New summer exhibition on Feminine Power opens at British Museum


Above: Relief of Sappho playing a lyre. Terracotta, Greece, 480-460 BC, British Museum. ©Photo by Sandra Alvarez

The British Museum's latest exhibition opens today just in time for summer. Feminine Power: The Divine to the Demonic explores the ways in which female authority has been perceived throughout different cultures.

At its core, "It is an exhibition about perception" says curator, Belinda Crerar, "This exhibition is a tour through history and around the world to see the different ways that female power and authority have been perceived in spiritual belief. The diversity of these goddesses, spirits, enlightened being and saints, and their profound influence in people's lives today and in the past, gives us pause to reflect on how femininity – and indeed masculinity – are defined and valued now and in the future".

Themes & Special Guests

Feminine Power doesn't follow a traditional chronological trajectory, nor does it separate objects based on culture, instead, it examines the concept of power and how it relates to femininity through five themed sections. Each section has an assigned guest contributor – five women who discuss and respond to the exhibition's ideas with their expertise and own lived experiences via written commentary and audio and video thought pieces. OBE and playwright Bonnie Greer responds to Creation and Nature, Classicist Mary Beard weighs in on Passion and Desire, writer and presenter Elizabeth Day responds to Magic and Malice, human rights lawyer Rabia Sidiqque shares her thoughts on Justice and Defence, and writer and comedian Deborah Francis-White explores the final theme, Compassion and Salvation. The five themes offer an interesting glimpse into roles that have been assigned to/associated with women. For example, in the section on Creation and Nature, we see these roles for woman as mother nature, nurturer, and creator, but also, destroyer. Or in Passion and Desire, we see the oft held perception of women as temptresses and seductresses in figures such as Lilith, or Eve, who lead men astray and into moral danger. My favourite section was Magic and Malice, where witch figures such as Circe, and in later periods, witches such as those railed against in the infamous Malleus maleficarum (Hammer of Witches) text are on display.

Above: Queen of the Night relief. c. 1750 BC, Iraq, painted clay. ©The Trustees of the British Museum.

For ancient history lovers

As always, there are objects being shown together for the first time. The exhibition is a mix of ancient, medieval, and modern pieces, but for the Ancient History lover, there are some striking artifacts that are must-sees. There are several Roman sculptures, a beautiful statue of the goddess Athena, and a relief of Sappho. There are also personal amulets from Egypt, statues of goddesses Sekhmet and Isis, an incantation bowl from Iraq, and from Roman Britain, a few rather humorous lead curse sheets petitioning Sulis-Minerva to punish enemies and evil doers. One of my favourite artifacts was the stunning Queen of the Night relief. It's over 4,000 years old and likely depicts Ishtar, who descended to the underworld, and while she was there, all sexual activity on earth ceased! For those interested in exploring the intersection of gender, feminine power, and authority, this exhibition will not disappoint.

Feminine Power: The Divine to the Demonic runs at the British Museum from May 19 – September 25. It then travels on to Canberra, Australia in December 2022, followed by several locations in Spain in 2023.

For more information? to purchase your tickets, please click here.

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