If you’re in any way involved in archaeology you’ve probably already been bombarded by advertising and publicity surrounding The British Museum’s latest blockbuster exhibition Celts: art and identity. I studied Celtic Art (Capital C, Capital A) many years ago as part of my undergraduate degree at UCG (now NUIG). While I loved the art and the artistry, I never really developed my interests in the field and my attention instead settled on ringforts, excavation, and radiocarbon dates. One way or another, when I heard that this show was coming to the British Museum, I decided that it was something that I really did not want to miss. It has been described as “the first major British exhibition in 40 years to tell the story of the Celts” … basically, if you have any interest in the Celts and Celtic art this show is for you. What’s not to like?
I suppose the first thing to state clearly is that I really loved the exhibits … seeing so many famous pieces up close that I’ve previously only known as illustrations in papers and text books was fascinating. Even pieces from The British Museum’s own collections take on a special feeling when experienced together in this atmospheric space. I’m afraid that I had to apologise to a young couple beside me for swearing loudly when I looked up from a display label to find that I was only inches away from the fabulous Waldalgesheim torc … it is crafted in gold and, even after 2400 years, is shockingly beautiful seen up close. If you know me in real life, you’ll also probably be aware that I’m rather devoted to this particular artefact as I regularly wear a full-size silver reproduction of it … and still the effect of seeing these pieces ‘in the flesh’ is startling … though only a select few will be moved to breathily whisper ‘f**k’ at certain artefacts. This part of the exhibition could be easily and justifiably be described as ‘Celtic Art’s Greatest Hits’ … or even ‘Now That’s What I Call Celtic Art’ … all the very best of the genre is here: the Basse Yutz Flagons, the Snettisham Hoard, the Battersea Shield, the Gundestrup cauldron. Yeah! The gang’s all here!
|Battersea Shield (R. Thames), London, England (350-50 BC)|
|Sandstone figure, Holzgerlingen,|
(c. 500-400 BC)
|Bucket, Aylesford, Kent, England (75-25 BC)|
|Left: Waterloo Helmet (R. Thames), London, England (c. 200-100 BC).|
Right: bronze helmet from south-western Greece (c. 460 BC)
|Flagons, Basse Yutz, Lorraine, France (c. 400-360 BC)|
|Cauldron, Gundestrup, Jutland, Denmark (c. 150-50 BC)|
|Overview of exhibition space with reproduction of|
statue from Glauberg, Hessen, Germany at centre
In such a reading of the exhibition the replica brooch presented to Queen Victoria by Prince Albert for Christmas 1849 takes on particular interest and relevance. It was ostensibly presented as a gift from a man who knew his wife’s love of Celtic jewellery (Victoria owned a number of reproductions). However, the associated caption also points out that there was a defined political motivation in the choice of gift as the interest it generated was intended to bolster the local jewellery industry in the period directly after the Irish Potato Famine. To me, the underlying message is that Celtic Art is at its best when used as a political tool by the British state. It is really only a matter of scale: If we move from this one artefact and its political context to the wider one of this entire exhibition, the messages it promotes, and the fact that it is organised by that most British of State institutions, The BM, we see that the issues are the same. Before you think I’ve got my tinfoil hat jammed on too tight, I would suggest that you ask: Cui bono? Who profits? … and to what end? For me, the key is in the locations where this exhibition is going to be shown: London – the lynchpin in the UK’s Sweet Chariot – and Edinburgh, the capital of a constituent nation that recently attempted to leave that Union. Is this exhibition not being sent out like some latter day Marshal Wade? … “May he sedition hush, and like a torrent rush, Rebellious Scots to crush” … if we can sell the idea that all these appeals to a shared Celtic heritage are nothing more than the invocation of childish fantasy that has no basis in reality, whither the appeal of an independent Scotland? More than that, if you can be convinced of the idea that the way in which Celtic identities are created and manipulated is actually an articulation of the ideals of Union, forging disparate strands together for the common good, aren’t we Better Together?
|Bronze chariot fittings (AD 50-100) from Polden Hill, Somerset, England; Alfrison, East Sussex, England; Stanwick, North Yourkshire, England; and Westhall, Suffolk, England. Organised as illustrated in Horæ Ferales: Or, Studies in the Archæology of the Northern Nations, by John Mitchell Kemble (1864).|
|A selection of European torcs|
Either way, I don’t think that Jonathan Jones’ approach is correct (“In the end I just ignored the texts and succumbed to the art”). Instead, I would encourage all to go and enjoy the beautiful pieces on display. At the same time, I would also urge everyone to be aware that there may be deeper political messages for contemporary Britain encoded in every aspect of the exhibition than they may be aware of. Rather than ignore them, fixate on the glittery objects, and allow them to work at a subconscious level, I would implore all visitors to approach the exhibition with an analytic mind. See beyond the artefacts, read beyond the approved texts, and question the motivations of the organisers. Muttering appreciative swearwords at the torcs and cauldrons remains entirely optional.
|Exit via of the gift shop ... everything Celtic|
|Silver torc, Trichtingen, Baden-Württenberg, Germany (200-50 BC)|
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