It was with great excitement that I finally made it to the British Museum exhibit at the Royal British Columbia Museum. Treasures: The World’s Cultures from the British Museum is a diverse collection of objects from every continent representing numerous cultures from prehistory to the present day. It’s been here since May but I cleverly managed to put off going until the last fortnight of the exhibition. I’ve made two trips now and thought I would share the bookish highlights. (As always, click images to find larger versions.)
Starting in the Egypt room there was a funerary papyrus sheet from The Book of the Dead. It would have been entombed with the mummy and contained incantations to assist the deceased in the afterlife. You have to admire a culture that provided the dead with reading material!
The highlight for me was definitely the cuneiform tablets. I’m sure I saw scads of them when my parents took me to the BM as a child, but I have forgotten them. After reading up on Mesopotamia last year I was really looking forward to seeing some again. The first tablet dedicates a new temple to Nininsina. The writing is large, even, and very legible (assuming one can read Old Babylonian).
Next was a compact tablet which turned out to be a letter from king of Egypt to the king of Babylon, kindly requesting tribute (“send more gold!”).
Contrast those with the somewhat larger, crowded, but precise tablet from the magnificent library of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh. This one is a medical text, part of a treatise on treating coughs (very topical in light of the H1N1 flu that is already sweeping the Island). The British Museum describes the writing as “very close but clear and neat Assyrian character,” and indeed the cuts look as sharp as if they were made yesterday, not 2500–3000 years ago. The image below is roughly life size, so it gives you an idea of how small and detailed the writing is.
That was the sum total of the literature displayed, apart from some pages from illuminated Islamic texts, which I can’t find pictures for (perhaps because they depict living beings which is controversial in Islam). Literature was also represented in stone by two magnificent classical busts of Euripides and Marcus Aurelius. That was it, though. Not a single scroll or book from the last 2500 years. Perhaps they are all at the British Library? Here’s hoping they start a road show too!
I also wanted to post a couple of the drawings from the exhibit. There was a mini-gallery of drawings and prints from the European Renaissance and Enlightenment, and two of them really stood out to me. The first is a chalk drawing of Saint Francis by Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640). I think the composition is very effective and I’m impressed by the confidence of the strokes. It’s hard to spot any restatements—every line is where it is supposed to be.
Another chalk drawing that caught my eye is of a woman drying her foot, by Auguste Renoir (1841–1919). You can see that Renoir repositioned her left hand and perhaps her right foot, but otherwise it is a masterful drawing. I think the natural subject makes it especially beautiful. In a way it is a foil to the Rubens—one forms an angular triangle facing upwards, towards higher things, the other forms a softened triangle facing downwards, engaged in a humble task. They don’t have much in common but I love them both.