Blockbuster exhibition exploring the complex identity of The Celts
- Susan Mansfield
- 28 April 2016
350 objects sourced from the National Museum of Scotland, the British Museum and collections across the world come together in this fascinating exhibition.
Facing down as you enter The Celts exhibition is a 2,500-year-old sandstone warrior from Southern Germany. He towers like a totem pole, solemn and horn-helmed. He doesn’t feel Celtic, not in the tartan tea towels and pewter jewellery sense. He feels powerful, timeless, and profoundly alien.
This exhibition, drawn largely from the collections of the British Museum and the National Museum of Scotland, aims to shake up our perception of the Celtic world. Challenging the current fascination with identifying a Celtic race and bloodline, it starts with a different premise: there is no single race, but a group of diverse, interconnected, Europe-wide cultures, which share elements of an aesthetic style.
The first and largest section of the exhibition showcases these commonalities and differences in the period 450–150BC. Jewellery, weaponry, chariot fittings – these objects are Iron Age bling, exquisite works of craftsmanship used to display wealth and status. The artistic language of Celtic Europe was largely abstract, the patterns sometimes concealing human or animal forms,and often mysterious.
Displayed in a space of its own, the famed Gundestrop Cauldron is among the strangest objects, elaborately decorated in a style which seems to meld East and West, its owners and original purpose now lost to us. The curators are not afraid of leaving us with questions rather than answers.
The rest of the show zips through nearly 2,000 years: the Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Picts, Vikings, the survival of Celtic decorative style in Britain and its adoption by Christianity, the legacy of Victorian Celtic romanticism. These are complex stories, and sometimes clarity suffers.
But the best of the objects here stop us in our tracks with their freshness and the quality of their design and craftsmanship, pointing to makers who were artists not barbarians, but who operated in a world wholly different to our own. The Celts doesn’t so much transport us back to an ancient world as remind us how distant and mysterious their world is.
National Museum of Scotland, until Sun 25 Sep.