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Celts – Art & Identity – a major exhibition at the British Museum

September 24th, 2015
The Atrium of the British Museum

The Atrium of the British Museum

A major new exhibition has opened today at the British Museum – Celts: Art & Identity. Drop everything and go because it is fantastic!

Curator Julia Farley & John Kenny, carnyx player

Curator Julia Farley & John Kenny, carnyx player

Stephanie and I were at the launch party two nights ago. In the great atrium in the centre of the museum, the crowd that had gathered was stunned into silence as the sound of the Carnyx, the Celtic battle-trumpet, summoned us to one side of the great hall. The atrium’s acoustics made the war-cry echo eerily, as John Kenny, the world’s only professional carynx player, walked slowly forward as he played.

The director of the museum and then Jeremy Paxman introduced the evening and the exhibition itself. Paxman was on form – being a skeptic by trade he couldn’t help taking a pot-shot at contemporary Druids who had waylaid him at a stone circle one May 1st, when he was obviously hoping he could worship quietly without being disturbed. ‘Happy Beltane’ shouted these ‘drunken druids in white sheets’. Well, some of us are our own worst enemies – some robes do look like (and probably are) made of bed sheets, and some are too fond of the mead.

His speech soon over, I resisted the temptation to wish him a Happy Autumn Equinox (I wonder if the BM decided to launch deliberately on this auspicious day?) because something more interesting beckoned: the exhibition itself. Julia Farley, who has spent the last year working with colleagues on this project, offered to take us round and we entered the gallery. I won’t tell you what you’ll find there, because I think it’s best to be surprised, but you should know that you’ll see the Gundestrup cauldron up close, together with the most extraordinary sword, hirlas horn and banner of the Welsh Eisteddfod. Just for these alone a visit will be more than worthwhile.
Incidentally, you can read Julia Farley’s Mt Haemus paper here, and listen to an interview with her here.

As someone who lost a book contract because I dared to mention the problems inherent in the use of the term Celtic, I am very aware of how courageous this exhibition is. The challenge is to both honour and respect those things which have come to be termed Celtic, while at the same time recognizing the problematic nature of the term itself. The Telegraph’s reviewer Mark Hudson is obviously unaware of the depth of the problem, when he writes: ‘[The]opening salvo makes the heart sink: “The name Celt has often been used to articulate cultural difference and distinctiveness.” Yes, that does sound like an extract from some cringe-making, politically correct policy document. But don’t cancel your booking quite yet. The curators’ aim of exploring “how Welsh, Scottish and Irish identities came to be given the name Celtic and their relationship to a wider European story” may sound more suitable to a PhD thesis than a blockbusting exhibition, but the show soon settles into doing the thing most visitors will want and which the British Museum has always done very well: bringing together a stunning array of ancient artefacts.” (read more) The fact is that this issue is politically and emotionally sensitive for many people and to unpack it takes time. To create the succinct paragraphs that are needed for museum displays that are  accurate and yet still challenge beliefs, while respecting sensitivities, is enormously difficult and the curators have done an excellent job. There is none of the ‘fudging’ of the term’s problematic nature which is an approach often taken, perhaps out of sheer frustration at the intricacies of the problem.

The Telegraph’s reviewer loved the exhibition, though, and so did the Spectator’s. As Martin Gayford writes: ” ‘Celtic’ is a word heavily charged with meanings. It refers, among other phenomena, to a football club, a group of languages, a temperament, a style of art and a fringe, once the stronghold of the Liberal Democrats. But who are — and were — the Celts? The curators of the new British Museum exhibition are not at all sure, and that’s one of the reasons why the result is so enthralling.
There is a familiar answer to this question: the Celts were an ancient people who moved into Europe from the east in prehistoric times and occupied most areas north and east of the Alps, together with northern Italy and much of the Balkans. They spoke a kindred group of languages and created a style of art that continued to evolve from the 5th century BC into the Middle Ages. This luxuriantly decorative idiom, full of elegantly looping lines and densely knotted decoration, inspired the Romantics of the 19th-century Celtic revival, including Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Frances and Margaret Macdonald, and ended up as a distinctive Scottish variety of art nouveau.
The trouble with this story, according to the accompanying book, is that a lot of it — apart from the revival part — is oversimplified, dubious and just wrong, and generally worked out by looking backwards at the distant past. ‘The idea of Celtic art,’ the authors point out, ‘was a Victorian creation.’ A good look at the Gundestrup cauldron brings out the complexities of the situation.” (read more)

The Guardian’s reviewer romantically chooses to ignore the problem, writing in a piece entitled ‘An Unintended Resurrection’: “The Celts – Art and Identity is a great exhibition that achieves the opposite of what it intends. In wall texts and a richly detailed catalogue it sets out a sceptical approach to the ancient peoples of north-western Europe. Celts, we’re told, never called themselves Celts and modern constructions of a genetic and eternal Celtic identity – promoted by Scottish, Welsh and Irish nationalists – are as insubstantial as mist on a loch. Yet I have never seen such a stupendous display of Celtic art.” Jonathan Jones ends his review by saying: “I love this exhibition even though I am unconvinced by its thesis. It comes to bury the Celts but ends up resurrecting them, in all their misty splendour.” (read more)

Well of course the exhibition wasn’t intended to ‘bury the Celts’ at all, but never mind – he was carried away by the displays as was punk rock musician and lover of stone circles, Julian Cope, who shall have the last word: “I say bravo to this exhibition, which dares to address so many problematic Celtic concepts. Such generosity allows those peoples from far outside the Celtic world – the Americans, the Australians, even the Japanese – to share in its archaic psyche… As curators Julia Farley and Rosie Weetch guide me through the Celtic high crosses and carved standing stones, they describe how the show is a glorious opportunity to turn the general public’s preconceptions upside down and inside out… [They]are refreshingly defiant in defining the Celt as inclusively as possible – at pains throughout to provide maps and more maps of the Celtic worldview as its truth has migrated down the centuries. We moderns may too-often suffer from a mixing up of historical sequences, but better that, surely, than risk raising a population that is entirely not-arsed about its past. The proliferation of armchair archaeologists across the UK attests to the continued fascination that the ways of our ancestors invoke in so many of us. By keeping steadfastly to their inclusive vision of all things Celt, Farley and Weetch are helping to instil in future generations the kind of open-mindedness that has enabled our democracy to thrive.” (read more)

The exhibition runs until 31 January 2016. Here’s a 30 second plug of it (with ‘behind the scenes’ if you stay watching):

And if you’ve never heard the carnyx, here’s John Kenny on it:

2 Responses to “Celts – Art & Identity – a major exhibition at the British Museum”

  1. what a wonderfull article, I would love to visit it. It would be lovely to go with some OBODIES alltogether and have a swell time gazing at these marvels.
    love Mimsy

  2. Loved hearing the carnyxx; the exhibit looks to be a must see. Thank you for the post and the information. (spell corrector required two x’s in carnyxx not to change the word).

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