Connected Central European Worlds, 1500-1700

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Entangled Objects

British Museum – 27 March 2023

We were honoured to welcome a group of 13 curators and scholars from across Europe and North America to the British Museum for discussions about the early modern heritage of the region and its display in museums.

Our day started early with a view of the galleries before the crowds arrived. Dr Rachel King (Curator of Renaissance Europe and the Waddesdon Bequest) introduced us to the British Museum collections, highlighting the relatively unknown Central and Eastern European origins of many of the objects and associations of the museum’s collectors. Notably, Hans Sloane’s (1660-1753) papers and other minute books for the Royal Society suggest an academic interest in the region which centred on minerals and ores. He collected Bohemian agates, jaspers and fragments of Prussian amber objects, and he owned dictionaries for Slavic languages. Sir Augustus Wollaston Franks’ (1826-97) interest in archaeology led him to pick up numerous items in the region as he toured through it. This led to questions about the collecting practices that have shaped the British Museum’s collections. Were objects from the region purposefully acquired, or rather opportunistic?

In the Waddesdon Bequest gallery, there were many objects of particular relevance to our period and thematic interests. Ferdinand de Rothschild (1839-98) acquired hardstones and amber items from Count Nostitz Jr., who had exhibited the items among family heirlooms at the 1891 Anniversary exhibition in Prague. 

The Holy Thorn Reliquary – one of the British Museum’s crown jewels – also prompted discussion regarding the ‘silencing’ of its Central and Eastern Europe history. Commissioned by Jean, duc de Berry in c. 1400, it entered the Habsburg collections by 1544 under Charles V. In 1626, it was kept in Neisse (now Nysa) in Silesia in the collection of Archduke Charles of Austria, Prince Bishop of Breslau (now Wrocław). However, this chapter of the object’s biography is never normally recounted. The historical region of Silesia continues to be a problematic museum category. Now in modern-day Poland, in the medieval period Germanic culture influenced its art. In 1335, it became a possession of the Bohemian crown. In 1742, it passed to Prussia, and in 1945 it was granted (back) to Poland. Such issues regarding how to define objects from this region arise for the National Museum of Poland, which has objects from Silesia throughout this period, yet is called upon to tell a story of national heritage. Furthermore, Salomon Weininger (implicated in the forgery of the reliquary copy) is often called ‘Austrian’, though he was born in Hradisch, Slovakia in 1822.

In the horology study room, the brilliant Oliver Cooke, gave us a fascinating survey of clocks and scientific instruments. We surveyed many items made in Prague, such as scientific instruments made by Erasmus Habermerl (c.1538-1606), and clocks made in Poland, including the wonderful milking cow automaton. Questions of refinement (or not) being associated with particular artisanal centres – and therefore the assumption of provenance – seemed problematic.

Throughout the day we returned to the discussion on provenance, labelling and data categories. Everyone shared the problems of categories for Central and Eastern European lands. In addition to the complex continually shifting borders in the region, there was a severe loss of records relating to objects in the region during Soviet confiscations of property. One route to rediscovering lost provenance and influence of the region may be through scientific analysis. Dr Sue Brunning dropped by to provide an overview of the scientific analysis of garnets in Anglo-Saxon collections relating to the Silk Roads project, which relates directly to work by Dr Lucie Kodišová (National Museum, Prague) on Bohemian objects. Dr Zuzanna Sarnecka described her latest project proposing the scientific analysis of ceramics across Poland, Bohemia, Hungary and Croatia to understand artistic connections in the development of the craft. 

Dr Vicky Donnellan (Catalogue Manager) came along to explain the British Museum catalogue and a new pilot project to consider the multiple layers of data that are required for certain regions and periods. The new system seems like it would be well tested by the complexity of early modern Central and Eastern Europe. In terms of cataloguing, the European Data Portal for museums holds no case studies east of the Vatican. The British Museum has one of the best catalogues worldwide and thus acts as a critical reference for other museums. Simultaneously, its collections are ‘diagnostic’ , and its strengths in research and documentation of provenance makes it a useful reference collection for those wishing to understand more about certain items. 

Arising during the course of the day were questions over display, and the hooks that can be used to bring audiences in, and extend their knowledge about the region. The circularity of the problem is striking. What prior knowledge can we assume of the public, and what knowledge infrastructure needs to be built up (and how)? There seems to be an assumption (from certain areas) that what defines Central and Eastern art and heritage is ‘folk’ art (think painted Easter eggs). Yet what might an alternative narrative be? Is emphasis on the wealth of Kunstkammer objects with origins in the region a productive route? Or, should certain materials and types of objects from the region be emphasised, like Prussian amber, Bohemian glass, or Ottoman-Hungarian armour? It was interesting to see how the approaches and priorities to such questions of public engagement vary from national museums (within and outside the region) to private collections and decorative arts museums.

It was also notable that there were many parallels with discussions about decolonising the museum, the idea of ‘Curating Discomfort’ (Glasgow University project), continued issues of provenance and labelling, and questions about the future of collecting for the region. Through the workshop we began to unravel some of the multiple layers of history that are specific to the material heritage of early modern Central and Eastern Europe, but there is much more to be done!

We are immensely grateful to Dr Rachel King for facilitating the workshop and being a friend of the region.

By Suzanna Ivanič with credit to Rachel King’s guide to the collections. 



(1) Our team.

(2) Silver-gilt clasp (‘Heftel’), Hungary, AF.2885 © The Trustees of the British Museum.

(3) The Holy Thorn Reliquary, France, WB.76 © The Trustees of the British Museum.

(4) Cylindrical amber tankard, 1640-60, Königsberg(?) WB.229 © The Trustees of the British Museum.

(5) Sundial, Erasmus Habermel, c.1590, Prague, 1926,1016.1 © The Trustees of the British Museum.

(6) Opal glass beaker with triumph of Neptune, Bohemia, c. 1680, WB.56 © The Trustees of the British Museum.

(7) Hussar shield, 15th century, Hungary, 1881,0802.138 © The Trustees of the British Museum.