The paperwork for a work of art

At the Barber I’ve been working with two projects. I’ve been helping the Learning & Access team out, as I wrote about earlier, but I’ve also been working on the database and the files for the artworks. This has been interesting, since I’ve gotten to see what kind of provenance material and what kind of communications and exhibitions different objects have/have been part of. Some of the works that I’ve found most interesting I’ve also gotten to write about for the Barber’s official website, where some of them have just been published. You can see them here, here, here and here.

Material for the 1520s stained glass design by Hans Holbein, including a 1955 Sotheby’s Auction catalogue for the sale of this sketch.

Going through and organising this material has been educational and fun, since I’ve gotten to read correspondence from the 1930s and onwards, see how museums communicate with each other about loans &c. My favourite ones to write about have been a stained glass design by Tudor court artist Hans Holbein the younger, an illustration for Alexander Pope’s mock-heroic poem The Rape of the Lock by 19th century artist Aubrey Beardsley and a sketch of the Madonna and Child by Gaudenzio Ferrari.

“The Battle of the Beaux and the Belles” by Aubrey Beardsley. The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, The University of Birmingham.

Objects Come to Life

The short essay I wrote about the shabti of Horwedja is now online, part of the physical and digital exhibition Objects Come to Life. I’m very proud to be a part of this exhibition, which also inspires me to keep working on my own online exhibition.

I encourage you all to have a look at the exhibition. My essay, “The Discovery and Accessioning of the Shabti of Horwedja” can be read here.

The Shabti of Horwedja, Priest of Neith, son of Seshet. The Eton Myers Collection, Eton College. On loan to the University of Birmingham. Currently displayed in the exhibition “Objects Come to Life”.

“What are men to rocks and mountains?”

During my final weekend, I couldn’t resist taking the train northwards to visit National Trust property Lyme Park. As some of you will probably know, this is the mansion used for Pemberley in the 1995 version of Pride and Prejudice. Walking through the great grounds I had a magnificent view of the surrounding landscape, seeing sheep and deer (though sadly not their herd of Highland Cattle).

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Taking the time to sit in the library at Lyme and read a fairy tale.

The house is the largest in Cheshire and was built in the 16th century, but has of course evolved over time with large additions during the 1700s and 1800s. The gardens, on the other hand, are mainly Edwardian. In the hall of the house, where guests would wait for their hosts, there was a clever sort of hidden “trap”. What looked like an ordinary portrait was actually attached to hinges, meaning the people of the house could spy on their guests from their drawing room above. Apparently this was not a very uncommon thing.

A small but elaborate clock in one of the rooms was decorated with a couple of wood cutters, whose axes moved back and forth with the pendulum, so as to make it seem as though they were really working. In the same room were some 19th century chairs with the monogram of 17th century king Charles I, which I found a little strange. Then it turned out that the silk cloth with which these chairs were covered was said to be the lining of the mantle that the king had worn when he was executed. I marvel at the objects and histories of these places.

The courtyard at Lyme Park.

In the house the symbol of an arm holding a flag was prominent in the décor. This was a sign awarded to the family of the house during the 1300s, along with the land where this later house now stands. During the battle of Crécy in 1346, the banner of the Black Prince (the heir to the English throne) was captured by the French. Sir Thomas Danyers managed to get the flag back by cutting the arm off a French knight.

A ceiling, where in the blue fields you can see the arm holding the banner of St George, that of the Black Prince.

While the house and gardens were very interesting and beautiful, both as they were and due to them “being” Pemberley, what really captured me during this visit were the grounds and the views. Standing on my own on top of a great hill with a view for miles and the wind in my hair was something I would not have traded for anything.




“‘Here I am’, you shall say.”

My work with the Eton Myers collection has been brief and is sadly already over. I wish I could stay longer and learn more about this beautiful collection, but at least I’m ending on a high note, getting to write a short paper on one of the more special items of the collection: the shabti of Horwedja. This paper will be published online as part of the material for an exhibition later this year – at which point I will naturally share the link here.

The Shabti of Horwedja, Priest of Neith, son of Seshet. The Eton Myers Collection, Eton College. On loan to the University of Birmingham.

In the meantime though, I thought I would tell you a little of what I’ve learned about shabtis in general, this particular shabti as well as something about collecting and souvenirs of yesteryear. This shabti was collected in a most Indiana Jones like fashion during the late 1800s (or River Song like fashion, if like me you’re more of a Doctor Who fan). 399 in total, these shabtis were excavated by self-taught egyptologist Flinders Petrie in the tomb of the priest Horwedja at Hawara, near Faiyum (where he also found several of the famous mummy portraits in encaustic painting). He had to partly submerge himself in water and pick these mummiform shabtis up with his feet while, according to his journals, skulls of the mummies bobbed on the water.

The Shabti of Horwedja. Eton Myers Collection, Eton College. On loan to the University of Birmingham.

Shabtis started out as maybe one or two sculptures, often made of wood, placed in the tomb of a wealthier person. They were meant to take on the labour of the deceased in the afterlife. This evolved over time into a system that got more and more elaborate. The ideal number of shabtis in a tomb increased and ended up being 401: one worker for each day of the year and one overseer/workleader (characterised by his tool being a whip) for every 10 workers. This shabti is part of one of these large, late groups of shabtis and is special because these generally tend to be less detailed and well made simply due to the large number of sculptures needed. To do his work in the field, he carries a mattock, a hoe and a grain basket.

The shabti of Horwedja. Eton Myers Collection, Eton College. On loan to the University of Birmingham.

The lower half of the shabti carries the shabti spell, which was meant to activate the shabti when the time came. The words “‘Here I am’, you shall say” are part of this spell, telling the shabti what he should answer when work is required of the person he is supposed to do the work for.

Shabtis were generally popular souvenirs for both collectors and tourists in the early days of excavations in Egypt – mainly because of their practical size, the large numbers in which they exist and their appearance, which is quintessentially has the connotations of everything we think of as Egyptian. While this particular shabti is faded due to the water in the tomb, the Egyptian blue faience which it is made of is a common material for the shabti collections. Shabtis are most often mummiform in shape, something also very intimately linked with ancient Egypt and our picture of it. Then the fact that there are hieroglyphics (the shabti spell) on this mummiform, Egyptian blue, suitably small object is just what ties it all together, really. The fact that shabtis were so popular also means, though, that they were among the first kinds of objects to be forged, even as early as in the 17th century.

Exhibiting Shakespeare

During my time here, I’ve visited a few Shakespeare themed exhibitions, given due to the quadricentenary of Shakespeare’s death. Since I myself am curating an online exhibition for the RCC, the different ways of approaching The Bard that I’ve seen have been inspiring. As I’m currently working on the exhibition and don’t really have anything to show from that work-in-progress yet, I thought I would share a little about the exhibitions that I have attended.

At the Barber, curatorial master students have created an exhibition called All the World’s a Stage: Court, Patrons and Writers in Shakespeare’s Circle. As the title suggests, this really is an exhibition whose main focus isn’t really Shakespeare, but whose overall theme and connecting thought is Shakespeare. Showing portraits of writers and patrons alongside the books of the time makes this exhibition quite special in the way it focuses on the writers’ social status and image. This is an exhibition in which Shakespeare, however brilliant and famous, is a writer among many, sharing the same kind of lifestyle and dependence. The exhibition celebrates Shakespeare by celebrating his era, his profession and the people around him. But what other ways are there of celebrating Shakespeare?

At “Our Shakespeare” at the Library of Birmingham.

At The Library of Birmingham I saw the exhibition Our Shakespeare, an exhibition that maybe did not have such an easily defined overall theme. Or rather, the theme was our Shakespeare – as in Shakespeare is for everyone, for every occasion. Somewhat based on Shakespeare being a Warwickshire lad, maps of the area were displayed. There were also theatre posters from all around (even one from Uppsala!), a first, second and third Folio, several quartos, sound files with famous monologues/dialogues and some videos (including Horrible Histories). You could also be insulted by Shakespeare. According to this exhibition, Shakespeare would have called me a “Saucy sheep-biting common-kissing measle”. Charming.

What did Shakespeare call you?  at “Our Shakespeare”.

This is an exhibition that tries to show the width and inclusiveness of Shakespeare. While this is something I strive to do in my own exhibition, I think it needs to be done very carefully, so as not to lose focus.

At the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, I saw the exhibition Well Said!, where artists had worked to visually convey their favourite Shakespeare quotes. In many ways of course, Shakespeare today is his words, which is why an exhibition with his words is as much a celebration of him as an exhibition about the man William Shakespeare.

‘The moon methinks looks with a watery eye…’ at “Well Said!” at RST.

The Cadbury Research Library had also created a small exhibition, displaying different illustrations from Shakespeare’s work – from different countries, eras &c. The many sides of Shakespeare and his works – and how they affect people – were once again affirmed for me.

“Picturing Shakespeare”, a small exhibition by the Cadbury Research Library.

My aim is to celebrate the many sides of William Shakespeare, The Bard, whatever you choose to call him, in my exhibition. I will keep you updated on when it’s up!

Learning and Access

The Red Gallery at The Barber Institute.

I’m spending a couple of days with the Learning & Access team at The Barber, and loving every minute. Something always seems to be happening at the Barber, from school groups taking over the galleries to lunchtime lectures and gallery talks. I have attended several only in the short time that I’ve been here, and find it exciting and motivating. The Learning and Access team work with all groups of people, making sure that the institute has a wide and a specialist appeal. The idea seems to be that everyone can come here, and I really do think that it works! I don’t think it would work without the hard work of this small team though, because how do you know that you’re welcome at a museum or an institute or gallery if no one tells you?

Allegorical sculpture of Prudence, looking both into the future and into the past – to see the most rational cause of action.

While working here I’ve once again had confirmed the idea that everyone can learn something from for example a work of art – and the fact that different people learn different things from the objects is not a downside. The learning that a group of four-year-olds do looking at a painting and talking about it with a guide will naturally differ from that of a group of twelve-year-olds. What matters is that you don’t underestimate anyone or think that changing the way you talk about an object to adapt to your audience means ‘dumbing-down’. The adaptation to the audience is supposed to capture and help that particular group of people, not to give them a watered down version of the ‘real thing’.

Attending the lunchtime lecture ‘Did my hero look like that?’ about portraits of writers &c. from 1550-1620, highlighting the current temporary Shakespeare exhibition.

While working with the L&A team I’ve gotten to assist during a workshop and attend a meeting about how to better the marketing for the university’s cultural collections towards the public. I am also currently working on creating my own plan for a workshop from scratch, focusing on the narrative qualities in art.

‘The person who has stolen my bronze pot is utterly accursed.’

No, to clarify, I do not own a bronze pot, I never have (so it hasn’t been stolen from me) and I’m not trying to curse anyone. This is a post focusing on some exhibitions that I have seen: how they’ve worked on interacting with and activating their visitors.

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A screen, interpreting some of the messages left by Romans at the Roman Baths, Bath.

At the Roman Baths in Bath, the focus was mainly on the people who had used the baths in ancient times. Both the title quote and the image above are examples of curses engraved on pieces of metal which have then been thrown into the holy spring in the hope that the goddess there, Sulis Minerva, would fulfil the wronged person’s wishes. These curses were displayed and interpreted in several different ways across the Baths, including showing the actual metal, writing out the curse in latin and then with a translation, the interactive screen that I photographed, and a short film that re-enacted the corresponding offense and then the making of one of the actual curse metal sheet. This focus on the individuals of the Roman period really shaped the exhibition as a whole.

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The goddess Sulis Minerva. Roman Baths, Bath.

At Winterbourne, the focus is also largely on specific people (as I will soon tell you more about), but as its history is much more recent we know more of the people and this naturally affects the way in which they are presented via objects and text. Here too, though, you have interactive screens where you can read, in this case extracts from the diary of Margaret Nettlefold. Objects that are known to have belonged to the family are mixed with objects that simply evoke the era of their lives. In that respect, these two very different exhibition spaces are alike. While Winterbourne follows the history of a family, The Roman Baths follow a more diffuse group of people, not really connected but by their civilisation and the Baths. The Nettlefolds did have an impact on the city of Birmingham, though, which is of course also reflected in the exhibition.

Map of Birmingham with a train set operable by the visitor. Winterbourne House & Garden.

This train set on top of a map was designed to show the zones in Birmingham most important to the Nettlefolds. To receive information, the visitor would press a button for a certain location. Then one of the locomotives (the one for a freight train or for a passenger train) would travel to that spot and then a recording would play. This is a way to activate the visitor on several levels with both the information and the medium engaging him/her. Electric train sets have existed since the late 19th century, so that too is a reminder of the era and the people that are being evoked.

In the Edward Burne-Jones room at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.

At BMAG, no opportunity to educate and engage the visitor is missed out on. In the Burne-Jones Room, even the two pieces of apparatus for measuring humidity and light in the room have labels. This conforms with the idea that I’ve had reinforced over and over during my time here: that everyone can learn something from an object – no matter who and no matter what. What matters is that we do learn, and that we know that we can keep learning.