrianism for a couple of months this year (now finished) called The Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination. We managed to fit in a trip at the end of November, a week or two after our visit to the mini-exhibition at the British Museum on a similar theme (post). Sadly no photography permitted but we went to the British Museum briefly afterwards, and I took couple photos of related objects (some of which had replicas in the exhibition) to illustrate this post.

The exhibition started by setting the scene of the various cultures present in the Middle East in the first millennium BC when Zoroastrianism got going. They didn’t just have objects from Iran, but also from other cultures across the region – including an example of the Luristan bronzes. I’d not particularly noticed these before (there are a selection in the British Museum, see below for a badly lit example), but they caught my eye this time. The exhibition was saying that these cultures were replaced by Indo-Aryans migrating from the steppes to the north, and Zoroastrianism was brought by these peoples or developed by them. I think this is based primarily on the language used to write the Zoroastrian scriptures. This is called Avestan and is only known from being written down many centuries later by Zoroastrians. The scriptures themselves are collectively called the Avesta.

Luristan Bronze

The next room of the exhibition was a circular space with verses from the Gathas, a key Zoroastrian text which is traditionally believed to be Zarathustra’s own words, on the walls in Avestan and translated into English. This was complemented by audio of these verses being read out. From there the exhibition moved to a very brief description of some of the key principles of Zoroastrianism, for instance the division of the world into 7 classes of things (like fire, water etc), and there were several Zoroastrian texts displayed. I read none of the scripts that these books were written in, let alone the languages, so this section felt rather heavy on texts with too little explanation. Some parts that stick in my mind, however, were firstly the way that the annotations for the rituals would be written in a different writing system to the main text – and upside down. Avestan is written right to left, and the Gujarati annotations are written left to right – so if they’re upside down then they run right to left just like the main text. Also written upside down wherever it occurred was the name of the evil principle, Ahriman. As well as the texts there were illustrations of the Zoroastrian funeral arrangements in this section – because the elements of the world are holy they should not be polluted by the dead body. This means that cremation and burial weren’t regarded as viable ways of dealing with the body (although these days they may be). Instead the bodies are exposed to vultures (sometimes in circular towers known as dhakma) – modern changes in tradition are in part due to a decline in vulture population.

The next section of the exhibition looked at the spread of Zoroastrianism along the Silk Road through Central Asia to China. The objects here consisted of more texts (some of them some of the earliest extant Zoroastrian texts dating from the 9th Century BC) and some ossuaries. The other side of this room showed representations of Zoroastrianism in the Christian world. Not just the Three Wise Men but also Zarathustra shows up in medieval texts as an ancient philosopher and magician – the very word “magic” derives from the Zoroastrian word for priest (Magus). A prime example of how things get garbled as they travel between cultures.

Downstairs the centre piece of the exhibition was a replica Fire Temple. Non-Zoroastrians aren’t permitted in real Fire Temples so this is really the only way to see what one is like. As well as an impression of the building they had a (fake) fire in a ritual cauldron and examples of many of the implements used during rituals. There was a video of a priest and his assistant carrying out the daily ritual of the temple – which involved not just the fire but also water and plants. These days a priest has just one assistant, but they had a book from pre-Islamic times which showed where the 9 different assistants should be positioned during this ritual, so clearly it was once much more elaborate. I think this room was my favourite part of the exhibition, and certainly the most striking.

Sculpture from the Palace of DariusCyrus Cylinder

The rest of the downstairs was divided into two sections – one was Zoroastrianism in Persia and one in India. The Persian side was dominated by a rather fine glass etched replica of the sculptures from the Palace of Darius in Persepolis – the photo above left is of the plaster cast replica in the British Museum. The centre text of that relief is a cuneiform inscription extolling the virtues of King Artaxerxes III who had this staircase added to the palace. It also calls for the Zoroastrian gods to protect him and his country. Other objects in this section included a replica of the Cyrus Cylinder (the photo above right is of another replica in the British Museum, the original is out on tour). This details Cyrus’s conquest of Babylon and again has Zoroastrian themes. One of the interesting bits of information in this section was that it was a Persian Zoroastrian priest who really pulled together the religion into a coherent whole, several centuries after it was originally founded. Prior to him the different cults in different places had their own flavours of Zoroastrianism, but he set down a proper way to do things and enforced it. The other half of the room was Zoroastrianism in India, sadly it seemed to me to lose focus and to devolve into a collection of portraits of notable Indians in (British) court dress – mostly from the Tata family. It is presumably no coincidence that one of the listed sponsors of the exhibition is TATA Enterprises …

Upstairs there were some more modern pictures of Zoroastrians around the world – there are now communities in many countries including Britain. And there was some art with Zoroastrian themes, most of which was not really my cup of tea.

Overall I think it was an interesting exhibition, and I’m glad I went. However, it did suffer from a lack of focus (not just in the Indian section, but that was the worst) and I wasn’t always sure why things were included. And sadly by the time we visited (only a little over a month after opening) the labelling on the cases was beginning to wear off – and particularly downstairs some of the cases were lit in such a way that the labels were pretty much unreadable. We did buy the book, so when I get a chance to read that hopefully the essays will elucidate some of the things I missed!

Beyond El Dorado: Power and Gold in Ancient Colombia (British Museum Exhibition)

One of the British Museum‘s current exhibitions is Beyond El Dorado: Power and Gold in Ancient Colombia which runs until March. We went to see it in the afternoon before the recent British Museum Members’ Open Evening (which I wrote about here and here). The jumping off point for the exhibition is the legend of El Dorado which lured Spanish adventurers into Colombia. The way the legend is most remembered now is as telling of a city paved with gold, but the original Spanish adventurers wrote of a man or king coated in gold. From this starting point the exhibition looked at what role gold played in the civilisations of pre-Hispanic Colombia, and more generally at the rituals of these societies.

There was a certain degree of overlap between the subject of the exhibition and a TV programme we watched earlier this year – the third episode of Lost Kingdoms of South America was about Colombia and the El Dorado myth (post). Not really a surprise as the presenter of that series was Jago Cooper, who is a curator at the British Museum, although not the curator for this exhibition (who is Elisenda Vila Llonch).

The exhibition contained objects from six different cultures from the Colombia region, but I’m afraid I didn’t end up remembering which object was which specific culture. Apart from at the very start the exhibition was focussing on a higher level – the equivalent of discussing early modern Europe as a whole rather than a country in particular. Near the beginning of the exhibition they had a timeline showing the periods that the six cultures had existed – as always I’m startled by how recent they are. In part because J’s interest in ancient Egypt has pushed my concept of “ancient” back a long way, and so anything in the last millenium is “practically modern”. I shouldn’t be surprised tho, these were all cultures in existence when the Spanish came to the Americas, so obviously they must have existed in the late 1500s.

Gold wasn’t valuable in Colombia in the same way that is valuable in our culture – it wasn’t currency instead it had spiritual and symbolic importance, which varied in its details between the cultures. After setting the scene by talking about how the various objects were made the exhibition moved on to talking about how they were used and what their significance was. One culture, the Muisca, had the most obviously different attitude to their gold objects – they weren’t even what we would consider “finished”, i.e. not polished. And then generally the objects were put in significant locations like in caves or lakes. Even as recently as the 20th Century there were Westerners scheming to do things like drain the most significant of the lakes so that all the gold could be retrieved, which is somewhat saddening (it didn’t happen tho).

The other cultures did use their gold objects in ways we’d recognise – as jewellery, as decorative containers etc. One room of the exhibition looked at the jewellery and showed how it was often a status indicator. This room also talked about other status indicators in these societies – like body paint, which can convey messages about who you are in your society and what society you’re from. Another status indicator is representation of people sitting on stools – this always indicates high status.

The jewellery is very elaborate & large, and it often has little moving parts which will move around when the person wearing it moves – and reflect the sun or firelight. This ties in when use of these ornaments in religious rituals, particularly involving lime & coca leaves. The next room of the exhibition talked about these rituals, and displayed some objects associated with them. Taken together lime & coca leaves are hallucinogenic, and the exhibition had several lime containers & dipping sticks – from more basic ones to elaborate and decorative ones. The rituals also involved music, and movement – the way the jewellery the participants were wearing shimmered & jingled would’ve added to the general ambience.

The motifs chosen to decorate the jewellery and other objects also had religious significance. The next room of the exhibition had several pieces that had representations of things from the natural world. Some of these were as straightforward as a necklace made of gold beads shaped to look like jaguar claws – effectively a more high status version of a necklace of jaguar claws. Others were more symbolic – like pectorals shaped like a half-bat half-man figure. Often the belief was that the shaman wearing an item representing a particular creature would take on the essential characteristics of that creature during his hallucinogenic trance – for instance fly across the landscape with the wings of the bird figure he was wearing.

It was an interesting exhibition – but I’m aware I was missing a lot of the nuances because I know so little about the region and the peoples who lived there. If we go to the museum again before the exhibition finishes I think I’ll go through again for a second look 🙂