Pergamon Museum, Berlin

On a weekend away in Berlin a fortnight back (part of the reason there have been so few posts on here recently), we wandered onto Museum Island and took a walk around the Pergamon Museum.  In short, it is fantastic!  The early 20th century Germans seem to have just transplanted or reconstructed parts of ancient cities through the Mediterranean and Middle East.  Whatever the ethics of this may be, the sheer scale of these exhibits is astonishing (the photo below shows me being dwarfed by the Ishtar Gate of Babylon).

Ishtar

The Pergamon Altar that the museum is actually named after is currently closed for remodelling, but the Market Gate of Miletus, the Processional Way (also from Babylon), and a room from Ottoman Aleppo impress on an epic scale.  The so-called Aleppo Room has a particular poignancy, with a display outside showing the damage to the original district of the Syrian city.

Other exhibits are on a smaller scale, but displays from Assur, Sumer, and a dozen locations throughout the islamic world (in the Museum fuer Islamische Kunst in the same building) are engrossing.  With each culture or location house in their own separate display, it highlights these unique cultures a lot more than other museums – where one can seem to blend into another around time and space.

I am definitely looking forward to returning in a few years for the updated and reopened Pergamon exhibit.

Shakespeare Week

Apparently it was Shakespeare Week this week. I saw a display in the local library just as it was ending – a little late to actually get involved. On closer inspection, it’s not actually aimed at me. It’s designed to get primary school age children. The aim is to give them early (and fun) exposure to Shakespeare.

It seems like a good idea. I only read the Bard in secondary school, and it may have been a different approach. After reading MacBeth we watching a couple of productions – including Trevor Nunn’s dark and minimalist version with Ian McKellan and Judy Dench (probably a bit arty for kids) and Roman Polanski’s Playboy version (definitely not for kids).

On a different note – I had actually made this recipe for honey flatbread from a Shakespeare heritage site. The honey was a really good touch, it gave the bread a sweet warming quality, and the salt contrasted with the sweetness in a nice way. Stayed tuned for more top literary insights (or not) next time!

A History of the World in 100 Objects

I’m reviewing the book of this ambitious project from Neil McGregor and the British Museum.  Throughout 2010, in 15 minute slots on BBC Radio 4, the director of the British Museum presented objects from the museum that tell the (or, possibly, a) history of humanity.  I was aware of the project at the time, but managed to miss the radio show and never quite got round to checking out the website.

The radio shows are still on the BBC website, now in the form of a podcast.  The book has a very “podcast” feel to it.  Every object is in a short self contained chapter – just the right size for a short train journey to work.  The book is clearly meant for this sort of episodic approach to reading, taken in longer doses it could appear a bit disconnected.  There is a overarching theme to the book – one of shared humanity and tolerance – but it’s not hammered home. Above all, it is a very pleasant read – even on tough topics like slavery or colonialism, McGregor strikes an optimistic and open tone.

While there are the expected big names (the Rosetta Stone, the Elgin Marbles, Sutton Hoo, the Lewis Chessmen), other items are often obscure.  They come from locations around the world (though all have now ended up in London by one route or another).  There is a reasonable sense of balance of coverage between cultures and regions around the world (obviously restricted by the collection at the Museum), and the items are loosely themed to show a commonality.  Contributions from experts are interesting, and often from an unexpected angle – Grayson Perry drafted in to comment on ancient pottery, Ian Hislop on Lutheran broadsheets.

One disappointment with the book, is that the photos included don’t come close to the descriptions that McGregor gives.  He brings these objects to life in three dimensions with all their details and changes, but this is sometimes hard to appreciate without being able to look closer or from different angles.  The website does list which objects are currently on display in the museum, and where, so I do have the chance to rectify this.  And I am very much looking forward to doing so!

Post 41: The Search For King Alfred

Dr Tucker and AlfredI recently went to a talk by Katie Tucker in a pub in Southsea/Portsmouth*. She’s the leader of a group from the University of Winchester that has potentially found the bones of King Alfred the Great. As she’s an archaeologist specializing in bones the talk was a bit short on biographical detail, but nonetheless provided a fascinating description of the investigation into and the story behind his remains and final resting place. In the aftermath of Richard III’s re-appearance this search was splashed all over tabloid front pages with lurid headlines and dubious mis-quotes. The results may not be quite as complete as that of the University of Leicester but Dr Tucker’s investigation was quite a different one with a brilliant conclusion in its own way.

When Alfred died in 899 AD, he was originally buried in the old Minster at Winchester but within a few years he had be shifted to the New Minster next door, built by his son as a dynastic church for the family. So far so good*, but the difficulties start when the Normans arrived and decided to build a new cathedral on the site. Alfred’s remains, and those of some close relatives and companions, were packed up and taken to a new abbey at Hyde on a new site. They were reburied here, although the exact position is disputed. Then in 1538 the abbey was dissolved and demolished, and in 1788 the site had a prison built on top. This is where the location of the bodies starts to get messed up – contemporary reports suggested that the bones were scattered by the building work.

Continue reading Post 41: The Search For King Alfred

Post 40: Exhibiting Germany

PlacardI’m been reading more and more about Germany recently – between the History of Germany Podcast and learning German, it seems like the thing to do. Therefore I’m quite pleased to pass on the news that The British Museum is soon to start a new exhibition on the story of Germany. I went to their big Viking one earlier in the year and heard good things about their recent Ming dynasty one, so I’m sure this will be of a very high standard.

2014 coincides with a number of big anniversaries for German history and German-British relations – 100 years since World War One, 300 since the Hanoverians came to the UK and 25 since the fall of the Berlin Wall. There’s a lot to cover so the curators have limited themselves to the 15th century onwards, but there’s still more than enough fascinating stories and history to tell. There is more information on the British Museum blog (which is well worth following btw) at http://blog.britishmuseum.org/2014/09/11/exhibiting-germany/.

Tickets can be booked online at http://www.britishmuseum.org/germany

And, as if that wasn’t enough, there will be an accompanying radio show by the director of the museum on BBC Radio. It should be worth checking out come the start of October.

Post 28: Titanic Belfast

I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned it on this blog but, although I now live in England, I’m originally from Belfast. I was home a few weeks ago and took the time to go to Titanic Belfast, the relatively new tourist attraction down by the old Harland and Wolff docks (with regards to my timing – it took me this long to finish writing up, this is in no way a post-12th piece). Belfast doesn’t usually do tourism well; I do think that it’s a nice place to visit, with plenty of shops, pubs and restaurants to provide a fun day out, but it doesn’t generally make the most of the tourist attractions around the place. There’s the Giant’s Causeway up the coast, the Crown Liquor Saloon and possibly those troubles mural tours or the Bushmills distillery … then you’re a bit stuck.*

Continue reading Post 28: Titanic Belfast

Post 21: “Robert and John Owyn … made thys bastard”

The Mary Rose Museum

Just a quick post here. I was down at the historic dockyard in Portsmouth at the weekend. They have some great tourist attractions there: HMS Victory, HMS Warrior, The Mary Rose, harbour tours and about half a dozen museums – I got a season ticket and will certainly be back in the future. I just thought I’d post this photo from the Mary Rose Museum.

Bastard Sign

Continue reading Post 21: “Robert and John Owyn … made thys bastard”

Post 16: Buying a Viking Ship

Ship 1As a follow up to my post on the Viking exhibition at the British Museum – I just saw an article pointing out the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde. There, for the measly price of £14,650, you can buy the Trýbekkur – a semi-authentically made ship of your own. Semi-authentic because it uses some genuine Viking tools and techniques, but also some mass production to keep costs affordable for the common Norse raider.

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Post 14: Vikings: Life and Legend

British Museum, 6 March – 22 June

This has been much publicised and has not got long left to run, but I thought I’d belatedly post my thoughts on this wonderful exhibition (spoiler – they may be positive).

The Vikings created a huge international network of trade and culture, ranging from Iceland through the British Isles and Scandinavia, across northern Germany and into Kiev and the Black Sea. It incorporated influences from Arabia, the Byzantine Empire, the Franks and more. This exhibition brings artifacts from sources all over the world that display this range, with the star of the show Roskilde 6, the longest Viking ship even found – a 37m long warship holding roughly one hundred men.

Continue reading Post 14: Vikings: Life and Legend