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Hadrian Exhibition: Empire and Conflict (London)

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Address: British Museum / Great Russell Street / London WC1B 3DG / England

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      09.09.2008 16:50
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      Top emperor!

      "Empire and Conflict" is the title of this Hadrian exhibition, although I think, if asked, most people in the UK would find "Emperor and Wall Builder Extraordinaire" more appropriate. So associated is he with walls, there was even a brand of paint called Hadrian (a "deep gloss paint" if I remember rightly) - how humiliating is that? Of course, the wall-building is a very parochial view of a vast empire that covered most of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East and of which we occupied a small corner.

      I like Hadrian. I've visited his Wall and the forts along it, and many years ago went to the ruins of his enormous villa at Tivoli, outside Rome. He (along with perhaps Vespasian and Marcus Aurelius) is a beacon of light among the megalomaniac perverts or over-promoted stop-gaps which most of the other emperors were. That's not to say he wasn't ruthless, power-hungry and cruel, but at least he had vision and interests which extended beyond fornication and incest. So unusual is he that he is often referred to as "enigmatic".

      Unlike other recent major exhibitions like the Terracotta Warriors and Tutankhamun, an exhibition about Hadrian has no collection of objects from one specific location to focus on. Roman emperors did not leave behind artefacts. They had (hopefully) ideas and vision, but concrete works tended to be of such size that they have to stay rooted in their locality. So how do you convey visually the public and private sides of a major historical figure? Well, pick some linking themes, as the organisers have done here, and try to illustrate them by associated objects, displays, models and diagrams. A sort of grown-up "show and tell". The question is, does it work? Let's go inside and see.

      The leaflet you are handed at the entrance tells you the exhibition is divided into sections: a new élite, war and peace, architecture, Antinous (his Greek male lover) and succession. It certainly smacks you in the eye when you walk in and see the remains of a colossal statue of the man - the head and a right foot about the length of my arm. This was found only a year ago, in Turkey, and forms the opening salvo as it were. There are, of course, several other (complete) statues - Hadrian as a warlord, Hadrian as a god - and a charming head of him as a young man with curly sideburns. You become acquainted with his features, the beard, the peculiar ear lobes, and that, together with some detail of his family who made their money shipping olive oil from Spain (cue artistic display of oil jars), makes him seem almost normal. Rich, well-connected, but normal. Then you look at the map of the empire he controlled, and again at the huge statue, and you realise this was no "first among equals" but a world ruler with absolute power.

      This takes us neatly into the war and peace section. We are told that when Hadrian became emperor (in 117AD) "the empire was in turmoil". Well apart from the early days of the Augustan Peace, it was ever thus. Considering its size, and the quality of some of the emperors, it's amazing it lasted as long as it did. Hadrian was a consolidator, setting external boundaries and quelling internal dissent. To illustrate this, the exhibition has focused on just a couple of trouble spots: our very own Hadrian's Wall, and the ruthless suppression of the Jewish uprising in Jerusalem. The problem is that anyone who has been to the Wall probably knows a great deal more about it than is related here. There are some inscribed milestones, one or two Vindolanda writing tablets and a map. More importantly, it was neither a trouble spot, nor a bastion of peaceful co-existence. It was simply a demarcation line and frontier customs boundary, which saw some unrest but mostly grudging acceptance. On the other hand, the Jewish uprising was a major conflict which the Romans put down in their usual ruthless, efficient manner. There is some interesting stuff here from this rebellion, and a reminder that a teenager with curly sideburns can grow up to organise the killing of hundreds of thousands when the need arises. But the idea of quelling turmoil and establishing peace is not well illustrated because it doesn't encompass enough. Internal factions plotting against him - and there must have been plenty of those - do not figure.

      So we come to the love interest, Antinous. Antinous drowned "in mysterious circumstances" in Egypt, and thereby hangs a tale we will never get to the bottom of. Hadrian himself may have been implicated. Hadrian was apparently devastated, inordinately so. Palace officials who undoubtedly thought he'd "get over it" were probably taken aback to find Antinous deified, a cult of Osiris-type worship built up around him, and poems written. The power and intensity of the emotion is very well conveyed here. Having this episode as a separate section serves to almost isolate it from the rest of his public and private life, and made me wonder if Hadrian was able to compartmentalise it, and get on with ruling. Was this ability one of his strengths?

      The section on the succession felt like a bit tacked on the end just before the exit. Other than saying he planned his succession once, and then again, I'm not quite sure what this section usefully tells us. In any case his successor, Antoninus Pius, started expanding the empire again, abandoned Hadrian's Wall and built another one further north, the Antonine Wall linking the Forth and Clyde, so not much continuity there. His legacy, on the other hand, is still with us, and very well demonstrated in the architecture section which is appropriately set in the centre of the exhibition area. (What is it with powerful rulers and architecture? Wasn't Hitler an architect?) We're not talking about the Wall, which was just a military structure of a kind seen elsewhere in the empire, but new visions in building. Models and diagrams of the Pantheon in Rome and his Villa at Tivoli show just how original he was in his thinking and designs. The dome of his rebuilt Pantheon became an inspiration for Renaissance architects centuries later.

      Despite our familiarity with the Romans, unless you're an expert you're still going to need quite a lot of detailed explanation of what you're looking at. The commentary here is admirably lucid, even though it does verge on the Janet and John level occasionally. The words are clearly printed on large placards, which is just as well, given the gloom and the crowds. The Museum has chosen to use the Reading Room for the exhibition, a very nice space, but not a large or well-lit one. The black backgrounds and moody spotlighting are very artistic but while they offset the large objects well, I found myself peering myopically at the smaller ones. And the crowds - inevitable, of course, with a well advertised event and well known historical figure, but it got very hot in there. All in all not a good environment for taking notes with the aim of writing a review!

      In an effort to control the flow of visitors tickets are issued on a timed basis, at ten minute intervals. You can buy your ticket and book a slot on-line in advance. If you turn up on the day without a ticket you'll have to wait, but when I was there a couple of weeks ago the wait was only about an hour and a half, and it's not as if you can't occupy yourself at the British Museum for a bit. You also save yourself the £1 advance booking fee (ticket price is £12).

      To round off your visit, the restaurant is offering a Hadrian-themed menu. So two stuffed dormice please, easy on the fish sauce, ice cream to follow and can we have a sofa by the window! No reclining, alas, nor even dormice, but there was fish soup, wild boar and grilled figs. The bread was served not with butter but with a bowl of olive oil. I'm sure they do that all year round, but it was particularly appropriate for Hadrian. I thought this was an excellent idea, and think of the possibilities. All the Asian cuisines, hot chocolate to celebrate the Mexicans, bison roast for Native American week, and the Egyptians ... what did the Egyptians eat exactly?

      However, munching on my figs, and reflecting on the exhibition, what did I think overall? I've listed some drawbacks in my visit as described, but I think mainly the concept was a difficult one. Hadrian lived to the age of 62, ruling for 21 years over one of the largest empires the world has ever seen; add to that the complexities of his character and personality and it's virtually impossible to distil all these facets into a visual display. The exhibition quotes again the "enigmatic" adjective but does not really do much to solve it. He remains an enigma wrapped in a mystery and I fear that to really find out more about him you're going to have to do a lot of reading. That's not to say it's not worth going. It's enjoyable, well set out and informative within its limitations and you can't fail to be fascinated by the man. You've got until 26 October. Go there, velis et remis!



      Some practical details. Opening hours are 10am to 5.30pm (last entry 4.20pm). The exhibition is in the British Museum Reading Room which is in the centre of the new Great Court at the British Museum. Ticket prices are £12, £10 for children 16 - 18, students and the disabled, £25 for a family ticket. A £1 booking fee applies on-line, £2 if ordering by phone. An audio guide is available for £3.50 (£3 concessions). There is a special opening for disabled visitors on 3 October at 9am. The exhibition is on one level on the ground floor, but there are steps at the exit. Large print and Braille editions of the guide are available.

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    • Product Details

      Explore the life of the Roman Emporer Hadrian and the territory he reigned, which comprised much of Europe, northern Africa and the Middle East.