Celts: Art and Identity – British Museum

The Celts: Art and Identity exhibition at the British Museum looked at the history of the Celtic identity and what it means to be Celtic today. I was interested to learn that the name “Celts” was originally used by the ancient Greeks to refer to the “barbarians” in the north: it was a cultural label rather than an ethnic identity, and was adopted by the people of the modern Celtic nations.

The exhibition has been organised in partnership with National Museums Scotland, and traces the history of the Celts from 2,500 years ago to the present day. I was interested in the art and culture of the early Celts: helmets, shields and other artefacts are decorated with distinctive patterns, stylised as opposed to the increasingly realistic artworks of the Greeks and Romans. Many of the artefacts uncovered (some of which have come from the Thames, while others have been excavated from mainland Europe) have patterns relating to possibly mythical figures, though what they symbolise exactly is sadly lost to history. This is particularly apparent in the gorgeous Gundestrup cauldron, a breathtakingly detailed item on loan from the National Museum of Denmark.

Celtic culture survived throughout the Iron Age and the Roman conquest. Celtic art was influenced by Roman traditions, although it remained distinctive. As Christianity spread throughout Europe and Britain, Irish, Welsh and Scottish monasteries adopted many Celtic styles, in particular leading to the Celtic crosses that have become such a strong emblem for Celtic culture.

By the Victorian era, the Industrial Revolution made the lives of the Celts seem like very long ago indeed. Victorians were fascinated by Celtic culture, and reinvented it in literature and art: the poems of the supposed Celtic bard Ossian, and the Celtic-influenced designs of Rennie Mackintosh and the Glasgow School of Art, were particularly popular. I especially liked the statue meant to represent a noble Celtic warrior, standing proud in a kilt, but sporting a suspiciously Victorian moustache!

The exhibition ended in the modern day, looking at how Celtic culture is celebrated today, with clips from parades, football shirts and comic books. I really enjoyed this comprehensive and interesting exhibition.


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