Review: Sicily: Culture and Conquest, British Museum

This fascinating and detailed new exhibition at the British Museum is filled with plenty of surprises that reveal a lot about an island with a vibrant history.

When we think of Sicily now, people tend to think of sunshine, Italian cuisine and of course the Mafia. But the British Museum takes visitors right back into the depth of Sicily’s history to reveal a place that was once filled with wide cultural diversity and celebrates this way of thinking from beginning to end.

The first section of Sicily: Culture and Conquest focuses on the Greek period on the island and how the Ancient Greeks were influenced by the island in terms of their epic stories and mythology, as well as Sicily becoming the first island to use experimental bronze coins as currency before anywhere else in the Mediterranean. This opening section shows how the island began to develop as we recognise it today.

As visitors step into the exhibition, you are automatically confronted with an image of Mount Etna surrounded by wonderful countryside, to help set the scene and make us feel as though we are there.

The first object that you set your eyes on is a magnificent and fragile ivory casket from 1100-1200, which was made by Muslim artists who working at the court of a Christian Norman king, which has a mixture of different images on it that reflect both Islam and Christianity – reflecting what the exhibition is all about perfectly: how it is possible to live side by side with different religions and cultures side by side.

Meanwhile, the second half of the exhibition focuses on the invasion of the Normans and how they managed to take over the entire island and create a very modern approach to architecture and art.

There is such a wide variety of objects that have been selected for display, all beautifully crafted that it is difficult not to get swept away into this fascinating history. In terms of the layout, it would have been better if it had been allowed more space so that visitors could wonder more leisurely and take more time to see the objects – particularly when it is busy.

In terms of the strength of the exhibition, it feels as though the first part of the exhibition is stronger and more in depth – but of course the limited space has a lot to do with that.

But the British Museum has once again revealed a part of history that is not talked about or referred to as much in the present day as it should – particularly with regards to tolerance of other religions and cultures, even though as this exhibition makes clear that during the Norman time it was a place of tolerance and co-existence rather than equality and integration.

It is an exhibition that reveals a side to Sicily that perhaps very few people are aware of and that in itself is refreshing. Well worth a visit.

Sicily: Culture and Conquest is on at the British Museum until the 14th August. 

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