Thursday, 17 December 2015

the celts at the british museum

On Wednesday 9 December, on a day off, I went to the Celts: Art & Identity exhibition at the British Museum.

The most impressive thing was the intricacy, artistry and preservation of artefacts over two thousand years old in some cases. The heaps of stuff from hoards were impressive too.

The most striking thing was how many of the artefacts were from London. (I also liked the number which were indicated as having an unknown find location, which makes me think they've just been rattling around unlabelled in the British Museum storerooms for decades.)

The most interesting thing was that the basic thesis of the exhibition seemed to be that the Celts never existed, essentially. In the first phase - roughly from prehistory to the departure of the Romans from Britain - 'the Celts' were a group identified by the Greeks and Romans as being beyond their regions of control in various areas to the north, east and west; the only identifier which we seem to know these groups having in common is their art. In the second phase, 'the Celts' are various groups beyond the regions of control of Anglo-Saxon Britain, defined together by their related languages (in areas not previously identified as Celtic, and defined thus much later). In the third phase, the Celtic Renaissance from the 18th century onwards creates a literary and political 'Celtic world' which is largely mythical. Two phases of being 'savage other', then a phase of 'idealised other'.

One thing I did find odd was that in the panel on the modern renaissance of Celtic spirituality they did not mention the significant resurgence of interest in Celtic Christian spirituality, but instead took as the example the resurgence of druidism, which seems largely constructed and frivolous, of little more significance than people putting Jedi as their religion in the census.

They talked about - and demonstrated by artefacts - how the Celts absorbed other artistic influences into their art, like Roman and Viking. Which did make you think that perhaps in that first phase all the groups literally had in common was the art, learnt/absorbed from one another, and were linked in no other real way.

And of course the labels are full of 'may', 'perhaps', 'probably' and flat-out assertions that make you think, 'Really?'

I did wonder how the 'Celts never existed' approach was playing in non-England UK ('typical English idea'), but on the way out saw that one of the co-curators was from the National Museums Scotland.

Reviews from the first Google search page. They are well worth reading, actually, for a thoughtful range of accounts and perspectives of the objects and the text (I didn't link to the Daily Mail one which, peculiarly, just wrote about all the weapons). Telegraph. Guardian. Guardian again ('a great exhibition that achieves the opposite of what it intends. In wall texts and a richly detailed catalogue it sets out a sceptical approach to the ancient peoples of north-western Europe. Celts, we’re told, never called themselves Celts and modern constructions of a genetic and eternal Celtic identity – promoted by Scottish, Welsh and Irish nationalists – are as insubstantial as mist on a loch. ... In the end I just ignored the texts and succumbed to the art. The Celts may never have existed, but their art is amazing. ... I love this exhibition even though I am unconvinced by its thesis.'). Standard. FT (thinks the final 'revival' section is the strongest, unlike the previous reviews). London Review of Books ('A single ‘Celtic civilisation’ in a united Iron Age Europe never happened, and those tribes never thought of themselves as ‘Celts’. Their unity existed only in the minds of outsiders, Greeks and Romans who ‘othered’ them all together as un-Mediterranean. ... expressions like ‘Celtic nations’ and ‘Celtic Fringe’ are really English statements about England. Like Romans and Greeks, the English have had to invent a collective Other in order to recognise themselves. The truth is that Ireland and Scotland have long ceased to feel ‘peripheral’ to an imperial ‘core’. The main thing that those Atlantic nations and communities have in common is not Celticity. It’s their experience of English expansion.'). Spectator. Londonist. A couple of the reviews point up the lack of a written language in these groups, which contributes to their mystery.

And my mother reminded me that when she studied Celtic at Aberdeen University it was pronounced like the football team, 'Seltic'. By the time I was there it was 'Keltic', as it is now (and probably was then) everywhere.