Trip report: Scythians

On Friday the 5th I went into London to see the Scythians special exhibition at the British Museum. Going into this exhibit, I knew about as much about the Scythians as I think a relatively well-read non-specialist. I was familiar with some of the most famous finds and some of the various ancient textual references, but that’s about it.

I never feel like I can adequately talk about museum trip visits, because they’re so individual, so let me get away from narrative format and maybe just talk in list terms.

Good things: 

The thing you can always rely on with one of these big British Museum exhibits is the collection itself. You’re going to get a lot of real marquee-value items in the exhibit. Here, for instance, we got to see the actual Pazyryk chief, which is pretty cool — even if you don’t really learn more from seeing the thing in real life than you do from the same diagram drawing of the tattoos that’s in every archaeology textbook ever printed.

Context is well-presented. You get a good amount of information on cultures that came before and after the Scythians, and you get some stuff on the context of the collections from the Hermitage that make up much of the exhibit. It is kind of weird that a lot of this information is repeated several times in the early part of the exhibition.

The Scythians are pretty cool. You get lots of interesting artefacts, from weapons and horse trappings to hemp-seed hotbox tents, human remains, clothing and even a couple of little lumps of cheese. It’s a good range of stuff.

I have discovered it’s pronounced SIH-thee-uns and will never have to wonder again.

Bad things: 

One thing the exhibition did a lot was to create comparisons with Iranian, Chinese and Greek art of contemporary periods. It would have been nice to see some of those things in the exhibition as well.

The first half of the exhibition has a lot of “here is a gold ornament showing a panther attacking a deer. Here is a gold ornament showing a mythical predator attacking a deer. Here is a gold ornament showing a panther attacking a goat. I think panther fatigue set in, but then I got into the second area with the horse hats and hotboxes and things picked up again.

On a personal level, I always find these big crowd-drawing exhibitions tough. I went in the afternoon on a weekday, but that doesn’t matter to a tourist magnet like the British Museum (although I should probably not have waited until the last few weeks of the exhibition). Every cabinet basically had a continuous line of people in front of it, and it always feels like there isn’t really time to think or compare or do anything other than go “oh, interesting!” and then go on to the next thing. I am a big clumsy goof and I feel like a traffic obstacle at the best of times, so that didn’t help. So part of it is that honestly the experience of going to a marquee-value exhibition is not as enjoyable for me as it might be, largely for the same reasons that make me want to go to one. But that’s just me.

Overall:

It was good. In many ways, my frustrations stem from the fact that it was good and I wanted more of a chance to appreciate it. But I understand that there’s no Netflix for museum exhibits; they’re not going to bring it round to my house and let me watch it in my jammies. C’est la vie.

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Trip report: Scythians

Trip report: Harryhausen at the Tate Britain

I was in London last weekend, and in the hours between arriving and going to the thing we were actually therefore, my wife and I swung by the Tate Britain to see the Ray Harryhausen exhibit. It isn’t a full-scale exhibition; it’s what’s called a “spotlight,” a little one-room exhibit, but if you’re in the area, it’s pretty great.

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One of the things I felt like the exhibit did well was go beyond just being a nostalgia trip to locating Harryhausen in his context. By showing art from his collection, as well as art from the Tate’s collection by painters who influenced him (especially John Martin), it situated his work in its tradition. Harryhausen was greatly influenced by 19th-century illustration and spectacular painting. These genres weren’t necessarily respected by critics at the time; they were thought to be unsubtle and focused on popular entertainment, a criticism Harryhausen’s work typically faced as well.

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Even if you’re just there for the nostalgia trip, though, it’s a pretty good one. 

Of course, that’s probably no surprise to you if you know more than the smidgen I know about art history. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the trajectory of adventure entertainment in our culture, partly as a result of my new podcast, Monster Man, which is all about the 1977 Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual.

That sounds like a tenuous link, maybe, but I really do think the Monster Manual shows a genre, or set of genres, on the brink of a transformation between the legacy of 19th-century adventure fiction and a new status as a distinct cultural entity. And when you look at these spectacular paintings of classical or Biblical scenes while the trailer for Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger plays next to you, I think you can see something similar.

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Separated at birth? 
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Joseph Michael Gandy, Jupiter Pluvius, 1819

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Anyway, I thought it was fascinating. I don’t know that it’s worth making the trip to London for, not being huge, but if you’re in the area it’s definitely worth a look.

 

Trip report: Harryhausen at the Tate Britain

Trip report: fakes, mistakes and mystery

Last week I went to one of my favourite museums in Cambridge, the Whipple Museum of the History of Science. My wife had noticed that there was an event that sounded fun, and we hadn’t been in a while, so off we went last Thursday night.

The topic was Fakes, Mistakes and Mystery at the Whipple, and it was about forgeries in the museum’s scientific instruments collection. It combined some additions to the collections with a really interesting and informative talk. The study of forgeries is really fascinating, and it’s particularly interesting to me that even within this sub-collection of what is already a pretty niche collection there are lots of different kinds of forgeries.

Items like these seem to be genuine phonies, so to speak. As it became clear that there was a market for antique scientific instruments, forgeries began to appear, some of them good enough to fool experts in what was then a pretty young field.

If you look behind the cylinder above, you’ll see a sundial. This is a different kind of fake: it’s a genuine sundial of the period it purports to be, but it has a prestigious manufacturer’s name on it even though it is definitely not from that maker. I missed whether this was a contemporary knockoff or a later addition trying to make money on the collector’s market.

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This Persian astrolabe looks very cool, but it is not an astrolabe; instead of the precisely-calculated star positions on the central dial, it just has a bunch of swoopy floral design. Objects like these were aimed at the tourist market. It’s a bit like the mall katana of the astronomical world. It isn’t really what it looks like, but that also isn’t really the point: it’s just going to hang on the wall and look pretty.

So we have intentional fakes, contemporary knockoffs and imitations, and real scientific instruments being sold as something they weren’t. One of the mysteries referred to in the title was the extent to which antique dealers were selling these to defraud. Like I said, antique scientific instruments was (and is?) a pretty niche field. It seems to have been not uncommon for instrument makers to create copies of classic devices just as a training exercise or for fun. Imagine that you have a collector who acquires one of these and knows what it is, or even the person who created it. That person then dies, and their collection passes to a beneficiary who lacks their expertise. It’s not hard to see how these replicas could be misidentified as the real deal.

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Anyway, it was an interesting event, and a fascinating look at the different factors that go into analysing museum collections. Plus there are lots of other good exhibits, including one about Charles Piazzi Smyth and his “pyramid inch.” And these:

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Trip report: fakes, mistakes and mystery

Doing some hands-on history

This week, I started volunteering at the Centre for Computing History, a small museum here in Cambridge that records the social history of computers and computing, especially in Britain. It has a load of old arcade machines and games consoles that you can play, a classroom where they run computing workshops for students, and lots and lots of items from the history of computers. If you’re at all interested in the history of technology, you should definitely go.

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The infamous ET landfill story, including some of the actual landfill!

Anyway, in addition to the usual setting up tables and moving things around, I’ve been working behind the scenes sorting out archive and collections material — which at present just means storing and labeling stuff in a new storage space. But that provokes some very interesting thoughts about digital heritage, which I hope to write about in more detail soon. For now, I just recommend that you check it out if you haven’t!

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This 1970s office represents the era when computers started to appear in ordinary offices.
Doing some hands-on history

Trip report: Discarded History

Seems like ages since I’ve done one of these, doesn’t it?

The little exhibition space attached to the Cambridge University Library doesn’t seem to get a huge number of visitors; it’s mainly people who are already visiting the library, I think. I understand why: it’s not very big and it’s not really near anything else. But that’s kind of a shame, because every time I’ve been there they have good exhibits.

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Today I was at the library returning some books, and since I had half an hour to spare before a tutoring session I decided to see what was on downstairs. I wasn’t disappointed. The exhibit currently there (until 28 October) is of manuscripts from the Cairo Genizah, and it’s fascinating. This collection of hundreds of thousands of Jewish manuscripts accumulated over centuries in a genizah, which is a special storeroom where worn-out manuscripts are kept, sometimes in preparation for being buried in a cemetery. These ones weren’t buried, though; they just piled up in the synagogue storage for centuries until being brought to the UK in the 19th century.

Now, the original scholars who identified and collected these texts were interested in their religious content, but that’s not what this focuses on. There are appeals for charity, prenuptial agreements, lists of brides’ dowries, letters, government documents, school exercises, doodles, cheques, family letters, medical recipes, good luck charms and lots of other documents relating to the daily life of the Jewish community in medieval Cairo and elsewhere. Some of them show the Jewish community being mistreated by the Muslim authorities or by the crusaders — Jews from the community of Ascalon are trying to raise money to ransom prisoners taken by the Franks, for instance — but others depict a society in which Muslims, Christians and Jews are coexisting peacefully if sometimes uneasily.

Text-based exhibits are interesting, aren’t they? I mean, I don’t read Hebrew, let alone Hebrew on restored medieval documents. These things could have been napkins for all the difference it makes to me. Yet I found the stories they revealed much more compelling for being in the presence of the original documents.

I think my favourite story from the exhibit was that of Karima al-Wuhsha, a wealthy Jewish businesswoman who was having an affair with a married man. When she became pregnant, she was worried that he would deny paternity so she arranged for witnesses to catch them in the act. She got kicked out of her synagogue by scandalised neighbours, but documents attest to the pious generosity shown in her will.

Anyway, it’s just a one-room exhibit, so you probably won’t go out of your way to see it, but if you ever do find yourself around the UL, it’s well worth stopping in.

Also, the free guide that you pick up from the rack by the door contains tons of source text rather than just pretty pictures. Recommended!

Trip report: Discarded History

Trip report: Colour

Today we headed over to the Fitzwilliam Musem for Colour, its exhibit of illuminated manuscripts with special reference to, er, colour. It was good!

Like other Fitz exhibits we’ve been to lately (especially Death on the Nile), it included a lot of focus on the technology and materiality of manuscript illuminations, rather than just considering them aesthetically. That’s always something I’m interested in, so good there, although I would have liked to have seen something on their social role. I mean, obviously they were high-status gifts, but how were they used, how displayed?

There were also some good mentions of the afterlives of these items, being passed around, cut up, copied, forged, sold to art collectors, vandalised to get the previous metals and so on. All very interesting.

I think my favourite piece was the alchemical scroll of George Ripley. I had seen images from it (or from others like it), but they don’t give you the impression of how huge it is. You really have to see it.

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There was also a very cool image of the Battle of Clavijo on a Spanish patent of nobility that looked like something out of a Warhammer book (I know, I know, other way around), and a lovely image of a melancholic man. Anyway, if you’re in the area, you should go and see it; it’s informative, it’s not too large and it’s free.

Trip report: Colour

Trip report: Alice in Wonderland

I was feeling sorry for myself about how I didn’t have anything to write about today. “Gee,” I thought, “I wish I’d just done a single post on the Kibbo Kift Kindred and save the British Library’s Alice in Wonderland exhibit for a second post.” And then I remembered that that’s what I did. Nice.

Anyway, on Saturday I had some time to kill because my wife was buying some new skates for roller derby. The skate shop is near St Pancras station, so I popped over to the British Library and checked out the Alice exhibit. It isn’t very big — it’s not in the big exhibit space, but the little one up on the mezzanine level thingy.

So, it’s the British Library, which means it’s got all kinds of cool stuff like the manuscript and the rare first edition with crappy printing. It’s not in a very big space, and since I was visiting at lunchtime on a Saturday, it was very crowded. I only skimmed the later arty stuff, but even if I had done the whole thing I don’t think I would have taken more than about twenty minutes or so.

Alice-in-Wonderland-009.jpg I think the thing that was the most interesting to me was the extent to which Alice was a brand, with Carroll heavily involved in the merchandising, right down to the official Alice in Wonderland stamp albums and stuff like that. I’m not up on the history of children’s literature, but was it the first such brand? I genuinely don’t know.

Trip report: Alice in Wonderland