Archive for the ‘Museums’ Category

Indian manuscript with zero symbol far older than realized

Monday, September 18th, 2017

Researchers have discovered that an ancient Indian manuscript is far older than previously realized and therefore contains the earliest known example of the symbol for zero as it is used today. The Bakhshali manuscript, written on 70 delicate leaves of birch bark, was discovered buried in a field near Peshawar in 1881. Indologist AFR Hoernle bought it from the farmer who found it and in 1902 gifted it to the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford where it is kept in the rare books collection.

Replete with Sanskrit numerals, including many instances of the small dot that is the ancestor of our zero, the manuscript is believed to have been written by Silk Road merchants practicing math rather than being a philosophical or scholarly work. Its age has long been subject to debate among scholars and the best guesses, based on factors like writing style and the mathematical concepts it convers, put it between the 8th and 12th century.

University researchers hoped radiocarbon testing would provide an absolute date and answer some of these long-standing questions. They were astounded when several of the pages turned out to date between 200 and 400 A.D. Before now, the zero dot on the wall of the Ganesh temple at the 9th century Gwalior Fort in Madhya Pradesh, India, was believed to be the oldest visual representation of the ancestor of the modern zero numeral. Researchers expected the Bakshali manuscript to date to around the same time as the depiction in the temple.

The zero symbol that we use today evolved from a dot that was used in ancient India and can be seen throughout the Bakhshali manuscript. The dot was originally used as a ‘placeholder’, meaning it was used to indicate orders of magnitude in a number system – for example, denoting 10s, 100s and 1000s.

In this close-up image of folio 16v, you can see the use of a dot as a placeholder in the bottom line. This dot evolved into the use of zero as a number in its own right. Photo courtesy Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.While the use of zero as a placeholder was seen in several different ancient cultures, such as among the ancient Mayans and Babylonians, the symbol in the Bakhshali manuscript is particularly significant for two reasons. Firstly, it is this dot that evolved to have a hollow centre and became the symbol that we use as zero today. Secondly, it was only in India that this zero developed into a number in its own right, hence creating the concept and the number zero that we understand today – this happened in 628 AD, just a few centuries after the Bakhshali manuscript was produced, when the Indian astronomer and mathematician Brahmagupta wrote a text called Brahmasphutasiddhanta, which is the first document to discuss zero as a number.

The reason for the confusion about its date is that the birch pages date to three different periods, hence the range of styles and arithmetic.

Marcus du Sautoy, Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford, said:

‘Today we take it for granted that the concept of zero is used across the globe and is a key building block of the digital world. But the creation of zero as a number in its own right, which evolved from the placeholder dot symbol found in the Bakhshali manuscript, was one of the greatest breakthroughs in the history of mathematics.

‘We now know that it was as early as the 3rd century that mathematicians in India planted the seed of the idea that would later become so fundamental to the modern world. The findings show how vibrant mathematics have been in the Indian sub-continent for centuries.’

The Bodleian will loan one folio from the Bakhshali manuscript to the Science Museum in London for its upcoming Illuminating India: 5000 Years of Science and Innovation exhibition. This is the first time any part of the manuscript has been loaned to another institution and a unique opportunity to see a seminal piece of mathematical history alongside other important of India’s contributions to the history of math, science and technology. It runs from October 4th, 2017, through March 31st, 2018.

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Met acquires splendid gilded Egyptian coffin

Thursday, September 14th, 2017

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has acquired an exceptional gilded cartonnage coffin from Late Ptolemaic Period Egypt. Cartonnage was made of layers of linen or papyrus plastered together to create a material that when wet could be molded into a desired shape and then dried into a hard shell. The hardened shell was then painted or gilded, more frequently the former than the latter. Cartonnage funerary masks and sarcophagi were used in Egypt from the First Intermediate Period (2181–2055 B.C.) well into the Roman era.

Molded into a mummiform shape, the coffin was made between 150 and 50 B.C. to hold the remains of one Nedjemankh. He was a priest of Heryshef, a fertility god depicted with the head of a ram, in Heracleopolis Magna. The city had been the cult center of Heryshef since the third millennium B.C. and the Ptolemies, keen to associate their Greek religious traditions with the ancient Egypt pantheon, declared Heryshaf the equivalent of Herakles and renamed the city to match.

The recently-acquired coffin is a spectacular example of a very high status cartonnage artifact, even unique in several ways. It is composed of layers ofa linen, gesso and resin and decorated with gold, silver and glass. The lid is covered with scenes of funerary spells and one long inscription referring to the gold and silver that are so prominently displayed in the coffin itself. Inside the lid is an image of the sky goddess Nut adorned with silver foil. The base of the coffin is decorated with a djed pillar, symbol of stability and the creator god Osiris.

Unique to this coffin are the thin sheets of silver foil on the interior of the lid, intended to protect Nedjemankh’s face. To the ancient Egyptians, the precious metals gold and silver symbolized several things. On a general level, they could represent the flesh and bones of the gods, or the sun and the moon; on a more specific level, they were identified with the eyes of the cosmic deity Heryshef, whom Nedjemankh served.

Even more remarkably, the long inscription on the front of the coffin’s lid explicitly connects gold and “fine gold” (electrum) to the flesh of the gods, the sun, and the rebirth of the deceased. The association of the inscription with the actual use of metals on the coffin is a rare — possibly unique — occurrence.

Perhaps even rarer than the beauty, condition and quality of the cartonnage coffin is that it was actually legally exported. No fraudulent “private Swiss collection,” no forged documents, no fake history ginned up by sellers seeking to justify a sudden appearance on the market in the 90s. Instead, there is a full ownership record and legal paperwork proving that it was exported from Egypt in 1971 with a license from the authorities. Believe it or not, it was bought by a real Swiss private collector from the shop of Cairo dealer Habib Tawadrus. (This is the first time I can recall seeing the Swiss private collector be an actual flesh-and-blood human instead of a convenient fiction to cover the widespread flouting of cultural patrimony laws in the antiquities trade.) The coffin has remained in the owner’s family until the Metropolitan bought it from them this year.

It is now on display in the Met’s Lila Acheson Wallace Galleries for Egyptian Art.

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Irma cannot defeat cats with opposable thumbs

Tuesday, September 12th, 2017

Ah, Internets, how I missed you. An outage of just over 24 hours had me in full white-knuckle withdrawal mode. I don’t know how the Harvey/Irma folks can stand it. Take, for instance, the staff of the Hemingway Home and Museum on Key West. Key West, like all of the Florida Keys, was smack in Irma’s path, and the Overseas Highway, its sole road linking it to the mainland, was sure to be underwater leaving Key West without means of resupply. Residents were ordered by the governor to evacuate the Keys. The National Weather Service minced no words, warning that “nowhere in the Florida Keys will be safe” from Irma. Governor Rick Scott minced even fewer words: “You will not survive.”

Hemingway Home and Museum, Key West, Florida. Photo courtesy Hemingway Home and Museum.One museum curator, 10 museums staffers and more than 50 cats were not persuaded. Curator of the Hemingway Home and Museum Dave Gonzales chose to stay in the historic property once inhabited by Ernest Hemingway and 10 staffers joined him. Perhaps even more beloved (and certainly better known) than the mere humans are the cats, most of them polydactyl, descended from the author’s original cats.

Hemingway loved cats and ended up with more than 50 of them. He had a great fondness for polydactyls which were considered good luck on board ships. It was a sea captain who gave Hemingway his first polydactyl, Snowball. Today the descendants of Snowball and his feline family live on the estate and have the run of the place, just as the cats did when Hemingway lived there. Most of them are neutered, with only a select few allowed to breed very rarely to ensure the population remains steady at around 50. Named after the greatest stars of pop culture, they are so famous and so popular that polydactyls, particularly those with little thumbs that make them look like they’re wearing boxing gloves, are commonly known as Hemingways. Half of the visitors to the Hemingway Home and Museum go there just to see the cats.

Nobel-prize winning novelist Ernest Hemingway’s home on Key West has many of his personal belongings on display from furniture to pens, and of course it has its greatest stars roaming the grounds, but it is a National Historic Landmark whose history long predates Hemingway’s residence. The white Spanish colonial mansion was built in 1851 by marine architect Asa Tift. A ship’s captain and salvage wrecker who was well-versed in the challenges of building on a small island that is almost entirely at sea level, Tift chose his site wisely. He picked the second highest point in Key West at 16 feet above sea level and then quarried its limestone. That provided his home with a deep, dry basement and a supply of 18-inch blocks carved from solid limestone with which to build it.

A family squabble kept the old Tift mansion boarded up and abandoned until Ernest Hemingway bought it in 1931 for $8,000. He lived in the home with his second wife Patricia and their two sons from 1931 until 1940. Those brief nine years were exceptionally prolific, the most productive of his life. He wrote 70% of his total output during those years, including To Have and Have Not, Death in the Afternoon and For Whom the Bell Tolls. He also paid a nosebleed-inducing $20,000 to have the first in-ground pool in Key West installed in 1938. Two years later and three years after he began his affair with Martha Gellhorn, Ernest moved to Cuba, got a divorce and got remarried to Gellhorn three weeks after it was finalized.

He kept the house until his death, although he never lived in it again. He died in 1961 and his widow (wife #4, Mary Welsh) sold it to Bernice Dickson who would transform it into a museum. In all this time, through the dozens (hundreds?) of hurricanes and crazy storms it has seen since 1851, the Hemingway Home has always held out against the elements. Its basement doesn’t flood. Its walls remain unbreached. That’s why Gonzales is so confident in the Hemingway Home’s capacity to weather even a monster hurricane like Irma. Only Solares Hill (18 feet above sea level) is at a higher elevation than the Hemingway estate, and its massive limestone construction and deep basement make it one of the safest places, if not the safest, on the island. It also has an array of generators for power and climate control. The ten employees who are joining Gonzales live at lower elevations on the island and have chosen to seek shelter behind those thick limestone blocks.

Besides, somebody has to take care of the cats. The staff helped round them all up and bring them indoors to safety. Father John Baker from St. Mary’s Star of the Sea Basilica (one of the oldest Catholic parishes in Florida and Pauline Hemingway’s parish when she lived at Hemingway Home) blessed the staff and cats.

Window and shutters nailed down under plywood, fully stocked with supplies, safe and dry in a basement that has never flooded, Gonzales, the staff and the cats stared Irma down. She was no match for them. From the Hemingway Home Cats Instagram page:

We are so extremely happy to announce that everyone, cats and staff, have weathered the storm and are only reporting trees down on property as far as damage goes. Communication with the Hurricane crew is incredibly limited and they currently do not have power, water, phones or internet. We do not have any photos to share at this time. Nicole was our only admin for the page that stayed on the hurricane crew. She will share when internet access is available. Please keep in mind that clean up is already underway and therefore we will not be posting anything more until normal communication services are available on the island. We appreciate the concern and well wishes.

Here’s a great tour of the Hemingway Home and Museum led by Dave Gonzales, whose handsome snowy beard may or may not be related to Hemingway’s iconic facial hair.

And here is an extremely badass cat with many toes ideally positioned for the pummelling of interlopers keeping Ernest Hemingway’s typewriter from harm.

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Rijksmuseum to delight Schiphol travelers even more than the duty-free cheeses

Friday, September 8th, 2017

The Rijksmuseum, ever the innovator in devising new ways for people to experience its incalculable cultural patrimony, opened a mini-branch at Schiphol airport. It was the first museum in the world to open in an airport. Now Rijksmuseum Schiphol is back again and better than ever in a newly refurbished space. The area just past security between Lounge 2 and 3, dubbed Holland Boulevard, has been converted into a museum showcasing some of the Netherlands’ greatest works of art.

The exhibition space was designed in an S-shape for ease of movement and travellers can enter it from two opposite sides. On display are 10 paintings from the Rijksmuseum collection. There are two pairs of exceptional portraits, landscapes with windmills enough to satisfy the most demanding of tourists, a floral still life that anyone who has played with the museum’s fantastic Rijkstudio gallery will recognize as the sample image on how to use the system, turbulent seascapes on canvas and on tile. Among the masters on display are Jan van Goyen, Willem van de Velde the Younger, Abraham Mignon and Michiel van Mierevelt.

For those last-minute “what did you bring me?” presents, there is also a gift shop with souvenirs from famous Dutch museums, including the Rijksmuseum. (They have some pretty great stuff, actually. I reverently clip my toenails into The Night Watch mini-tray my parents got me from the Rijksmuseum gift shop a few years ago.)

The new exhibition makes Schiphol the only airport in the world with original 17th century artworks on display in the terminal. If visitors can’t make it to Holland Boulevard, Schiphol will give them a little something cool to remember the Netherlands’ art by anyway. Starting on September 5th, the entire 73-meter facade of carousel 16 in Baggage Hall 3 was decorated with pictures of 45 iconic paintings by the likes of Rembrandt van Rijn, Jan Mostaert, Johannes Vermeer and Vincent van Gogh.

Rijksmuseum Schiphol is open 24 hours a day and admission is free. Travellers flying into or out of Amsterdam will be able to transmute the base metal of slogging through airports into the purest Dutch Golden Age.

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Record-breaking Triceratops fossil found in Denver

Sunday, September 3rd, 2017

On August 25th, a construction crew working on a new Public Safety Facility for police and fire services in Thornton, in the metropolitan area of Denver, Colorado, stumbled across the remains of one of the top 5 favorite dinosaurs of every child who just got his first dinosaur book: a Triceratops. Dan Wagner, a construction inspector with Terracon Consultants, made the first discovery. It was just a small piece of brownish bone but he wisely investigated further. He swept the area and found more of the bone embedded in the soil. When he had uncovered enough to see that this one bone was about four inches wide, he realized it had to be a dinosaur fossil.

A team of paleontologists and volunteers from the Denver Museum of Nature & Science (DMNS) excavated the fossil at the construction site. The excavation quickly yielded results. By August 29th, they’d unearthed a horn and a shoulder blade. The next day a second horn made its appearance, as did a piece of the frill, the lower jaw beak, a few ribs and vertebrae. As of September 1st, the bone count was up to 12.

The first bone to be fully excavated and removed from the site was a rib bone that weighs 40 pounds. Extrapolating from the size of the bones, Sertich estimates the Thornton Triceratops was rather petite, approximately the size of a rhino. Triceratops fossils discovered in Montana and North and South Dakota were notably larger than the Denver fellow, about the size of a medium elephant.

Because of its location on the K-Pg (Cretaceous–Paleogene) boundary — a thin geological stratum that marks the end of the Cretaceous Period and the beginning of the Paleogene Period — Denver sits atop a wealth of paleontological remains. There was a mass extinction event during this transition, one that took out all of the dinosaurs (except for the birdlike ones), so digging underneath the boundary in Denver can reveal a variety of fossils from the late Cretaceous, around 66 million years ago. Because Denver is so extensively built over, it’s not often that paleontologists have the opportunity to excavate below the boundary layer, and when they do, most of what they find are plant fossils; large animals like dinosaurs are rare finds in the Denver area. Dr. Sertich believes this Triceratops is one of the most important finds of the decade in Colorado.

“Based on what we’ve uncovered up to this point, this find is likely the most complete Cretaceous period skeleton ever found in this region,” said Joe Sertich, Denver Museum of Nature & Science curator of dinosaurs. “This is what we as curators dream about — getting a call about a possible fossil and confirming it’s not just a dinosaur fossil, but a record-breaking one!”

This wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for the conscientiousness and immediate response of the construction crew.

“I really have to credit the professionals working at the site that discovered the fossils,” Sertich said. “They knew they hit something important and started making calls right away. It’s an unusual circumstance that everyone will benefit from for years to come since we’re able to preserve these bones on behalf of the people of Thornton and Colorado.”

The excavation is ongoing even as construction continues at the secure site. When a bone is fully excavated, the team covers it in a plaster jacket so that it will be protected during transportation to the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. Once safely in the care of the museum’s the paleontology lab, the plaster is cracked open like a cast and study and conservation of the bone begins. The conservation lab is behind glass in the museum’s Prehistoric Journey exhibition, so visitors will be able to view the Triceratops fossils at various stages in the process.

Teachers, the museum will be hosting a two-way interactive webinar for classrooms grades 4-12 on Tuesday, 9:30 AM Mountain time. Registration and your basic desktop computer setup with internet access are required. Register here for a unique opportunity to hear about this exciting find from Joe Sertich himself, ask him questions and generally spend the early hour of the school day doing something awesome. The rest of us will have to make do with a Facebook Live update about the Thornton Triceratops on the DMNS page Tuesday at 9:30 AM.

This video has no commentary or background music or anything extraneous whatsoever. Only close views of the excavation accompanied by ambient sounds, not even explanatory interjections from the experts. This is so exceedingly rare I must take a moment to thanks the Denver Museum of Nature & Science for trusting in the raw material being fascinating to anyone who would watch videos like this in the first place. Keep your eyes peeled for a magical moment of whimsy starting at the 2:04 mark.

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Casanova seduces at the Kimbell

Saturday, September 2nd, 2017

The Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, has invited the roguiest of the rogues to use his legendary powers of seduction on its visitors. Casanova: The Seduction of Europe uses the life of Giacomo Casanova, adventurer, memoirist and lover extraordinaire, as the backbone of an exhibition on 18 century European fine and decorative arts. The biggest events of his life provide the chronological underpinning for the display of material culture from his time and society. More than 200 paintings, sculptures, piece of furniture, silver, porcelain boxes, metal objects, stylish period outfits and musical instruments from elegant palaces and salons of mid-18th century Europe.

Casanova is the perfect icon for the job because he so vividly documented the mores and manners of his era in his autobiography, and because he was so widely traveled. Born in Venice, the opulent, permissive city with its stunning lagoon setting and famously elegant masquerade balls, as a young boy he went to boarding school and university in Padua. For the rest of his life he would travel the continent, alternating between prison stays for debt and morals charges and a dizzying array of careers from priest to gambler to playwright.

The son of an actress and a dancer, a jailbird and avowed libertine, Giacomo Casanova’s ability to seduce was not limited to women of all ages, degree of consanguinity to him and stations of life. He seduced his way into the highest echelons of ancien regime. He was invited to join the secret societies so favored by the aristocracy and was the toast of imperial courts from Constantinople to Saint Petersburg. Casanova navigated with equal ease the dark, greasy back alleys of the underworld and the gilded Rococo parlours of the rich and titled, and he wrote about it all in frank detail.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard (French, 1732–1806) "The Seesaw," c. 1750–52. Oil on canvas, 47 1/4 x 37 1/4 in. (120 x 94.5	cm). Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.This is the first important exhibition outside of Europe to reconstruct the rich worlds Casanova inhabited. The cultural and political capitals of Europe — Venice, Paris, London, Russia — are all represented by the artworks and objects on display, as are the naughtier environments Casanova frequented — gambling halls, mistresses’ boudoirs, theaters. The exhibition is divided into four sections. Amorous Pursuits takes pole position, as any narrative centered on Casanova would have to, and it explores how the 18th century elite’s shifting attitudes towards sexuality were expressed in artworks by the likes of Tieopolo, Fragonard, Hogarth and Boucher.

The Theater of Identity focuses on depictions of the mask and theatrical pursuits, something Casanova was intimately familiar with as a Venetian, the neglected child of show business parents, and as an unparalleled master of self-invention, often crossing over into outright fraud. The Art of Luxury presents the decorative arts of the period, from silver tableware to a men’s three-piece suit of velvet embroidered with silver thread, the kind of thing Casanova might have worn during his more successful stretches.

The last section looks at The Adventure of Travel. Casanova by his own account clocked more than 40,000 miles in travel on crap roads and dangerous seas in slow conveyances. That was not a lifestyle for the faint of the heart in the 18th century. Some of the paintings on display depict the allure that might draw someone to risk life and limb on long journeys, idealized scenes of exotic beauties in foreign courts. One masterpiece, Canaletto’s Bacino di San Marco, captures the reality of Venice as a capital of international trade, its main harbour bristling with the masts of ships flying many different flags. Then there’s a whole other category of reality: a gilt, painted and silk upholstered sedan chair that must have once carried the posterior of an Italian noble to and fro, although probably not so much on the rough roads as inside and between palaces.

The exhibition runs at the Kimbell from August 27th through December 31, 2017. After it departs Texas, the show will move on to the Legion of Honor in San Francisco and then to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

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Museum acquires rare sufragette banner found in Leeds charity shop

Thursday, August 31st, 2017

The People’s History Museum (PHM) has acquired a very rare suffragette banner that was made in Manchester in the early 1900s and will now return to its native city again more than 80 years of exile in Leeds. Created by premiere Manchester banner maker Thomas Brown & Sons, the banner celebrates the founding of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) by Emmeline Pankhurst, one of the fiercest and most committed suffragette leaders, in her home at 62 Nelson Street, Manchester, in 1903. The date of its manufacture is not known, but the banner glows with the colors of the WSPU campaign: green signifying reform, white purity and purple dignity. The green, white and purple weren’t adopted as the WSPU’s official colors until 1908.

The WSPU marched and assembled under their banners, but unlike many of their sisthren in the cause, they took an explicitly militant stance. Sick of failed attempts to extend the franchise by ostensibly allied politicians, the WSPU took as their motto “deeds not words” and hit the streets. They tied themselves to railings, blew up mailboxes, went on hunger strikes when they were arrested and refused to eat even under threat of force-feeding. They made a very effective nuisance of themselves until World War I broke out in 1914 and the WSPU suspended all its activities.

As far as researchers have been able to determine, the banner was taken to Leeds in the 1930s by Edna White. It was sold to the charity shop after her death and this rare textile treasure remained in the shop, unrecognized and unappreciated, for 10 years. The charity shop put the banner up for auction on June 20th of this year where it was bought by a private collector.

The People’s History Museum, which has the largest collection of trade union and political banners in the world and a top notch textile conservation studio to ensure their long-term health, wasted no time. They reached out to the collector and agreed on a buying price for the banner. They then raised most of the money in grants from the Arts Council England/V&A Purchase Grant Fund and the Heritage Lottery Fund. With £5,000 still to go, the museum turned to crowdfunding. The Bring Manchester’s Suffragette Banner Home campaign was an almost instant success, meeting the original target in a week.

The PHM has added another £2,500 as a stretch goal to help fund interpretation of the newly acquired banner for its display in a 2018 exhibition celebrating the centenary of the passage of the Representation of the People Act which granted suffrage to all men 21 and older and women 30 and older. (Women 21 years of age and above were not enfranchised until 1928, a matter of a few weeks after Emmeline Pankhurst’s death.) The rest of the stretch money would go to getting the rest of the museum’s suffrage collections in top shape and creating learning resources and events associated with the exhibition. They’ve only raised a few hundred pounds of the stretch goal with just over two weeks to go.

Helen Antrobus, Programme & Events Officer at PHM, says…

“This is a truly spectacular piece, beautifully crafted and powerfully representative of its time. It is also an important part of the nation’s social history and we hope to find out more about Edna White and her suffragette story as part of this project’s research. The banner’s life began in Manchester and we’d like to continue its life by sharing its story with our visitors who travel across the region, nation and world to join us on a march through time that narrates Britain’s struggle for democracy.”

The campaign will ensure that the banner not only becomes a part of the People’s History Museum collection, but that plans are in place for its continued care and conservation by the museum’s specialist team.

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From the annals of people are terrible

Saturday, August 26th, 2017


On Friday, August 4th, visitors to the Prittlewell Priory Museum in Southend, Essex, did something so stupid and reckless it defies understanding. Parents of a young child lifted him over the barrier into a medieval sandstone sarcophagus, presumably to capture a precious memory of their cherub desecrating a funerary artifact. As anyone with two neurons to rub together could have predicted, the coffin was knocked off its stand. The impact cracked the fragile sandstone down the middle and took a chunk out of the floor of the coffin.

Museum staff discovered the damage later that day because in addition to being irresponsible numbskulls, the parents are also craven cowards who hightailed it out of the museum as quickly as their chicken legs could carry them without notifying anyone to the havoc they’d wreaked. Curators only found out what had happened by reviewing CCTV footage from security cameras.

“The care of our collections is of paramount importance to us and this isolated incident has been upsetting for the museums service, whose staff strive to protect Southend’s heritage within our historic sites,” said Claire Reed, the conservator responsible for repairing the sarcophagus.

“My priority is to carefully carry out the treatment needed to restore this significant artefact so it can continue to be part of the fascinating story of Prittlewell Priory.”[…]

The sandstone casket that was damaged is the last of its kind. “It’s a very important artefact and historically unique to us as we don’t have much archaeology from the priory,” said Reed.

Crack running down the side and base of the coffin. The new damage is the chunk missing from the bottom of the coffin. The missing piece on the edge is pre-existing damage. Photo courtesy Prittlewell Priory Museum.Conservators are currently assessing the damage, but at first glance they expect it should be able to be repaired without breaking the bank. The council thinks it might take fewer than £100 ($130). Suitable materials for restoring historical artifacts can be expensive, however, and then there’s the cost that will be incurred by creating a new display for the coffin when it goes back on display. For its own protection, it will have to be completely enclosed, so museum visitors will have to pay in distance and separation from the artifact for the carelessness of two idiots.

Founded in around 1110 A.D. by Robert FitzSuen as the Priory of St Mary, a cell of the Cluniac Priory of St Pancras in Lewes, Sussex, Prittlewell was a small monastery with fewer than 20 monks at any given time. Most of the medieval priory was destroyed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536. That and later construction is why archaeological material from the original priory is so sparse. Henry VIII granted the monastery, its lands and revenues to Thomas Audley, Lord Chancellor of England and Keeper of the Great Seal, who also scored a number of far larger and more valuable monastic estates in the wake of the Dissolution.

Prittlewell remained in private hands until the early 20th century. The Scratton family made the most pronounced mark on the estate in the Victorian era, extensively renovating, rebuilding and adding to what was left of the medieval monastery to create an impressive and livable country home. Having lived in the era before Poltergeist, they created a walled kitchen garden over what had been the monks’ burial ground. The inevitable hauntings ensued and visitors have reported seeing a ghostly monk wandering the halls of the former cloister.

In 1917 Prittlewell Priory, the buildings, the 22-acre property and six adjacent acres were bought from Captain Scratton by prosperous local jeweler and benefactor Robert Arthur Jones. He donated the whole kit and caboodle to the city of Southend with the explicit intent that it be turned into a multi-use public facility for the benefit of the people of Southend. Jones explained his reasoning at the time:

“I think it is a sin for a man to die rich, it is a great privilege to me to be able to do this, for I believe strongly in facilities for recreation. There will now be no need for such an out of the way and costly park as Belfairs. Prittlewell, with its historic and old-world associations, its beautiful trees and lakes, and its nearness to the centre of town, is an ideal place. Part of the building would be suitable for a museum, and there would also be refreshment room accommodation, while the grounds would provide facilities for cricket, football, tennis, hockey and other sports. I propose that the name of the park should be Priory Park”

In 1922 Prittlewell Priory opened as Southend’s first museum and Priory Park as its first public park. The damaged sarcophagus was unearthed near the former priory church in 1921 during the archaeological exploration of the site that accompanied its conversion into the museum and park. It contained a skeleton, likely the remains of senior monk because a stone coffin was an expensive object that would have been used for brothers of high rank.

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Stolen de Kooning found 32 years after theft

Tuesday, August 22nd, 2017

In a happy counterpoint to yesterday’s sad news, a painting by Willem de Kooning stolen from the University of Arizona Museum of Art in Tucson 32 years ago has been found and returned to the museum. Woman-Ochre was snatched November 29th, 1985, the day after Thanksgiving, in a classic two-person misdirection ploy. A woman and a man waltzed into the museum bright and early at 9:00AM. The woman ran interference with the security guard, capturing his attention while her partner cut the painting out of the frame. They quickly left together and that was the last anyone saw of them. The whole operation from entry to exit had taken less than 15 minutes.

The subsequent police investigation failed to find the culprits or the painting and for three decades the case was cold as ice. It turned burning hot earlier this month when David Van Auker, Buck Burns and Rick Johnson, owners of Manzanita Ridge Furniture & Antiques in Silver City, New Mexico, bought the painting at an estate sale. Van Auker saw it hanging behind the bedroom door at the home of Jerry and Rita Alter in Cliff, New Mexico, and decided to buy it along with a pile of other assorted gewgaws from the sale. He had no idea it was an original de Kooning; he just thought it was cool.

He propped the painting up against the wall of his shop and a customer told him it looked like a de Kooning. Then another customer noticed it and mentioned it could be a de Kooning oil painting. A third soon joined the chorus. Van Auker started getting antsy. Much Googling ensued, and when he read about the theft from the museum, he realized he very likely had a gazillion dollar stolen painting in his shop. He nervously moved it into the bathroom to keep it out of view of any more customers.

Van Auker called the UAMA and told them he thought he had their long-lost de Kooning. The next day the head of the museum, a curator and a restorer from the Arizona State Museum scrutinized the painting. The restorer examined it for two hours at the end of which she confirmed that it was authentic. After spending a night under lock and key at the local police station, Woman-Ochre was transported back to the museum in Tucson.

“This is a monumental moment for the museum,” said Meg Hagyard, director of UAMA. “We are thrilled at the possibility that this work could once again be on exhibit in our galleries. This is an especially poignant moment, as ‘Woman-Ochre’ was donated by Edward Joseph Gallagher Jr. as part of one of the largest gifts in the museum’s history. Having both the collection and that gift complete once again is something that we’ve always hoped for.

Woman-Ochre is one of a series of paintings de Kooning did exploring the female form, a subject that many critics and artists asserted had been superseded by abstract, non-representational art. While eschewing the traditional depictions of what he called “the idol, the Venus, the nude,” Kooning drew from a wide range of iconographic references — prehistoric mother goddess figurines, advertising models, pinup girls — to create abstract expressionist versions of figures out of thick lines and dynamic slashes of color.

Paintings in de Kooning’s Woman series today grace the walls of the world’s top museums, and on the rare occasions when they become available on the market, they sell for astronomical prices. Ten years ago one sold for $137.5 million. Bound by the terms of the Gallagher donation, the UAMA cannot sell the painting even if it wanted to, which it most emphatically does not, but based on the comparables, it could be worth something in the neighborhood of $160 million.

At the time of the theft, the painting was insured for $400,000, a risibly small sum compared to its market value today. The museum very wisely put the money in an endowment fund and used the interest to upgrade its security systems. Upon the painting’s return, the museum paid back the original $400,000 to the insurers so they again have clean title to the artwork.

The de Kooning is in need of some tender loving care. The edges are ripped from being hacked out of the original frame and whatever jackass reframed it stapled it to a board. The thieves also rolled it up for ease of transport, making the paint brittle in parts. Thankfully it has not begun to flake yet. Before the painting goes back on display, it will undergo thorough restoration and study. Meanwhile, the FBI is investigating how the stolen work wound up in the nice but humble three-bedroom home of a retired music teacher and a retired speech pathologist.

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400 Viking, Iron Age artifacts stolen from Bergen museum

Monday, August 21st, 2017

At least 400 Viking and Iron Age artifacts were stolen from the University Museum in Bergen, Norway, during the weekend of August 11-1. The burglars climbed scaffolding on the exterior of the museum’s building (currently undergoing renovation) and broke in through a 7th floor window. They ransacked the rooms where the objects were being kept in cabinets and on shelves, making off with hundreds of pieces.

Two alarms rang on the evening of Saturday, August 12th. Security guards investigated the building, but reported nothing untoward, which does not speak highly of their competence given the 7th floor was left in a total shambles by the burglars. The theft was discovered on Monday by museum staff.

The museum acknowledges that the artifacts were insufficiently secured. In a painful irony, they were scheduled to be moved to a more secure location on August 14th, that same Monday when the theft was discovered.

Conservators are still tallying up the stolen artifacts. Most of the more than 400 that have been identified so far date to the Iron Age (500 B.C.-1030 A.D.) and the Viking period (800-1030 A.D.). They are small, portable objects, primarily jewelry of negligible monetary value, nor is there any particular value in the metals they’re composed of. It’s their historical value that matters, and the thieves are unlikely to be able to cash in on that.

To the museum, however, the loss is devastating.

“For us as a museum it is to take care of the cultural heritage our most important task. We have not met our requirements. It is incomprehensible and no explanations are good enough. The items that are gone do not have so much economic value, but very high historical value. We can now only hope that the lost is coming back and we can work purposefully to prevent the like from happening again. But I feel heavy,” says the museum director [Henrik von Achen].

All safety systems have been reviewed, the scaffolding and building secured, but closing the barn door after the horses have fled is little consolation to the museum staff. Many of the objects were going to be on display in an upcoming Viking exhibition scheduled for later this year. Unless the artifacts are recovered quickly, the exhibition will probably have to be postponed, perhaps indefinitely.

Norwegian police are actively investigating the theft, working with their counterparts in other countries in the hope of catching the thieves in the attempt to smuggle or sell the artifacts. The University Museum staff aren’t sitting on their hands waiting for the police to solve the crime. They are enlisting the power of social media to get the word out. As conservators work to inventory the stolen objects, images of the artifacts are being uploaded to a dedicated Facebook page. The museum asks that the photo album be shared as widely as possible and that people keep their eyes peeled for any pieces that might crop up on auction and sale sites that don’t monitor whether sellers have legitimate title to the items being sold. The more widely seen the artifacts are, the harder it will be for the thieves to unload them under the radar.


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