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Posts Tagged ‘British Museum’

All that glitters

October 27th, 2013 No comments

I go to see the press opening for El Dorado at the British Museum, which is excellent – one of the best curated and lit shows there of recent years.  The exhibition is careful to remind us that while the Spanish conquistadors were excited by the gold they found, even more enticing was the gold they didn’t  – and nowhere was this more embodied than in the legend of El Dorado, a myth so potent it has persisted from Sir Walter Raleigh to Walt Disney.

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The Colombian civilisations made gold offerings in liminal places – like mountains or lakes, such as the one of the El Dorado legend in which a naked gold-powdered leader offered precious jewellery into the water.  They used gold to transform themselves into otherworldly creatures with a metallic second skin, their nose pieces and earrings swinging so as to catch the light.

And the exhibition is well timed, not just because it is the first major show for many years that the British Museum has had on South America, but because our obsession with gold continues: a rise of some 1000% in its price of the last 10 years; an accompanying gold-rush in those countries like Peru whose mines have been reopened, or the Amazon panned, with devastating environmental effects like arsenic run-off. For a searing indictment of quite what this has meant on a human scale, read Marie Arana’s recent extraordinary article about the La Rinconada mine, ‘Dreaming of El Dorado’.

A platform for the Incas

November 22nd, 2010 2 comments

After all the excitement of the Poetry Festival, am now off to a series of gatherings of a very different sort:  a conference at the British Museum on Peruvian ushnus, the raised platform structures often found in the centre of Inca plazas or on hill tops.

This may seem a slightly esoteric subject, but the ushnus are both at the centre of the Inca world and yet surprisingly little understood.  As one of the speakers plaintively noted, the Spanish chroniclers of the time did little to describe them.

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One thing is immediately apparent: Andeanists, like poets and indeed like Incas, tend to celebrate their gatherings with many libations – at a party held by the Peruvian ambassador, the pisco sours were flowing freely and only copious amounts of black coffee provided by the British Museum allowed attendees to focus on the complex astronomical siting of the ushnus, which at sites like Huánaco Pampa are aligned to solstice and equinox risings of the sun.

My own interest comes from work we have carried out at Llactapata, with on-site help from Tom Zuidema (the keynote speaker at this conference),  which has buildings which are similarly aligned to the sunrises of both solstices – see The full report on the expedition.  There is also a large ushnu-style raised platform structure measuring some 60 feet by 40 feet, enclosed by a five feet high retaining wall – which like almost everything else to do with ushnus needs more investigation, but is the only known ushnu from which Machu Picchu is clearly visible.  With an alignment of 110 degrees, the platform is orientated almost dead on the December solstice line for the rising sun.  Read more…

The British Museum and a ‘forgotten continent’

September 14th, 2010 2 comments

The British Museum richly deserves the recent donation of 25 million from Lord Sainsbury.  Over the last few years it has been playing at the top of its game, with some breath-taking exhibitions and intelligent curatorship.  In Neil MacGregor it has a capable and charismatic Director, whose series A History of the World in 100 Objects, now just drawing to a close, has been one of the broadcasting successes of the decade.

But – and it is a very big but – there is one stain on an otherwise exemplary stewardship.  Look around the Museum and the visitor will quickly notice that an entire continent has been side-lined, excluded from what claims to be a ‘world museum’.  All the ancient civilisations have a gallery devoted to their achievements except one:  South America.

It is as if the achievements of the Incas and their extraordinary pre-Columbian forbears had never happened:  the wonders of Machu Picchu;  the gold tombs and masks of the Moche, often compared to Tutankhamen;  the Nasca culture who produced the famous lines;  or the many other intriguing pre-Columbian cultures of the Amazon and of Peru.

There are a few objects scattered around amidst other wider collections – but no permanent and focussed gallery;  nor has there been any exhibition about the Incas or South America for many decades; nor is the Museum planning to hold one, though it is perfectly possible– as Paris and New York do frequently – or to get long-term loans for a gallery. It is just that there is no particular will to do so. The Museum actually has plenty of holdings on South America shut up in the basement, left over from the old and now closed Museum of Mankind.

The centenary of the discovery of Machu Picchu falls next year, for instance, an event that the rest of the world is already celebrating – Paris has an exhibition right now – and which we are doing absolutely nothing about. 

The last time that the Museum was given money and Andeanists expected a long-standing wrong finally to be put right, the new gallery unveiled was… a Watch Gallery. Perhaps this time around the money should be used to represent a forgotten continent.