Celts: Art and Identity

Things to do
4 out of 5 stars
4 out of 5 stars
(4user reviews)
 (Gundestrup Cauldron, Gundestrup, northern Denmark, 100 BC–AD 1 © The National Museum of Denmark )
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Gundestrup Cauldron, Gundestrup, northern Denmark, 100 BC–AD 1 © The National Museum of Denmark
 (Iron Age Coin, Ruscombe, Berkshire, England, 50–20 BC © The Trustees of the British Museum)
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Iron Age Coin, Ruscombe, Berkshire, England, 50–20 BC © The Trustees of the British Museum
 (Horned helmet, From the River Thames at Waterloo Bridge, London, 200-50 BC © The Trustees of the British Museum)
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Horned helmet, From the River Thames at Waterloo Bridge, London, 200-50 BC © The Trustees of the British Museum
 (Hunterston brooch, Hunterston, south-west Scotland, AD 700–800 © National Museums Scotland )
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Hunterston brooch, Hunterston, south-west Scotland, AD 700–800 © National Museums Scotland
 (The Riders of the Sidhe, Tempera on canvas  John Duncan, 1911 © Dundee City Council (Dundee's Art Galleries and Museums))
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The Riders of the Sidhe, Tempera on canvas John Duncan, 1911 © Dundee City Council (Dundee's Art Galleries and Museums)
 (St Chad gospels, Vellum, AD 700–800, Used by permission of the Chapter of Lichfield Cathedral)
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St Chad gospels, Vellum, AD 700–800, Used by permission of the Chapter of Lichfield Cathedral
 (Gundestrup Cauldron, Gundestrup, northern Denmark, 100 BC–AD 1 © The National Museum of Denmark)
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Gundestrup Cauldron, Gundestrup, northern Denmark, 100 BC–AD 1 © The National Museum of Denmark
 (Iron Age pony cap, Torrs, south-west Scotland, 300–100 BC © National Museums Scotland )
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Iron Age pony cap, Torrs, south-west Scotland, 300–100 BC © National Museums Scotland
 (Balmaclellan mirror, Balmaclellan, south-west Scotland, AD 80–250 © National Museums Scotland)
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Balmaclellan mirror, Balmaclellan, south-west Scotland, AD 80–250 © National Museums Scotland

The British Museum makes a good fist of tackling the knotty problem of the Celts.

Retrospectively defined as a people from the seventeenth century onwards,
the ‘Celts’ were originally identified by the Ancient Greeks as basically anyone they encountered in Europe who wasn’t them: rough, hairy, shouty and not given to partying with young boys every night. In other words, uncivilised. Through the succeeding centuries, the culture and languages of these various tribes and peoples spread around Europe (exactly how is still debated), becoming what we understand today as ‘Celtic’, with a rich, complex, but decidedly unclassical worldview and style of art.

The displays include a wealth of beautiful objects, from France, Germany and the British Isles. There are treasure hoards, weapons, sacred pieces and domestic items. Several are from London, such as the famous Battersea Shield, pulled out of the Thames mud in 1857. The evolution of the art is fascinating: animal forms develop across the centuries, from representational to mythic and stylised, later becoming decorative and abstract.

The show also has a story to tell: one about what we understand by cultures and peoples, and how they can be appropriated for different ends. The most obvious example is how Celtic identity became a tool in Irish nationalism at the end of the nineteenth century, with a progressive ‘Celtification’ of culture. You have to applaud this exhibition for tackling all this, on top of the basic problem of defining the Celts. I was expecting the crosses and the torcs, the shields and the helmets, and the weird Victorian reimagining of history. I wasn’t expecting paramilitary Belfast murals or Boston Celtics vests. It’s brave of the BM to present a subject in such an open-ended way, and it’s done a cracking job.

So, plenty to think about next March 17, when you’re stood in a pub next to a woman dressed as a pint of Guinness.

BY CHRIS WAYWELL

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4 / 5

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LiveReviews|4
2 people listening

Really interesting exhibition. I visited on a Monday afternoon so it was nice and quiet. Many different items on display, the Gundestrup Cauldron was a particular highlight.

Tastemaker
I’m generally impressed when I attend the British museum exhibitions and this one was no different. I went on a Saturday morning so was expecting it to be a bit busier than usual but luckily the crowds weren’t too bad. The exhibition went from the origins of the Celtic people right the way through the present day and touched on areas such as religion, agriculture, weapons, jewellery, costume, art, and included plenty of physical display items (most impressed by the ceremonial Cauldron adorned with animals). Most of these were actually featured on the recent BBC series about the Celts so already recognised some of the items and understood their backstory.
Tastemaker

Celts: Art and Identity is a cove of treasure from people living from the Iron Age and Medieval Europe. It's a very comprehensive story telling of the Celtic tribes told through beautiful art objects and late 19th century artwork. The exhibition traces the very beginning of Celtic history right through to the modern day. It's a larger exhibit than I thought and you can easily spend a good hour or so in there. Expect to find both small artifacts from jewelry to larger objects like a chariot, on display and If you're interested in this part of history, you'll love this exhibition.


Incredible loot and one or two real treasures here. The Gundestrup Cauldron is one of the weirdest and most magical things I've seen. It's a massive silver cauldron decorated inside and out with beasts and warriors. Definitely not for making the porridge!