After two excellent exhibitions on Pompeii and Herculaneum and Ice Age Art, the British Museum has turned its attention to El Dorado — the mythical South American city of gold that many Europeans dreamed about, and some even tried to discover.
The first thing this exhibition does is dispel that myth by pointing out that there was never a city of gold and that the title ‘El Dorado’ actually refers to a ritual where a man covered in powdered gold dived into a lake before emerging as the new chieftain of a tribe.
The exhibition then launches on a journey from 1600BC to a time just before the Spanish arrived, charting the lives of ancient Colombians and the importance that gold played in their lives. On display we have intricate jaguar figurines, death masks and a marvellous crocodile pendant all made from gold.
But it’s not just golden objects. You’ll also see musical instruments, ceramics and feathered head dresses that were either part of daily life or held a ceremonial significance. One of the most insightful objects is of a statue chewing coca leaves, used as a mild stimulant when mixed with lime.
There are many impressive items on display but the exhibition often lacks a narrative, offering snapshots into the lives of Colombian peoples but never feeling like it provides a rounded picture. There are many exquisite items on display that justify visiting this exhibition but we left wanting more and feeling like we’d only seen half the story.
Beyond El Dorado: power and gold in ancient Colombia is on at The British Museum until 23 March. Tickets are £10 for adults, concessions available.
Also on at the British Museum is the adults only Shunga: sex and pleasure in Japanese art. Tickets are £7 for adults.