Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 20, 2021
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The British (Columbian) Empire

The spoils of England’s glory days make a pit stop at Victoria’s Royal BC Museum

The British Empire endured for 500 years, from 1497 to 1997, the most powerful empire in history. The first of its colonies was Newfoundland; the last to depart, Hong Kong. Between those parentheses, the Brits had their way with half the world’s countries and cultures. A good percentage of the loot wound up in the British Museum in London.

Lately, the celebrated museum is feeling a tad sensitive about criticism that it hogs so many of the world’s treasures. To counter this without actually surrendering a single artifact, it’s sending treasures on the road — including Native Canadian masterworks acquired by Captain James Cook on Vancouver Island in 1778.

The exhibition, Treasures: The World’s Cultures from the British Museum, espouses the principle of small is beautiful. Some of the museum’s seven million artifacts are currently residing in bullet-proof, earthquake-proof display cases at the Royal BC Museum in Victoria, and will remain there until September 30. En route from Asia to London, this is the exhibition’s only North American stop and the only chance Canadians will have to see it.

Epic objects

At a cost of $3 million, it’s the most ambitious exhibition in the BC museum’s history. And although not large, with only 309 objects and 930 square metres of exhibition space, it’s a wonder, and anyone visiting Victoria during its run should make time for it.

Treasures spans two million years of time with startling beauty and emotional force. “Simply put, it’s all about the way our species embraces life and confronts death,” says Tim Willis, director of exhibitions.

Exhibits are divided into regions including Africa, the Middle East, Europe, Asia, Oceania and the Modern World. It’s manageable: you can see it in a day. Yet it’s also a dizzying journey through time and space.

The Canadian artifacts, home so briefly, speak of the accomplishments of 18th-century West Coast cultures. Captain James Cook proved a connoisseur as well as a legendary explorer and cartographer. From the Nuu-chah-nulth, a Native people living on the west coast of Vancouver Island, Cook collected a conical, cedar-bark hat worn by whaling chiefs and a war club shaped ever so artfully as a bird.

There is, too, the strange combination of tomahawk and tobacco pipe, weirdly invented by William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania. This superlative example of New World versatility was presented by the Duke of Northumberland to Mohawk chief Joseph Brant, in 1805, presumably for his attacks against American forces in the War of Independence.

Feast for the eyes

Treasures’ oldest artifacts are hand-axes carved by primitive man about one-and-a-half million years ago. Famed archeologist Louis Leakey unearthed them in Tanzania’s Olduvai Gorge, part of East Africa’s Great Rift Valley.

But the axes are also an eyeful. They signify a pre-historic shift in which homo sapiens progressed beyond the utilitarian and embraced the esthetic — a huge step in defining who we are. “It’s about the joy of creating something beautiful,” says Willis, who is clearly smitten, “even in a hand-axe made more than a million years ago.”

Beauty is certainly the word for the inner coffin of Djeho, an Egyptian noble, dating to 330-305 BCE. Painted in rust and turquoise hues, with a blue wig and gold-leaf face, it celebrates the beauty-driven nature of the exhibition.

Beauty transcends the millennia again with 4000- year-old gold jewellery found in the royal cemetery of the ancient Mesopotamian city of Ur. A gold and lapis tiara surpasses anything to come out of Hollywood’s costumes departments for historical blockbusters.

From the Classical world comes a statue of the god Eros, unfortunately neutered by body-loathing Christians. Happily, the wine god Dionysius, the largest statue in the exhibition, escaped their wrath; he sports a pretty little penis.

The stellar artifact from China is the British Museum’s most treasured bronze: a 3000-year-old Shang Dynasty wine vessel flanked by two exquisitely carved rams.

Visitors are generally surprised by the Lewis Chessmen, a trove of 93 pieces unearthed in Scotland’s remote Outer Hebrides in 1831. Thinking is, Vikings carved them in 12th-century Norway. They come represented by five splendid walrus-tusk figures in medieval motifs.

Hands-on treasures

Unsurprisingly, Treasures is more than exhibits. The BC museum is well-known for its determination to transcend the static and involve visitors as much as possible.

“I want visitors to find things that prompt personal connection,” says museum CEO Pauline Rafferty, herself an archeologist. “I want them to find connections to their own lives, histories and cultures.”

Rafferty cites a visitor from South Africa who found that connection with the decidedly modern Throne of Weapons from Mozambique. This “throne” consists entirely of weapons decommissioned from that country’s civil war in 1992, a riveting and gruesome piece.

She points to the Enlightenment Centre as “the hub of the exhibition.” This is a central atrium, a space inviting families to go hands-on and play archeologist for a day. Cabinets of Curiosity come packed with mysteries: care to wrap a mini-mummy? Or piece together masterworks from the rubble, the way archeologists do?

The handling gallery may prompt what a visiting journalist calls the “tingle factor.” Even adults may experience a tingle or two holding a 5000-year-old cuneiform tablet from Mesopotamia or a silver coin from the time of Alexander the Great.

Lap it up

Peripherally, the museum’s gift shop is doing brisk business in authentically replicated artifacts and worldly goods that reflect the spirit of the exhibition. Creative jeweller Skanda has themed a collection of jewellery. Chess sets based on the Lewis Chessman and used in the movie Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone have been imported from the British Museum Shop. A cookbook consists of recipes from ancient Egypt.

Participation from the Victoria community is typical of the BC capital. The Empress Hotel, currently celebrating its 101st birthday, offers a “Treasures of BC” menu highlighting the province’s incomparable products in its baronial Empress Room.

Fish is the natural superstar, while BC wines from the Okanagan Valley and Vancouver Island deliver liquid treasure. A starter of local side-striped shrimp and scallops in flaky pastry with smoked-tomato coulis suggests a reinvigorated kitchen. A sharply acidic Averill Creek Pinot Gris from the Island strikes home for a boutique wine industry coming of age.

In the spirit of Treasures, the BC museum’s IMAX theatre is screening Journey to Mecca, a 45-minute eye-popper based on explorer Ibn Battuta’s fantastical travels in the 14th century. Battuta journeyed for 30 years, travelling through 30 countries and out-journeying even the intrepid Marco Polo. Accordingly, he is the only person ever to have both a lunar crater and a Dubai shopping mall named after him. Immortality, as this exhibition proves, takes many forms.

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