The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman: Grayson Perry let loose in the British Museum

By Nick Owen | 05 October 2011
Map of Truths and Beliefs (2011)
Grayson Perry, Map of Truths and Beliefs© Nick Owen
Exhibition: Grayson Perry, The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, British Museum, London, until February 19 2012

"This is a short tour of my head", says Grayson Perry of his new exhibition at the British Museum.

The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman is a hubristic journey which sees pieces from the museum's collection pitted against the Turner Prize winner's own works.

Pottery and tapestries make up Perry's side of the exhibition, as well as his cast iron showstopper from which the exhibition takes its name – a coffin-ship weighted with the freight of Perry's imagination.

The piece encapsulates the meaning of the show, combining casts of artefacts from the museum's collection alongside Perry's own creations in an eloquent testament to the forgotten artists who, throughout the ages, made many of the objects found in the museum today.

"As well as being a source of knowledge it is a great source of imagination," says Museum Director Neil MacGregor on the museum's vast collection, from which, he says, "Perry has made his own civilisation."

Our Mother (2009)
Grayson Perry, Our Mother© Grayson Perry
As artist, curator and guide, Perry explores a range of themes connected with notions of craftsmanship and sacred journeys – from shamanism, magic and holy relics to motorbikes, identity and contemporary culture.

For example, opposite Perry's stunning tapestry, Map of Truth and Beliefs (2011), which charts both religious and secular pilgrimage destinations throughout the world, you will find a Hello Kitty hand towel.

"Perhaps more than any other object," he says, "this hand towel embodies the spirit of the exhibition."

The towel, sold as a pilgrimage souvenir in Japan, depicts two characters dressed as traditional Japanese pilgrims.

"So here we have an object featuring modern cartoon characters and a ritual dating back to the ninth century AD coming together on an object carried in most Japanese women's handbags," he adds.

It is through the British Museum that Perry, who claims tongue-in-cheek not to be an experience junkie, has done most of his traveling.

The Rosetta Vase (2011)
Grayson Perry, The Rosetta Vase© Grayson Perry
The exhibition is, therefore, an act of love but also a challenge to the museum's empiricism and scholarly-ness in the way it presents its collection.

Indeed, the first piece of feedback that Perry received about the show was that he had misspelled the word "titillation" on The Rosetta Vase (2011).

But, then, says Perry, we often get craftsmanship muddled with precision.

"I am an artist and this is principally an art exhibition," he claims. "I have made my choices of objects from the collection because of their connections with each other and with my own work. Sometimes the connection is in their function, sometimes in their subject, and often in their form.

"One thing that connects all my choices is my delight in them."

Perry warns us that deriving any meaning from the exhibition might prove difficult, and that this is purely a celebrity artist's vanity project.

This may be so, but The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman is still a wonderful testament to the power of the imagination and a thoughtful memorial to the countless un-named artisans throughout history.

And how often is it that you find an exhibition at the British Museum that comes with a parental advisory warning?

  • Open 10am-5.30pm (8.30pm Friday). Admission £8-£10 (free for accompanied under-16s), book online.

More objects from the exhibition:

a photo of a small box shrine with small doors that open to reveal Indian deities
Anonymous, Portable Shrine© British Museum
a photo of a vase with cartoon drawings and words on it
Grayson Perry, The Frivolous Now© Grayson Perry
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