culture,  UK

The British Museum – part 2 – Summer 2023 exhibitions

The British Museum is one of the most renowned places for protecting cultural artifacts from all over the globe and professionalism of its curators and conservation specialists is beyond question. As mentioned in the previous post we are not here to focus on political and/or ethical issues. Not that these are not important, in contrary, the discussion should happen and sooner or later it will. However neither I feel qualified, nor this blog is the place for such discussion.

Back to the museum – apart from permanent showings, there are always temporary exhibitions, though in this case, unless you’re a BM Friend (membership is available to purchase in different versions and prices), you need to pay an entrance fee. One of the reasons is that apart from showing off some of the almost 8 million works from vast warehouses (of which less than 1% can be seen normally), these ones allow visitors to see items which are kept in other places in different countries. Sometimes it is a foreign government who wants to promote their cultural heritage, sometimes they are other museums wanting something in return – it is still very expensive to include the cost of transport, insurance, etc., that’s why the tickets on top of additional special sponsorship involved. What is to love about any of those is the fact that they explore subjects very deeply. You could learn a lot, about only one area maybe, but still, much more than you will ever learn from short descriptions next to items being on display permanently.

Oh, and there are always additional seasonal memorabilia available for purchase from the gift shops and usually when they’re gone, they’re gone, never to be back again. That may be the only option to buy amazing Christmas decorations from Peru (one of my most favourite temporary exhibitions so far) home-made by local Peruvian troubled youth or replicas of ancient tablets, hand-woven scarves and jewellery inspired by ancient Assyria (from my all-time favourite: I am Ashurbanipal – king of the world, king of Assyria). By the way, in those cases the items are always ethically sourced, made in small batches by local artists with natural environment in mind. Every single one of them is different and all are special.   

Currently, in the Summer of 23, there are two temporary exhibits, both worth checking if you are in London, one maybe even special enough to consider coming here because of it.

Luxury and power – Persia and Greece

The first of the two new exhibitions explores the ancient Greco – Persian world. As it happened, these were two rivalling powers for hundreds of years and, normally, it was assumed that they were the Greeks who were the cultured ones, and the rest of the world was filled with barbarian empires. Somehow, after the Hellenic victories, the Mediterranean people saw unimaginable luxury and art originated in the unknown parts of the world. For the Greek philosophers of the time, the Persian opulence was a sign of a fallen decadent realm, while in reality, it was the tool to keep the royal Persian Achaemenid family in power.

The Achaemenid empire was, at its greatest extent around 500 BC, the largest in the world, with no other which could equal with the Persians. With its centre in modern-day Iran, it stretched from Libya to Pakistan. It consisted of many provinces, the satrapies, which were supposed to deliver tribute to the mighty king, who, in turn, distributed expensive gifts to the satraps (the province governors) to gain their loyalty.

One of the most precious set of items on display is a loan from National Museum of Bulgaria, so called the Panagyurishte Treasure discovered in 1949. It consists of 9 items made of 24 carat gold – a patera, an amphora, three wine jugs and four rhytons (conical animal-head shaped vessels for drinking) believed to belong to a king of Thracia.

Obviously, there are more objects than “just” those nine mentioned above. When people think of luxury, they immediately envision precious metals like gold, and there are more golden items shown here. There is an armlet shaped like two griffins from current Tajikistan dating approximately to 5th/4th century BC with such an intricate design that all the biggest contemporary jeweller brands would love to claim its authorship. There is a beautiful golden chariot, part of the same Oxus treasure as the armlet. There is also a delicate gold wreath featuring tiny bees and cicadas fluttering among the oak leaves and acorns. Finally, there are gilt silver rhytons crafted in shapes of mythical creatures.

Apart from what we, 21st century humans living in the Western civilisation, consider luxury, there are other beautiful objects which, at the time, were available to the elite only to show their status, including painted pottery, glass or even purple dye and frankincense.

This exhibition is open until mid-August 2023 and since there is a series of the BM personnel strikes planned you need to make sure to check beforehand if you would be able to visit.

China’s hidden century

The major exhibition this summer is about 19th century China – a period of civil uprisings, wars with foreign powers and revolution. Apart from violence and unrest, it was time for creativity and transformation – from a thousands of years old empire to a modern republic. The objects displayed has been chosen as a result of a long research project which involved, apart from the British Museum scientists, over 100 scholars from 14 countries. And I must say, the outcome is exquisite; even if you are not really interested in that part of the world, there are many reasons to visit. How important is it? Let’s say that it is presented in the biggest and most prestigious space for temporary exhibitions the BM has with the entrance right off the Great Court.

Upon entering, you are greeted by an enormous map of the Qing empire from the end of the 18th century when the Chinese emperor ruled over the third of total human population (about 400 million when Britain has 10 million inhabitants only), on loan from the British Library. Made with a blue ink on eight rolls of paper shows other states as well, but not in their geographical position and size, but in regard to their importance to the Qing emperors, see this tiny bit on the left margin? That’s Europe.

The vast exhibition space allows curators to not only show more objects than normally, but to tell stories. And the stories they are! The Empress Dowager Cixi’s robe borrowed from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, is just an excuse to put in the picture life of that remarkable woman who was de-facto ruler of China for almost 50 years, first on behalf of her son Tongzhi, and then her nephew Guangxu. Also, through objects belonging to the imperial court, we are enlighten about life behind doors inaccessible to common people.

Large part of the exhibition consists of textiles, clothes, accessories, because one of the threads guides us through the eyes of an artist. Opera flourished in Beijing at the end of the 19th century and costumes were made of the highest quality silk and satin for famous actors to perform in front of the Empress. There are colorfull dresses, headgear, detachable collars of which only a few can be seen in this post.

Status of the British Museum is so high that there are even some items on loan from His Majesty The King (by the way, it is still strange saying that after so many years with the Queen). Those include:

  • a pair of royal vases from the last emperor of China Puyi which were presented as a diplomatic gift to King George V and Queen Mary to mark their coronation and which are normally diplayed at Buckingham Palace;
  • a painting of Looty, the first Pekinese dog in Europe which was a gift to Queen Victoria from the British Army captain after the Second Opium War.

Let me finish my post with some more pictures. It was not supposed to be a professional review of two summer exhibitions, anyway. I am neither an art historian, nor feel qualified in other ways to do it. That is why I simply show some beautiful objects you could see when visiting. And most of all, I am just happy to live in London, where everyone can grow and learn. The possibilities are endless with access to the best resources in the world.

This exhibition is open until the beginning of October and just like it’s already mentioned, when planning a visit make sure that you will check the website in order not to meet closed gates (or how my compatriots say, and that is one of my most favourite idioms in Polish – to not kiss the door handle).

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