In the heart of Dublin Castle is the Chester Beatty Library, home to the beautiful and expansive collection of Sir Alfred Chester Beatty. It is one of the finest collections of manuscripts, books and decorative arts from a private collector, with some items dating back to about 2700 BC. It gives widespread insights to a range of Western, East Asian and Islamic cultures.
The ‘A-Z; From Amulet to Zodiac’ exhibition provides a simple framework to showcase highlights of the collection, with each letter matched to a special item or range of items and features many works seldom shown to the public. The exhibition also has a secondary theme of cultural interaction and links, displaying pieces that link different cultures from across the world.
This secondary theme is present from the beginning in its choice of amulets for A, where beautiful examples of Christian, Muslim and Hindu amulets are placed side by side, showing the similarities and crossovers of cultures as well as the differences between them. A Roll of Magical Prayers (19th Century, Ethiopia) is an amulet that cites a passage from the Gospel of John. This theme continues throughout, especially in the awe inspiring illuminated manuscripts and scrolls of calligraphy which, although not directly compared like the amulets, still engage with each other in a fascinating way.
B is for ‘Beatty’ and M stands for ‘mining’, Chester Beatty’s main profession. These are accompanied by documents from Chester Beatty’s life and work. It seems like an unusual choice to incorporate the previous owner of the collection into the exhibition, and it has a jarring effect. There is a sense that he doesn’t belong in this exhibition, and his inclusion takes away from the overall effect. While it’s important that people know about the man, introducing him into an exhibition like this is wasting space, taking away from the natural flow of what is an otherwise well planned concept.
The framework of the A-Z theme raises several issues as well. The connection becomes tenuous at points and potential difficulties the curators had are clearly seen, especially with the latter half of the alphabet. ‘Y’ for example is represented by ‘Yurt’, portable housing structures used by nomads since ancient times, particularly in Mongolia and Kazakhstan. To accompany this we are given an engraving of a celebration which contains a ceremonial Yurt. Within this framework, the connection seems forced. In a collection that holds over six thousand individual items in its Islamic section alone, something more substantial could have been chosen.
Despite its faults, the exhibition is a beautiful one, with a wealth of informative, exotic and inspiring pieces. There are few other places, especially in Ireland, that offer the opportunity to experience the histories and connections of multiple cultures at once. While it is an interesting exhibition, it serves mainly as a taster of a collection that is far more nuanced than this particular exhibition. It’s successful in showing some of the Chester Beatty Library’s finest artistic and cultural works, and will encourage visitors to experience it in more depth.
The Chester Beatty’s A-Z exhibition runs until February 1st 2015 January