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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.


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 1st, 2009 11:37 pm (UTC)
I wanted to see both of these; I failed.
Apr. 2nd, 2009 06:45 am (UTC)
You're right about Byzantium - I know it's traditional these days to date the start of the empire to the foundation of Constantinople, but there were bits in there that were the other side of any notional boundary between Late Roman and Byzantine. I think this is a manifestation of the dichotomy in treating the later Roman empire brought on by Byzantinists not unreasonable annexation of at least the eastern provinces post-330. Ultimately, of course, this is down to a slow move from the traditional way of thinking about Rome and Byzantium as two separate entities to what I consider the more reasonable view, which is that they are the same thing at different parts of its history.

The hanging in the first room was labelled, but you had to hunt for it a bit.
Apr. 2nd, 2009 06:43 pm (UTC)
Ah now, we here in Newcastle had the lecture about Byzantium but lacked the exhibition...

(Actually, I think our experience was equally frustrating: she was one of those who put the exhibition together, but she was a piss-poor lecturer.)
Apr. 2nd, 2009 10:59 pm (UTC)
I've found that I often have the most fun in museum displays that come with little or no explanation. A few years ago, I spent some great hours in the medieval rooms of the Hungarian National Museum in Budapest. All the labels were in Hungarian, so I had to interpret the displays myself. It made me slow down and consider each object in some depth and made the experience much more satisfying than it might otherwise have been.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )