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British Museum's tough message

Razia Iqbal | 17:45 UK time, Monday, 10 November 2008

babylon.jpgSince Neil MacGregor took the helm at the British Museum more than five years ago, he has become Britain's chief cultural ambassador. His mission: To take the museum to the world.

The institution already has one of the greatest collections of world artefacts on the planet, and to consider them collectively is to ponder on the whole achievement of humanity. So, when it joins forces with the Louvre in Paris, and the Pergamon in Berlin, you know you're in for a treat.

And so it is with Babylon: Myths and Realities. Focussing closely on the reign of Nebuchadnezzar (605 - 562 BC), it explores the truth of the stories of Babylon. When Nebuchadnezzar's ziggurat was the centre of the world, his empire stretched from Gaza in the west, to the Persian Gulf in the east, from Armenia in the north to the Arabian desert in the south.

The gems in the exhibition need close examination in order for them to shine, but it's worth the effort. This was the civilization which gave the world its first legal code; written language; weights and measures; the use of the number 60 to subdivide measurements of time and early examples of astrology.

And then, what hits you in the final room of the exhibition is the tragedy of what is happening in what is present-day Babylon, southern Iraq. The British Museum does not mince its words. It accuses the coalition troops who are serving there of having caused irreversible damage to what it describes as one of the world's most important archaeological sites.

The extent of this destruction is made public for the first time in the exhibition. After the fall of Saddam, many historic sites were looted by Iraqis, hunting for antiquities; Babylon was spared that fate, only to fall to a worse one, from which the Museum says it will never recover: Occupation by more than 2,000 soldiers.

It was the digging of long trenches for military purposes, levelling areas of the site, driving vehicles around it, establishing a helipad in one of the most famous sites of the ancient world that the Museum regards as scandalous.

The institution has been politically prescient in many of its shows, from the 2005 Persian exhibition to capturing the mood of terracotta diplomacy in its China blockbuster, The First Emperor. This exhibition is contained and detailed, but hits its target very hard.

[You can get a taste of the exhibition in our audio slideshow]


  • Comment number 1.

    Having (finally) gotten round to seeing the exhibition last week I came away feeling a little disappointed in it all. A small, crowded room with comparitively few actual contemporary artefacts. The majority of things on display were European post-renaissance prints and paintings showing later interpretations of the great culture. Actual Babylonian artefacts were predominantly clay tablets and little else. Important stuff, of course, but there are plenty of other (and more important) pieces upstairs in the museum proper.

    On the other hand the Shah 'Abbas exhibition was utterly fascinating.


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