First exhibition of Celtic treasures for 40 years announced at British Museum and National Museum Scotland

By William Axtell | 09 July 2015 | Updated: 09 August 2015

Jewellery and highly-stylised objects of religious devotion to help reconsider art of the Celts

A photograph of a shield
The Battersea Shield© Courtesy The Trustees of the British Museum
The first major British exhibition for 40 years to tell the story of the Celts has been announced by the British Museum and National Museums Scotland.

Celts: Art and Identity will run at the British Museum from September 2015 to January 2016 before moving on, as Celts, to the National Museum of Scotland between March and September 2016.

Magnificent jewellery, highly-stylised objects of religious devotion and even 19th century decorative art will all be used to explore the history and identity of the many different people who have been called Celts.

A photograph of a silver bowl
The Gundestrup Cauldron© Courtesy The National Museum of Denmark
Among the object highlights will be the Gundestrup Cauldron, a silver bowl smothered in relief scenes of gods, warriors, a bull sacrifice and an antler god surrounded by beasts.

Other precious exhibits promised in the major exhibitions include the impossibly intricate Hunterston Brooch, the iconic Battersea Shield and the horde of four gold torcs discovered at Blair Drummond, Stirling in 2009 by a metal detectorist on his first outing.

A photograph of a brooch
The Hunterston Brooch© Courtesy National Museums Scotland
As well as highlighting the art of the Celts, the exhibition will explore the nature of Celtic culture and use the latest research to examine the similarities and difference between Celtic races.

“The word Celtic brings together a series of moments across the history of Western Europe when particular communities made art and objects that reflect a different, non-Mediterranean, way of thinking about the world,” says Neil MacGregor, the Director of the British Museum.

“New research is challenging our preconception of the Celts as a single people, revealing the complex story of how this name has been used and appropriated over the last 2,500 years.”

A photograph of a bronze mirror
The Balmaclellan Mirror© Courtesy National Museums Scotland
The first recorded use of the term 'Celt' dates to 500 BC when the Greeks used it to describe peoples occupying a wide swathe of Europe north of the Alps.

Britain and Ireland were never explicitly described as Celtic by either the Greeks or Romans. But the islands shared a culture of related values, art, languages and beliefs with peoples from the Atlantic to the Black Sea.

The concept of 'Celtic' acquired much of its modern sense of relating to Ireland, Scotland, The Isle of Man, Wales, Cornwall and Brittany as those nations began to reassert their identities in contrast to their English and French neighbours.

“While the Celts are not a distinct race or genetic group that can be traced through time, the word ‘Celtic’ still resonates powerfully today, all the more so because it has been continually redefined to echo contemporary concerns over politics, religion and identity,” adds MacGregor.

To complement the exhibition, the British Museum and National Museums Scotland will lend two unique Iron Age mirrors to five partner venues in 2015-6, including Lichfield Cathedral, Littlehampton Museum, Old Gala House, Inverness Museum and Art Gallery and The McManus: Dundee's Art Gallery and Museum.

A photograph of a painting
John Duncan, The Riders of the Sidhe (1911). Tempera on canvas© Courtesy Dundee City Council (Dundee's Art Galleries and Museums)
A photograph of a helmet
A Horned Helmet© Courtesy The Trustees of the British Museum
A photograph of a pot
Painted Pot from Clermont-Ferrand© Courtesy Bibracte / Antoine Maillie
A photograph of a mirror
The Desborough Mirror© Courtesy The Trustees of the British Museum
A photograph of an old book
The St Chad Gospels© Courtesy The Chapter of Lichfield Cathedral
A photograph of a coin
Iron Age Coin© Courtesy The Trustees of the British Museum
A photograph of a cross
The Tully Lough Cross© Courtesy National Museum of Ireland
A photograph of a piece of horse decoration
The Torrs Pony Cap© Courtesy National Museums Scotland
Celts: Art and Identity is at the British Museum September 24 2015 and January 31 2016 before moving on, as Celts, to the National Museum of Scotland March 10 - September 25 2016.

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