Catherine and I recently had the chance to visit the British Museum to catch two of their featured exhibitions – The Celts: Art & Identity and Egypt: Faith after the Pharaohs. Sadly, no photography was allowed in the exhibitions.
The first of the pair we went to see was the Celts: Art & Identity, and I have to say this was a good exhibition. I approached it with some trepidation as the subject of the Celts had been tackled in the BBC series The Celts: Blood, Iron and Sacrifice, presented by Prof. Alice Roberts and Neil Oliver. Normally one would expect a decent, well-balanced show from the Beeb, but this was one of their weaker efforts. Much of the material was Roman historical accounts (and we know who writes history) and there was little on the strong area of archaeologists – the material culture of the Celts. There have been several reviews of the series, for example Dr Rachel Pope of Liverpool University in History Today. However, on seeing this exhibition I was quite impressed and in a good way for the most part.
Quite unlike the tv series, this exhibition was the Celts in their own works. There is a brief introduction in which the origin of the name Celts is derived from Greek writers, but it refers to almost all the people of north and west Europe as an amorphous group without any tribal identities or name for example. What follows are a whole range of examples of the variation found within the ‘celtic world’, although not all viewers see this e.g. Jonathon Jones. The application of art to objects was nothing new in the late Iron Age and for several hundred years themes appear and fade in designs and we are fortunate to see so many gathered together in this exhibition. There are examples of how art reflects group and individual identity from across Europe, with objects from the north of Scotland to Denmark, to Austria and the Iberian peninsula. It is a staggering collection of metalwork to be honest and the skill required to make these objects in undeniable.
The exhibition actually has three sections, and for me the latter two were perhaps an intrusion into the world of the Celts, with the second part showing how contact and conversion with first the Roman and then the Christian world changed it forever. The last part focuses on the Celtic revival of the 19th and 20th centuries and whilst having some interesting points I didn’t feel it added much to my understanding. Rather it has more to say about how the past is used in the present . . .but then you need to consider where you are seeing these objects and the very terms exhibition and museum and what they have come to mean.
The show, and it is a show, is the best the Celtic world has to offer both in terms of the quality and breadth of material. From the magnificent Gundestrup cauldron to the Battersea shield there is much to admire here. If I have a criticism it is that it is a little torc heavy, with hundreds of specimens on display here. I was left wondering if there any other objects which might have been gainfully employed opening our eyes to this long dead world. That said, if you haven’t been to see it yet, you should. It is in its final weeks and closes at the end of January.