Visiting that little show in the Asa Briggs hall wasn’t the only pointer to the passage of time. I arrived in London in 1974, after a year of teaching English as a Foreign Language in Germany and France, thus missing the first of the great blockbuster exhibitions staged by the British Museum. That exhibition was, of course, Tutankhamun, and though I have since seen many of the artefacts in their native setting of the Nile and the Cairo Museum, I feel I missed out on the start of what has become an extraordinary tradition. On a trip back to Blighty in’73, I squeezed in The Jade Princess at the Royal Academy, but my real understanding of the word “blockbuster” came in Paris in 1975.
I was in my first grown-up job as a marketing junior with Avon Cosmetics and was despatched to Paris to take part in a pan-Europe new products’ brainstorming session, not because I had garnered the requisite experience in New Product Development (I barely knew how to run a filing system) but because I spoke French. The session ended at lunchtime. I skipped lunch, left my luggage in my inexpensive hotel on the Rue St Honoré, and went instead to an exhibition in the Grand Palais called L’or des Scythes, The Gold of the Scythians. The wealth and opulence of the artefacts was stunning, as was the evidence of a sophisticated semi-nomadic society about which even Russian experts knew very little at the time.
Societies which build in durable stone, like the Egyptian or Graeco-Roman civilisations, leave traces of their existence on the land itself. Those whose available materials are clay and wood are doomed to disappear, leaving only their personal and most prized possessions within their final burial places. Until the recent advent of satellite surveillance and mapping, research on the Scythians was restricted to the few burial mounds discovered, many of which had been raided over previous centuries. Now, since those early times of Peter the Great, much more has been discovered. Climate change has also contributed. The melting of Siberia’s perma-frost has exposed undesecrated Scythian sites, revealing mummified corpses, coffins, household artefacts to serve the deceased in the next life and even soft toys for the children. Experts have also learned that the Scythians roamed from the shores of the Black Sea to Siberia and Russia’s eastern coastline, a far greater area than had ever been dreamt of. They were, in many ways, the first nomadic super power…until the Mongols galloped onto the scene in the 14th century.
That exhibition stayed in my mind from that day. I had never seen so many beautiful items in one place, nor the evidence of such exquisite craftsmanship, nor the proof of their sophisticated social structures and family patterns. Although I was almost penniless, I bought the expensive catalogue and have it to this day. When the British Museum decided to stage their exhibition about the Scythians, visiting it became a “must-do” on my non-bucket list. Armed with my Paris catalogue, and with husband in tow, we set out. The display is beautifully presented and the use of digital simulation creates an impression of how they lived on those wind-blown Russian steppes, the topography of which has changed little over two and a half thousand years.
The British Museum exhibition is not as hugely extensive as that of the Grand Palais. In 1975, I reckon that the Hermitage just boxed up everything they had and sent it to Paris. It is however worth a visit and presents the most important pieces as beautifully as before. It is an eye-opener into the robustness of mankind and shows that, perhaps the reason for our survival as a dominant species is because of adaptability to climate and resources, and above all to an urge to create, to adorn, to treasure beautiful things and value the artists who create them.
Go and see it.