The British Museum has a couple of big exhibitions on at the moment, about China’s Ming dynasty and Germany.
The bigger one is undeniably Ming: 50 years that changed China, being held in the museum’s shiny new gallery. It did a solid job at contextualising what the Ming dynasty was and why 1400-1450 was so important (Beijing as the new capital, the Forbidden City, Zheng He, etc.) and the emperor’s involved, and while there were some very nice objects on display, it felt pretty antiseptic. The object that I heard the most people talking about was a lovely scroll depicting the Xuande emperor playing football, golf, and polo as part of military training exercises. You could’ve made a whole exhibition out of that…
Germany: memories of a nation doesn’t sound like the most gripping exhibition, and its subtitle “A 600-year history in objects” tellingly tries to link it to the museum’s superpowered “A History of the World in 100 Objects”. It also belies its lack of focus; the subtitle might as well have been “Some interesting stuff from Germany.” Yet it was interesting – hundreds of coins showing the Germany’s early fractured nature, interesting manufactures, Napoleon’s hat, modern artworks, wartime propaganda, and so on.
The gallery was packed full, which was rather uncomfortable given its tight confines (particularly compared to the vast spaces of the Ming exhibition). Initially, I was surprised – surely China is way more interesting and cool than Germany? – but then again, Germany is incredibly important to the UK. We feel like we know so much about it compared to other countries, perhaps because the history taught in schools is so obsessed with WW1 and WW2, but it turns out that the vast majority of people, myself included, really know very little about any part of Europe. And with Germany effectively powering the European Union, and with popular sentiment pitted so firmly against the EU, it’s hardly surprising at all that the exhibition would be popular.
So: more European exhibitions, please!