The 5 Weirdest Objects in the British Museum

London, England – August 2nd, 2010

Look to the British Museum’s “History of the World in 100 Objects” if you want an official list of its most relevant artifacts. If, instead, you’d like a very unofficial list of its most irrelevant artifacts, read on! Here are the five things that really made me laugh:

1.) This is a piece from the Lewis Chess Set, one of the British Museum’s most famous exhibits. The chess set is striking for its antiquity (it dates to viking times), its high level of detail, and the humorous appearance of its pieces. This queen is one of my favorites, as her eyes bug out and she presses a hand to her face as if worried. Apparently, however, that’s just how people carved eyes back then… and the pose was meant as a symbol of wisdom and gracefulness.

 

 

 

 

2.) I found these three human figurines in the Mesopotamian section of the museum. What’s great is the academic description below: “These are of unfired clay. Though very crude, two certainly represent males. The third might either be female or has lost a small piece of clay.”

 

 

 

 

3.) This statuette comes from the Roman section. I can think of a dozen possible explanations of what’s going on here, and frankly, all of them are pretty weird. Just check out the facial expressions.

 

 

 

 

4.) This looks like a goofy, modern pen holder (or maybe a coffee mug?).  Apparently it’s actually from South America and pretty old at that.

 

 

 

 

5.) This is my favourite item in the whole museum, hands down. It’s a secret dagger, hidden in… a similar dagger! Brilliant! So, you know, people will never suspect you’re carrying a dagger… they’ll just think you’re carrying a… dagger! Anyone have an opinion about whether or not the interior dagger could even be used?

/From the Lowlands to the Highlands

Does the British Museum Transcend Liberal Ethics?

London, England – August 2nd, 2010

When I first entered the British Museum, I was ready to be filled with a sense of righteous liberal indignation. On a visit to the Acropolis a few years earlier, the Greeks had been only too happy to tell me where all the missing statues were – the friezes, the caryatids, the pediments – all in London, some ‘British museum’, a world away. But once I entered, I found it impossible to hold a grudge against the museum itself. The circumstances under which it obtained and holds such a diverse and rich collection may be controversial, but everyone agrees the collection is a marvel.

Under one roof, a visitor sees Egyptian wall paintings, the Rosetta stone, viking helmets and chess pieces, turquoise serpents, crystal skulls, records written in cuniform, totem poles, knives carved out of antler and decorated with reindeer, Roman mosaics, Arabic calligraphy wrought in metal, and yes, even the Parthenon exhibit. The museum’s official stance about its… erm… forcibly borrowed goods is that “The Museum is a unique resource for the world” which “exists to tell the story of cultural  achievement throughout the world, from the dawn of  human history over two million years ago until the present day.” It’s easy to question the purity of their true motives, but there’s certainly some truth there. I, for one, found myself enchanted despite myself.

/From the Lowlands to the Highlands

Buddhapada in Kamakura

Where: Kamakura, Japan

When: July 2009

Camera: Canon Powershot A550

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I found this decorated stone in Kamakura’s Hase-Kannon Temple. It is a stylized depiction of the footprints of Buddha. In early Buddhist art, it was considered taboo to directly depict a being as sacred as the Buddha, so they alluded to his presence by showing his footprints, called Buddhapada in Sanskrit. These Buddhapada are covered with a variety of symbols. Look at the most prominent one, which looks like a sun or wheel. If it looks familiar to you, you may be thinking of the Flag of India, which has a similar design in the center. The wheel shown on both these footprints and the Indian flag is a dharmacakra, or a “wheel of law”, and symbolizes the Buddha’s path to enlightenment. Japan’s many sacred places are filled with items and objects that are often laden with symbolism. Knowing even a little bit about the many cultural traditions that make up Japan can add a lot to a trip through the country.

/Three Weeks of Japan Mania

Kamakura’s Daibutsu

Kamakura's Daibutsu is unusual in that it stands out in the open, not enclosed in a building.

No visitor to Kamakura, or even to Tokyo, should miss this Great Buddha. Housed in the temple Kōtoku-in (高徳院), it is a popular destination and so easy to reach on foot or by bus. Most maps of Kamakura depict the Daibutsu visually, so you need not read Japanese to find your way.

Cast in 1252, this Buddha was originally housed in a wooden temple. Notably, it was built completely with donations – no government funding whatsoever. A 1498 tsunami destroyed this building, and crushed hundreds of Samurai who were taking refuge inside, but left the huge bronze statue standing. Some repairs were done in 1960, particularly to strengthen the statue’s neck, but otherwise it has been standing out in the open, in it’s present form, for more than five hundred years.

The statue is made primarily of copper, with a large component of lead and tin. Even today we are not one hundred percent sure how it was put together. Originally the statue was covered in brilliant, shining gilt, but over the course of 700 years it has worn almost completely off. Specialists have said that that statue’s balance, intelligence, powerfulness, and dignity surpass that of the Todaiji Buddha in Nara.

Among those impressed by the statue’s longevity and serene demeanor are Richard Cocks, who after visiting in 1616 said that the Daibutsu must be larger than the Colossus of Rhodes, and Rudyard Kipling, who, after seeing the Daibutsu in 1892, mentions it repeatedly in verses throughout his novel Kim.

This Daibutsu has windows on the backside!

“O ye who treated the Narrow Way
By Tophet-flare to Judgment Day,
Be gentle when “the heathen” pray
To Buddha at Kamakura!”

If you go around to the back, you can see that this Buddha in fact has windows!

It is hollow inside and in fact for a time it was a den for gamblers and the homeless.

Now you can go inside for only 20¥ – about 20 cents.

 

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Sources:
http://themargins.net/anth/19thc/kipling.html
http://www.kamakuratoday.com/e/sightseeing/daibutsu.html

/Three Weeks of Japan Mania

Wooden Reindeer

Where: Stockholm, Sweden

When: June 2008

Camera: Canon Powershot A550

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I loved this little wooden reindeer in Skansen, an outdoor museum in the middle of Stockholm. I noticed the way the face is suggested with broad, simple cuts from the wood, as well as the cute pose and the real antlers.

/A Taste of Scandinavia

Sanjusangendo

Kyoto, Japan – July 25th, 2009

Even one of Sanjusangendo’s statues of Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, is impressive. Each one stands life sized and is covered in gold leaf, has eleven faces, and twenty one sets of arms to symbolize the goddess’s thousand. Can you picture one Kannon now? Good.

Unfortunately you can't take pictures inside... so I had to rely on postcards and Google.

Now imagine 1001 of them, each one unique and hand carved from Japanese cypress, crowded into Japan’s longest wooden building. A giant statue of the Thousand-armed Kannon sits in the middle of the hall, with 500 smaller (merely life sized) Kannons on each side. The youngest of the statues are almost 700 years old. The effect is mind blowing.

As if the Kannons weren’t enough, the hall also contains the statues of 28 Guardian deities and of Fujin and Raijin, the terrifying Japanese Gods of Wind and Thunder.

I almost hurried off after seeing the statues, but I would have missed the fascinating story of the other side of the hall, which has been used for the Tōshiya archery tournament since the 1600’s. A small but fascinating display lists the truly awe inspiring records of Japan’s best archers.

The temple's exterior, painted a vibrant vermilion, is also worth a look.

In the Oyakazu competition, for example, archers shoot as many arrows as they can within a 24 hour period, hoping to ‘clear’ – shoot the length of the hall without hitting the roof, floor, or pillars – as many arrows as possible.

In 1686, Wasa Daihachiro shot 13,053 arrows in Oyakazu, clearing 8,133 of them. This averages out to nearly 6 arrows a minute for twenty four hours straight.

/Three Weeks of Japan Mania

The Guggenheim

"Puppy"

Bilbao, País Vasco, Spain – September 12th, 2010

I’m not a big fan of modern art. I like some of it better than others, and yes, I try to distance myself and understand that most of these artists know how to paint perfectly well, that they’re not really just a bunch of guys splashing paint around, fooling the critics with a false sense of profundity, and laughing all the way to the bank, but still, it’s not usually my sort of thing.

It really doesn’t matter what you think of the art, though – when you go to Bilbao, you have to go to the Guggenheim. The city and its museum are almost synonymous with each other. Before I ever dreamed of studying in Spain, the name Bilbao brought to my mind a vague image of Puppy, the dog made of flowers which guards the museum’s doors. So it was never really an option not to go, and it was cheap enough, for students.

I have to say that, just like the rest of Bilbao, I was pleasantly surprised by the museum. There were some rooms in the complex that I walked through quickly, utterly unimpressed. One entire floor was a special exhibit of ‘gluts’, which basically just looked like piles of trash to me, however much I sympathised with the artist’s purported message and tried to look at them through that light.

Some "Gluts" (not my photo)

“It’s a time of glut. Greed is rampant. I’m just exposing it, trying to wake people up. I simply want to present people with their ruins […] I think of the Gluts as souvenirs without nostalgia.” – Robert Rauschenberg

Other rooms were full of paintings that, to me, lacked any sort of feeling, balance, or aesthetic merit. But someone else may see meaning in them, and that’s what ultimately matters.

What did I like? A lot, actually. I’m partial to modern sculptures because there’s something so physical and tactile about it – just the idea of 3D physical materials and space being twisted into the shape in someone’s imagination is something fascinating.

Walking through "The Matter of Time"

The first exhibit that drew me in as I entered was “The Matter of Time”, which may be Bilbao’s most famous exhibit after “Puppy”. It’s comprised of huge masses of iron and other materials, twisted into shapes such as spirals and waves. You can walk in, through, and around the sculptures, which are meant to distort and represent people’s experience of time. My friend Jorge says he feels like it takes longer to walk out of the spirals than it takes to reach their centers. As for myself, I found it oddly relaxing and timeless to walk around inside of them, with the soft and undulating patterns made by the natural corrugation of the metals running alongside me.

I also loved the Anish Kapoor exhibit, which took up an entire floor. Anish Kapoor is an Indian-British sculptor, and experiments with a huge number of materials and techniques in his work. One segment of his exhibit was filled with mirrors – I loved walking around there, although I wasn’t sure I pulled any deeper meaning from it than I would from a similar room at the carnival! Several other rooms were home to his experiments with colour as a physical thing which exists in three dimensions. He approached this from different angles, with one room housing sculptures made purely from powdery pigment, the result vaguely resembling bright cones of spice and incense. In another room, an enormous, slightly concave wall was painted bright yellow, which almost overwhelmed me as I approached it and played tricks with my understanding of the space.

"Shooting into the Corner" (not my picture)

In two of his works, Kapoor played with deep red wax (think, lipstick) – slowly spreading it across the floor in a circle in one room, and, in another, shooting canisters of it out of a cannon and into the corner. I felt as I had in the mirror room – that whether or not I could discern the work’s deeper meaning, it was wonderful to look at. I almost couldn’t take my eyes off the cannon exhibit, with the deep rich colour, the delicious textures, and the pseudo-sexual imagery so obvious even I picked up on it.

My favourite pieces by Kapoor, and maybe in the whole museum, were in a series he did exploring the ideas of darkness, the infinite, and addition by subtraction. One sculpture was a stone he had hollowed out and painted a deep black-blue inside – from most angles it looked as though there was a two dimensional plaque hung on the surface of the stone, instead of rectangular hole leading to the hollowed out center. There were also three huge concave disks, hung on the wall and painted with the same dark blue-black. It was dizzying, beautiful, and frightening to stand close to them and gaze into their centers, as if you were looking very far away, out into the universe, or into an inky pool of infinite nothingness.

On a simpler, more aesthetic level, I also enjoyed all of the outdoor exhibits – the giant spider, the balloon-like, reflective Tulips, the tower of spherical mirrors, and of course, the famous  and adorable “Puppy”!

/A Semester in the Basque Country of Spain

Tulips, by Jeff Koons