Posts Tagged ‘british museum’

What do a fork, a model of a ship, and a priest’s right eye have in common?

No, they’re not props from a horror movie.

They’re all objects discussed in Neil MacGregor’s book, Shakespeare’s Restless World: A Portrait of an Era in Twenty Objects.

As readers of this blog know, I have a bit of a fascination with Shakespeare, so this book is right in my wheelhouse. The subtitle gave me a general idea of what I was getting, but what I didn’t expect was such a fascinating overview of  life in the late Elizabethan/early Jacobean periods.

Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, takes a disparate collection of 16th century objects–ranging from the everyday to the unique–and gives us a chapter on each one. Naturally, he describes each object, its history, its use, and its provenance, but this is all expected content. The lavish photos of the objects themselves (as well as related items) are clear, detailed, and beautiful, but each chapter really shines when MacGregor expands the discussion beyond the basics, showing us the social context of each item. Through MacGregor’s clean, unhurried prose, we learn what each object might have meant to the average groundling in the pit or noble in the tiers. An apprentice’s cap, for instance, looks simply like a cap to us, but if you were one of the Queen’s subjects on the streets of London in 1600, it would tell you of the wearer’s social standing, might remind you of the apprentice-led riots over food prices. Later, when you went to The Rose or The Curtain to see Coriolanus, and saw the cap-wearing citizens berating Menenius over the high cost of corn, you would remember those riots, and know that things might get very ugly, very quickly.

The list of objects MacGregor has chosen is, as I mentioned, varied. He discusses a fork used to eat sweetmeats in the same detail and depth as he does the model ship used as a token, built in thanks by James I for his safe passage home from abroad. Each object is inspected both as a thing from within Shakespeare’s world–i.e., as relates to his plays and the world of the theater–as well as within his world at large. In reading this book, I learned a great deal about the lives and the mindsets of Shakespeare’s patrons, high-born and low, but also expanded my understanding of the period and its conflicts.

This book was of great interest to me, as you might expect, but I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone interested in history, the history of objects, and the tumultuous, change-filled period of late Elizabethan/early Jacobean England.

Oh, and that priest’s right eye?

Get the book.



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My front doors are like the Elgin Marbles.

Our first trip to London, we planned a trip up to Bloomsbury to visit the British Museum. No surprise there, really, considering who we are (i.e., a couple of nerds). The day of our excursion, I was excited. All my life, I’d heard about the Elgin Marbles, one of the great statuary treasures of Ancient Greece, that resided at “The British.”

Problem was, I’d never read anything about them, didn’t know what they were, knew them only by reputation. I had imagined them to be this fantastic collection of free-standing figures–men, women, warriors, gods–all carved in glorious marble. I love sculpture, and looked forward to walking around them, taking them in from every angle.

When we got to The British, we spent time with the Egyptian collection, wandered past Assyrian masterworks, looked at a bazillion Grecian urns and craters. I was patient. I was saving the best for last.

We walked into the hall with the Elgin Marbles and my wife gasped in awe. I stood there, looking around. Where the hell were the Elgin Marbles? I even had the born-of-ignorance temerity to ask her. “Where the hell are the Elgin Marbles?” She pointed around the room. Right there. All around the room. On the walls.

You know, of course, as I now know also, that the Elgin Marbles are not a collection of free-standing statues. They are a collection of bas-reliefs, taken from the grounds of the Acropolis. They are the friezes that decorated the Parthenon, nearly 2500 years ago.

But at that moment, all I knew was this: they were not statues, not like the Nike or Venus in the Louvre. They were architectural pieces made to go up on a wall. They were not what I expected and then–idiot that I was–I compounded my stupidity and ignorance with a childish mistake: I pouted. It took a handful of years and another trip to London before I finally saw and enjoyed the Elgin Marbles for what they were.

My front doors are like that. (more…)

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