“Celts: art & identity” opens at the British Museum tomorrow. After a quick press tour today, I can only say, wow. Wow! I will go again and look more closely when I can, but my immediate reaction was sheer joy. This is really worth going out of the way to see.
First, there’s a lot of nice stuff to look at – really nice stuff, with many iconic artefacts of their kind. The BM has a good collection of its own that is used to good effect. They’ve borrowed many things as well – from 17 UK institutions and 10 international museums, says Neil MacGregor in his foreword to the catalogue – in a way that the combined forces of National Museum Scotland and the BM would be hard to beat for material of this subject matter.
Second, the show takes a tired, familiar but enduringly popular concept – Celts – and makes it feel new. Remarkably, the idea was born as long ago as 2003, in a discussion led by JD Hill and Sam Moorhead. Even more remarkably, somehow during the extended development of the idea it took a radical direction.
For two generations archaeologists have been steadily arguing themselves out of the box that held Celts, to leave them, from an academic’s perspective, out of the story altogether. You can see how and why that happened, but from a wider perspective it never really made sense. For most people “Celts” is a very loose term, used as the classical authors who coined it did – as a vague reference to other people in the north and west of Europe at a particular time some 2,000 years ago. Which is what we get here – the art and craft of western Europe in the last five centuries BC.
But that’s just the start (or the first large part). We move on through Roman times, early Christianity and into the Celtic revival of the last few centuries. This would have confused, even alienated some leading archaeologists over 40 years ago (the famous over 40 years ago when it is said the last British exhibition devoted to Celtic art was held, of which more below). People like Stuart Piggott and Glyn Daniel were as fascinated by recent cultural interests in the ancient past as they were by the prehistoric past itself. But there was always a lingering sense – in Daniel’s case, often overt – that modern manifestations of Celts, Druids and the rest were a bit of a joke; it was wrong. Thanks to the BM showcasing it all in one long gallery, here we can just enjoy everything for its own sake. The juxtapositions add interest to each of the parts. Ancient Celticity positively glows in the presence of modern.
Finally, the designers have learnt well how to use the space of this still new gallery. With hindsight, we can see that the main problem with the opening show, “Vikings: Life and Legend” (which the lamented Brian Sewell called “a disaster”), was the ship. The BM had borrowed a fantastic recreation of an entire Viking longship. It was fabulous. And it took up half the gallery, so that everything else had to be crammed into little cases packed close together, around which large crowds ground to a halt.
There are some grand things on show here, not least JH Foley’s triumphant marble statue of Caractacus, borrowed from the City of London, and an impressive show of Celtic crosses (all right, they’re not all real, but they look great). But there is a also much space, room for a very large number of people to wander and look around. For the objects to shine.
The floor plan, and drapes over the earlier part of the exhibition, have a kind of Celtic swirl to them. I love these evanescent fabrics – whatever they are – hanging from above, lit like aurora borealis. When you are in the Celtic revival section, you can see them in the background, rising from the invisible ancient Celtic artefacts like ghosts in the dark.
This theatricality by Real Studios reminded me of a very different display of Celtic art, but one that was equally dramatic: Early Celtic Art, held like the new show in London and Edinburgh – but the other way round. It began during the Edinburgh Festival in 1970, and came down to the Hayward Gallery in London. I was at school at the time. Already enamoured by Celtic art, I hitched from the south coast to Scotland to see it. The university had put on a small conference, where I met Stuart Piggott. Could he sign my catalogue? Of course, what’s the date? I said I didn’t know. Piggott saw I had a newspaper under my arm. “Always”, he said, “use the evidence you have around you.”
The relatively small show had some lovely things. It was dark (like the BM), and spooky. A tape played the sound of cawing crows. There were festoons of what looked like black wool. You felt only one step away from falling into a bog. I thought it was great.
It had the Gundestrup cauldron, featured on the cover of the catalogue (a lovely thing on textured paper with black and white plate inserts). Actually, that was a bit of a swizz, as the cauldron was a replica.
Now, in the British Museum, like Julian Cope, I can see the real thing, surrounded by all its children.