Great Russell Street
London WC1B 3DG
Thursday May 12th 2016
In many ways we had been avoiding the British Museum (BM) – not because we did not enjoy it, not because we did not think that the late Director Sir Neil McGregor was admirable in all sorts of ways and had made the museum even more attractive, but because the ‘idea of it’ seemed so overwhelming. On today’s count the museum has approximately 99 galleries (there are some As and Bs) spread over 5 floors and while this shows on their map I think it’s probably an underestimate.
So it’s a bit at a time until we get bored, but it will certainly take us till the end of the Project.
Today we started with Africa, not because we are being alphabetical or anything organised like that, but because it’s on the lower ground floor near the back entrance and we wanted something (comparatively) crowd-free. To say we were alone would be a lie but there was plenty of peace and quiet to enjoy this very well curated collection of both historic and present day cultural artefacts. The starting point is here you can find modern artists ‘ responses to more traditional art forms – masks, pots, sculptures etc – and samples from the more historic collection alongside short film clips showing how the craftsmen use their materials.
Mozambique, we learned has about 40 languages so there was a mural called Mother Tongue, and then a very modern response to the traditional woven Kente Cloth made of recycled bottle tops.
There are many artefacts which are universal – textiles, pots and sadly weaponry; there are also sections for religious and ritual occasions, and I suspect this will be the pattern for the remaining 98 galleries. When I tell you that this particular gallery was larger than the whole of Barnet Museum you can imagine how daunted one might feel.
In the ‘Masquerade’ section are a range of masks and head dresses, some ceremonial used to ward off evil spirits , or perhaps give you the courage to face your enemy be it man or hippo (’otobo’ we learnt, and one of Africa’s largest animal killers, not counting malaria). These are heavy and complex constructions and not the kind of thing you would wear down to the market.
Back to the textiles where there was a range of both historical and more modern kente cloths. Kente means basket, which makes sense when you look at the woven patterns. Also on display was hand stamped Kanga cloth which originated when six hankies (len̹co In Portuguese) are sewn together – the printing process allows for a degree of political propaganda along the way…
As we learnt from the Indian textiles and what is of course obvious is that the textiles (as later the pots) depend on locally available materials so it is only in coastal/mountain North Africa that you find wool used. Other cloths include raffia and some imported fabrics.
One of the most splendid ( and possibly controversial) sections of this particular gallery is the display of Benin Bronzes and included is a short film explaining the processes used, pretty much unchanged, over the last four centuries. The intricacy and humour of the plaques once used to decorate the palace exterior are one of the prize exhibits at the BM
And rightly so – you can linger here gazing at the different expressions of the people immortalized in bronze.
Wood carving is also well represented but of course less likely to survive than bronze, so again there are modern examples to show that the skills still flourish.
After these manifestations of power and prestige from the palace walls it is no surprise to see there is a section on weaponry, whose manufacture must combine functionality with good design. Examples range from earlier simple shields to a range of lethal looking throwing knives. Mozambique lived with civil war for over 20 years (1972-1997) so once peace was established there was clearly an arms amnesty and the weapons collected fashioned into a ‘tree of life’ or peace – it is both intriguing and moving and quite rightly has toured the continent before coming to rest at the BM.
A more peaceful conclusion to the gallery was the magnificent range of pots showing the variety of colours, skills and techniques available from the various African countries, all of which were that perfection combination of utility and beauty.
Having spent a good hour downstairs we thought we wanted a real contrast – the current paying exhibition is about Sicily but up on the fifth floor there was a small exhibition of Francis Towne’s watercolours of Rome, many of which he had bequeathed to the BM. Towne was born in Middlesex but moved to Exeter where he remained for the rest of his life he started as a coach painter but then started using water colours and undertook a protracted trip to Rome to record the ancient city and sell his pictures and copies to the many travellers who went on the ‘Grand Tour’. There are numerous examples of the sights of Rome which are somewhere between architectural drawings – accurate and spare but with trees – and landscapes that owe more to the imagination than real life. The results were never good enough to win him a place at the Royal academy (he was rejected 11 times and seen as distinctly ‘provincial’) but the good folk of Exeter bought enough to earn him a reasonable living. Interestingly he did not become regarded again until the Thirties where his ‘spare’ style was seen as Modernist, exactly why his Victorian contemporaries had found his work too plain.
We were not particularly excited by these which are well displayed – under glass but sloping so you can get really close – and well captioned but nevertheless bland, lacking the drama and individuality of other similar works.