LONDON — Babylon, Rome, Byzantium ... and America. Empire has been a hot topic of discussion in this decade, particularly since the United States became bogged down in the deserts of Iraq.
Two of London's museums have joined the conversation by putting a spotlight on ancient empires: "Babylon" is pulling in crowds at the British Museum, while "Byzantium" is drawing queues at the Royal Academy of Arts. Both raise questions about the true nature of imperial power and how to think about America's place in history's long line of empires.
Inside a cylindrical gallery in the Great Court of the British Museum, "Babylon" takes a surprising approach. Rather than displaying treasures of the ancient Mesopotamian empire, the exhibition shows how Babylon has worked its way into the western imagination for the last 2,600 years. It starts with the Israelites carried away in slavery who turned their exile into psalms, and the books of Jeremiah and Daniel. It comes right up to the present day with extracts from D.W. Griffith's silent film classic "Intolerance" and interviews with reggae musicians who explain how their Rastafarian culture views America as the modern Babylon.
At the very end of the exhibit is a short film showing Saddam Hussein, who made a vainglorious attempt to rebuild the city, and the American military base that occupied the site after the dictator was overthrown.
Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, said the exhibition wasn't conceived as an explicit look at American power. "This series is not an overt attempt to link historical events with the current situation in Iraq or Afghanistan. But we were keen to reflect the current situation at the site of Babylon in the exhibition because the museum has been involved in assessing damage to the site in recent years."
Despite MacGregor's demurral, a visitor comes away thinking about the U.S. as much as Babylon. The exhibition demonstrates that however great American power, it is just one chapter in the history of Mesopotamia, and not the most important chapter at that. It also makes a visitor wonder whether two millennia from now America will have the same pull on people's imagination that Babylon continues to exert.
The Royal Academy's "Byzantium" is a more traditional look at imperial treasures. Everything on display from religious icons to ordinary everyday objects has an extraordinarily rich quality. The objects are made of gold, silver, ivory and a fantastic assortment of precious stones. The workmanship is fantastic. And there are so many objects on display it is too many for one exhibition to comfortably handle.
But once you get past the oohs and ahhs at the glittering objects, the exhibit provides a sense of the unifying force of empire. The Byzantine empire, headquartered in Constantinople (present-day Istanbul), covered an area from the Balkans to the Black Sea and deep into Syria. It sat astride the great fault lines of history: western and eastern Christianity, Europe and Asia, and managed to absorb ideas from across these divides and survive for a thousand years. That's the lesson for America implicit in this exhibition. Absorbing from other cultures rather than imposing on them is the secret for longevity in the imperial game.
Charles Saumarez Smith, chief executive of the Royal Academy, surveys what he calls "the incomparably rich range of objects" that characterize Byzantine art and is sanguine about imperialism. "I suspect it is rather inescapable even if it is politically unsavory."
The irony, of course, is that the British Museum, Royal Academy and the other great cultural treasure houses in London store and display the wealth accumulated by an imperial power. Saumarez Smith, says, "It has been ever thus. Florence, Amsterdam, Rome, Paris ... even Brussels" are all former imperial capitals with extraordinary collections of artifacts taken — plundered some would say — from within the boundaries of the empire.
The examination of empire at London's museums will continue well into 2009. The British Museum is preparing exhibitions on Persia and the Aztecs. The Royal Academy has begun preparations for an exhibit of treasures from the several empires centered in Syria over the last three thousand years.
Babylon is on at British Museum until March 15, 2009; Byzantium is at the Royal Academy until March 22, 2009