Celts: Art and Identity – British Museum

Today I and a couple of colleagues explored the British Museum’s newly opened exhibition ‘Celts: Art and Identity.’ All of us walked away thinking it was a very well done and interesting exhibition, and all of us will very likely go again.

Throughout the exhibition there are interesting text panels, a good choice of colours and lighting, maps, illustrations, photographs, quotes from ancient texts, music, and a family trail. The exhibition also begins with a digital timeline which was quite evocative and well done (although it did create a bit of a bottle neck at the start of the exhibit). None of this is overwhelming, but contributes nicely to the overall exhibition. Of course, there are also all of the amazing artifacts. Admittedly, Celtic art is none of our fortes, but all of us were a bit in awe- a particular favourite was the beautiful Gundestrup Cauldron. This is an amazing piece of metalwork, with designs both on the outside and the inside, and the exhibit has two platforms to stand on to better see the inside details- great idea.  This was only one of many beautiful objects.

Another particularly interesting display was the Carnyx- a horn in the shape of a boar’s head, sounded during battle. The original was displayed alongside a complete replica, as well as a small figuring of a warrior with the horn, and there was also a small hand held headset that could be picked up to listen to what the horn sounded like. The combination of visual and audio, as well as the context of the other ‘warrior’ artifacts nearby really serves to put this object into its setting.

Overall the different time periods, and the sub-themes within really allowed a greater understanding of the art and identity and how it changed through time. This way of organizing the exhibition also allowed for the artifacts to be placed in a larger social political context- such as discussing the Roman influence in Britain and how that affected art and ways of life. This was perhaps particularly apt in the section about Celtic rediscovery and revival, in which ancient Celtic artifacts were displayed alongside the paintings and other works they had inspired.

Thinking about the exhibition as a whole, there are very few things I can think of to fault. We noticed that the statue at the beginning seemed to be missing one label, as a stand was there, but no label on it, and in a section explaining coin hoards and development of coinage, I found myself wondering about individual coins in the display case, but these are the only two, quite minor faults, I can find with the exhibition itself. Another point of contention that may be brought up, as it was often with Defining Beauty, is that so many objects from the permanent galleries are now in this temporary, paid exhibition. I noticed how many of the Celtic objects were missing from the upstairs gallery about a week ago, and wondered if some visitors to the museum might get upset.  In viewing this exhibition, however, I feel that this may be less of a problem. In comparison to Defining Beauty, this exhibition seems to provide more context for the artifacts, as well as many artifacts from other collections. While I personally liked Defining Beauty- after a year of discussing ancient art and then being able to compare the pieces we had talked about- a lot was left up to the visitor to know. Defining Beauty, in some ways, seemed maybe a bit superficial or slapdash in comparison to Celts. I personally got so much out of it because of a background knowledge I happen to possess. So perhaps the temporary removal of the Celtic objects from the permanent gallery is more justified in this case, since maybe there is more to gain?

Overall, I thought this was a great exhibition, and I would highly recommend it.

Plans to go see the exhibition? Have you seen it? What did you think? What about Defining Beauty?




2 thoughts on “Celts: Art and Identity – British Museum

    1. I think the last section does a bit of better job at investigating Celtic revival than the author suggests, although I do agree to some extent that the very last section seems a bit rushed- a few comics and necklaces scattered throughout a couple of display cases.

      As for the music, I had no issue, although I’m not relating to the music from any sort of cultural experience or connection, but largely as background, which I think is nice.

      Otherwise, after returning today, I think all of my initial reactions and observations still stand (although they did put in the missing label!), except that the exhibition was so crowded it was hard to look at objects or read labels at times.


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