The Art Fund Prize 2008 Longlist - Sacred At The British Library

By Narelle Doe | 19 February 2008
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a manuscript with Hebrew writing on it and an illustration showing a prostrate person before an altar

Leipnik Haggadah. King David at prayer. This copy of the Haggadah is named after its scribe and illustrator Joseph Leipnik and was produced at Altona, a suburb of Hamburg in Germany, in 1740. © British Library

The Art Fund Prize judges have already started their deliberations of the ten longlisted museum for the Art Fund Prize 2008, but who do you think should win the coveted prize?

To help you decide, the 24 Hour Museum continues its alphabetical round-up of the museums on this year's longlist by looking at the The British Library's Sacred exhibition.

The £100,000 Art Fund Prize is awarded to the museum or gallery whose project demonstrates the most originality, imagination and excellence. The British Library, London, made the longlist by tackling the controversial and topical theme of different religions and unity.

Sacred – Discover What We Share – was a highly acclaimed exhibition bringing together the world’s greatest collection of Jewish, Christian and Islamic holy texts for the first time. This was the first time that the British public has been given privileged access to such a volume and range of priceless manuscripts at one sitting.

The exhibition proved the most ambitious to date for The British Library but some wondered whether the theme of this exhibition was really relevant to our modern lives in our secular British society. It seemed so, perhaps a reflection of this critical period in which our attitudes towards religious belief are increasingly being tested.

Proving popular with press and public alike it also proved the most successful with high visitor figures, estimated at 200,054 altogether – an average of 1,325 each day.

Over 150 texts were displayed side by side, including a Dead Sea Scroll, a Qur’an written in gold and the world’s oldest complete Bible. Visitors didn’t have to be religious to appreciate the fine artistry involved in the production of these sacred texts.

a manuscript showing angels fighting a multi headed serpent

Silos Apocalypse. Shows the seven-headed dragon attacked with spears by St Michael and his angels. Late 11th – early 12th century. © British Library

The texts were shown off to their full potential. A sample from the 14th century Palestinian set of Gospels written in Arabic offered further opportunity to enjoy the exquisite adornment of this Christian manuscript brimming with traditional carpet pages heavily influenced by middle eastern culture in its decoration, script and layout.

The Silos Apocalypse is a late 11th / early 12th century copy of the Book of Revelations named after Silos in Spain, containing a dramatic illustration of a mighty dragon with seven heads and ten horns being fought by St Michael and other angels. This vivid image has been inventively interpreted by some as a contemporary reference to the spread of Islam. It seems religion can rarely escape politics.

The exhibition received publicity in newspapers from all around the world from American, Iran, New Zealand and Egypt. The visiting public wrote over 1,200 personal blogs. Ambassadors from 35 countries attended the exhibition and other prominent visitors included Prince Charles, Prince Philip, Prince Moulay Rachid of Morocco, Prince Hassan of Jordan, and former Prime Minister Tony Blair.

The organisers of the exhibition wanted to improve our understanding of the three faiths in our present troubled world – an ambitious but worthy aim - and the presentation deliberately displayed the texts side-by-side, avoiding categorisation into faith sections and representing a metaphor for coexistence and an understanding of the interconnectivity that lies within it.

This juxtaposition enabled the visitor to identify the many similarities between the religions, texts and cultures. Sacred made the valuable point that it is politics rather than religion itself that leads to conflict and war.

a manuscript with decoration and Hebrew writing in the centre of it

Lisbon Hebrew Bible. Frontispiece to the Book of Isaiah. Gold carpet page with illuminated word panel on blue background. This Bible was completed in three volumes in 1482. Lisbon was one of the last great schools of Jewish art on the Iberian peninsula. © British Library

The impetus for the exhibition was initially triggered by a proposal from the Moroccan British Society who are one of the key sponsors along with the Coexist Foundation and Saint Catherine Foundation; donors who are representative of the three faiths.

The Sacred exhibition proved a commitment towards preserving community unity and demonstrated the critical role cultural institutions have the potential to play in society.

But will this complex and brave exhibition sway the judges? Following judges’ visits, four museums and galleries will be shortlisted and announced in early April. The winner will be announced on Thursday May 22 at the Royal Institute of British Architects in London during Museum and Galleries Month 2008.

Before then we would like to know what you think. Do you think Sacred – Discover What We Share, should win the 2008 Art Fund Prize? Vote for this exhibition or any others on the longlist here in the 24 Hour Museum People's Vote.

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