British Museum exhibits in HK

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Hong Kong Museum of History showcases the splendours of ancient Middle Eastern empires

From the Assyrians to Alexander the Great, ancient empires created precious objects and architectures to flaunt their wealth. Luxurious artefacts seen through a multifaceted lens are now presented in an entertaining and informative exhibition, jointly organised by the Hong Kong Museum of History and the British Museum.

PUBLISHED : Friday, 20 July, 2018, 12:03am
UPDATED : Friday, 20 July, 2018, 12:03am

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This summer, delve into history for an unusual glimpse into ancient empires that are known as cradles of civilisations or for their biblical significance. Premiered in Hong Kong, a touring British Museum exhibition entitled "An Age of Luxury: the Assyrians to Alexander” is now open to the public at the Hong Kong Museum of History until September 3 .

This blockbuster exhibition showcases around 210 treasures from the British Museum, including metalwork, stone wall reliefs, ivory items, gems and jewellery, depicting the extravagant and luxurious lifestyles of the Assyrian, Babylonian and Achaemenid empires. The latter was an irresistible prize for the insatiable Alexander the Great, whose spectacular military conquests then ensured the spread of Greek art and culture through the Middle East, from India to Spain.

Conceived by Dr Alexandra Fletcher, the Curator (Middle East Department) of the British Museum, this exhibition is a continuity of the Mesopotamia exhibition that the British Museum brought to Hong Kong Museum of History in 2013. It has sections on the different empires that ruled the region, while exploring artefacts thematically such as war and plunder, personal luxuries, trade and sensual pleasures.

She said: “We hope that the theme of luxury will connect with different people around the world because it shows that people used to like the same things as we do, and had the same desires and wants that we do now.”

“My research is pottery and I was looking at how people used pottery vessels. That started me looking at luxury dining, which then got me thinking about all the wonderful Achaemenid silver and gold objects at the end of the show. So in a way I started the show backwards and worked my way going back in time,” Dr Fletcher said. 

“Deciding which objects to put into the story was really difficult. It had to be something beautiful, something with a really interesting story but also safe to travel. So once I had those things in place, I could choose the objects for the show.”

Dated from 900 BC to 300 BC, these objects are not only valuable for their exquisite craftsmanship and artistry, but also their insights into the political contexts and the trading networks they belonged. Interactive screens showing three-dimensional models are placed next to the exhibits to help visitors engage more thoroughly.

The ruling elites of these mighty empires built lavish palaces and pleasure gardens filled with treasures, delighting their senses with exotic scents, beautiful sounds and all kinds of opulence imaginable. Included in the exhibits are a relief showing the gardens at the North Palace in Nineveh, as well as an animation to illustrate the environment of the garden in Nineveh vividly.

Highlights include a wall relief that depicts the conquest and looting of an Elamite city by Assyrian soldiers, a fish-shaped perfumed oil flask made from a hammered sheet of gold, kohl bottles and pots, the Hellenistic jewellery item "Herakles knot", and decorative plaques carved in elephant ivory.

One of Dr Fletcher’s favourite objects in the exhibition is a flask for perfumed oil in the shape of a goldfish from 500-400 BC, Tajikistan. She said: “It was made with such care that you can see every single scale on the fish’s body, and it was made from a single sheet of gold. It was used to collect precious perfume and oils so everything about it tells us it was an object of sheer luxury.”

Displaying luxurious goods as status symbol is a practice as old as time. This created the market for such goods even in times of war, when the artistic styles of different regions influenced one another. It is also interesting to learn that counterfeited luxurious items made in cheaper materials for the mass market already existed in ancient times and some are also on display.

An Age of Luxury: the Assyrians to Alexander exhibition

Date: From now to September 3, 2018

Address: Hong Kong Museum of History, 100 Chatham Road South, Tsim Sha Tsui

Tel: 2724 9042