The Queen undertook one of her first public engagements since her private estate became caught up in the Paradise Papers leak, as she opened a refurbished gallery at the British Museum.
Wearing a Stewart Parvin magenta double-breasted cashmere coat and a red flower posy brooch, she toured the newly restored and renovated Sir Joseph Hotung Gallery of China and South Asia.
Chairman of the British Museum trustees, Sir Richard Lambert, said the first phase of the reopening, with the rest of the gallery set to be fully open to the public from December 14, was a “huge moment” for the museum and the “culmination of a lot of work”
It is a really important gallery for us because we get millions of visitors here every year from China and Asia – and it is beautiful,” he said.
On what it was like to show the Queen around the refurbished gallery, Sir Richard said it was “wonderful” and noted that she was “really interested in it”.
She loved the Silk Road display with the horse, and she spent a lot of time in the Ming display. What was thrilling was, she was really engaged and interested in the objects.”
It was 25 years ago, in 1992, when the Queen first unveiled the original gallery.
During her visit on Wednesday, the Queen, who is a keen rider and horse lover, could be seen marvelling at a couple of horse statues from the Tang Dynasty.
After being refurbished and revamped, the gallery now features new displays telling the stories of China and the South Asian countries of India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal from 5000 BC to the present day.
Sir Joseph Hotung, who donated money to help cover the cost of the renovation work, said the reopening of the gallery was “very exciting, very magnificent”.
During the visit he also showed the Queen around the jades gallery, which contains his personal collection currently on loan to the museum.
“That was a real treat, I didn’t think she would be that interested and spend that much time there. But she did, she walked along much further than I thought she would,” Sir Joseph said.
He said the Queen was impressed by a Neolithic jade pommel – a decorative item which is placed on the handle of a sword, and asked lots of pertinent questions about the items on display.
Before she left the engagement, the Queen also cut the ribbon on a marble oculus in the centre of the gallery, which carries a dedication to mark the date of its reopening.
She was left amused and slightly surprised after the sheet covering the raised hole between two floors, following a brief pause, was whipped away to reveal the gold leaf inscription.
Founded in 1753, the British Museum in central London was the first national public museum in the world.
The Queen’s engagement comes in the week which saw her private estate, the Duchy of Lancaster, become embroiled in the Paradise Papers leak.
The leak disclosed that the Duchy was reported to have had £10 million invested in offshore funds.
2017 marks the 70th anniversary of Indian independence, and the emergence of India and Pakistan as independent nation states and is also the India-UK Year of Culture. To celebrate this, the British Museum is presenting a season bringing together different activity in London and across the UK, celebrating the many cultures of South Asia.
As part of the season, British Museum objects will travel across the UK, including:
- a spotlight tour of an important sculpture of the elephant-headed god Ganesha
- a spotlight loan to UK venues themed on the music of courtly India
- an Object Journeys display at Manchester Museum
- the continuing development of the South Asia partnership gallery at Manchester Museum, a joint project with the British Museum
- a long-term loan to Greenway House in Devon
- a long-term loan to the Oriental Museum in Durham
The season continues at the British Museum from August, including a display in Room 3 of an important sculpture from the Buddhist monument at Amaravati in southern India, and a display in Room 90a of recently acquired 20th-century popular prints from India.
In November 2017, the British Museum’s Sir Joseph Hotung Gallery of China and South Asia (Room 33) will reopen to the public after a complete refurbishment and redisplay. The new display will include a new narrative for South Asia which will bring the story up to the present day. The redisplay will allow the Museum to add new types of objects to the gallery such as paintings and textiles which need regulated conditions for display. These will complement the existing types of objects on show, such as sculpture, ceramics and metal ware. Updated interpretation, new lighting and design will allow this extraordinarily rich collection to be better seen and understood.
Here are just a few of the British Museum objects from South Asia you can see across the UK this year.
Horniman Museum, 11 February – 23 April 2017
Brent Museum, 3 May – 28 August 2017
Manchester Museum, 2 September 2017 – 8 January 2018
Wardown Park Museum, Luton, 10 January – 29 April 2018
Ganesha, the elephant-headed god, is one of the most popular Hindu gods, and is celebrated across India and the world. At 119cm tall, this sculpture depicts many of his major attributes. Ganesha is a corpulent figure and is shown holding a bowl of his favourite sweets, while his vahana (mount) – a rat – crouches at the base of the lotus pedestal. His anklets are of snakes, as is the sacred thread wound across his chest. He stands in an arch of a typical Indian decorative type with a lion mask (‘kirttimukha‘) at the top and aquatic monsters (‘makara‘) at each end. Find out more about where Ganesha will be on display.
Object Journeys in Manchester
Manchester Museum’s Living Cultures Gallery, 3 February 2017 – late summer 2017
This folded bag was chosen by an inter-generational women’s group from the organisation Community on Solid Ground among other textiles, to be displayed alongside objects from the Manchester Museum collection. The group also responded creatively to these objects by making new versions of the objects to be shown alongside the historical artefacts. This folded bag is one of three textiles acquired in Sindh, Pakistan. Kutch, where this bag was made, and Sindh are famous for their richly embroidered designs often embellished with abla (small round mirrors). Women from tribal communities in these regions produce a range of garments, accessories and decorative textiles, including for religious purposes, for personal use and for sale. Many, including this envelope-shaped bag, are made from cotton cloth embroidered with silk thread. This style of bag is used to hold personal possessions.
Music of courtly India
Derby Museum and Art Gallery, 6 May – 25 June 2017
Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery, 30 June – 26 August 2017
These two objects will travel to Derby and Blackburn as part of the spotlight loan Music of courtly India. The folio is from an album of ragamala paintings, visual interpretations of poems which evoke the moods of classical Indian raga music. The paintings interweave three art forms which were frequently patronised at court: music, poetry and painting. The rare ivory sarinda (a four-stringed instrument) is covered in intricate carvings of angelic winged figures, flora, and beasts in combat. This magnificent object was also made in India for courtly patrons.
Pilgrimage in focus
The Asahi Shimbun Display in Room 3 at the British Museum, 10 August – 8 October 2017
This relief from the Great Shrine at Amaravati in southeast India will be the focus of a new display at the British Museum. The two-sided limestone relief features the Buddha as a symbolic empty throne on one side, carved in the 1st century BC. The reverse side features a Buddha standing in front of the shrine, carved in the 3rd century AD. The shrine at Amaravati was founded about 200 BC probably to house a relic of the Buddha. It was slowly abandoned sometime during the 14th century. In the 19th century a series of archaeological campaigns recovered the surviving sculptures that had been recycled for new buildings and temples. The British Museum houses more than 120 sculptures from Amaravati, which will go back on permanent display from November 2017, as part of the refurbishment of Rooms 33, 33a and 33b.
South Asia redisplayed in London
Room 33 at the British Museum, from November 2017
When the British Museum’s Sir Joseph Hotung Gallery of China and South Asia reopens in November 2017, one of the objects on display will be Shiva Nataraja, Lord of the Dance. This Hindu sculpture was produced in the Chola period in southern India and used as a processional image. Shiva is depicted crushing ignorance underfoot while ushering out one cycle of existence and dancing in a new one. Another important statue on display will be of the Buddhist goddess Tara. Made in Sri Lanka, the statue combines both the spiritual and sensual, and would have been used as a focal point for meditation on the qualities of Tara – mercy and compassion. Tara is no longer worshipped in Sri Lanka, but remains a popular deity in Nepal and Tibet.
70 years on from Indian independence, the South Asia season is the perfect opportunity to look again at some of the astonishing and beautiful objects in the Museum’s collection, celebrating South Asia’s vital and ongoing contribution to world history.