Thomas Sutcliffe: Exclusive! Hadrian reveals all!

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To say that I thought more than once of Heat magazine and Hello! while walking round the British Museum's new exhibition Hadrian: Empire and Conflict might easily suggest that I think something has gone wrong here. The British Museum is, after all, one of the world's great centres of learning – a place where, to paraphrase Neil MacGregor's opening remarks at the press view, visitors can come to reflect on the nature of past civilisations and their contributions to our current one. It's a place where you might hope to get away from the shallow culture of fame that Heat and Hello! represent, rather than find another expression of those values. And yet – in an importantly qualified way – it turns out to be very Hello! and very Heat.

Standing in front of the exhibition's wonderful model of Hadrian's villa at Tivoli, for example – a vast complex of pleasure buildings, arenas and temples – you're stirred by the same curtain-twitching fascination about the lifestyles of the rich and famous which results in so many Hello! home visits. You can even imagine the strapline: "Exclusive! The Emperor opens the doors to his tasteful Tiburtine hideaway. See photospread inside". Elsewhere, things get decidedly more gossipy. And, had Heat had a Roman office at the time, it's not difficult to think of the kind of cover-splashes they might have carried in response to the more complicated aspects of the Emperor's home life: "OMG! Hadrian and Antinous an item: 'He's a god to me', says Ant. Sabina Tells Friends: 'We haven't shared a bed for years.'"

Such connections aren't an accident. As high-minded and serious as he is as a curator, I think MacGregor understands perfectly well that a VIP can be a draw for modern audiences in a way that historical epochs might not be be. Hadrian is only the second of four planned exhibitions based around great rulers' lives – following on from the museum's exhibition about Ying Zheng, the first emperor of China and preceding shows about Shah Abbas and Montezuma scheduled for 2009. In the first of these shows, it's true, personality took a back seat to an even greater box-office attraction, the terracotta warriors. But in the other shows the glamour of a human narrative, the kind of story which we respond to almost instinctively, was and will be enlisted to package disparate material into a vivid, graspable shape.

And there is another sense in which the culture of Hello! and Heat is represented here, one that hasn't been knowingly overlaid by a scholar-showman. One of the fascinating things about Hadrian: Empire and Conflict, is the extent to which it shows celebrity deployed as an instrument of political power. It isn't just the self-apotheosis, through which Hadrian turns himself and those around him into gods on Earth, but the cult of personality disseminated throughout the empire by means of Hadrian's portrait busts. A Roman emperor, the exhibition reveals, had his own version of picture approval – officially licensed sculptures being carefully copied by local craftsmen. And Hadrian, in particular, was the equal of Madonna when it came to ensuring that his image covered all kinds of demographic bases. From AD117 to 138 you couldn't get more A-list – and it's hardly surprising that he can still draw crowds.

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