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18 September 2014 - 4 January 2015

This book brings the wider history of this  period to life. It was an age of great voyages of exploration, for trade and diplomacy. Long before the regular arrivals of Europeans in China, court-sponsored expeditions were sent to Asia, the Middle East and the African coast, bringing back knowledge of and objects from lands thousands of miles away gold, gems and foreign fashions. This period saw the compilation of the worlds first comprehensive encyclopaedia (worked on by over 2000 scholars); the undertaking of major building projects such as the Forbidden City and Ming tombs; the creation of beautiful textiles, paintings, ceramics, gold, jewellery, furniture, jade and lacquer. The narrative is illustrated with over 250 images, drawing on the objects specially selected for the British Museums major exhibition. Some of these are the finest pieces ever made in China.

Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum said “The political, social and cultural changes to China during the first half of the 15th century make this a remarkable story which is only now being fully understood. New discoveries and research have led to a new perspective on this significant period that moves away from a Euro-centric view of China’s history.”

The exhibition explores the years 1400 – 1450, a period that transformed China during the rule of the Ming dynasty. Bureaucrats replaced military leaders in the hierarchy of power, the emperor’s role changed from autocrat to icon, and the decision is taken to centralise, rather than devolve, power.  China’s internal transformation and connections with the rest of the world led to a flourishing of creativity from what was, at the time, the only global superpower.

This period for China was a time of extraordinary engagement with the world and of fascinating cultural diversity. The explorer Zheng pioneered China’s maritime history, sending treasure ships to South East Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. China enjoyed a period of unprecedented global contacts from Kyoto to Mogadishu, through trade and diplomacy evidenced through gifts of gold, silver, paintings, porcelains, weapons, costume and furniture. 

The period saw an unprecedented contact with the world beyond the Ming Empire, through embassies, an assertive military policy, and court-sponsored maritime expeditions. Early Ming imperial courts enjoyed an unparalleled range of contacts with other Asian rulers: the Timurids in Iran and Central Asia; the Ashikaga in Japan, Joseon Korea. Contacts extended to Bengal, Sri Lanka, Africa, and even to Mecca at the heart of the Islamic world. 

Within the Ming Empire itself, it's multiple courts, and not one single, monolithic, imperial court, were important in this period. 

Recent gains in archaeology, reveal a culture of the regional princely courts of the early Ming, which enable art and material culture.

The early Ming period defines contemporary Chinese conceptions of their own history, and China’s relations to the rest of the world.

6th March - 22 June 2014

Vikings: Life and Legend was the first exhibition to be held in the British museum’s new Sainsbury’s Exhibition Galleries. 

The Vikings constituted a coherent civilisation, which thrived from 800-1050 with a wide influence: from Newfoundland in the west to Afghanistan in the east.

From the end of the eighth century, they continually harried Britain, setting up various short-lived kingdoms in the north, and colonising the country outright during the reign of Canute. 

They found a ready market for their wares in Byzantium and the Islamic Middle East, though the prevalence of Irish genes in modern Iceland suggests that human traffic thrived in part of their sphere of influence.

Viking craftsmanship, including large brooches used to fasten women’s aprons and an exquisite gold horse’s bridle, was often intricate. Yet the interweaving of abstract and animal forms – which to modern eyes looks typically Celtic – was characteristic of art throughout northern Europe in what used to be called the Dark Ages. 

For the Vikings, the sea was a route rather than a barrier. Theirs was a culture that resided in waterborne movement rather than in the monuments that come with settled culture.