I am Ashurbanipal: king of the world, king of Assyria – British Museum

Entrance to the exhibition

One of my first exhibitions of the year was the dramatically-titled I am Ashurbanipal: king of the world, king of Assyria at the British Museum. Before visiting, I knew nothing about this Assyrian king, and my knowledge of Assyria was limited to that Byron poem. This exhibition was an eye-opener.
Assyria was the dominant power of the Middle East from approximately 900 to 612 BC. The exhibition covers this period of time, focusing on the empire’s peak when Ashurbanipal ruled.

The most fascinating part of the exhibition was the art: the friezes carved on walls depicting Assyrian conquests and disturbing tortures. The exhibition cleverly uses technology to describe and explain these carvings, which are fascinating and shine a light on this particularly violent society.
Another interesting aspect of the exhibition was its focus on the bureaucracy of Assyria: rules, regulations and plans helped its rulers to conquer.

Ashurbanipal himself was both a warrior and a master administrator. He and his family fought lions to prove their strength; the images of lions in the exhibition are particularly well-drawn. Assyrian society relied heavily on writing to organise and manage, using cuneiform, the world’s oldest form of writing.

Eventually, after Ashurbanipal’s death, his empire collapsed, culminating in the burning of Nineveh in 612 BC. His great library was destroyed, but, consisting of clay tablets which harden in the heat, its contents survived. These include the text of the Epic of Gilgamesh, the best-preserved copy of that masterpiece, and still a basis for modern translations.

Assyrian society, surprisingly modern in both its brutality and its bureaucracy, is a fascinating subject for an exhibition. Sadly, the remains of Nineveh, former capital of the empire, located on the outskirts of Mosul in Iraq, were attacked by Islamic State a few years ago. I was pleased to see Iraqi experts and staff of the British Museum working together to repair and restore the ruins.

Living with Gods: Peoples, Places and Worlds Beyond – British Museum

Living with Gods exhibition sign

Before it closed I visited the Living with Gods: Peoples, Places and Worlds Beyond exhibition at the British Museum. The exhibition was timed to coincide with a Radio 4 show on the same theme, but as I never listen to the radio, I can’t comment on that. I did enjoy the exhibition – even if I didn’t always agree with it.

Medieval skeleton relic
Medieval skeleton relic

This fascinating exhibition looks at how people over time have represented their religious beliefs. Christianity, Islam, Judaism are all represented, are as lesser-known and older religions from all corners of the globe. The exhibits are arranged by theme, with seemingly different artefacts displayed alongside one another as they are said to reflect similar aspects of belief. I particularly liked the inclusion of cheaper everyday items alongside valuable and unique artefacts.

Lion Man
Lion Man

The exhibition begins with the Lion Man, the oldest known figurative sculpture in the world that dates back 40,000 years. However, does it necessarily reflect religious belief as the exhibition claims? Regardless, it’s a fascinating talking point.

Judas-devil figure
Judas-devil figure

There is an impressive Judas-devil figure used in Mexican Day of the Dead processions. Masks from the Congo, Jewish prayer caps and Japanese phalluses linked with fertility prayers are among the varied items displayed. One of the most moving is a cross carved in 2014 from a wrecked refugee boat that carried 500 refugees; at least 360 are known to have drowned. Towards the end of the exhibition, we see how Communist regimes in China and Russia directed religious feeling towards the regime leaders and away from traditional religion. The exhibition is incredibly interesting and thought-provoking, and I’m glad I made the effort to go before it closed.

Scythians: Warriors of Ancient Siberia – British Museum

This exhibition at the British Museum intrigued me: I’d never heard of the Scythians, but I’ve always been interested in Siberia. Scythians: Warriors of Ancient Siberia is a co-exhibition with the Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, and many of the artefacts in the exhibition are on loan from that museum.

The Scythians were a nomadic group of tribes who endured for about 600 years, around 600BC, herding cattle and goats on the steppe, and the exhibition sheds light on their lives and culture. There is an abundance of beautiful jewellery, including belt buckles and neck ornaments depicting scenes mixing real animals with mythical ones which, experts have theorised, point to their religion and culture. Their warrior culture is alluded to by the prevalence of helmets and head ornaments, hugely elaborate and detailed. The Scythians spanned southern Siberia from west to east and evidence suggests they had contact with other groups from Africa, Europe and China. For several centuries, the only record of the Scythians came from the writings of Herodotus, who travelled in the area around 440BC. Many of these artefacts were later dug up by archaeologists sponsored by Peter the Great, who ordered them to be sent to St Petersburg for his new museum. As a result, they are well organised and well-catalogued, and some of the original eighteenth-century drawings of the ornaments are on display beside the originals. On the walls of the exhibition are quotations from contemporaries, including Herodotus, about the Scythians: their fearsomeness in battle, their wild drinking. As the Scythians themselves did not have a written culture, these ornaments and other excavated artefacts take on an even greater significance.

What really took my breath away were the wonderfully preserved things that by rights should have disintegrated long ago, saved by their preservation in Siberia’s permafrost. These include fleeces, squirrel fur coats, even a pair of boots, as well as the tattooed skin of a Scythian warrior on which the marks still show up clearly. A giant coffin, constructed of wood, looks as though it was built yesterday, and one bag, containing food to accompany a deceased chief to the afterlife, has yielded lumps of preserved cheese.

Most of the artefacts on display are from wealthier people, which is not surprising since these are more likely to have been preserved. However, there are some objects relating to more ordinary Scythians, including weapons, ornaments and cooking equipment. Several preserved heads have been found, enabling scientists to try and reconstruct the face of a Scythian.

What could have been another run-of-the-mill exhibition about an ancient people is brought to vivid life by the beauty of the incredibly well-preserved objects on display. I was fascinated by it and loved learning more about this ancient society.

Sunken Cities: Egypt’s Lost Worlds – British Museum

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On one of my days off I headed to the British Museum to see their exhibition, Sunken Cities: Egypt’s Lost Worlds. The exhibition was about the lost cities of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus, which lay at the mouth of the Nile. Thonis-Heracleion in particular was an incredibly important commercial centre for trade with the Mediterranean world.

The exhibition contained many fascinating exhibits revealing the link between Egyptian and Greek culture and architecture. I particularly liked the fascinating videos showing divers recovering statues and other treasures from the sea.

Sicily: Culture and Conquest – British Museum (Google Cultural Institute)

I was all set to go to the Sicily: Culture and Conquest exhibition at the British Museum, but I was too late. I tried to buy a ticket but it was sold out.

I was gutted, but then I found an online version of the exhibition on Google Arts & Culture. Of course, it’s not the same as the real thing, but it’s better than nothing.

The exhibition was about 4,000 years of Sicily’s history, an island that has been shaped by Phoenican, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Arab and Norman invaders and settlers. Prosperous and diverse, culture and art flourished.

Through the website I was able to read about the history of Sicily and look at some of the amazing artefacts that were visible in the exhibition. I would recommend that anyone unable to visit an exhibition for real check the Google site out – it’s a wonderful resource.

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.

 

Egypt: Faith After the Pharaohs – British Museum

I’m lucky enough to work close enough to the British Museum that I am able to pop in on my lunch break, and on Friday I did just that, choosing to visit the current exhibition Egypt: Faith After the Pharaohs. The exhibition traces the history of Egypt from the death of Cleopatra and Mark Antony in 30 BC, when Egypt became a province of the Roman Empire, until AD 1171, when the rule of the Islamic Fatimid dynasty ended. It explores how Christians, Muslims and Jews lives alongside each other in the centuries after Pharaonic Egypt, and displays impressive artefacts to illustrate this, many of which have been uniquely preserved thanks to Egypt’s arid climate.

The issue of religious tolerance is a supremely important one in our present-day world and I was fascinated to learn about how members of different faiths lived together, sometimes peacefully, sometimes with periods of violence. The exhibition runs chronologically, showing that in the beginning there was still considerable influence from the old Egyptian gods – for instance, one statue from the first or second century BC shows the Egyptian god Horus – a falcon – dressed in Roman armour. Later Jewish, Christian and Muslim artefacts reveal the influence of Egypt’s history and culture; they were also influenced by one another. What impressed me the most was that, for all their differences, members of all religious communities still had plenty in common – some wooden toys on display are particularly poignant, well-made and preserved, and there are even some items of clothing on display – these tunics were worn by followers of all religions and I was very impressed to see that they have survived for over a thousand years.

This is definitely a worthwhile exhibition, educational and enlightening with plenty of interesting things to see.

 

Indigenous Australia: Enduring Civilisation – British Museum

I visited the exhibition Indigenous Australia: Enduring Civilisation at the British Museum, an interesting look at the history of Indigenous Australia, the first major exhibition in the UK to do so through objects. I thought the exhibition struck a good balance between representing the Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islanders, and the outrages heaped upon them by European invaders. It emphasised the different cultures of the peoples of the continent, with a fascinating array of objects on display including baskets, masks, statues and artwork.

Defining Beauty: The Body in Ancient Greek Art – British Museum

On Sunday I headed to the British Museum to visit the Defining Beauty: The Body in Ancient Greek Art exhibition. I got to the front gate to find a massive queue of people waiting to have their bags checked before going into the museum, so I nipped round the back and went in through the Montague Place entrance instead. Ha.

The exhibition itself was fascinating. In an era when the definition of “beauty” is constantly being challenged and debated, it is interesting to see where our beauty ideals originally stemmed from, and to be reminded that these ideals are always subject to change.

The introduction to the exhibition examined the concept that the Greeks, unlike the Egyptians and the peoples of Mesopotamia, saw nudity as both beautiful and moral. Athens in the 5th century BC was the world’s first democracy, and there was a focus on the human self in art and thought that strongly influenced conceptions of beauty. The Greeks later influenced the Romans, who admired the Greeks and often copied them.

In early Greek society there was a strong focus on the young, athletic male as the chief personification of beauty. Three students training as sculptors in Argos represented these figures; the work of Myron, Polykleitos and Pheidias showed how beauty was exemplified by order and symmetry, balance and even the use of mathematics to calculate perfect ratios. The exhibition looked at the use of colour and other materials to adorn statues: contrary to the belief that Greek statues were stark white, many had elaborate decoration.

Greek society was unique in that its gods were portrayed in human form. This led to many representations of gods and demigods reflecting an ideal human body. Herakles was one example: the son of Zeus forced to complete twelve labours in penance after killing his family was often portrayed in Greek art and sculpture, and was seen to have an ideal physique.

What of women in all this? As in countless societies throughout history, women did not enjoy equality in Greek society and were seen as passionate and out of control: it was believed that their bodies had to be hidden as they threatened the stability of male society. Therefore, nude statues of women are rarer than those of men, and statues that do exist often show drapes covering the female form. Having said that, the drapes offered opportunities for talented sculptors to show off their abilities: the draped torsos on display were incredibly detailed and superbly carved. Sometimes statues did show off the nude female body, particularly statues of the goddess Aphrodite who was often shown as though bathing. Centuries later, Roman women were inspired by Greek statues of women to commission their own versions: on display here was a statue showing the head of a Roman woman – which was probably taken from the life – on an idealised Greek body, lending the statue a somewhat incongruous appearance. This statue was actually one of my favourites as it made the ancients appear really human – the classical equivalent of PhotoShop.

Other aspects of the exhibition looked at the representation of animals and creatures, such as the Sphinx, nymphs and satires, as well as how the portrayal of children evolved from the images of them as tiny adults to individuals with particular proportions. Famous literary and philosophical figures such as Homer and Sophokles were portrayed as similar “intellectual” types, while more individual portrayals increased in popularity, such as the detailed and memorable statue of a fisherman.

Later Greek society celebrated a wider diversity of body shapes: there were statues of the old, the young, “types” belonging to the theatre and “grotesque” characters. The influence of the Ancient Greeks was spread by Alexander the Great: it can be seen in contemporary statues of Buddha in the east, wearing typically Greek drapery. The Italian Renaissance revived interest in Greek depictions of the body, though Roman copies were by then more common than Greek originals. Two statues in particular helped to influence early modern ideas about the Greek body: the Belvedere Torso (thought to represent Herakles, or possibly Ajax) and the statue of Dionysos from the school of Pheidias.

The comprehensive exhibition is open until 5 July and is well worth a visit if you can catch it before it closes. Despite only having a layman’s knowledge of Ancient Greece I got a lot out of the exhibition – it is really well thought out and displayed.

Germany: memories of a nation – British Museum

Germany: memories of a nation is another exhibition at the British Museum; I visited after I went to see the museum’s exhibition on China. The exhibition is billed as a 600-year history in objects, but it is more than that: each object reveals something about the culture and history of the nation that has only existed in its current form since the fall of the Berlin Wall 25 years ago. Germany has an incredibly complex political history – it used to be divided into regions under the umbrella of the Holy Roman Empire, and was not unified until 1870, after which two World Wars and the division between East and West further shaped the Germany we know today.

The exhibition began with a superb display of the contrast between England and Germany during the eighteenth century. When England was developing a standardised system of coinage – represented by the single coin bearing an image of Queen Anne – Germany had several different currencies and monetary systems. I was fascinated by the objects on display, including art by Dürer and Holbein, a beautiful and ornate model of a ship holding several Electors and the Holy Roman Emperor, and an amazing Bauhaus cradle. More poignantly, a (replica) gate from a World War II concentration camp was displayed, and no exhibition inspired by the fall of the Berlin Wall would be complete without a piece of the Wall itself. I really enjoyed this exhibition – it tells a fascinating and complex story through the medium of objects, and there should be something here to appeal to everybody.