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The new Peru Show at the British Museum is a Triumph. But…

November 13th, 2021 Leave a comment Go to comments

A big new show about Peru has just opened at the British Museum to showcase the almost four millennia of Peruvian civilisation that preceded the destructive arrival of the Spanish.

It’s the first at the museum since almost the Second World War, so quite a moment to have a look at the Incas and their predecessors.

I’m pleased to report that thanks to energetic and intelligent curatorship from Jago Cooper (known to TV audiences for his work on presenting Latin American archaeology) and Cecilia Pardo, this is a triumphant success.

That said, the curators have their work cut out. Although using some of the central main space in the British Museum, it’s a smaller show than others have been, so needs to be concentrated.

And I know only too well from my Cochineal Red book – being sold alongside the exhibition –  the challenges already involved in trying to present the huge span of Peruvian prehistory to an audience who may be unfamiliar with the route map of the rise and fall of its civilisations.

I like the way the curators have pitched this. It does not take the Ladybird ‘Peru is a country a long way away’ approach of some recent, painfully patronising shows. Item descriptions are precise and sophisticated.  Nor is it painfully woke – although the attempt to suggest that Nasca women were being empowered towards the end of that civilisation because they were sometimes depicted underneath their men in the missionary position is perhaps an argument too far.

And while on gender representation, they have shied away from the more erotic of Moche ceramics (displayed in an adults-only gallery at one Lima Museum) in favour of a concentration on Moche sacrificial practices which while also good box office reminded me of Angela Carter’s line about one of her films – that she would have preferred ‘more sex and less violence’.

tunic stitched with hummingbird feathers

Still, some fabulous items have been cherrypicked: a tunic stitched with hummingbird feathers of the sort that Atahualpa may have worn; a necklace studded with gems made from conch shells (the ‘first contact’ the Spanish made with the Incas was when they encountered a boat looking for such valued shells in the Pacific); a pestle and mortar used by Chavín shamen to grind their hallucinogenic snuff, with distorted jaguar motifs which must have been powerful when the drugs took effect.

I particularly liked the witty inclusion of items like the Moche ceramic representation of a weaver holding up a cloth for inspection, as if to get it passed for approval. Most unusual of all are some wooden figures showing naked prisoners about to be sacrificed in the Moche style, which were recovered for the British Museum in the 19th century from a heap of guano, when the guano was being mined for fertiliser. The guano had preserved the wood in a way few other substances would.

The show draws on the recent triumphs of curatorship in Peru where museums like MALI have mounted some fabulous shows in Lima.

But while some objects have come from Peru, around 60% of the exhibits come from the basements of the British Museum and herein does lie a question (one I have asked before, ten years ago, to no great effect). Which is why the British Museum does not have a permanent gallery devoted to South America in the same way it does to Central America, North America and indeed just about every other continent?

Part of the answers is historical and administrative – many of the South American holdings were displayed in the old Museum of Mankind by Burlington Arcade and when that was dissolved, did not find a home. But let’s hope that this fabulous new exhibition will prompt a rethink at the highest echelons in the British Museum and a more dedicated and permanent display may be forthcoming.

Such a wealth of rich artefacts certainly deserves one and would bolster the museum’s claim to be a genuine museum of the world, not just of those areas where Britain held colonial interests.

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The Exhibition runs until February 2022

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wooden figures showing naked prisoners, which had been preserved in guano for over 1000 years

A Moche prisoner awaiting sacrifice

A weaver holding up a cloth for inspection

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