Exhibitions: Exotica and Exigencies

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Two exhibitions, in England and France, are showing different ways to promote interest in archaeology and history from regions afar. Sudan: ancient treasures is a lavish and elegant show at the British Museum, London. In Auch, Le crepuscule des dieux, on the Americas, is imaginative but penurious. The first raises an ethical worry, the second a couple of technical principles.

Sudan displays some 350 exhibits, from an Acheulian handaxe to Medieval inscriptions, all from the Sudan National Museum, celebrating its centenary. Most are clearly arranged in chronological sections, and amplifying the narrative are an effective introduction and sections on goldwork, pottery and burials. The exhibition is completed by photographs of the multinational Meroe Dam Archaeological Salvage Project, which (it is claimed) has enhanced knowledge of the Sudan's northern Nile. My visit was amidst a steady flow of highly attentive visitors from the world over and an excited but also attentive school party.

Apart from a few Mesolithic and Neolithic pieces, most of the exhibits are from the Nile valley in the northern half of the Sudan. It seems striking that, even apart from the New Kingdom's invasion, the region adopted so much of Egyptian style for its monuments from the later third millennium BC to the Middle Ages. Sudan does reveal regional culture by explaining, for example, the architecture of Meroitic pyramids or, better, displaying five of the 4351 chopped cattle skulls found with a single grave at Kerma and three small block statues showing African features; but, while the labelling works well, it does little to clarify the social history, and even the fine catalogue (Welsby & Anderson 2004) hardly alters the impression that most people were northern aristocrats. Has the Salvage Project found nothing to give the ancient treasures context? There was space for a rounder view: the sections on pottery and burials show both ancient customs and how archaeologists work. The British Museum itself draws attention to works (albeit modern) from other regions of the Sudan elsewhere among its own galleries; and to the work of Oxfam and Save the Children in Darfur. Admission to the exhibition is free of charge. Sudan opened in September and continues until 9 January 2005.

Goldwork and silver, woodwork and sculpture, textiles, ceramics, and more, the Jacobins Museum, Auch, has been exhibiting nearly 400 precolumbian and some early Colonial pieces since June. …