Various Objects in Focus

Over the last year I’ve read several books from the British Museum’s Objects in Focus series. These are lovely little books that provide a bitesize history of significant objects in the Museum’s collection, often with interesting contextual information from when the object was created and when it was discovered. There’s also often information about conservation techniques and how new technologies are increasing our understanding of archaeological and historical objects. They are also the perfect length for a once a week commute. I can read a whole one in one day.

As I’ve been somewhat lax in blogging, rather than do a post for each book, I’ve collected them here.

Lindow Man

Lindow Man is the preserved remains of a man found in a bog in Cheshire. Over 2000 years old, these remains are the best preserved from Iron Age Britain. The book covers the discovery and excavation of the remains and gives insight into what has been learnt from them. The man died a violent death but it is not know if it was murder, sacrifice or execution and speculation abounds.

The Standard of Ur

Unearthed in excavations in the ancient city of Ur in Mesopotamia (in present-day Iraq) the ‘Standard’ is a beautifully decorated hollow box. It’s called a Standard because of it’s positioning in the tomb. This is potentially misleading as it’s function is not known, if indeed it had a function beyond being art. One of the things that these Objects in Focus books allow is photos of the detail of the art that wouldn’t be possible seeing it on display in the Museum.

The Warren Cup

This is a luxury silver cup from the Roman Empire, dating to the first century AD. It depicts scenes of male lovers and, as well as being an astonishing piece of both art and artisanship, illustrates some of the social mores of Roman civilization. However, because of the nature of the scenes it languished unstudied and unappreciated. Even in 1999, when the Museum acquired the cup, there was a stir in the media.

Model of a Summer Camp

The Model of a Summer Camp is an intricate and detailed model carved from mammoth-ivory depicting a festival of the people of Sakha (north-east Russia). The model was created in the mid-19th century for the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1867 where it was bought for the Museum. Although the model itself is not that old, the festival it depicts goes back centuries.

The Discobolus

The discus thrower is probably one of the most recognisable classical statues and will be familiar to many people. The book talks about the impact of the eighteenth century vogue for restoring classical sculptures – by filling bits in, adding new pieces or by inadvertently combining parts from different statues. Apparently quite a lot of statues, including the Discobolus, have the wrong heads.

The Meroƫ Head of Augustus

This is a bronze portrait of the Roman Emperor Augustus. The book looks in detail at the metal casting techniques used and the skill with which such a life-like image could be produced. It also looks at how the production and distribution of these types of statue were used a means of demonstrating power amongst far-flung imperial territories.

The Portland Vase

A beautiful Roman glassware vase which was smashed by a drunken visitor to the Museum in 1845. It’s re-construction and subsequent re-reconstruction has enabled the understanding of how the vase was created using techniques in glass that had been lost for centuries.

A’a: a deity from Polynesia

A’a is a carved wooden deity with many other smaller figures attached to it. Like many ethnographic objects collected by missionaries in the British Empire, not much is known about what it really represents. However, study of the materials, artisanship and working with local people who still retain the skills and knowledge can illuminate some aspects of the society that created it.

Bronze Head from Ife

Thought to represent a King, the bronze head is from Nigeria. The book has an interesting look about the attitudes of European artists towards non-European art as primitive and how objects such as the Bronze Head challenged those regressive theories.

War Lord

War Lord is the last in Bernard Cornwell’s thirteen novel series set in the 9th and 10th centuries and covering the formation of England from the earlier kingdoms of Wessex, Kent, East Anglia, Mercia and, finally, Northumbria. Throughout the series, Uhtred, an impulsive and emotional man, has made promises to members of Alfred’s family, at least one of which he now regrets.

Uhtred is established in his ancestral home of Bebbanburg on the north-east coast of Northumbria hoping for a more peaceful time. But Athelstan, King of Wessex, Mercia and East Anglia is determined to achieve the dream of his grandfather, Alfred, and unite all the kingdoms into England. Whether they like it or not.

To the North is the King of Scotland and to the West a King in Ireland, both with eyes on the fertile lands of Northumbria. Uhtred’s not really in a position to defend Bebbanburg against any one of these avaricious Kings so alights on the idea of getting them to fight each other through a combination of misinformation and trickery.

As ever, Cornwell does a deft job of weaving a fast-paced adventure story around a nugget of historical fact (or as close to fact as we can get) and brings Uhtred’s story to a bittersweet conclusion. Bittersweet for two reasons. First, Uhtred gets his happy ending of ruling in Bebbanburg with expanded lands and family to succeed him but it’s in the context of a bigger kingdom of England which isn’t what he really wanted. Second, that kingdom is Christian and has a policy of stamping out paganism and with the birth of Christian England comes the loss of the old gods and older ways, which, throughout the series, has felt increasingly sad.

War Lord is great, good fun and an easy read, pleasingly supported by good historical detail.

The British Museum, A History

Published in 2002 to mark the 250th anniversary (in 2003) of the British Museum, The British Museum, A History is a history of the institution told by a former Director of the Museum, David M. Wilson.

Much of the focus of the book is on the first 150 years from the origins of the collection and the twisting path the Museum has taken to grow into the towering presence we know today. The careers and personalities of the Directors and curatorial staff in this period are presented in great detail, as at that time there were not so many of them so as to make it impractical, and a sense of their influence of the development of the Museum is vividly created. Donations and purchases of some of the most significant objects in the Museum are also covered in detail, showing how the collection came to be assembled; often by luck, accident or opportunism and only occasionally (more so in the last 50 years) by deliberate policy.

The 20th century is dealt with a bit more briskly. The impact of the wars is discussed and especially the long shadow of WWII; some galleries weren’t completely repaired until the 1980s or 1990s. There is discussion of the structure and organization of the Museum trustees and employees. It’s an organization that has evolved rather than been planned. Decisions about organizational structure have often been made in response to specific events and constrained by tight, inadequate budgets, which leads inevitably to problems that have to be addressed later down the line.

What was most interesting to me is the relative youth of the academic study of history, art history and archaeology. Wilson talks about the need for the Museum to develop expertise in these areas as they were not taught by the universities. It was a bit of a revelation to me that art history wasn’t even a thing until the 1920s.

This book is probably only for fans of the Museum and appears to be out of print now, but I enjoyed it. It’s been on my ‘books to read’ shelf for about twenty years (it’s a large, heavy, not at all portable hardback) so I’m pleased I finally got round to reading it.

White Fragility

If you have ever wondered why some people respond to the suggestion that something they’ve said is racist with outrage over the implication that they could ever be racist rather than with a desire to understand why, make amends and educate themselves, this book will help you understand.

White Fragility: Why it’s so hard for White People to talk about Racism is written by Robin D’Angelo, a white person with decades of experience delivering racial justice training to organizations. Throughout that experience she has met with responses that are familiar to me, and probably many other people. These responses generally go along the lines of ‘I define myself as not-racist, so therefore nothing I say or do could possibly be racist’ and ‘You saying something I said or did was racist is far, far more offensive and harmful to me than the racist thing I said is harmful to someone else, and therefore it is much more important for me to defend myself than to entertain the idea that I inadvertently said something racist’. What we’re not talking about here is the overt sentiments and statements of someone who consciously identifies as a white supremacist. We’re talking about progressives, moderates and conservatives who truly believe they are not racist (and certainly don’t intend to be) but who do not understand how growing up in historically racist societies have embedded attitudes and language that have their origins in racist ideology.

For me, knowing that I grew up in a country with an imperial legacy that used racist ideology to justify its exploitation of non-white peoples, some of which was enshrined in law, and lots of which was embedded in literature, art and other cultural media, makes it seem pretty obvious that I enjoy privileges that I wouldn’t have if I weren’t white, and pretty obvious I might not be fully aware of all the racist opinions and beliefs I’ve absorbed from my culture. Of course I would be horrified if someone told me I’d said something racist and probably my first instinct would be to be defensive (isn’t it always?). But I like to think I could move past that to apologising and figuring out what was behind what I’d said so that it didn’t happen again.

D’Angelo’s book pulls apart the various factors that lead to a different response and it’s illuminating. Central is the idea that we like to see ourselves as good people and the definition of a good white person currently includes not being racist. This means that being called out for saying something racist is an identity threat – to which people tend to respond with some emotional heat.

I found the discussion on how white people are taught about their own history or, more to the point, not taught interesting. When I was at school I learnt about a sanitised, positive British empire focused on exploration, adventure and discovery, and it wasn’t until reading more as an adult that I began to understand what empire was really all about. Even if a white person grows up in an area where there are lots of non-white people, that doesn’t mean we understand anything about the social construct of race and how it impacts people, because it is not openly talked about in the arenas most white people get their information. Also interesting is the information about how classifications of someone as white – in order to determine who was eligible to own property – developed and how convoluted they became, all in the service of restricting wealth and privilege to a small minority.

Reading White Fragility gave me a lot of insight into why it is actually so hard to shift the systemic disadvantages/privileges associated with race and to create more equal outcomes and opportunities for people. It also gave me better ways to talk about these things. Highly recommended.

DeGrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era

DeGrowth: A Vocabularyfor a New Era is a collection of essays exploring degrowth and related concepts.

Degrowth is a philosophy that says in order for human societies to survive the climate catastrophe, we have to shrink our economies, and to re-think what it means to live a good life. The dominant ideology of our time is rooted in constant, devouring growth, using up finite material resources such as oil and rare earths. The degrowth movement says that we have to let go of growth as our marker of progress and success. Sustainable development is rejected as a delusion; we can’t halt or reverse the damage we’ve done to the earth and still have a consumerist society.

A challenge with the degrowth point of view is how societies are organized and focused if we are not driven by growth. Many of the concepts defined in this book are ideas of how to do that both in terms of institutions and individuals. Some sectors of the economy, such as care, healthcare and education would be expected to expand, and societies would be more focused around community. Ways in which to reduce inequality and to ensure that the onus of degrowth is put in the right place (on the over-consuming elites of the Global North) are also described.

This is a useful book which lays out a series of concepts that could help us live more at peace with the earth and each other. It’s also a good pointer to the thinkers in this space so that you can read more.

Tantra

There will be a British Museum theme to most of the next few posts.

Tantra by Dr Imma Ramos is the book of the British Museum exhibition on Tantra. It had just opened in early 2020 when the pandemic hit and so I didn’t get to see the exhibition itself.

The book and exhibition tell the history of the development of Tantra as a reaction to and subversion of conservative and hierarchical Hinduism. It took the taboo or forbidden elements and turned them into ways to connect with the gods and absorb their power. There was a path that took the teachings and rituals literally and one which took them symbolically, using visualization rather than practice. Given that Tantra had a focus on power in the mundane world, it was enthusiastically adopted by rulers in the Indian sub-continent. Tantra spread east and was also absorbed by Buddhism, creating new Tantric paths with a Buddhist flavour. Using art and sculpture from the time, Dr Ramos shows how themes of conquering ego and ignorance are represented and unlocks the symbolism in the representation of Tantric gods and goddesses.

The book explores how Tantra was misunderstood and misrepresented by the British during the colonial period. Tantric sex means uniting the masculine and feminine energies in order to connect with divinity and is not about purely sexual pleasure, but the representation of this element of Tantra in sculpture and painting was interpreted salaciously by western minds. It was also considered pagan and demonic. The way Tantra was viewed and talked about in the West then evolved into the way it was adopted by the counter-cultural movements of the late 20th century, with an emphasis on sex rather than spirituality.

In India, Tantra became associated with the resistance to colonialism and became closely connected to Indian nationalism. Dr Ramos shows how Tantric deities were used to promote Indian-made goods and how the symbolism came to include the fight for independence.

This is an eye-opening book and it’s a real shame I missed the exhibition. I both learned and unlearned a lot.

Stonehenge

Welcome to my annual flurry of posts about books, where I realise I haven’t posted anything in months, have a few weeks of activity, and then get distracted by work and life again.

Anyway, recently I went to the World of Stonehenge exhibition at the British Museum and, as I do, I bought a book. Stonehenge by Rosemary Hill is about how Stonehenge has been interpreted, treated and used throughout the centuries. From the romantic fiction dressed up as fact of Geoffrey of Monmouth to roughly about ten years ago, Hill traces the history of our efforts to understand the ancient monument.

Particularly interesting is how the druid theory has taken on a life of it’s own. Starting as an idea based on nothing much more than a mention of druids by Tacitus, supposedly an eye witness account, and an idea that Stonehenge dated from the Roman era, it has morphed into a movement that sees druids celebrating the summer solstice amongst the stones. We know nothing about the druids as they left no written records. Everything that is said about them is a modern invention. It might be right, but we don’t know.

Hill covers the ownership of Stonehenge, mostly private and the campaigns to acquire it for the nation. Some of those owners chose not to allow any archeaological digs, which given the damage some of the early ones did is probably a good thing. More recent digs have discovered burial mounds, human remains, and evidence of the age of Stonehenge and that it was built in at least three stages.

Stonehenge has inspired art, literature and poetry for centuries. Hill’s explores how it has been used as a canvas for the spiritual and philosophical ideas of the age. She shows how the more bloody, sacrificial interpretations are comnected to times of civil unrest.

This is a thoughtful and engaging book, well researched and constructed. Definitely worth reading.

Lion: Pride before the Fall

Lion: Pride before the Fall is a photography book featuring the last lion prides in Africa, profits from which go to support the conservation work of Born Free.

There are only 20,000 lions left in the wild and their range is limited to a few places in Africa, where once they could be found in Europe and Asia as well. The photographs are gorgeous, but this is a profoundly upsetting book. It is possible that lions will be extinct in the wild by 2050. They are under threat from the clash with people as settlements encroach on lion territory. Lions will kill livestock. People poison lions to protect their livelihoods. They are also at risk from poachers and trophy hunters.

There are more lions in captivity. Those in private collections, zoos, and in farms where they are bred for canned hunting. Captive lions are a tragic shadow of themselves. Without the space they need, ranges of tens of miles, and the ability to engage in their natural behaviours, they are nothing like they are in the wild.

It seems lion populations can recover fast. If their habitat is protected and a balance can be found between lion and human populations.

Addressing the horrors of the canned hunting business and the trade in lion bones is also important but lions rescued from these farms can rarely be released into the wild.

It’s a beautiful, devastating book. Well worth investing in.

Reality is not what it seems

Writing popular science books is hard. Taking very complex topics and making them understandable to a lay person is a special skill.

Carlo Rovelli is the best science writer I have ever read. Reality is not what it seems: the journey to quantum gravity is indeed a joy to read.

Rovelli takes us on a journey from ancient Greek philosophers to today’s edge of theoretical physics. The first half of the book is devoted to telling the story of how our understanding of reality has developed from early Greeks like Democritus and Leucippus through Galileo, Newton and on to Faraday, Einstein and Bohr. It is amazing to me how what we know of the physics of the ancient Greeks is pieced together from tiny fragments of their writing, and what other philosophers said about their ideas. How devastating to understand what we’ve lost, and yet incredible that we know anything at all.

Rovelli builds up a picture of how we have come to understand the world, starting with concepts of atoms and particles, adding waves and fields, and ending with something quite different to what we might have learnt at school. I wonder how different the physics that is taught now is to what I was taught thirty years ago.

The second half of the book gets into what current theoretical physics is thinking about what reality is, with some description of how experimental physics is providing evidence for those theories. It ends with some discussion about the two main theories now competing to draw all this together.

I am obsessed with the idea that the reality of the universe is so completely alien to the human perception of our surroundings. It’s amazing that with such limited brains and ways of experiencing the world that we can even begin to understand what reality is. For me the best bit of this book is that time doesn’t exist independently of humans. There is no objective, separate thing that is time: our sense of time is generated by our existence.

Loved it. Definitely read this.

Writing from the Inside Out

Book number two from the writing course reading list is Writing from the Inside Out by Dennis Palumbo. A good quarter of the books on the reading list are books on writing technique and other ‘how to write a novel’ type books.

Dennis Palumbo is a scriptwriter turned psychologist whose practice centres around working with writers and other creatives. He spends his days listening to writers who aren’t writing. Well, that seemed relevant.

In a series of small chapters talking about the various things that get in the way of writing, like isolation, waiting for inspiration, rejection, feeling blocked, fear and doubt, Palumbo draws on his writing experience and his therapeutic practice.

The central theme is that all the feelings writers have, rather than getting in the way of writing, are actually the fuel that we should be putting into our work.