Mark McDonald (Assistant Keeper – Old Master Prints and Spanish Drawings, British Museum).
What can only be described a brilliant summer in London is rapidly drawing to a close; brilliant not only for the long hot days that could on occasion be compared to Australia, but what has been on view at the British Museum. Not wanting too much to boast about the Department of Prints and Drawings with its ceaseless offering of exhibitions that delight and inspire, but Fra Angelico to Leonardo: Italian Renaissance Drawings curated by my colleague Hugo Chapman with Marzia Fiettti of the Uffizi showed 100 drawings, fifty from each collection, that was a revelation. There is good reason to feel exhausted by the endless privileging of the Italian Renaissance in both academia and museums, but this exhibition was an eye-opener showing works never before seen and paying particular attention to their function and mercifully, not questions of style alone.
Literally next door at the same time ran another, very different, but equally startling exhibition of mainly bronzes from the Kingdom of Ife (West Africa) that spanned a similar and often earlier time period. Many of these are masterpieces and equal to anything made in Europe where the casting techniques were developed to an incredibly sophisticated standard (see the images below). I took great delight in hearing our visitors commenting they never knew such sculpture was made in Africa as they examined their supreme quality. Nothing better than seeing fixed positions shifting and in back of my mind I sensed the linear narrative structures of Renaissance art history prompted by the show next door taking a bit of a drunken and insecure stumble.
For me these two exhibitions were the summer highlights but they were only the obvious attractions at the British Museum. The Museum continues to rotate smaller spaces including the Asahi Shimbun sponsored Gallery 3 (immediately upon entering the Museum, hard turn right) that for 2010 has been devoted to showing objects from the BBC Radio 4 series A History of the World in 100 Objects presented by our director Neil MacGregor that has been incredibly popular and successful in reinvigorating interest in all areas of our collections.
In keeping with the notion of focussing on one object, we devoted the gallery to objects from the radio series; first a 13000 year old (Late Ice Age) sculpture of two swimming reindeer carved from the tip of a mammoth tusk, one of the earliest examples of representational art that was followed by a 7th century AD carved lintel from a Mayan temple in Yaxchilán showing a scene of self-sacrifice where the protagonist Lady Xook pulls through her tongue, a thorny rope. Very different shows indeed, but the joy of Gallery 3 is that you can ‘unpick’ objects to tell different and critical parts of a story of how an object came to be made and its significance, an antidote to the thousands of objects in the seemingly endless galleries. With regard to the reindeer, many visitors were shocked to learn that high-quality representational art did not begin with the Greeks, another assumption de-bunked. And the lintel gave people a much better understanding of the reasons and context for auto-sacrifice.
Gallery 3, which I have managed for the past two years, is an experimental space, as far as it can be in the confines of a Museum. One of the aspects I have most enjoyed is working with colleague across the entire museum, anthropologists, archaeologists, cultural historians and being taken through parts of the collections they look after. I will not forget working with my colleague Robert Storrie on exhibition of a 17th century Sami drum, that on its surface has drawings of reindeer herding and a journey to the underworld, or seeing the related wooden Shamans masks with one side of the face turned up, the other turned down, to imply the transformation of parallel and changing states of being. Then it was on to show an enormous 18th century Indonesian Gamelan curated by Rob’s wife, Anouska Komlosy, followed by a show of Manga cartoons by the brilliant Tim Clark for which we flew one of the world’s leading Manga artists, Hoshino-san to London from Japan, to produce a Manga on the British Museum that is now appearing in Manga publications. This is generating an enormous following and we now have visitors who come to the Museum to seek out objects that have featured in the Manga.
The autumn promises more; soon to open is Journey through the afterlife: ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead and a host of smaller displays. The planning for the World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre to be built in the northwest corner of the existing site continues to surge forward. The Museum reached a landmark this year with around 1.9 million objects from our collections available on the online database, of which 500,000 have freely downloadable images. This has revolutionised scholarly work and colleagues still do not believe it has happened. I hope it leads the way and that I stop getting emails asking for permission to use our images.
© Mark McDonald 2010
Fig 1. Raffaellino del Garbo, ‘Studies for a Resurrection, with Christ rising from the tomb and hand studies’, 1495-7. Copyright the Trustees of the British Museum.
Fig 2. Copper mask identified as ‘Obalufon’ – Ife. 14th-early 15th century. © Karin L.Wills/Museum for African Art/National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria.
Fig 3. Copper head, Wunmonije Compound, Ife. Late 14th-early16th century. © Karin L.Wills/Museum for African Art/National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria.
Fig 4. Swimming reindeer – about 13,000 years old, Montastruc, Tarn et Garonne, France. Copyright the Trustees of the British Museum.
Fra Angelico to Leonardo: Italian Renaissance Drawings – BM website
Kingdom of Ife – BM website
Journey through the afterlife: ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead – BM website