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I’ve been to visit ‘Gathering Light’

The full title of this exhibition appears to be A British Museum Spotlight Loan: Gathering Light: a Bronze Age Golden Sun. The central object of the exhibition is a gold pendant—inexplicably displayed on a stick rather than in a hanging fashion—which dates back to the Bronze Age. It was found in Shropshire in May 2018.

I liked that the exhibition didn’t over-interpret the object. For example, there was text attempting to address why the design differs on each side of the pendant, which came to no firm conclusion.

I didn’t, however, learn much from the exhibition. There were a few local Bronze Age finds displayed alongside, but the exhibition didn’t leave me able to explain the historical importance of the main object.

I also didn’t like the degree to which the space was ‘British Museum’ branded. I’ve whinged about this before, and I should probably change the record, but when an exhibition about a Bronze Age object contains the works ‘British Museum’ more times than the words ‘Bronze Age,’ something is amiss. It feels like walking into an advert rather than an exhibition.

It was disappointing to see that the case containing the Faith and Science objects I’ve previously mentioned was covered with vinyls concealing the contents. It felt as though there was concern that they might detract from the British Museum’s special exhibition, with which they shared a space.

As you might tell, I didn’t take much away from this exhibition.

Gathering Light continues at Sunderland Art Gallery until 3 June.

This post was filed under: Museums, Post-a-day 2023, , , .

I’ve been to visit ‘Hieroglyphs’

Visiting the British Museum feels a bit uncomfortable these days. A venue that shows off treasures stolen from other countries, refuses to give them back and exhibits them with interpretation from a primarily British perspective gives me “the ick,” as people younger than me might say.

Visiting an exhibition sponsored by an oil company, with a cloying “have a great time” message from the company beside the entrance, is also discomforting.

The fact that the guard searching my bag in the security theatre had to check with a colleague whether my toothbrush constituted a “potential weapon” did not feel especially welcoming. For clarity, I hadn’t (yet) fashioned it into a shiv.

But it’s often said that no-one does exhibitions quite as well as the British Museum, so I thought I’d dive in any way.

I visited the British Museum’s latest temporary number on Hieroglyphs—not something you’d ordinarily associate with Bloomsbury.

It wasn’t really worth it. My view is probably coloured by the fact that the exhibition was overcrowded. I don’t know how that’s allowed to happen with timed ticketing, but it was a struggle to see much of anything.

I didn’t really know much about hieroglyphs before attending: I knew that their meaning was lost, and then essentially rediscovered when the Rosetta Stone was found. I didn’t feel that I left the exhibition with really any more understanding than I arrived with, though perhaps I had more appreciation of the amount of (weirdly competitive) work that was undertaken to use the stone to decode hieroglyphs.

I don’t think I’ve seen the Rosetta Stone before (though maybe I did as a child): it’s a remarkable object, but it’s hard not to look at it and wonder why on Earth it is in a glass case in London, shorn of all natural context. It’s an Egyptian artefact with Greek text pilfered by the French—and Egypt has wanted back it for decades. It seems cruel and absurd for it to be held in a British museum, a relic of the attitudes of an age which we might hope to have consigned to the past.

It also felt to me like many of the cultural interpretations of objects were over-reaching, or at least did not explain how the conclusions did not overreach. I spent some time looking at an object described as a calendar of “lucky days”, and wondering how on Earth that conclusion could be drawn. It made me think that millennia from now, someone will dig up a calendar of lottery draws and talk about how there were European-wide “lucky days” when the population would collectively place money on the drawing of random balls. It’s a valid interpretation, but unrecognisable as a description of the motivations and experiences of most people.

But this exhibition has been praised by people who know what they’re talking about, so don’t let the fact that I found it more depressing than enlightening put you off: you still have a couple of weeks left to go and see it.

Hieroglyphs’ continues at the British Museum until 19 February.

This post was filed under: Museums, Post-a-day 2023, Travel, , .

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