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The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

Mu­se­ums and art gal­leries can have strik­ingly dif­fer­ent ways of ex­hibit­ing arte­facts. In prac­tice the two ap­proaches al­most al­ways over­lap to some ex­tent, but in their pure form we could char­ac­terise them as re­spec­tively di­dac­tic and aes­thetic. The gallery typ­i­cally shows its works as sim­ply as pos­si­ble, while the mu­seum dis­plays things sur­rounded by la­bels, re­con­struc­tions and of­ten an­noy­ingly loud au­dio and video that make silent ex­am­i­na­tion im­pos­si­ble.

The di­ver­gence in ex­hi­bi­tion style is in turn ex­plained by the dif­fer­ence be­tween art and other hu­man arte­facts. Once again the dis­tinc­tion is not ab­so­lute, but broadly art makes mean­ing: we can look at a pic­ture from cen­turies ago and un­der­stand many of the ideas con­veyed; mu­se­ums, on the other hand, col­lect a wide range of ob­jects that were not made as ve­hi­cles of mean­ing and which can­not speak for them­selves in the same way.

Such a dis­tinc­tion is im­plicit in The His­tory of the World in 100 Ob­jects, based on the Bri­tish Mu­seum ex­hi­bi­tion — 43 of the orig­i­nal ob­jects have been in­cluded, the oth­ers re­placed by sim­i­lar but less rare or frag­ile ex­am­ples — which was in turn based on a suc­cess­ful se­ries of ra­dio broad­casts in 2010 by Neil McGre­gor, the mu­seum’s for­mer direc­tor (2002-15).

The ex­hi­bi­tion’s origins ex­plain why few of the pieces are what we would usu­ally con­sider works of art, let alone mas­ter­pieces, and why even the rare pic­tures or sculp­tures are pri­mar­ily treated as doc­u­ments of the past rather than as works that speak to us un­aided. The head of Au­gus­tus, for ex­am­ple, is a no­table ob­ject, but not a great work of art; it is a frag­ment re­main­ing from a huge net­work of pro­pa­ganda im­ages of the em­peror, and one that in this case was pre­served thanks to the ig­nominy of cap­ture and burial by semi-bar­bar­ians on the fringes of the em­pire.

But even the head of Au­gus­tus can speak for it­self to a cer­tain ex­tent, be­cause it uses a lan­guage with which we are all fa­mil­iar. On the other hand, cu­nei­form tablets are il­leg­i­ble to all but a hand­ful of spe­cial­ists, so it is vi­tal to have help in read­ing them if we are to do more than con­tem­plate them as ev­i­dence of the in­ven­tion of writ­ing about 5000 years ago. Most in­ter­est­ing is a tablet of the Gil­gamesh epic with a nar­ra­tive of the flood myth that an­te­dates the ac­count in Ge­n­e­sis; when this text was pub­lished in 1872, it nat­u­rally up­set those who still took the bib­li­cal myth for lit­eral truth.

Among ob­jects with great po­ten­tial in­ter­est but lit­tle or no abil­ity to speak for them­selves are the gold coins of Croe­sus, whose name is still prover­bial for wealth. They are rudi­men­tary com­pared with the beau­ti­ful coins the Greeks minted over the next cou­ple of cen­turies, but they are among the first ex­am­ples of metal cur­rency. And Croe­sus is the sub­ject of a re­mark­able col­lec­tion of sto­ries recorded by Herodotus and re­peated as moral ex­em­pla for cen­turies af­ter­wards.

From the same pe­riod is a fine Assyr­ian re­lief show­ing two sol­diers in the royal guard. Here there is a use­ful (and for­tu­nately quiet) video ex­plain­ing the dif­fer­ence be­tween the cos­tume and ar­ma­ments of the two sol­diers: the re­lief be­comes ev­i­dence not only of the power of the monar­chy but of the na­ture of a multi-eth­nic em­pire. The Assyr­i­ans were suc­ceeded by the neo-Baby­lo­ni­ans, in turn con­quered by Cyrus, and the Per­sians would adopt the im­pe­rial iconog­ra­phy of these pre­cur­sor states, as we can see in the ruins of Perse­po­lis.

The ex­hi­bi­tion is more or less chrono­log­i­cal, fol­low­ing the de­vel­op­ment of hu­man tech­nol­ogy, re­li­gious be­liefs and so­cial struc­tures from the Stone Age to the present, from hunter-gath­er­ers to the be­gin­ning of agri­cul­ture, the first cities, the growth of em­pires, the open­ing of the world to net­works of travel and ex- change, and so on. An ef­fort has ev­i­dently been made to in­clude all the peo­ples of the world: an Abo­rig­i­nal wo­ven bag is in­cluded early in the show, re­mind­ing us of the many other arte­facts that must once have ex­isted in the re­mote ages that have left only im­per­ish­able re­mains such as flint axes and spear points.

One of the most fas­ci­nat­ing very an­cient ob­jects is a lime­stone fer­til­ity god­dess fig­ure from the Aegean re­gion but pre­dat­ing the much more re­fined Cy­cladic sculp­ture by some two mil­len­nia. The carv­ing is rough, but it was done with stone tools, long pre­dat­ing the work­ing of met­als. The most care­fully, if not ob­ses­sively, carved part of the fig­ure is the vulva, leav­ing us in no doubt of its sym­bolic and mag­i­cal pur­pose.

Much later, from the be­gin­nings of civilised life, comes per­haps the most beau­ti­ful ob­ject in the ex­hi­bi­tion, the mag­nif­i­cent bull-headed lyre from Ur, found by Leonard Wool­ley in his ex­ca­va­tions in the 1920s. The wooden struc­ture of the lyre had of course rot­ted af­ter some 5000 years, but Wool­ley was able to re­con­struct it by pour­ing plas­ter of Paris into the cav­ity it had left be­hind. The dec­o­ra­tive el­e­ments once mounted on the wooden struc­ture were found loose or crushed, but they could be restored, and the restora­tion was con­firmed by sur­viv­ing im­ages of such lyres in use in Sume­rian times.

Re­li­gious im­ages are among the most in­ter-

From left, Assyr­ian re­lief (700-695BC) from Iraq; head of Au­gus­tus (27-25BC) from Meroe, Su­dan; early writ­ing tablet (3100-3000BC), from Iraq; mar­ble statue of Mithras from Rome (AD100200); gold coins of Croe­sus (c. 550BC), in­set

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