With this exhibition, the BM has redis- covered relevance.
Some readers may find this claim baffling. Many will happily have assumed that, since its opening on January 15, 1759, the BM has always possessed relevance. A fabulous collection of telling artefacts from around the world needs no apologies: the BM exists to show off what it owns, and that is enough. In truth, owning this much of other people’s heritage is a problematic responsibility. And the fabulous collection of telling artefacts has been roped into an inglorious sequence of cultural positions.
Much of the BM’s collecting history is, quite simply, scandalous. The place is packed with war booty and colonial confiscations. Although the original 18th-century ambitions for the museum were noble enough, the terrible impulse to collect inevitably became an end in itself, as it always does. Unforgivable quantities of the BM’s holdings have spent most of their acquisition history in the stores. The BM will never admit that it owns too much. It couldn’t face up to the guilt. But it owns too much. And never once in the 30 years that I have been going there have I managed to avoid the feeling that I am in an institution overwhelmed by its contents.
And so, to go back to our beginning, in a postcolonial world, whither the British Museum? Now that it can no longer plunder the rest of the globe for stuff, what can it do? The answer, it turns out, is simple. The BM can regain relevance by re-examining the past in order to better understand the present. So much of the global conflict currently unfolding across the map is unfolding in places that might be described as prime BM terrain — Darfur, Yemen, Ossetia, ancient lands with complex cultural histories that most of us know nothing about. Inside the British Museum, proper scholars are at work who can bring true understanding to these distant geographies. We should beat a path to their door. Whenever was the need to know more about prime BM terrain — Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine — more desperately pertinent than today? What could be more relevant than an exhibition that seeks to understand the cultural history of Sudan? Every night, we sit before the television and collectively weep at the deepening tragedy in Darfur. Some of us have learnt a new word from the broadcasts, and are now reasonably confident about dropping “Janjaweed” into our conversations.
But beyond the fact that great violence has taken place, and immense sorrow and disruption have resulted, what do we really understand of these wicked socioreligious unfoldings on the Saharan edges? Why did it come about? What are the roots? How far back does it go? The British Museum isn’t good, yet, at making faraway places come alive. And it has not yet worked out an effective balance between the dry archeological-display ambitions of its curators and the moist viewing appetites of today’s museumgoer. Going to see Sudan: Ancient Treasures involves much dutiful trudging through the terracotta, and lots of paying attention. This is a tough show. But it tells a fascinating tale.
Sudan is the largest country in Africa. The name Sudan comes from the Arabic “bilad al-sudan”, which means “ land of the blacks”. Yet for most of its busy ancient history, the land of the blacks is precisely what Sudan has not been allowed to be.
Connecting the Mediterranean world on its northern borders with the heart of Africa on its southern ones, Sudan is one of those interstitial nations that aggressors from both ends keep trying to invade. Usually, they needed first to beat the indigenous Nubians in battle, a task beyond the Islamic hordes for almost a millennium. When Islam finally conquered Sudan, it did so through trade and infiltration, rather than the British way: by going in there with Kitchener at the head of an army and just claiming the place.
The Nile runs through Sudan from south to north. There is gold in the flanking wadies. So, somewhat inevitably, the neighbours who put the greatest recurring effort into conquering these regions, and whose artistic presence is strongest in this show, were the Egyptians. From the spectacular desert photography dotted about the display, it is obvious that a fine selection of Egyptianate architecture remains in Sudan. Among the actual things on view, a standout object, for me, was a great sandstone bark stand, carved elegantly on all four sides with ibis-headed gods and elusive bands of hieroglyphs. It is the work of Sudanese Kushites and not the invading Egyptians. But what excellent imitation.
While many of the most beautiful objects are utterly Egyptian in presence, it was more interesting to discover which other cultures have been through here. There are intriguing Roman fragments on display. And depictions of the notoriously louche followers of Dionysus, the grape-loving Greek god of come-what-may fertility. But for 1,000 years, Sudan was actually and surprisingly Christian.
The show contains an entirely unlikely 8th-century wall painting of a beardless Nubian Christ trapping a snake beneath his feet. And another of a Nubian madonna and child. There are also medieval goblets and paten plates that, in Europe, might have been made of gold and silver, but are here fashioned, like so much else, from the warm red clays of Sudan. What touching objects.
The Islamic conquest of Sudan was achieved initially by merchants. Yes, there was gold to lust after, but the most profit-able national commodity was people. Arab slave traffickers would raid the southern borders of Sudan and maintain a vigorous trade in negroes: hence the “land of the blacks”. Indeed, the last known slave- raiding mission to enter Sudan took place in 1927. The exhibition does not touch on this pertinent later history. Most of the exhibits have been lent by the Sudan National Museum in Khartoum, and in the circumstances, it would be disastrously undiplomatic to examine the roots of the current civil war.
So let me finish the story instead. The descendants of the black slaves captured by the Arab traders turned into the fiercest of the Islamic warriors, as converts sometimes do. These days, they rule Sudan. The descendants of the slave traders’ potential prey remain the poor, abused, raped people of Darfur, whom the Janjaweed militias are currently attempting to cleanse ethnically. Because the hardest thing to be in the land of the blacks is black.