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August 02 2012

London arts venues report mixed fortunes during Olympic Games

London 2012 Games causing low turnout at British Museum and West End theatres but National Theatre and BFI report boom

Despite the eerily deserted streets of central London, arts and entertainments bosses are reporting very mixed fortunes during the Olympic Games. Some have seen visitor numbers plunge since the Games started, such as the British Museum where visitor numbers are down by 25% and some West End theatres down by a third, but others including the National Theatre report business as good as last year, with near full houses every night.

Although box-office figures have not yet been compiled, anecdotally many venues report that business is picking up this week as Londoners realise there are bargains to be had, and that travel – after warnings of transport chaos initially scared people into staying home – has so far been easier than before the Olympics.

Terri Paddock, editor of the Whatsonstage website, said many of their posts are reporting empty streets, and theatres surviving by heavy discounting and last-minute sales. "I live in Lambeth, work in Tottenham Court Road and am walking through the West End throughout the day and evening. I can tell you personally that I have never seen it so quiet during my 20+ years living in London," she said.

The British Film Institute is on track for a record month, with the Batman film The Dark Knight Rises sold out for the next six weeks on their giant Imax screen, and at its South Bank cinemas spectacular advance sales for its season of every Hitchcock film. "We are forecast to exceed target for attendance during the month," a spokeswoman said.

However at the British Museum, normally a heaving mass of overseas visitors in August, visitor numbers are down 25% on July/August last year, and there are plenty of tickets available on the day for the major exhibition, Shakespeare: Staging the World – which was expected to be one of the blockbusters of this summer. "We know this is the general picture from speaking to other venues," a spokeswoman said. "We've very deliberately scheduled the Shakespeare exhibition to run on to 25 November, and we're expecting a very different picture after the Olympics and when the schools go back. It's actually a really nice time now to visit cultural attractions, without the usual crowds and it's so easy to get around in London."

In stark contrast, at the National Theatre it has been standing room only on many nights for all their shows, with the starriest, Simon Russell Beale in Timon of Athens – traditionally regarded as one of Shakespeare's least appealing plays – selling out for almost all shows, and 90% sold for all the Olympics dates. George Bernard Shaw's The Doctor's Dilemma is doing least well, but has still already sold 60% of available tickets for the same dates.

A spokeswoman said the bulk of ticket sales are to their regulars in London and the south-east, but sales to overseas visitors wandering in on the day are healthy too, and all the free activities in and around the building on the South Bank are very well attended.

The Society of London Theatres, representing 52 theatres mainly in the West End, said numbers are picking up this week, compared to last week when many had banks of empty seats to rival any of the Olympics venues. They also report that people are recognising there are bargains to be had: business is brisk at the TKTS discount ticket booth in Leicester Square, operated by the society. Ticket sales for the Kids Week promotion, now expanded to the whole month of August, which offers free or heavily discounted tickets to under-16s accompanied by a full paying adult, are well ahead of last year – 100,000 tickets have already been sold, compared to 70,000 for the whole promotion last year.

The Tate Modern gallery has been on a roll this summer, with massive publicity for its new Tanks underground space, a string of new exhibition openings, and many of the Festival 2012 events happening around it on the South Bank. However a spokeswoman said that although the place is still buzzing, ticket sales are down for the charging exhibitions. Further down on the opposite bank Tate Britain – not helped by its main restaurant closing until next year for renovations – has also seen a sharp drop in ticket sales.

At the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, which would normally expect 20,000 people a day at this time of year, and long queues outside the gates before opening time, staff say they are "still busy, but noticeably quieter". A spokeswoman added "it makes it a really fantastic time to visit". The Museum of London also reports visitor numbers well down, and suspects that their mainly family audience was put off by the warnings of transport problems.


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June 24 2011

All that heaven allows

Relics may be no more than fragments of tortured bodies, but to Anglo-Saxons they promised a glimpse of heaven and were enshrined in glorious works of art, as the British Museum's magnificent exhibition shows

In 1190, Hugh, Bishop of Lincoln, himself destined to be canonised one day, visited the abbey of Fécamp in Normandy, to venerate the monastery's greatest treasure, an arm bone of St Mary Magdalene. The relic was duly produced, sheathed in silk, but Hugh sliced open the wrapping, to see and kiss the bone. Then, to the mounting horror of the monks, he tried to break off a piece, and when that failed, gnawed at it, first with his incisor and then with his molar teeth, at last snapping off and pocketing two splinters. What he had done, he declared defiantly, had honoured the saint as Christians honour their Lord when they receive his body and blood in communion.

That notorious incident brings into focus some of the central themes of the British Museum's magnificent new exhibition. St Hugh's startling behaviour reflected these themes: the universal medieval belief that relics, the fragmented bodies of the saints, were charged with holiness and power, worth journeying great distances to see; the prestige which ownership of such relics brought (the Burgundian abbey of Vézelay was a rival claimant to Mary Magdalene's relics); ambiguity over whether the power of the relic could be tapped through its appearance – concealed in this instance by its silken cover – or by brute physical contact with its sanctified matter; the comparison between the holiness of the relics of the saints, and the holiness of the body and blood of Christ in the Mass; and finally the lengths to which some would go to secure even tiny fragments of the relic for their own church or community.

The cult of relics was already a thousand years old when Hugh staged his raid on the relic-house at Fécamp. In the earliest eyewitness martyrdom story, the account of the execution and cremation of Bishop Polycarp of Smyrna in AD156, the narrator tells how "we took up his bones, which are more valuable than precious stones and finer than refined gold, and laid them in a suitable place, where the Lord will permit us to gather . . . to celebrate the birthday of his martyrdom". The martyr's shrine and the remains of his shattered body were defiant affirmations of the central Christian belief, that defeat in the cause of Christ was in fact a transcendent victory. The body brutalised by torture and death would shine one day in glory, as Christ's risen body shone, and was already a channel of divine healing and consolation. Christians flocked to the graves of the martyrs, and treasured oil or water or cloth that had come into contact with their blood or bones.

The prestige of these shrines was so great that it seemed to threaten the institutional authority of the church and its bishops, but the problem was solved by moving the bodies of the martyrs under the cathedral altars. The charisma of the saint was thereby united to the power of the institution, the grave of the martyr identified with the tomb of Christ, relic and eucharist joined in a single overwhelming nexus of holiness. One of the most dramatic objects in the exhibition is a sixth-century marble altar, from Ravenna or Constantinople. On it, theatrically carved curtains are drawn back to reveal a central void, through which the faithful could have access to the relics of the saint in the shrine below.

As this suggests, initially it was the grave of martyrs that was the holy place (and later, the grave of any holy person). In the conservative west there was at first reluctance to divide holy bodies. When the Empress Constantina asked Pope Gregory the Great for the head of St Paul, he responded with horror stories of workmen struck dead for accidentally disturbing the apostle's rest, and sent her instead holy oil and "brandea", pieces of cloth, which had been in contact with the relics. But escalating demand made the division of the bodies of the saints necessary, and the dismemberment the saints had endured in their martyrdoms may have made it seem symbolically appropriate. The Fifth Council of Carthage required every altar to have relics "buried" within it, and as Christianity spread north and west, demand greatly exceeded supply. In the churches of Carolingian Europe and Anglo-Saxon England, the relics of the martyrs of the early Roman church were prized above all, symbols of Christian triumph over the still potent forces of paganism, and at the same time a coveted link to the glories of ancient Rome. One ninth-century Roman deacon, Deusdona, ran a lucrative international trade in holy bodies, ransacking the Roman catacombs for the bones of "saints" and sending them by mule-train to the kings, bishops and monasteries eager to acquire them. And those unable to procure a whole body had to settle for a skull, a rib or a finger bone.

Even inanimate objects could be relics, sanctified by contact with holy flesh and holy places, a belief reflected in the souvenirs – flasks of oil or water blessed by contact with the relics – sold at shrines. Inanimate relics ranged from the stones or earth of the Holy Land to the clothing or sandals of the apostles and martyrs. The Emperor Constantine made a bit for his horse from one of the nails of the crucifixion as a protection in battle; in the later middle ages, the kings of France gloried in their possession of Christ's crown of thorns. Several thorn reliquaries, complete with their holy thorns, are on display in the exhibition. The most poignant of them is not included in the catalogue: a small personal reliquary formerly owned by Mary Queen of Scots. The supreme relic of this kind was the wood of Christ's cross, allegedly discovered by the Empress Helena in the late 320s, fragments of which were prized all over medieval Christendom. The exhibition includes several, including the wonderfully enamelled cross-reliquary of the ninth-century Pope Paschal I, one of the many spectacular items on loan from the Vatican.

The enshrining of relics in precious materials was fundamental to the whole cult – ivory, silver, gold, coloured enamel, precious and semi-precious stones were used, even cameos and intaglios from pagan Rome or rock crystal perfume-bottles from the Islamic east. To the outward eye, relics might seem no more than the dust and residue of corruption, gruesome fragments of tortured flesh and broken bone. In God's eyes, however, and eventually, at the last day, in the eyes of all humanity, the reality was and would be otherwise. Relics were the seeds of transcendence, trophies and tokens of the imperishable glory in store for all whom Christ had redeemed. As the Victorian Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins put it, though flesh might fade, and "mortal trash / Fall to the residuary worm", on judgement day "In a flash, at a trumpet crash, / I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, and / This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond, / Is immortal diamond".

And so the lavish display of the reliquary was a glimpse of heaven: the concealment of the dust of death served to reveal a higher truth. Relics, like the bread and wine of the eucharist, sheltered mortal eyes from the bloody and cruel events which had occasioned them, and pointed to the glory those events had earned. That was why, till relatively late in the history of relics, no one seemed to mind if the reliquary hid the relics from sight. The British Museum staff have unpacked one such reliquary to display its contents – an exquisite 12th-century German portable altar, a foot or so square, made of porphyry bound in engraved and gilded copper, and decorated with ivory and rock crystal. On its underside are the names of the 40 or so saints whose relics it supposedly contains, among them the apostles Peter and Andrew, evangelists such as Matthew and John, deacons including Stephen and Lawrence, martyr-bishops Cornelius and Cyprian, bishops and monks such as Blaise and Benedict. In comparison, the relics themselves seem drab and inconsequential chips and scraps of bone and hair, each wrapped in a screw of cloth labelled with a vellum strip. Yet to the medieval believer, these were the real treasures, each tiny fragment a guarantee of the invisible presence of the saint from whose body it had been taken. The collection was more than a souvenir or a metaphor. It was a quasi-sacramental embodiment of the company of heavenly protectors, who would be revealed in their glory at the end of time.

The idea that relics embodied the church triumphant could be expressed visually, in reliquaries shaped like a miniature church, or in the reconstruction of church buildings themselves as elaborate settings for multiple relics, enabling pilgrims to progress round them, enacting the journey of the Christian life towards the heavenly Jerusalem. And if the possession of a great relic often gave medieval communities their status, their local identity and often even their name, the pilgrim routes that criss-crossed Europe and the Middle East transcended locality, to map and bind the Christian world together, in a common set of beliefs, hopes and practices.

If many reliquaries concealed their contents, others proclaimed them. From the 12th century onwards, "speaking reliquaries" proliferated, shaped to represent the relics they contained: head and bust relics to contain skulls, feet reliquaries for foot-bones or sandals, and perhaps most strikingly of all, arm relics, life-sized objects of silver and gold that brandished, beckoned or seemed to bless the pilgrim. In fact, not all such "speaking reliquaries" contained arm bones: some simply held assorted collections of relics, but their form powerfully represented the dynamism believed to reside in them, and could be used to dramatic effect in the liturgy and processions, manipulated to touch or bless. Arguably the most spectacular object in the exhibition is the 12th-century "speaking relic" that greets visitors as they ascend the entrance steps. It is a sensational life-sized gilded copper bust of the Auvergnaise St Baudime, whose raised left hand holds the base of a phial that once contained his blood, and whose magnificently curled and bearded head, with movable white and black eyes, may or may not once have contained his skull. The bust of St Baudime makes no attempt at realism – it is a transcendent expression of the saint's glory, not the likeness of a living man. By contrast, the 16th-century female bust-reliquary from the Netherlands that features on the publicity material for the exhibition is disconcertingly realistic, the product of an age when statues were beginning to displace relics as the commonest focus of pilgrimage. The saint's skull (still present) is concealed in a hinged compartment within the head, and a circular glass brooch between her breasts displayed the fragmentary relics of other saints. Here the reliquary is indeed "speaking", ringing the changes playfully, if not altogether comfortably, on realism and symbol, concealment and revelation.

This millennia-old Christian preoccupation with relics may at first sight strike a modern sensibility as unhealthy or bizarre. A moment's reflection, however, on the fascination with dismemberment and decay in the novels of Patricia Cornwell, or the Hannibal Lector movies, or a TV series such as Silent Witness, will suggest that there is something perennial in play here. But such modern embodiments seem unable or unwilling to look beyond the horror and finality of mortality, to any hope beyond extremity. The catalogue essay on "the afterlife of the reliquary" lists among modern parallels the work of the Italian avant garde artist Piero Manzoni, who in the 1960s carefully canned quantities of his own faeces, labelled them "Merda d'artista" and authenticated them like ecclesiastical relics with signature and date. Manzoni's point, we are told, was that admiration of the artist had supplanted devotion to the saints, and involved "the veneration of even the most abject remains of the holy man". Examples of this "highly successful ironic commentary" were, it seems, acquired "for many major collections round the world". Happily, none of Signor Manzoni's relics are on display at the British Museum. However, a society whose cognoscenti can spend public money on acquiring such productions could usefully learn a thing or two about human dignity, and human hope, from the men and women who commissioned and made and prayed before the objects in this glorious exhibition.

Treasures of Heaven is at the British Museum until 9 October.


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October 20 2010

The Book of the Dead: this autumn's major exhibition at the British Museum

Get a rare insight into the British Museum's latest exhibition, Journey through the afterlife: ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead. Join the exhibition's curator John H.Taylor on 13 November, for an exclusive breakfast, talk and visit to the exhibition

This year, the British Museum's major autumn exhibition will examine ancient Egyptian beliefs about life after death. Journey through the afterlife: ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, will showcase the rich textual and visual material from the British Museum's unparalleled collection of Book of the Dead papyri (you can view the Museum's video about the exhibition here).

The 'Book', used for over 1500 years between c. 1600 BC and 100 AD, is made up of a compilation of spells that gave the dead the information and power that would would guide them safely through the dangers of the hereafter and ultimately ensure eternal life. Because of the age and fragility of the papyri, they are very seldom on display so this is a rare opportunity to view them.

The exhibition will include the longest Book of the Dead in the world, the Greenfield Papyrus, which measures 37 metres in length and has never been shown publicly in its entirety before. You will also be able to see the famous paintings from the papyri of Ani and Hunefer, along with selected masterpieces on loan from major international collections. The exhibition will also feature a rich array of painted coffins, gilded masks, amulets, jewellery, tomb figurines and mummy trappings. Digital visualisation technology will provide new ways of accessing and understanding this key source in the history of religions.

Extra members are being invited to an exclusive breakfast at the Museum's famous Court Restaurant. This will be followed by a short talk by the exhibition's curator John H. Taylor and a visit to the exhibition.

The event will take place on Saturday 13 November and tickets cost £32.

Journey through the afterlife: ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, supported by BP, will run from 4 November 2010 – 6 March 2011. You can find out about becoming a member of the British Museum here.


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October 14 2010

Enjoy A History of the World in 100 objects at The British Museum

To mark the publication of the book, the British Museum is inviting Extra members to an exclusive breakfast at the museum. The meal will be followed by a tour of some of the 100 objects, led by curator JD Hill

A cooking pot, a golden galleon, a stone age tool, a credit card ... every object tells a story. This is a history of the world told through 100 objects we have we have made and left behind. It will take you on a journey back in time and across the globe, to see how we humans have shaped our world, and been shaped by it, over the past two million years.

To mark the publication of this extraordinary book, Penguin Books has joined forces with the British Museum to offer 25 Extra members the chance to enjoy a Prosecco breakfast at the British Museum's Great Court Restaurant, followed by a tour of selected A History of the World objects by lead curator JD Hill.

Tickets are limited to 25. The event will take place on Saturday 20 November at 9am. Extra members can book tickets for £25

You can pre order the book from the Guardian Bookshop here at the discounted price of £18.75. The book is available to buy from Thursday 28 October

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