April 1st, 2009

Fishy Circumstances

Babylon and Byzantium

Babylon, at the British Museum, was a pedagogical exhibit, an enriching, but not particularly deep, exploration of Babylon in the original, and a moderately rapid tour of the myths and legends built up around it since. It's the sort of exhibit made possible by the world's largest collection of cuneiform tablets and a lot of public interest in - and thus funding for things relevant to - Iraq. Cuneiform tablets can be a hard sell for general interest; they did their best, with recordings of original and translation of some of them, played from above particular display cases. Unfortunately, the text never matched with the labels, and so required undue standing around to have time to read, see, and listen, all in sequence. The artwork on hand was inspiring, from Brueghel-inspired paintings to striking modern prints. I quite liked the model of the Temple of Marduk and the Ishtar Gate. They were part of a minority of the exhibit which helped bring the place itself to life; I wish there'd been more of that and less of the legend (however fab some of those images), but funding for that would have been harder to come by. The exhibit ended with the damage done to the site by Saddam Hussein palace and now the troops, mainly American, occupying the site.

Byzantium, at the Royal Academy, was another kind of exhibit entirely. It was a show for experts, specialists, and those willing to self-teach. Each lavishly filled room had a single explanatory paragraph-or-so to introduce its complexities. The labels frequently raised more questions than they answered. What has a third-century Roman treasure trove found in Scotland to do with Byzantium? Or a piece of Fatimid jewelry? From where did the wholly unlabeled and enormous ceiling hanging in the first room come? I can hypothesize or check the catalogue, but the show itself did not provide answers. In compensation, it made up for lack of information with bulk of shiny wonders from the duration of the Empire. They are extraordinary, from the jaw-dropping detail of the micro-mosaics to beautiful jewelry to paintings brought in from Mount Sinai. A carved lintel loitered stealthily above. There were bells. There were manuscripts and a large, complete coin collection, and a large mosaic floor. It was like exploring a cave of wonders, dazzling, but mysterious.