Azara Blog: British Museum has the First Emperor exhibition

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Date published: 2007/09/24

The British Museum has the London mega-exhibition of the autumn season, "The First Emperor: China's Terracotta Army", on until 6 April 2008. Well over 100000 tickets were sold even before the exhibition opened. And you get what you expect with these mega-exhibitions: ten minute timed entry and over crowded viewing. The catalogue is worth buying, as usual.

The first half of the exhibition is approximately linear and as a result had the worst of the queuing. And it was just artefacts related to the terracotta army (e.g. coins, bells, etc.) and so just a warm-up act to the real stars of the show, ten (or so) terracotta warriors. Fortunately the warriors were placed in an open area and viewing was possible from multiple spots, so the squeeze was not that bad. In fact, perhaps the earlier queuing helped avoid worse viewing conditions of the warriors.

The warriors are of course impressive, but you can easily imagine the Chinese could fake them and 99.99% of the population would be none the wiser. You can get within a couple of feet of the warriors, apparently much better than at the site in China. Apart from the warriors, the most interesting part of the exhibition was a bronze crane. Unfortunately this was placed next to where crowds of people watch a (perpetually repeated) film, so could easily be missed.

The Chinese seem to have taken the wise decision to leave the actual tomb mound unexcavated, assuming that some day non-intrusive techniques will make it possible to investigate the interior. The warriors and related objects are all from outlying areas.

Meanwhile, the British Museum has another splendid exhibition, "Crafting Beauty in Modern Japan", on for only a few more weeks, until 21 October 2008. This is mainly the works of the "Living National Treasures" of Japan (a cute concept). And as expected, these are the works of not just artists, but also craftsmen (and a few women). You can tell that most of them put a ridiculous amount of time and effort into the work on display. In contrast to the First Emperor exhibition, here there was about one person or less per item, so very relaxed viewing.

The best pieces on display were the ceramics (e.g. bowl with clematis design, by Yoshita Minori, 1992; bowl 'Genesis', by Tokuda Yasokichi III, 1991; bowl with striped design, by Itō Sekisui V, 1985) and the laquer (e.g. ornamental box, by Kuroda Tatsuaki, c. 1957; incense tray with wave design, by Isoi Masami, 1966; box 'Dragonfly', by Matsuda Gonroku; letter box with crane design, by Ōba Shogyō, 1973).

But there were also interesting pieces in metal and wood, and a couple of works in glass. Then leading up the rear were some kimonos and dolls (no doubt great if you like that kind of thing). The catalogue has reasonable photographs on the whole (with the first ceramic bowl mentioned above being a notable exception), and also includes biographies of the artists, but has minimal descriptions of the exhibition items.

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