The press have reported the traumatic story of a British-born Nepal earthquake survivor, who happens to be an archaeologist. Hayley Saul was trekking in Kathmandu with Emma Waterton, a fellow member of the University of York-based Himalayan Exploration and Archaeological Research Team (HEART) (Saul on left and Waterton on right, above, from the Northampton Echo). They and their guide and porters had to dodge falling boulders which wiped out their trail, and then find their way through a transformed and moving landscape to a village. They joined others for a cold, wet night (“In all honesty, we didn’t think we would survive”, says Saul). and the next morning climbed to a point where a helicopter took them to safety.
As Simon Jenkins writes today on the Guardian website, damage to “the ancient settlements of the Kathmandu valley and their Hindu and Buddhist shrines” constitutes a “second disaster”, beside that of the appalling human tragedy. Hayley Saul’s project set out to record and to help to restore and save some of the historic structures in Nepal, in particular a Buddhist monastery in Langtang, the village her group had left before the earthquake struck.
She wrote about the project for British Archaeology a couple of years ago. I’ve posted the complete feature here, an insight into the sort of things likely to have been lost in Nepal’s parallel disaster.
I arrived at the press view of the British Museum’s new show to meet a small group of friendly protestors. We were on the stairs on the west side of the Reading Room. As I looked at the banners I could see the gateway behind them into the passage that leads to the Parthenon Galleries, and for a moment I thought they must be demanding repatriation of the marbles. Doh. I was about to see Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation. The protesters wanted artefacts returned to Australia. And – this being The BP Exhibition, Indigenous Australia – the BM to drop BP sponsorship.
It was all a bit confusing, I thought, clutching my rival press releases as I went into the gallery. But very soon I was overtaken by the glorious show.
I first learnt about Aboriginal culture when I came to London as an undergraduate in the early 70s, and discovered UCL’s anthropology library. The stories! The art! The landscapes! The tragedies! And the politics. Gough Whitlam had just become prime minister, and the prospect became real that Aboriginal peoples would gain exactly the same rights as all other Australians. Nonetheless, it took until 1992 for the High Court to dismiss the colonial deceit that Australia was terra nullius – nobody’s land, an empty unloved continent waiting for the British to do something useful with it.
Here at last is a show that opens up those stories, “the first major UK exhibition”, we are told, “on Indigenous Australia”. The last time I remember seeing some of the exhibits was in the BM’s own then outpost in Burlington Gardens, the Ethnography Department in the Museum of Man, in the 1970s.
Now we can see some fabulous, rare things, including artefacts that specialist archaeologists will enjoy such as a lot of bifacial flaked stone and glass spear points. There are baskets and paintings, shields and spears. I was spellbound by an extraordinary crocodile mask, a hairy, toothy monster over 2m long made by Mabuiag people in the Torres Strait out of turtle shell, wood, metal and fabric.
The croc was given to the British Museum by Wollaston Franks, and was made before 1885. The BM clearly has a strong Australian collection, joined here by things from elsewhere in the UK and from the National Museum of Australia, Canberra and other collections in Australia and Europe. Exhibits range from the 18th century (a shield collected during Cook’s visit in 1770) to the 21st.
These objects tell stories. The first half of the gallery is about Aboriginal cultures and country. The second half is about their fate in the hands of the British, and the peoples’ fight for rights and identities.
The script is honest and open. It likes Aboriginal culture and artefacts. It thinks the objects are worth studying and conserving, and that they can be interesting and beautiful. And it thinks they can be interrogated so we can learn about the people who made them.
“Objects are our texts”, says Aboriginal artist Jonathan Jones on the audio guide, as I look at a case of decorated shields. “Learning to read these objects is becoming increasingly important.” The shields, says the display, tell you who you are, and others where you come from. “A lot of information has been lost”, says Jones.
The second half of the show is about the struggle for rights, the need to preserve things and traditions, and the success of building new ones. Powerful messages in a small space. Several people describe how they have learnt about their own histories and culture from museum collections and displays. I used to watch my old grandmother make baskets from lawyer cane, says Abe Muriata. “But I wasn’t actually taught by her. I taught myself by going to the museum… I’ve been taught by master craftsmen.” One of his baskets is the last thing you see in the show.
The exhibition does not “perpetuate… the British legacy of taking Aboriginal land, objects and resources without permission”, as the BP-or-not-BP release has it. That is simplistic, and wrong. The protestors’ arguments are developed at greater length elsewhere (eg Zoe Pilger in the Independent, or Paul Daley in the Guardian), but the exhibition shows that they are wrong too. By contrast, Alastair Smart in the Telegraph feels that “Far from celebrating indigenous Australian culture, this show does little more than slam British colonial rule.” That is also wrong. When British settlers arrived, he tells us, “There was, instead of ‘civilisation’, just a boundless landscape.” But Aboriginal Australia shows that “civilisation” does not have to mean “grand buildings, monuments or sculptures”. People can create vast, complex worlds in their imaginations and express these, materially, through small, portable artefacts and marks in the landscape. Humans do not need to be settled, farming and urbanised to be civilised – an important lesson for how we think about most of human history, spent as hunter-gatherers, not growers.
Perhaps this is the point when I should say you really should go to see this show, it’s great. The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones gets it, and awards it a full 5 stars.
The exhibition dignifies Aboriginal culture by asking us to respect it, learn from it and wonder at it. It sets out the horror of two centuries of colonial history, and what has been achieved in overthrowing prejudices and restrictions. And it allows contemporary Indigenous people a voice, an identity. You would expect no less from an exhibition created on Neil MacGregor’s watch, by Gaye Sculthorpe, a leading Australian researcher with Aboriginal peoples and herself an Indigenous Australian from Tasmania, and BM colleagues including Lissant Bolton. We are both Australian, said Lissant in her introductory speech. “This exhibition is close to our hearts”.
Assyria was an ancient Mesopotamian kingdom centred on modern Iraq and Syria. The British Museum has an outstanding collection of Assyrian stone carvings and reliefs, mostly from Nimrud and Nineveh, dating from around 900–600BC and excavated by Henry Layard between 1845 and 1851. One of the BM’s most significant recent acquisitions was a group of Assyrian ivories excavated from Nimrud by Max Mallowan (with his wife Agatha Christie) for what is now the British Institute for the Study of Iraq (BISI) in 1949–63. A third of the complete collection remains with BISI; “It is hoped that in the future these can be returned to Iraq.”
In recent weeks artefacts from Nineveh and Nimrud – both are world heritage sites – have been among antiquities targets that Islamic State claims to have damaged; Nimrud itself is said to have been bulldozed. There is debate about how much the attacks have been directed at replicas and how much at original artefacts, but there seems no doubt that real losses have occurred. The attacks are politically motivated, and have been described as war crimes. Some argue that they should be seen as genocidal, “part of a blatant attempt to erase an entire people’s history and identity”. IS apparently regulates and taxes antiquities looters who operate on a vastly destructive scale. It is difficult to know how to describe dealers and collectors who buy up the debris, funding destruction and murder.
This floor plan gives an idea of the scale of the BM’s Assyrian galleries (the rows of dots along the bottom represent the colonnade at the front of the building).
Some of the carvings are absolutely huge. They are breathtaking, among the most extraordinary things to be seen in the museum. Kings wrestle with lions, artful depictions of Putinesque games. People are slaughtered and tortured. Cities are destroyed. Huge, brutal-looking half-animal half-human gods follow you with piercing eyes. These are galleries of terror, a boast of extreme power and control, preserved safe in London from the bitter destruction of the “world’s richest terror army”.
This is what the British Museum is for. To curate and nurture memories and to tell stories, without political flight or favour, about peoples whose only voice is now in material remains, or whose histories can be illuminated with things they made.
Ironically (it actually made me laugh out loud at one point), these galleries are also a visit into a more recent past. I was reminded of travelling on the London underground in the 1970s.
Little background information is given about the geographical and cultural contexts of where these things came from. Some of the labels are missing. Light is a mix of natural and artificial, neither of them adequate. The carvings – thankfully uncased – are dusty.
This entertaining play on the style of the friezes by Alan Sorrell (1957) hangs on a wall in a frame. It shows, in 1950s-speak, a “tentative reconstruction of the assault and surrender of the city of Lachish”.
The label describes the scratched grid under the Perspex as “A newly discovered board for a game”. One suspects that doesn’t mean it was found earlier this year.
Woops, not this way.
Yet of course it’s still all worth seeing.
The BM is a huge place, with many rooms and memories of its own. Neil MacGregor has transformed it, and steered it through a golden age. His successor faces an enormous challenge, just to keep it going well. Yet they will be able to make their mark, to be creative and surprising as well as welcoming and supportive, without necessarily taking apart or re-inventing things recently done. There is plenty of scope for important new work.
There’s a lot of treasure in this edition: two unusual Roman graves (in one, scenes on a jug handle are reminiscent of the Georgics, a text by the Roman poet Virgil), and an Anglo-Saxon grave with a gold pendant compared to the best jewellery at Sutton Hoo.
There is luxury, too, as we seek out the real Wolfhall, the country palace in Wiltshire that gave its name to the acclaimed historical novel and BBC TV series. We set out key facts for two controversial but important archaeological sites: Blick Mead, Amesbury – dubbed the UK’s oldest continuous settlement by the Guinness Book of Records – and Bouldnor, Isle of Wight, where an extraordinary claim for mesolithic wheat challenges accepted views about the spread of farming across Europe.
In the run-up to the UK general election, we ask what the government has done for heritage, and suggest how Parliament can save itself from terminal collapse. Plus all the usual sections with Letters, TV and book reviews, an interview with one of the most powerful women in archaeology, and more.
We knew he couldn’t be there for ever, but still it’s a shock to hear Neil MacGregor announce his retirement as director of the British Museum, after one of the most glorious, packed episodes in its long history. He will continue to be busy (above, on left with Ralph Jackson on a chill day at Hadrian’s Wall), but who will lead the place from next year? Simon Thurley? Someone from outside the UK? The museum’s first woman director? The view from MacGregor’s shoulders will be precipitous.
This is the BM’s release:
Neil MacGregor announced to his colleagues at the British Museum this morning that he has decided to step down as Director at the end of December 2015.
Neil MacGregor said, “It’s a very difficult thing to leave the British Museum. Working with this collection and above all with the colleagues here has been the greatest privilege of my professional life. But I’ve decided that now is the time to retire from full-time employment and the end of this year seems a good time to go. The new building has been completed, so we at last have proper exhibition space, new conservation and scientific facilities, and first class accommodation for our growing research activities. We have built strong partnerships with fellow museums across the UK, and are rapidly expanding our programme of loans and training around the world.
The Museum is now ready to embark on a new phase – deploying the collection to present different histories of the world. It is an exhilarating prospect, and it will start with the new Islamic Galleries and with plans for the future of the Old Reading Room.
The Museum is in a strong position to respond to these energising challenges. It has a distinguished international Board under a new Chairman Sir Richard Lambert. To everything it does the British Museum brings the highest levels of professionalism. Around the world it is a valued partner and the Board has clearly defined the British Museum’s role as a worldwide resource for the understanding of humanity, to be made available as widely and as freely as possible.”
Neil MacGregor added, “Although I shall no longer be working full-time I shall be involved in a number of projects.
I shall be working with the BBC and the British Museum on a new Radio 4 series on Faith and Society.
I shall be chairing an Advisory Board to make recommendations to the German Minister of Culture, Monika Grütters, on how the Humboldt- Forum, drawing on the outstanding resources of the Berlin collections, can become a place where different narratives of world cultures can be explored and debated.
In Mumbai, I look forward to working on the presentation of world cultures with the CSMVS Museum and its Director Mr Sabyasachi Mukherjee under whose tenure it has emerged as one of the finest and most active museums in South/South East Asia.”
Chairman Sir Richard Lambert said,
“Neil MacGregor has been an outstanding Director of the British Museum and has made an extraordinary contribution to public life in the UK and beyond. The Trustees are hugely grateful for everything he has done to bring the collection to life, and to tell its many different stories. We respect his decision to move on, and want to support him in his new projects. We are now starting the process of looking for someone to take on what will be one of the best and most challenging jobs of its kind in the world. The Museum is in great shape, and we are fortunate to have an outstanding team in place to lead its activities and help build its future with the new Director. The collection of the British Museum is in a real sense the memory of mankind and the task is to present it in the best possible way in and beyond Bloomsbury for the benefit of present and future generations.”
The German Federal Minister of State for Culture and the Media, Monika Grütters said,
“I am immensely grateful and more than happy that Neil MacGregor with his wide-ranging experience of world cultures and his deep knowledge of Germany will support us in making our most ambitious cultural project happen – the Humboldt-Forum. We are very fortunate that Neil MacGregor has agreed to take on the task of chairing the advisory committee. I am convinced that with his skill in presenting global narratives and his persuasive powers and determination, he will help shape the Humboldt-Forum as a successful institution with an ambitious programme that best serves the public in Berlin, Germany and internationally.”
The institution Neil MacGregor leaves in 2015 is
• the most visited attraction in the UK for eight years running. Numbers have increased from 4.6 million in 2002/03 to 6.7 million in 2014/15. Over 270,000 school children visit the Museum each year. The British Museum is the second most visited museum in the world and has a virtual audience of over 35 million.
• several galleries housing the permanent collection have been splendidly refurbished thanks to generous benefactors.
• has an internationally acclaimed exhibitions programme including ‘The First Emperor: China’s Terracotta Army’ 2007, ‘Afghanistan: Crossroad of the Ancient World’ 2011, ‘Grayson Perry: Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman’ 2011, ‘Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam’ 2012, ‘Ice age art: arrival of the modern mind’ 2013, ‘Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum’ 2013, ‘Vikings: life and legend’ 2014 and ‘Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation’ this year.
• the British Museum is the most generous lending collection in the world from Tehran to St Petersburg, Mumbai to Nairobi. Over 5,000 objects travelled to 335 venues in the UK and internationally in 2013 – 2014,
• the British Museum is an integral part of the UK wide network of museums with seven partnership galleries throughout the UK and more to follow. In the past year 3 million people saw British Museum objects at partner museums. UK citizens are now more likely to see a British Museum object on loan at partner museums around the country than in London.
• the global story from the British Museum’s collection told in the 100 part BBC Radio 4 series, presented by Neil MacGregor ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’ has been downloaded over 40 million times. Biography Born in 1946, Neil MacGregor studied languages at Oxford, philosophy at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris, and Law in Edinburgh, before reading History of Art at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. He lectured at the University of Reading and the Courtauld Institute. In 1981 he became Editor of The Burlington Magazine and Director of the National Gallery in 1987. He has been Director of the British Museum since August 2002.