Burma to Myanmar

The UK’s first major exhibition to focus on the history of Myanmar (also known as Burma) is set to open at the British Museum next month, marking the 75th anniversary of the country’s independence. In this preview, Carly Hilts explores what will be on show.

Two years ago, news outlets reported on a coup unfolding in Myanmar, which would go on to depose the country’s democratically elected government and install the present military dictatorship. Such seismic episodes have been a feature of Myanmar’s story since it gained independence in 1948, but an upcoming exhibition at the British Museum (see ‘Further information’ below) aims to illuminate the history behind the headlines, presenting a picture of complexities and contradictions, interconnectedness and isolation, and extraordinary artistic output stretching back more than 1,500 years. This story is told using over 110 objects including the British Museum’s own holdings and loans from across the UK, Germany, and Singapore, many of which have never been on public display before.

The exhibition begins c.AD 450, introducing the diverse peoples who inhabited the lands that would eventually become Myanmar, and tracing the rise of the kingdoms that would, by the 14th century, come to vie for supremacy within this space. The region’s rich natural resources, including teak, rubies, and jade, made it an influential trading partner first with its near neighbours and later with the Middle East and Europe. These far-reaching networks are exemplified by artefacts like a 15th-century gold Buddhist reliquary testifying to religious links with Sri Lanka.

Powerful kingdoms rose to prominence between the 16th and 19th centuries, their political reach illustrated by objects such as a silver tanka coin issued by King Dhammaraja Hussain (r. 1612-1622) of the Mrauk U kingdom in Arakan (now Rakhine State), which is inscribed in Arakanese, Bengali, and Persian. Similarly, the extraordinary wealth available to some of their rulers can be seen in a letter (above) – written on gold, adorned with 24 rubies, and enclosed in an elephant tusk case – that King Alaungpaya of the Konbaung kingdom sent to George II in 1756.

Myanmar’s contact with Britain, however, culminated in annexation in the 19th century. Some of the displays highlight the dramatic cultural and political changes that this brought, including abolition of the monarchy, imposition of new administrative machinery (including the Census, which created artificial ethnic categories that still cause ruptures today), and the introduction of new materials. Visitors will also learn about the devastating impact of the Second World War. Myanmar was one of the earliest oil producers in South-East Asia, dating back to at least the 13th century; a modern oilworker’s helmet (below) stands as memorial to an industry that never recovered after retreating British soldiers destroyed Myanmar’s oil fields to prevent their capture by the Japanese.

Finally, the exhibition will focus on Myanmar’s movement towards and achievement of independence, key figures involved in this process, as well as the country’s short-lived democratic periods interpersed by successive phases of conflict and dictatorship. Current human rights concerns such as the persecution of the Rohingya people are also highlighted. These displays include advertising and film memorabilia from the 20th and 21st centuries, as well as creations by contemporary artists who are using their work to defy state censors and convey messages of resistance and hope for the future.

Further information: Burma to Myanmar runs from 2 November 2023-11 February 2024; see http://www.britishmuseum.org/exhibitions/burma-myanmar.

Images: Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Bibliothek – Niedersächsische Landesbibliothek, Hannover, Ms IV 751a; Calderdale Museum Service