British Museum: I am Ashurbanipal, king of the world, king of Assyria.
A review by Klara Hegedus.
This exhibition highlights Ashurbanipal, who became King of Assyria, the largest empire in the world, in 669 BCE.
The themes of his reign are familiar. A fatal feud with a brother, espionage, war, fine artefacts and eventual collapse. It is also familiar as it left primary sources, details of scholarship, information flow and details of trade.
A Curator’s Commentary, lasting approximately 45 minutes, which discusses the content of the exhibition is available on iTunes for £2.99. There is also a detailed and comprehensive exhibition book [Editor’s Note: there are also Ashurbanipal socks, which I want for Christmas!]. This piece concentrates on the exhibition itself.
Museums need to make their content accessible and interesting to the modern visitor. They need to attract visitors and get them to return.
This exhibition is held in a spacious area within the Sainsbury Wing of the British Museum. There is plenty of space for large crowds and it is accessible to people with limited mobility.
The room has high ceilings and these allow plenty of space for the very large friezes that show stories of battles and campaigns, much in the style of the columns of Marcus Aurelius and Trajan. The carving is incredibly detailed and crisp. Details can be seen of the fabric of costumes, the muscles of men and animals and the fish in the rivers depicted in many of them. There is room to step back and take in the full extent of what is being looked at. In some areas there are benches so that people can sit and reflect.
The curation has included evidence of Ashurbanipal seeing himself as a scholar. His depictions on friezes show him with a stylus in his belt. Learning was important to him and one of the displays cites a letter he wrote extolling his own skills in this area. Clay tablets are included, which the exhibition states are in the king’s own writing, in Cuneiform.
There is an astounding display, almost floor to ceiling, showing clay tablets of contemporary writing. Ashurbanipal inherited a very large library and built it up further himself, with both reference books and epics such as that of Gilgamesh.
The exhibition uses projectors, which project colour onto the now plain tablets and give us an idea of what they originally looked like. This makes them seem real and more understandable. It is also attractive.
The most impressive exhibit is a huge frieze of the battle of Til-Tuba. This depicts, in incredible detail, the events of a war, the deaths that ensued and the terrible retribution inflicted by the victors. To allow enhanced understanding, surtitles of what is happening are displayed sequentially. When enough time has elapsed for the viewer to read them, the relevant carvings are “filled” with projected white light which highlights exactly where they are. There is also a soundtrack of appropriate sounds to meet each one. People were watching and then kept glancing up to see if the new surtitles were displayed yet. The exhibition manages to get across a sense of excitement to the viewer – the effect is almost like watching a film.
A large part of the exhibition consists of culture and trade information and this is accompanied by evocative, gentle music. Whilst helpful, the music is not crucial and a person with a hearing impairment would not lose vital information.
When Ashurbanipal died in around 631 BCE, the empire soon collapsed. Possibly, there were insufficient infrastructure and communications to make it governable when it grew beyond a certain point. There is silent video of dust-clouds, maybe from collapsed buildings, or maybe it is smoke from sacked towns, but this adds a further sensory detail and evokes the collapse of the empire.
As the visitor leaves, they walk through a separate corridor, where a video shows the damage that Daesh did to the site during recent years. After that, we see interviews of some of the current archaeologists, all female (in the video I saw) who are bravely and actively seeking to restore the site and museum that have been lost. They inspired and gave a sense of hope.
The final exhibit shows the work being done to piece together the fragments of tablets which still require work. The visitor is even encouraged to learn Cuneiform and take part in the next stage of archaeological development.
The exhibition was fascinating, relevant, surprising and inspiring. I thoroughly recommend it!
Klara Hegedus is a student on the Open University MA in Classical Studies.