Sunday, 17 June 2012

The horse: from Arabia to Royal Ascot - British Museum exhibition

*** update 25/9/2012

My second visit to this exhibition.  I was kitted out with the audio headset and managed to do the exhibition on my own with some assistance from the staff at the desk and within the exhibition itself.  This exhibition closes on 30th September and some of the merchandise is on offer at reduced prices.  This is a good example of an exhibition where in theory a visually impaired person can do it, more or less, on their own.

The British Museum site has a short video on the exhibition ( and  within the education/learning section there are resources which may be of interest.    

Postcard bought:

Horses, from the series ‘Persian Expressions, Say Flower Hear Flower’, 2012

***end of update
14th June 2012

This is an absolutely delightful exhibition ( .  Not only is it wonderfully curated by John Curtis and Nigel Tallis, but there is also an audio guide for the visually impaired.  It gets better. 

I went with a sighted friend and knowing the way, asked at the help desk for details of both the Horse Exhibition and a gallery of Picasso etchings and prints.  Having got directions for the Horse Exhibition (upstairs on the Reading Room sector) I was pleasantly surprised when Andrea said there was a special audio guide for visually impaired people.  Andrea set up the handset and headphones and the set was the same as I had used before at the ‘Treasures of Heaven’ There are 14 full descriptions and essays on the topics from early use of asses and donkeys through to the first known painting of a recognisable horse (the tail gives it away) and on to modern day racing objects.  Exhibits include clay tablets, boxes depicting chariots drawn by donkeys, a gold chariot and horse, books, film, paintings and prints as well as life-size models. 

As we were checking the headset I heard that a 2nd set of headphones could be attached.  This means that a visually impaired person can control the audio for a sighted person.  Much as I am grateful to friends who operate the audio, it is rather gratifying to operate the controls yourself! (Three Cheers!!)

In my younger days I would go pony trekking in the Pentland Hills near Edinburgh.  I usually rode Icelandic Ponies but as the university had some Exmoor Ponies went on them as well.  Otherwise my equine skills are limited to a Welsh Pony in Wales and a Kashmiri Pony in Kashmir as well as assorted mounts on the beach.

The exhibition was put together in order to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee, and tracks horses and their depiction in art, commerce and war. The introduction of three Arabian stallions into the British horse bloodline started the concept of the thoroughbred which developed into today’s racing industry.  The Queen is a well known horse lover and the exhibition has many pieces from other British Institutions. 

On entering the exhibition, on the right and against the wall, there is a rack of books in large print and Braille and including tactile diagrams.  The audio guide alerted me to them.  I tried out the tactile diagrams and they give an idea of the detail in the stylised horse, rider and chariots which are illustrated on the items on display.  As I can’t do Braille I did not take the book round with me, but I found the mix of contrast shading and tactile texture helped in getting the geometry right in my mind before I started on the first object. 

There is much about civilisations such as Assyrian, Mesopotamian, Sasanian, Byzantine and Parthian as well as better known Persian, Arabian, Ottoman, Greek and Roman periods.  Archaeological excavations from modern day Georgia, Tadjikistan, Kazakhstan, Iraq, Iran and Turkey are also covered.  Both European and Ottoman horsebreeding records have been researched and this almost gives some respectability to bookmaking. 

From the Arab World, there are pieces from the Saudi library of King Abdul Aziz.  These include a couple of Qurans with motifs in the border of the script.  There are also items from 13th Century Iraq (Mosul Ewer) and a horse training and cavalry manual or Furusiyya.  This sounds similar to the fencing manuals which I noted at the Wallace Collection’s ‘The Noble Art of the Sword’ exhibition which is currently on.

There is also a loan from the Royal Armouries of a horse and warrior clad in mail, which is cooler than armour plate.  Alongside this is another model depicting a horse and warrior from 19th century Sudan using cloth stitched and quilted as a padded protection, which was also considerably lighter than mail. 

In the next room, there is a huge projection of desert rock paintings and etchings from Saudi Arabia.  The projection can zoom in on key subjects and though I could not operate the touchscreen, I could make out the zoom of the rock art while my friend read out the caption.   Nearby, is a large artwork of what looked like King Abdul Aziz (Ibn Saud) riding on his horse. It was.   

I had seen similar paintings in Riyadh when I used to live in Saudi Arabia.  The exhibition refers to the habit of hunting in the desert with a salouki and a falcon (saqr).  While in Saudi Arabia, I was lucky to have gone into the desert and tried out falconry - the bird caught nothing!  In the 1980s Saudi television showed horse racing from Riyadh’s race course.  The horses were pure Arab stock and while racing is said to be the Sport of Kings, here it was certainly the sport for princes.  (The TV also showed camel racing from Al Jenadriyah.) 

The final section of the exhibition focuses on British racing and includes prints and paintings as well as trophies and other paraphernalia associated with it.  The social side of racing is covered in beautiful horse paintings by such artists as Stubbs.  Famous horses such as Godolphin, Eclipse are shown as are familiar racing scenes. 

On leaving the exhibition area, there is a gift shop and the headsets and controls can be left at the cash desk.  I was asked by the member of staff who served me how I found the exhibition.  I more or less said that any person with a cane or guide dog should be taken to it.  I plan on going back! These notes have been made from memory and a 2nd visit and further research will expand this post.  Go and check out the free special audio guide for visually impaired people and give your feedback.  The British Museum has shown a good way of making an exhibition accessible to a visually impaired person.   

Postcards bought include:

Model four-horse chariot (Oxus Treasure)
Fragment of Assyrian wall relief showing three chariot horses (Nimrud, c875-60 BC)
Two illustrations from a Furusiyya manuscript (copied 773 AH / 1371 AD)
Three galloping horses (c 1550)
Laetitia, Lady Lade (1793, The Royal Collection)

Before going to the British Museum, you may wish to arrange special access.  Details can be found here: