The British Museum has great lineup for 2012

British Museum
Travelers to London this year will want to stop by the British Museum. Not only is it one of the top museums in the world, with huge collections from the Classical, Egyptian, Medieval, and pretty much every other period, it also hosts several temporary exhibitions every year. As a regular visitor to London I always make sure to see as many of these exhibitions as I can.

The first is Hajj: Journey to the heart of Islam (January 26–April 13). This show examines the pilgrimage to Mecca that is required of all Muslims. It looks at the major pilgrimage routes and how they’ve changed over time, how the Hajj is practiced today, and the city of Mecca itself. Historic artifacts are displayed next to contemporary artwork.

The Arabian theme will continue with The Horse: Ancient Arabia to the modern world (May 24–September 30). Having ridden Arabian horses, I have to say they’re the noblest animals on the planet and I’ll be sure to make it to this show to learn something of their origins. More than that, the exhibition looks at the horse’s role in society and its influence on Middle Eastern and European history. Items from the museum collection as well as loaned items will be on display, including the four-horse chariot from the Oxus Treasure, 1st–2nd century AD representations of horses from the ancient caravan site of Qaryat al-Fau in Saudi Arabia, and hi-res panoramas of recently discovered rock drawings of horses.

Shakespeare: staging the world (July 19–November 25) is bound to attract many of the Olympic visitors. The exhibition will look at how London was becoming a major world city during Shakespeare’s time. The British Museum has collaborated with the Royal Shakespeare Company in the exhibition’s design in order to accentuate the connections between the objects, Shakespeare’s writing, and performance.

One gallery I’ve always liked is the money gallery with its huge coin and paper currency collection. It’s often overlooked by visitors who only want to see mummies. Not surprising, considering how incredible the museum’s Egyptian galleries are. Now the gallery is being completely refurbished and reopening as the Citi Money Gallery in June 2012. It will look at the story of money from prehistory to the present. The museum says, “themes include the authority behind money, and the uses and abuses of it.” Sounds more relevant than mummies.

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In addition to the major shows, several smaller exhibitions are planned. These include Angels and ducats: Shakespeare’s money and medals (April 19–October 28), Picasso prints: The Vollard Suite (May 3–September 2), Chinese ink painting and calligraphy (May 3–September 2), The Olympic trail (title to be confirmed, June 1-September 9), Renaissance to Goya: prints and drawings made in Spain (September 2012 – January 2013).

The Asahi Shimbun Display, Room 3, just to the right as you come in through the main entrance, hosts exhibitions dedicated to a single object and its place in the culture that created it. From February 2-May 6 there will be a model of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre made of olive wood and mother-of-pearl in 17th-century Bethlehem. It was originally a pilgrim’s souvenir. From June 7-September 9 you’ll have a chance to see a riff on the Discobolus, the famous Roman marble statue of a discus thrower, yet another nod to the London Olympics. Instead of the usual naked athlete, it’s Mao-suited Discobolus by the contemporary Chinese artist Sui Jianguo. Purists can see the real statue in the Great Court nearby.

So if you’re in London, make sure to pop by the British Museum. After that, take an evening stroll through surrounding Bloomsbury and admire the Georgian architecture. It’s one of the nicest neighborhoods in the city.

The world’s most disputed antiquities: a top 5 list



New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art announced Tuesday that it would return 19 Egyptian antiquities that have lived at the museum for most of the last century. These artifacts, excavated from the 14th century B.C. tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun (King Tut), include a sphinx bracelet, a small bronze dog, and a broad collar with beads, among other bits and pieces. Zahi Hawass, the former Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities of Egypt, argued for the artifacts’ return in November 2010, claiming that the artifacts had been removed from the tomb illegally in the 1920s. But, the instability in Egypt during and following that country’s revolution this year has delayed the repatriation of King Tut’s belongings.

One of the biggest arguments in the art world is the repatriation of objects, particularly antiquities. On one side of the debate are art scholars who feel that ancient objects should remain in the care of their current (usually Western) museums or locations. The other side argues that antiquities should be returned to the countries from which they were removed because they were taken during times of war and colonization or were stolen and sold through the highly lucrative art black market.

It’s true that a great many antiquities and works of art we enjoy at museums today may have been acquired through looting or other unsavory practices. Here are five of the most famous works of art that have been repatriated or are the focus of an ongoing battle for ownership.1) Elgin Marbles
Where are they now? The British Museum, London
Where were they? The Parthenon, Athens, Greece
The Elgin Marbles, pictured in the featured image above, are synonymous with the repatriation debate. Also known as the Parthenon Marbles, these remarkable marble carvings once fronted the Parthenon and other buildings on Athens‘ ancient Acropolis. They were removed – some say vandalized – by Lord Elgin, former Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, in the late 18th century and sold in 1816 to London‘s British Museum, where they have lived ever since. Authorities in Greece have been trying for decades to have the marbles returned to Athens where they can be reunited with other Greek antiquities in the Acropolis Museum.

2) Obelisk of Aksum
Where is it now? Aksum, Ethiopia
Where was it? Rome, Italy
One of the first, high-profile repatriations of an antiquity was the return by Italy of the Obelisk of Aksum (or Axum) to Ethiopia. Pillaged by Mussolini’s troops in 1937, the 1,700-year old obelisk stood for years in the center of a traffic circle in Rome until 2005 when the government of Italy agreed to its return. The Obelisk of Aksum now resides with objects of a similar era at the Aksum World Heritage site in northern Ethiopia.

3) Objects from King Tut’s Tomb
Where are they now? The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
Where are they headed? Giza, Egypt
As described in the intro, these priceless objects from King Tut’s tomb are set to be returned to Egypt next week. Egypt plans to install these objects at the new Grand Egyptian Museum, currently under construction and slated to open in 2012

4) Dea Morgantina (Aphrodite)
Where is it now? Aidone, Sicily
Where was it? Getty Museum, Los Angeles
The investigative reporting of two L.A. Times journalists was responsible for the recent repatriation of the Dea Morgantina, an ancient Aphrodite sculpture that had been a prized possession of the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum, which takes a look at the repatriation debate and the flourishing arts black market, led the Getty Museum to return the stolen statue to its rightful home. The Aphrodite was inaugurated at the Archeological Museum of Morgantina in Sicily in early May 2011.

5) Hattuşa Sphinx
Where is it now? Istanbul, Turkey
Where was it? Berlin, Germany
Just last week, an ancient sphinx returned home to Turkey after years spent in Berlin‘s Pergamon Museum. One of a pair of sphinxes that stood in the ancient Hittite capital of Hattuşa, the sphinx will be restored at the Istanbul Archeological Museum before being returned to its ancient home approximately 150 miles northeast of Ankara.

[Flickr image via telemax]

Major new exhibition at British Museum: Egyptian Book of the Dead


For four thousand years it was the cornerstone of Egyptian religion. It started as a few prayers said in prehistoric times before a body was laid to rest in the desert next to the Nile. As the civilization in Egypt grew the prayers and spells became more elaborate, as did other rites for the dead. They were written inside pyramids and other tombs. Eventually the various rituals and spells were gathered together to create what we call the Book of the Dead. It’s made up of numerous chapters in no set order. Individual chapters or groups of chapters were written on tombs, sarcophagi, and rolls of papyrus. The book survived, with various changes and variations that Egyptologists are still puzzling out, until the Christian era.

One of the foremost institutions for collecting and studying the Book of the Dead is the British Museum in London. Now the museum is opening up its archives for an exhibition of its amazing collection of this esoteric masterpiece. Journey through the afterlife: ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead features items rarely if ever seen by the public, including the Greenfield Papyrus, the longest scroll of the Book of the Dead at 37 meters. Other items like sarcophagi and tomb figurines will give a complete view of the ancient Egyptian cult of the dead.

The papyri are elaborately illustrated with scenes of the gods and the toils a spirit must go through in the afterlife. In the above scene Anubis leads Hunefer, a dead scribe, to a scale, where his heart will be weighed against the feather of truth. A wicked heart will be heavier than the feather and the monster Ammut, crouching below the scale, will eat it. This image is from the Hunefer Papyrus and will also be on display at the exhibition.

For a taste of what you’ll see, check out the online scan of the complete Papyrus of Ani.

Journey through the afterlife: ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead runs from 4 November 2010 to 6 March 2011.

[Photo courtesy Jon Bodsworth via Wikimedia Commons]

Buddha and Picasso at the British Museum

The Fall season has started at London’s British Museum with two excellent free exhibitions.

Images and sacred texts: Buddhism across Asia starts today. It covers Buddhist art and sacred literature from Sri Lanka to Japan and explains the core beliefs of what can be a difficult religion to understand. The artifacts are from the museum’s permanent collection–one of the biggest in the world–and include many items that have never been displayed before.

Picasso to Julie Mehretu: modern drawings from the British Museum collection started on October 7 and examines the interchange between artists over the past hundred years. It begins with Picasso, one of the most influential artists of the twentieth century, and ends with Julie Mehretu, an Ethiopian artist who is one of today’s most popular contemporary artists.

The British Museum is one of many free museums in London, including the Tate Modern, Tate Britain, National Gallery, and National Portrait Gallery. This helps cut the cost of a trip to what is otherwise a very expensive destination. The British Museum is deservedly high on every visitor’s list because of its giant collection of artifacts from every ancient culture, from Egyptian mummies to Viking swords. The ongoing series of free exhibits gives repeat visitors a chance to see something new with every trip.

Picasso to Julie Mehretu: modern drawings from the British Museum collection will run until 25 April 2011. Images and sacred texts: Buddhism across Asia runs until 3 April 2011.

Three Days in London

The cliches of constant rain and gloom are quickly banished when you visit London in the summer. While all the tourist favorites – Big Ben, Tower of London, British Museum – are open and busy, there are other exciting exhibits, West End shows and areas of the city ripe for exploration. If you have three days to spend in the capital this summer, here are some suggestions to keep in mind.

The Photographers’ Gallery is tucked away in a tall, narrow building on Ramilies Street, just a block from the Oxford Circus Underground station (or the Tube as it’s commonly known). Now through Sept. 19, The Family and The Land: Sally Mann, a retrospective of the celebrated American photographer is on exhibition. It’s not for the faint of heart. The show includes the controversial images of her three children in suggestive situations and oversized images of decomposing bodies from the Tennessee Forensic Anthropology Center. Between these two jaw-droppers are the haunting images of Civil War battlefields in the American South that retain scars from the fighting. For many of the photos, Mann used the wet-plate collodion photographic process, which involves coating a large glass negative with chemicals and exposing it while still wet, often in the back of her truck after a shoot.

Pro tip: Make sure to check out the gallery shop, which has one of the most impressive selections of photography books in the world, and stop for a sandwich or cup of tea in the airy cafe, which also hosts free talks and events at lunchtime weekly. Admission is free, but consider putting a donation in the box located in the gallery lobby.

For something completely different, take the Tube to Temple station and walk just a block to The Courtauld Gallery on the Strand. Located inside the circa-1875 Somerset House, the gallery has one of the most stunning collections of French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art in the world. In its elegant, high-ceilinged rooms, there is an iconic piece of art just waiting to be discovered: Van Gogh’s Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear; Manet’s melancholy A Bar at the Folies-Bergere; Gauguin’s Nevermore; and work by masters Rousseau, Degas, Cezanne, Toulouse-Lautrec and more. The upscale cafe offers an excellent lunch menu and a large outdoor dining area in the Somerset House courtyard. Admission to the gallery is £5 (about $8 at current exchange rates).

Hidden Treasures
London is full of parks, squares and streets with interesting shops that many tourists miss. Here are a few worth wandering off the beaten path to see.1.) Soho Square is ringed by some of the most-pricey real estate in the world housing some of the most noted companies, including 20th Century Fox and Bloomsbury Publishing. The shaded square itself, with its fanciful timbered garden hut at the center, is always full of picnickers and those just lounging in the dappled sunlight. Concerts are often held in the square and music lovers can stop by the bench dedicated to late singer Kirsty MacColl, who immortalized the park in her song “Soho Square” from her Titanic Days album.

2.) Victoria Embankment Gardens between Blackfriars and Waterloo Bridge on the Thames is another lush place to people watch, have a picnic or view the various sculptures along its manicured walkways lined with meticulously maintained flower beds. There’s a cafe in the garden serving ice cream and cold drinks and the Embankment Underground station has an exit right into the heart of the gardens.

3.) Charing Cross Road and Cecil Street are book-lovers’ heaven. Helene Hanff immortalized the former in her book, 84 Charing Cross Road, about an American literature lover who had a 20-plus year relationship with the staff of the Marks & Co. Bookshop. That store is long-gone (a plaque marks the spot), but Charing Cross and Cecil Street are lined with dozens of bookstores, selling new, used, antique and specialty books. Start off at Foyles, the London institution that sells the latest titles and often has free concerts happening upstairs in the cafe.

What’s For Tea?
London is an expensive city, but there are plenty of inexpensive – and delicious – options for dining, including one that offers a bit of history.

The Crypt Cafe at St. Martin-in-the-Fields Church in Trafalgar Square lets you have breakfast, lunch or dinner with the dead. The 18th century crypt is beautifully preserved and you literally dine on top of the ancient burial vaults of old Londoners. All dishes – try a quiche or a hearty bowl of soup with a fresh roll – are prepared onsite using local ingredients. The Crypt Cafe offers an excellent traditional English tea (£8.50) with sandwiches and scones and if you happen to be there on Friday, try the fish and chips (£7.95). Try dinner on a Wednesday night and enjoy jazz performances by local and international artists. The arched, brick ceiling provides amazing acoustics. The dead – I sat over a vault dated 1825 – have, surely, never been so entertained.

How about having your lunch or dinner with a view? The Tate Modern Restaurant located on the top floor of the Tate Modern museum, has arguably the best view in London, looking across the Thames to the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Even if you don’t want to see the exhibits (but you will, and the Gauguin retrospective opens Sept. 30 with one of the biggest exhibitions of his work ever assembled), the Tate’s home in the massive, disused power station has become a familiar landmark on the South Bank. The menu is not huge, but what counts is the use of fresh ingredients and local foods. Prices range from £12 to £16 for entrees, but there are plenty of smaller dishes, pastries and extensive wine list to choose from. If the char-grilled Cumbrian lamb steak is on the menu, I highly recommend it, and fresh fish is brought in daily. You’ll want to book ahead to make sure you get a table by the windows.

A Night at the Theatre

Two wildly different shows are on in London’s West End this summer, and both have star-power to burn. Joanna Lumley (Patsy from Absolutely Fabulous), David Hyde Pierce (Niles from Frasier) and English theatre maverick Mark Rylance are the leads in La Bête at Comedy Theatre, which continues until Sept. 4 before transferring to Broadway. A flop when it first premiered in New York in the early 1990s, David Hirson’s comedy written in iambic pentameter pits the head of royal theatre troupe (Pierce) against a self-aggrandizing street performer (Rylance) being foisted on the company by its princess patron (Lumley). Rylance chews the scenery in a hilarious monologue outlining his comic gifts, and while the last half sagged a bit, this trio of funny folks is worth the price of admission, which ranges from £25 to £55.

Over at Apollo Theatre, British acting legends David Suchet and Zoe Wanamaker have been wowing the critics in the revival of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons. It’s Wanamaker who walks off the show as the mother of a post-World War II family unraveling after its revealed her husband (Suchet) cut corners by allowing defective parts to be used in Air Force planes that ultimately crashed. The flashes of anger and devastation lurking just under her forced gaiety as a suburban wife build to a gut-wrenching crescendo as the secret is revealed. Miller’s dialogue and situations are a bit melodramatic, but director Howard Davies strips away the pretense and finds fresh undercurrents of emotion to mine. Tickets are £31 to £60.50 and shows are booking to October.

Collin Kelley just returned from Europe, where he traveled and guest lectured on social media at Worcester College at Oxford University. He is the author of the novel Conquering Venus and three collections of poetry. Read his blog on Red Room. The photos above are all courtesy Collin Kelley.