Pilgrimage to the British Museum? Don't Bother.

Sydney Smirke's (1797-1877) design for the Round Reading Room of the British Museum made it one of the architectural landmarks of the world. Readers' tickets have been held by Marx, Lenin (who used the name Jacob Richter on his library card), Bram Stoker (of "Dracula" notoriety) and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle - and me.

Since the British Library split and moved away in 1973, the glorious space has been redundant. But it has recently been used as an exhibition space for:

·      The First Emperor: China's Terracotta Army 13 September 2007 - 6 April 2008

  • Hadrian: Empire and Conflict 24 July- 27 October 2008
  • Shah 'Abbas: The Remaking of Iran 19 February - 14 June
  •  Moctezuma: Aztec Ruler 24 September 2009 -24 January 2010
  • Fra Angelico to Leonardo: Italian Renaissance Drawings
    22 April - 25 July 2010
  • Journey through the afterlife: ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead 4 November 2010 - 6 March 2011
  • Treasures of Heaven: saints, relics and devotion in medieval Europe 23 June - 9 October 2011

And from the 26th January to 15th April, it is home to Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam


19th-C  Egyptian mahmal, ceremonial palanquin, symbol of the sultan's authority over the holy places (Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art)

I have seen, wondered at, and reviewed - enthusiastically - all the previous items in this list, with the slight exception of the relics show last year. (I felt a little skeptical about the organisers' silence about the magical aspects of these religious objects, which were logically on a par with those venerated or used by, say, followers of voodoo. Curators have no difficulty using the word "superstition" if the makers and worshippers of the objects are black. Doesn't this also apply to white Christians who believe in the efficacy of splinters of the True Cross and the virtue of ancient fragments of bone?) 

So there are some of my cards on the table already: I am made uneasy by the uncritical presentation of religious belief. In "Treasures of Heaven" I was able to see through to the beauty and craftsmanship of most of the many objects on display, without being made nervous by the nature what was ostensibly inside some of them.

But that attitude is not possible to assume with the current BM show, which is shoddy, even tacky in its installation (with some information plaques looking like signage in a pound-, or dime-store), unbeautiful, unscholarly, and in some ways no better than propaganda for the current Saudi régime. In fact, I am a little shocked that the BM agreed to mount this exhibition and lend its name and reputation to what is a pretty creepy enterprise. (I except from these strictures the book of the show, same title, £25, with excellent essays by Hugh Kennedy and Robert Irwin.)

It is a wholesale endorsement of the Muslim pilgrimage, the Hadjj, one of the five pillars of Islam.  Unlike the book that accompanies the show (but is not a catalogue of it), it doesn't seem to contain a word of criticism about any aspect of the Hadjj. Its sole concession to the physical dangers of having so many people in such a small piece of Saudi real estate at the same time is to mention the troubles of 1865, when Indian pilgrims seem to have transmitted cholera to Europe and the US, resulting in Thomas Cook becoming agents for the Hadjj for a year in 1866-7.

Overcrowding is a trivial issue. But overlooking the Sunni-Shi'a schism is serious. I came away from this show thinking that Islamic sectarianism is (and almost always has been) set aside completely by all pilgrims making the Hadjj. Indeed, the show's curator, Venetia Porter, told me explicitly that this is so - that both Shi'a and Sunni pilgrims perform the same rituals, and that their differences are suspended when making the Hadjj. Of course (you learn from the book, which she edited) this isn't quite true, as there have been times in history when the rulers of one of the sects (or political factions, indeed) banned members of others from making the Hadjj; and you only have to look at the internet to learn that such a ban is rumoured (untruly) every year. The exhibition glosses over the differences within Islam, and it does this on purpose, as it explicitly endorses, and is endorsed by, arms of the Saudi government and tourist authorities. The Saudis are thanked frequently and copiously in parts of the exhibition, not only for their support for the show, but for their contribution to making the Hadjj safer and less uncomfortable for participants.

Worse, sparse though the exhibits are, the information supplied is not good or plentiful. You have to peer closely at some of the wall captions to learn the date of the object on which it comments. Perhaps this is because a good deal of what is displayed is recent or even new. There is not much "art" included anyway - most of it illuminated manuscript pages, a few ceramic tiles, some porcelain and several textiles - and not all of the first rank. Even the exhibition design is poor. Given that one physical setting of the Hajj is an arena with the Ka'ba - a black monolithic-looking building supposedly rebuilt by Abraham and Ishmael - which pilgrims circle seven times, you would have thought the circular Reading Room was the ideal venue for this show. Though there is half a black rectangular-solid structure in its middle, the design singularly fails to cash in on the idea of circumambulation.

So what about the Hadjj itself? I speak from the vantage point of one of Sir Jonathan Miller's pious atheists, but this exhibition does no favours to Islam. Hadjj is required of any believer who has the means and opportunity to go to Mecca at the appropriate time of year. In fact, everything from the size of the 49 pebbles used to stone the pillars representing the devil to the seamlessness of the two white male garments is ritually prescribed in detail. Even today the pilgrimage is costly, arduous, uncomfortable and occasionally dangerous. Pilgrims undertake it, if not solely, then chiefly because of the promised reward of Paradise for doing so. If so many millions find it so easy to believe in Paradise gained by following sometimes physically gruelling rituals that have grisly aspects including animal sacrifice, is it not easy to understand why a few hundred of them might regard favourably killing people they see as enemies? Mightn't it be easy to persuade such people that assassination can be a shortcut to Paradise?

The best thing about this exhibition is the large amount of new work collected or commissioned for it from living artists. I'm afraid, though, the experience of seeing this mess is best summed-up in its final vitrine, a showcase of up-to-the-minute souvenir tat of the Hadjj.  I'd recommend staying at home and reading The Satanic Verses. Should this great international institution, the British Museum, really be hosting this feel-good exhibition? 

January 26, 2012 4:57 PM | | Comments (0)

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This page contains a single entry by Plain English published on January 26, 2012 4:57 PM.

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