Monday, 15 April 2013

Very Old Things

Some time ago,I booked tickets for two of the British Museum's headline exhibitions for this year: - Ice Age art and Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, so Saturday morning saw me on a train to London, to visit the BM and see them both.

I started with Pompeii. Well, to be truthful, I started with a very nice lunch at a lovely little French bistro not far from the Museum, but after that I went into the Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition.

I was lucky enough to able able to visit both cities, about 18 months ago, together with the Archaeological museum in Naples, so I was not sure whether there would be many things I hadn't already seen (although of course I had no problem with seeing them again!)

Kitchen Mural
The exhibition is arranged by rooms, a little as if looking around a Roman house -  starting with the street, and moving in to an Atrium, Bedroom, Kitchen, Garden and so forth.

Many of the items were familiar - the 'Cave Canem' mosaic, for example, and the portrait of the Baker, Terentius Neo, and his wife, (which is the headline poster for the exhibition), others were less familiar.

 I don't remember seeing the more technical exhibits, such as pipes and valves which looked startlingly modern, or the fountain head in the shape of a rabbit, before.

There were also various pieces of furniture which I had not seen before - the poignant carbonised cradle, for instance (I'd seen it in TV documentaries, but not in person), a small household alter, and personal items found with some of the bodies, such as a surgeon's implements, a child's charm-bracelet and a key.

There were also items such as loaves of bread, dishes of figs, pomegranates and grain, all carbonised, and therefore preserved for over 2,000 years, which are just astonishing!

Garden fresco
One of the most dramatic and memorable parts of the exhibition, however, has to be the Garden frescos - 3 walls of gardens, with gorgeous and life-like plants and birds.

The exhibition does include a small number of the famous casts - one of a guard dog, and others of a family of four - parents and two young children, but the exhibition focuses on life rather than death. It's very interesting, and I'm glad I went.

(There are more pictures in the Evening Standard's review, here, and on the Museum's own website)

After this, I wandered upstairs to visit Noggin the Nog   the Lewis Chessmen, and a few other bits and pieces, while I waited for the time-slot for my entry into the Ice Age exhibition.

One of the things I like about the British Museum is how big it is, and how much stuff there is, so if (like me) you have a poor sense of direction, you tend to wander down a corridor, or turn a corner, and stumble upon the Mespotomanian Queen of the Night, or a glazed brick guardsman from the palace of Darius of Persia (both of which I saw in between Pompeii and the Ice Age..)

20,000 year old Bison sculpture
The Ice age exhibition was, to me, a little bit of a disappointment - they sell timed tickets, but seemed to have been greedy and overestimated how many people could reasonable view the (mainly small) at once. The exhibition itself is also fairly small. The curators have added some modern pieces, such as Matisse sketches and a Henry Moore sculpture, to highlight how close the relationships between modern and ancient art were.

Despite my grouching, there were some lovely pieces - a beautiful bison, and a lovely horse. And the swimming reindeer, which is part of the permanent collection, and one of my favourites.

It's fascinating to see the skill and accuracy of the sculptures, and to realise that they were created with nothing but bone and stone tools!

An interesting day. Long, but I'm glad had the chance to see both exhibitions.

(Edited to add. The British Museum has created an app to allow you to visit the exhibition vitually, if you can't visit in person.)

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