The British Museum’s treasures are on view“There is in the British Museum an enormous mind ... hoarded beyond the power of any single mind to possess it,” wrote the author Virginia Woolf, describing the vast collection of nearly 7 million cultural artifacts held by the museum. The reputation of the renowned institution, whose history dates back to 1753, is largely based on this collection. Now, more than 300 of those items have come to Seoul for an exhibit at the Seoul Arts Center.
The time span of the artifacts ranges from 3500 B.C. to the 19th century, representing various civilizations on five continents. The exhibition is divided into segments, such as ancient Egypt and Sudan; Greek and Roman antiquities; Africa, Oceania and the Americas; prints and drawings; Asia; prehistory and Europe; and the ancient Near East.
“Until now, most exhibitions focused on one time period or genre, but this event is intended to provide a good view of civilizations around the world... and their development, from ancient Egypt to the Renaissance,” said Choi Hong-ki, a Seoul Arts Center curator.
One of the highlights of the exhibition comes in the hall dedicated to ancient Egypt, with its emphasis on immortality. The Book of the Dead contains conjurations written in hieroglyphics and drawings on papyrus which were believed to have the ability to restore life. Another object that shows how much ancient Egyptians believed in immortality is the mummy of an adult woman, which dates back to 1000 B.C.
The wooden layers of coffins of Djeho, a high-ranking official, are all elaborately decorated with paintings. The head on the exterior panel is painted blue while the face is plated with gold, symbolism related to divinity in the afterlife. Calcite canopic jars were used to contain the deceased person’s organs, except for the heart, which was considered the core of existence and was left in the body.
A rare statue of Rameses IV, made of mudstone, depicts him kneeling and holding two jars of aromatic materials as an offering to the gods. The posture is typical of statues found in royal temples.
In the Mesopotamian section, among the main attractions are the Queen’s Lyre of Sumer, a magnesite statue of Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II, and an alabaster relief carving of a dying lion from Assyria. The beautiful lyre was found with the bodies of 10 women; the hand of one woman lay adjacent to the lyre’s string, as if it were intending to play music for the queen in the afterlife. The relief is a part of a wall decoration that depicts scenes of a royal hunt, a popular hobby among Mesopotamian kings.
The Torso of a Kouros (young man), the Statue of Dionysos and the bronze Statuette of Hermes in the Greek and Roman hall are fine examples of the Greek civilization’s emphasis on the contrapposto pose and musculature in depicting the human physique.
The Saint-Denis crystal from medieval Europe, four brass plaques from Benin, a salt cellar from Sierra Leone, figurative vessels from South America, a stoneware plum blossom vase from the Goryeo Dynasty, a Standing Buddha from Pakistan, and four star tiles from Iran provide evidence of artistry from around the globe. The event also provides a rare opportunity to see paintings by such giants as Albrecht Durer, Leonardo da Vinci and Rembrandt.
by Limb Jae-un
“Treasures from the World’s Cultures: The British Museum Since 1753” runs until July 10 at the Hangaram Art Museum. Tickets range from 7,000 won ($6.90) to 15,000 won; group discounts are available. For information, call 02-518-3638 or go to www.bm-korea.or.kr.