The new Iran Gallery at the British Museum is small but select. What was once a bit of a jumble is now bright and clearly laid-out: artefacts that had lain unloved in store rooms have been brought into the public gaze; those which had been obscured in a gallimaufry of random objects have been given due prominence.
The room is now flanked by two 19th-century casts of the mighty friezes at Persepolis, which had been hidden away in a west London repository, and in the middle, where it belongs, stands the Cyrus cylinder, the king’s statement of human rights, which he proclaimed after conquering Babylon in 539 BC. With its commitment to religious freedom, tolerance and opposition to tyranny it has a resonance with today’s highly charged dialogue between the west and the Middle East.
John Curtis, keeper of the Department of the Ancient Near East, says the cylinder was previously in a case cheek by jowl with lots of other pieces. “Nobody would have suspected from the way it had been exhibited that it was really important,” he says. “Now it has pride of place and everyone can see it.”
The new gallery, formally known as The Ancient Iran Gallery, is the heir to the hugely successful Forgotten Empire exhibition of 2005 which celebrated the period of Persia’s greatest power. It brings together an unprecedented collection of relics from the Achaemenid era of 559 to 330 BC – as well as pieces from the Parthian era and the Sasanian empire which fell to Arab invaders in 642 AD.
A striking addition is another cast from Persepolis of King Xerxes on his throne, high above the staircase at the entrance to the gallery. “You get these marvellous vistas along the galleries from one end of the museum to the other,” says Curtis. “There he is in the far distance, it is spectacular.” The view would, however, be greatly improved if the curators could have the information signs moved from the centre of the aisles: as it is, one has to crane for a glimpse even of the great man’s sandal.
A little incongruously, the new gallery shares a wing of the museum with ancient Britain. At a private view last week, Neil MacGregor, director of the museum, made a quip about being able to walk from the Caspian Sea to the Irish Sea on one floor. In spite of the contrived connection, Curtis proudly asserts that the collection is one of the most comprehensive outside Iran. The Louvre’s displays, for example, are extensive but less universal. “We have more actual pieces from Persia as well as the wonderful Persepolis casts. We have many silver bowls from the Achaemenid period and there are 170 items of gold and silver from the Oxus treasure, which make a wonderful centrepiece.”
As one admires the gold plaques, coins and filigree earrings, bracelets, jugs and silver bowls, it is hard not to be struck by what a sophisticated society this was. “All the achievements of early Mesopotamia, Syria, even Egypt, can be traced to the Achaemenids,” says Curtis. “In turn their discoveries in medicine, mathematics, astronomy and science were passed on to Europe.”
The museum is keen, he says, to foster interest in countries such as Iran, which are very much in the news at present.
“The important thing is to learn about the present through the past . . . One has to remember that, contrary to popular conception, we are certainly not dealing with an uncultured society. [Iran] has a very rich heritage which is more ancient and more splendid than our own. It is a huge mistake to underestimate the Middle East civilisations and misunderstand them.”
Curtis cites a remark made by the Iranian ambassador at the private view to the effect that, at a time when political relations are strained, culture is a good way of maintaining contact. He and the British Museum are able to keep crucial links with Iran by rising above the politics of confrontation.
“Things have not improved as much as we would like, but we have tried to continue with our cultural diplomacy,” he says. “We still make regular visits and we receive scholars and curators from Iran. Most importantly, we are now making preparations to stage another big Iran exhibition, this time on the Safavid dynasty which ruled Iran in the 17th century. So as far as we are concerned the doors are still open.”
The Iran Gallery, British Museum, London WC1 opens June 21. Tel +44 (0)20 7323 8299. Sponsored by Vahid and Maryam Alaghband