Ming: 50 years that changed China – British Museum

Ming: 50 years that changed China is an exhibition at the British Museum which explores the years between 1400 and 1450 and how, during this time, China’s Ming dynasty established Beijing as the country’s capital and encouraged developments in culture and trade. It began by exploring the five emperors to rule in this period, and went on to look at the innovations of the period including architecture (the famous Forbidden City was constructed during this time), painting, sculpture and travel. I was amazed at the beautiful objects on display, particularly the stunning Cloisonné jar that has appeared on all the promotional material, and the hanging scroll with a picture of the Imperial palace.

Ancient lives, new discoveries: eight mummies, eight lives, eight stories – British Museum

The Ancient lives, new discoveries exhibition at the British Museum is a brilliant exploration of eight different mummies, each with their own story. It uses the latest technology to show how we can learn from these individuals and find out more about their lives.

These people were found in ancient Egypt and Sudan, and between them they span 4,000 years of history. Some were embalmed deliberately, others were preserved naturally.

A young man preserved in the sand (Gebelein Man B)

This mummy dates from about 3500 BC and was discovered in Gebelein, Egypt, along with several other individuals. He died as a relatively young man (20-35) and was preserved naturally in the sand. What I found amazing about this individual was that the contents of his stomach were preserved too!

A man embalmed for the afterlife (Linen man)

This older man was discovered in Thebes and dates from around 600 BC. He was bound in linen and had suffered dental abscesses, tooth loss and tooth decay, which would have caused him a great deal of pain. Intriguingly, he was found in a woman’s coffin, though whether this happened at the time of his death or at the time of his discovery in the 19th century is unclear. My personal, rather outlandish theory is that he was put in the wrong coffin on purpose, perhaps to cover up his death – this is probably ridiculous but I think it sounds rather exciting!

Tamut: a high-ranking priest’s daughter

Tayesmutengebtiu, or Tamut, was the daughter of a priest, known as Lady of the House or the Chantress of Amun. Found in Thebes, she was aged at least thirty-five when she died, and as well as dental abscesses (common among the ancient Egyptians because of their consumption of sugar) she suffered from atheroscleriosis (plaque in the arteries). Dating from around 900 BC, the hieroglyphic inscriptions on her mummy case show that she was married when she died, and as a lady of high status she was mummified very carefully. CT scans have identified many amulets on her body beneath the bandages. Incredibly, 3D printing has been used to turn the CT scans into three-dimensional models, meaning that we can see the amulets without unwrapping the bandages.

Padiamenet: a Temple Doorkeeper

Padiamenet was discovered in Thebes and his mummy dates from around 700 BC. He was middle-aged when he died, and also suffered from dental abscesses and atherosclerosis during his life. Padiamenet was a temple doorkeeper, responsible for deciding who was able to enter the most sacred parts of the temple. He also worked as a barber, as all the priests had to have all their body hair removed before going into the temple. There were mistakes made during his mummification: his head came off and had to be fixed back on, and when his mummified body was laid in his case it was found to be too short so the embalmers had to improvise an extension! Padiamenet was buried with his family, and his wife and son were found with him; after his death, his post had passed to his son.

Tjayasetimu: a young temple singer

I found Tjayasetimu one of the most poignant mummies in the exhibition simply because she was only around seven when she died. Again, she was discovered in Thebes, and lived around 800 BC. Her case is small, but scans have shown that her body inside was even smaller. The case shows her as a grown woman, perhaps suggesting her anticipated status in the next life.

In general, few child mummies have been discovered: death in childhood was very common, and it was probably too expensive to have all your children mummified. Tjayasetimu probably had the honour because of her status as a temple singer.

An unusual mummy from the Roman period

This mummy, dating from after 30 BC (though also from Thebes), was one I found a bit spooky. He is wrapped up so that all his limbs are wrapped separately, and his painted face makes him look quite lifelike. Experts aren’t sure why this is – he even has a beard painted, but he also has breasts painted on.

During the early Roman period, Egyptian customs were still common, and the practice of embalming was used by Romans as well as Egyptians.

A young child from the Roman period

This young male child, approximately 2 years old, dates from AD 40-60 and was found in Hawara, Egypt. His tiny body is contained in an elaborate case. He has been treated like an adult mummy in many respects, so perhaps there was more of a focus on treating children like adults in terms of mummification during this later period. I found this really sad – the whole exhibition was brilliant in terms of getting me to see the mummies as real people who actually lived, but this makes the deaths of the young children in particular seem so much more tragic.

A Christian woman from Sudan

The final mummy was a Christian woman found in Sudan, dating from around 700 AD – she is the youngest mummy in the exhibition. She was found when the Sudanese government decided to build a dam near the Fourth Cataract: a number of museums including the British Museum were invited to carry out archaeological work, and this body was found naturally preserved in a small cemetery. Amazingly, the body has a tattoo which is still visible – it is a tattoo signifying the Archangel Michael, the patron saint of her area.

This exhibition has just been extended until the 19th of April 2015 and I’m not surprised. It really is wonderful and allows you to learn so much about these individuals and the times in which they lived. I highly recommend visiting.

Witches and Wicked Bodies – British Museum

Witches and Wicked Bodies is a free exhibition at the British Museum (Room 90, Prints and Drawings Gallery) until 11 January. I visited one Friday to attend a special event – a free performance exploring the weird sisters by RIFT theatre company, who were responsible for the amazing immersive Macbeth at the Balfron Tower during the summer.

The performance was a chilling exploration of the witches from Macbeth and their entrapment by witch-hunters. It was fairly short though and I enjoyed the exhibition itself more – an examination of how witches and witchcraft have been portrayed in art from the Renaissance to the end of the 19th century. Beginning with Dürer and Goya, the exhibition moved on to consider artists such as Burne-Jones and Rossetti, inspired by Biblical and classical portrayals of witches.

Vikings: Life and Legend – British Museum

The Vikings: Life and Legend exhibition at the British Museum has proved very popular, so I made sure to book well in advance. I was pleasantly surprised to find it wasn’t as busy as I’d expected – perhaps the BM have decided to control numbers when it comes to entering exhibitions.

I went to the exhibition with five friends, but owing to the need to book in advance, we were all due in at slightly different times. It didn’t matter though as we were each absorbed by the exhibition while we were in there, and we were able to compare notes afterwards.

There was a great deal of Viking archaeology: the main thing I took away from the exhibition was that the Vikings liked bling. The bigger and more bejewelled your brooch, and the more precious the metal from which it was made, the more important you were in Viking society. There were a few brooches that took things a bit too far: they were huge, designed to be pinned to the side of tunics, and had massive spikes which could easily put out the eye of the person standing behind you. Further evidence that size mattered to the Vikings came in the form of boats: the remains of a huge longship form the focal point of the exhibition, and are very impressive.

I liked the way the exhibition emphasised how the Vikings traded with other societies, borrowing ideas and sharing their own. Another of my favourite items was a brooch covered in little bears, the result of this kind of inspiration. However, the display did not shy away from examining how the Vikings were fond of a fight. They didn’t always win though – at one chilling point we saw the remains of several Viking sailors and warriors, killed during a raid and buried where they fell.

I would have liked to find out a bit more about Viking mythology and belief – there was some information at the end but not as much as I would have liked. However, I really did enjoy the exhibition and thought it was definitely worth the advance planning.

Beyond El Dorado: Power and Gold in Ancient Colombia – British Museum

Last Friday after work I visited the new exhibition at the British MuseumBeyond El Dorado: Power and Gold in Ancient Colombia. Organised with the Museo del Oro in Bogotá, the exhibition was a fascinating insight into the cultures of South America before the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century.

The legend of El Dorado has survived to this day, most commonly as the ‘city of gold’, but at the time, it was also described as a man covered in powdered gold. Gold held supreme importance in pre-16th century South American societies: it wasn’t used as currency, but it had strong symbolic significance. I was amazed by the craftsmanship in the beautiful pieces on display, showing how the work of the various peoples of the region differed by style.

Definitely take a look at this exhibition if you can – the artefacts are just beautiful, and they emphasise how complex and diverse society was in South America.

Shunga: Sex and humour in Japanese art 1600-1900 – British Museum

Last Friday after work, I went to the British Museum to see the new exhibition Shunga: Sex and humour in Japanese art 1600-1900. It was an eye-opener – beautiful images painted in Japan over three centuries, showing explicit scenes.

Shunga (the name means ‘spring pictures’) were popular in Japan from around 1600 to 1900. Beyond that, they continued to circulate even though they were banned for most of the 20th century. These works are explicit, sensual, funny and beautiful, combining eroticism and art in a way that wasn’t really matched in the West. Most of the images show men and women in compromising positions, but others are more unusual, such as the lady being pleasured by an octopus, and the men comparing sizes. Shunga influenced Western artists such as Tolouse-Lautrec and Aubrey Beardsley, and continue to influence manga and anime.

The exhibition runs until 5 January and I recommend it – but not if you’re easily offended!

Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum – British Museum

The other week I visited the British Museum to see the long-awaited exhibition, Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum. I’d booked in advance to visit after work on a Friday afternoon, and a good thing too, as it was completely sold out.

It’s unsurprising that the exhibition is so popular, as the destruction of the city of Pompeii by the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79 is legendary. Less well-known, perhaps, is the similar destruction of the nearby city of Herculaneum at the same time. The exhibition explores the lives of people living in these two cities, and also their deaths.

Entering the exhibition, a handful of artefacts – a stool and a painting, preserved by the eruption – are displayed, retrieved from the wreckage of the cities. Alongside these sits a cast of a dog, one of the most famous items from the area, forever fixed at the moment of its death.

Following this introductory scene, there is a short video looking at the lives of those individuals who lived in the cities. This consists of videos of modern inhabitants of the Bay of Naples, many of whom live lives not dissimilar to their forebears. The exhibition takes pains to emphasise the similarities between us and the citizens of AD 79 Pompeii and Herculaneum, while not discounting the many differences.

The ‘life’ aspect of the exhibition was the biggest, and I liked the way it was laid out – like a house, with rooms such as the bedroom, kitchen and atrium. It began with a street scene: the objects displayed here had been taken from the streets and public areas in which they were originally placed.  These included signs, shop fronts, and tavern murals. The latter were among my favourites in the exhibition. They were humorous pictures of ordinary people engaging in normal tavern-based activities, such as drinking, gambling and a little romance. Latin inscriptions narrated the tales, helpfully translated in captions underneath. One particularly amusing scene showed two men arguing over the game they were playing, with one calling the other ‘c*cksucker’.

Continuing in that vein, I was surprised to discover that several ornaments and fixtures used by the citizens were decorated with penises (peni??). They were not the rude, slightly indecent symbols they are today: rather, they were lighthearted cultural symbols representing fecundity and fertility. These decorations suggest that however similar these people were to us, they were very different in several other ways. Another stark reminder of this was a statue, displayed in a corner of the ‘garden’ area, with a sign to warn parents of small children that they might want to keep them away. This statue showed the god Pan enjoying, shall we say, an ‘intimate’ moment with a goat, and presented the prudish archaeologists of yesteryear who discovered it with a quandary – was this really the sort of thing that the literate, civilised, cultured Romans were into?

Other artefacts, presented in the exhibition rooms corresponding to those which they would have belonged in Italy, were more mundane: decorative tiles, a small stool, a bed, jewellery, shells containing makeup that still bore traces of cosmetics. And yet, the mundane nature of these objects make the highly unusual and sudden death of their owners all the more shocking and tragic. One particular item I found the saddest of all: a wooden cradle. Empty on display, it had been found with its tiny occupant still inside.

The exhibition illustrates how the different conditions in Pompeii and Herculaneum have allowed archaeologists and scientists to build up a fuller picture of life at the time. The larger industrial city of Pompeii was engulfed by a pyroclastic cloud, killing its inhabitants and burying the city under a massive layer of ash. This allowed the shape of the bodies to be preserved once they rotted away, as they left behind their shape inside the ash. In the smaller seaside town of Herculaneum, the pyroclastic cloud was even hotter, reducing bodies to nothing and turning wooden artefacts to charcoal.

The people of Pompeii and Herculaneum were getting on with their lives, going about their day to day business, when they were overtaken by tragedy. Towards the end of the exhibition there are displays of meals, prepared but never eaten, which illustrate just how sudden the eruption was. Finally, we see some of the individuals discovered by archaeologists when the sites were first explored. One lady was cast in resin, more durable than the traditional plaster of Paris; she had been found lying down, accompanied by jewellery. Four family casts are displayed together, frozen at the moment of death. One child throws its head back against a wall. The other cuddles close to its parents. It is truly heartbreaking to see these casts, and imagine the pain and fear that these people must have felt all those years ago.

This is truly a fantastic exhibition – not that I would have expected anything less from the British Museum. Booking in advance is essential, unless you want to take the risk of turning up early in the hope of day tickets. The exhibition runs until the 29th of September and I certainly recommend it.

Ice Age Art: Arrival of the Modern Mind – British Museum

I’d originally planned to see Ice Age Art: Arrival of the Modern Mind on Friday night a few weeks ago, but when I went along to the British Museum after work I found that the exhibition was completely sold out. I ended up buying an advance ticket for the 10th of March, so that I could visit before going to the Manet exhibition a bit later on.

Although timed entry was in operation, the exhibition hall was still really full and there was a bit of queuing and waiting around. I was surprised at how popular this exhibition was. What struck me about most of the exhibits was how small they were: some of them were only as big as a finger, very few larger than my fist. I suppose it would be easier to transport these smaller pieces from wherever they are held permanently, but I also found myself wondering if they were made so small to make them easier to carry around at the time, whether as pieces of jewellery or amulets, or just because smaller items were easier to transport in a nomadic society.

The first half of the exhibition displayed art from 40, 000 to 20, 000 years ago, the majority of it from Siberian Russia or central Europe. Several pieces stood out for me: the ‘Lion Man’, which, in its representation of something that does not exist in reality, reveals the creative and imaginative capabilities of Ice Age humans, and a flute, which shows that they enjoyed playing music. Several animals, such as bison, lions or mammoths, are depicted, a reflection of the world in which these people lived, and in fact many of the sculptures are made of mammoth ivory.

Images of nude women abound in Ice Age art, and it’s unclear whether these represent real women or a symbol. Their nudity clearly indicates an artistic convention – in Ice Age society, clothes were a necessity – but were they made for and by women, perhaps to protect them in pregnancy and childbirth, or did they serve some other purpose?

Later in the exhibition, art from the later time of 20, 000 to 10, 000 years ago is displayed. The sheer number of horse sculptures and pictures are astounding, and some of them are really beautiful. The exhibition questions whether these pictures are designed to represent individual horses, or the horse, a symbolic creature. Horses were undoubtedly hugely important to Ice Age people, and it is possible that they worshipped a deity that took the form of a horse. Perhaps we’ll never know.

The reasons for and meanings behind many of the sculptures and artworks here are shrouded in mystery. We can only speculate as to the purpose they served and the role they played in the lives of Ice Age society. However, we can certainly appreciate the artistic ability of their creators, and if it is true that the ability to make art is what distinguishes modern humanity from the animals, then these artworks are crucially important in helping us understand how we evolved.

Alongside the ancient artworks, several modern pieces from the 20th century are displayed. I don’t feel these are really necessary, but they do seem to illustrate that in some ways art has come full circle – the representations of the body, for instance, in several modern sculptures and images closely resembles those of the Ice Age.

Ice Age Art: Arrival of the Modern Mind is on at the British Museum until 26th May.