The Past from Above

Through the lens of Georg Gerster

16 November 2006 – 11 February 2007

Room 35

Admission £5

Supported by the Corporate Partners of the British Museum

The first major photographic exhibition at the British Museum presents extraordinary aerial photographs of archaeological and heritage sites from across the globe taken by the Swiss photographer Georg Gerster. These awe-inspiring images range from natural phenomena such as Uluru in Australia to man-made wonders such as the Ziggurat of Ur in Iraq or the Great Wall of China and will allow visitors to take a  ‘world tour’ of the great monuments of human civilisation.

These unique images create a sense of wonder at the scale and magnificence of mankind’s achievements as well as highlighting the complex relationship between culture and nature. Humans have shaped nature but are also shaped by it. The photographs provoke questions about the people who created these monuments, why they created them, and what they meant to them. To provide insights into these people, the exhibition will also feature objects from the Museum’s worldwide collection which will be displayed alongside some of the photographs. This will present a snapshot of these civilizations and the monuments which defined them. A stone hand-axe, one of the earliest objects made by humans from the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, will be displayed alongside a photograph of the site, a Mummy portrait by an image of the Kharga Oasis and a seated Buddhist goddess next to a shot of Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka. The objects will personalise these imposing sites, re-emphasising the part humans have played in their construction or, in some cases, destruction.

The photographs also serve as reminders of the transience of culture and civilizations. In many instances the photographs are a reminder of times that have passed, beliefs which have faded and empires which have crumbled. Aerial photography is vital in preserving views of sites which have subsequently been damaged or lost. Environmental destruction, excavation, the removal of material for other purposes and reconstruction work have all had a profound impact on these sites. The photographs highlight the environmental impact the modern world has on its heritage. For example, it is likely that sites in Iraq have sustained considerable damage as a result of bombardment and looting, the aerial photographs of sites from that region in the exhibition may now be an essential record of these buildings and monuments prior to the conflict.

Georg Gerster

Georg Gerster was born in Switzerland in 1928 and has been taking aerial photographs for over forty years. His first archaeological photographic flight in

1963 documented temples, pyramids and fortresses in ancient Nubia, modern Sudan. Since then he has photographed sites in over one hundred countries across six continents. Produced in often hair-raising circumstances, the photographs have contributed greatly to our understanding of world archaeology. They are also aesthetically fascinating views of our diverse and complex world.

For further information or images please contact Hannah Boulton on 020 7323 8522 or or Alex Robat on 020 7936 1296 or


Notes to Editors

  • A book, THE PAST FROM ABOVE, edited by Charlotte Trumpler with photographs by Georg Gerster is published in paperback by Frances Lincoln priced at £25.00. In the book archaeologist Charlotte Trumpler introduces 250 of Gerster’s photographs, taken in more than fifty countries in Europe, North and South America, Asia, Australia, and Africa. Each is accompanied by a detailed explanatory description. For a copy of the book please contact Emma O'Bryen on 020 7619 0098 or
  • Admission to the exhibition costs £5, a range of concessionary rates apply. British Museum Members enjoy unlimited free entry to all Museum exhibitions and a range of other benefits. For more information call 020 7323 8195 or visit
  • A full public programme of activity will accompany the exhibition. Lectures, workshops, films, talks and other events will expand on and develop some of the themes of the exhibition. For a complete programme please contact the press office.