British Museum Tarot Exhibition

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The UK Times Online (12 November 2003) provides details of a Tarot Exhibition at the British Museum…

Object lesson: Tarot Reading
By Phoebe Greenwood

FOR THIS week’s British Museum object lesson, we turn our misty gaze to the practice of divination. From the sacred nuts of Ifa priests in Nigeria to crystal balls, people have complex ways of peering into the future and past, to get a handle on the present.

Reading the tarot is considered by many to be rather “new-agey”, the type of mumbo-jumbo and pseudo-science peddled by today’s Mystic Megs. However, tarot cards have been popular since the 15th century. Their origins remain obscure but they emerged from the rich melting pot of cross-cultural exchanges which characterised the early Renaissance, a time when Islamic, Hebrew and Christian beliefs and mysticism were closely interlinked.

The museum’s Living and Dying exhibit features prints from the earliest complete tarot pack. Engraved on metal, it dates back to the late 15th century and belonged to the Sola-Busca family of Milan. The whereabouts of the family and deck is no longer known (nor can it be divined). Fortunately in 1934 the prints were given to the museum.

The most famous deck of recent years is the Rider-Waite, designed by Pamela C. Smith under the guidance of the tarot scholar A. E. Waite in 1909. Waite was a member of the Order of the Golden Dawn, an occult society that in its heyday included celeb mystics such as W. B. Yeats and Aleister Crowley. This week’s object comes from a reprint of this deck.

So why the Queen? Well, before arranging the cards in formation, the curator asked whether the show would herald a new beginning for the Museum. Though there are pitfalls, the reading is favourable: especially the Queen of Pentacles (representing future influences), who suggests wellbeing, coincidentally — or not — the subject of the exhibition.

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