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South Africa: The Art of a Nation British Museum –
The British Museum owns over six million exhibits from ancient Egypt, Greece, Italy, Africa and the Orient. It has major works by the Romans, Greeks and Persians. Everything from pre-history to the present day can be found in its several miles of galleries.
The British Museum began life in 1759, when Sir Hans Sloane bequeathed his
cabinet of curiosities to the nation. King George II followed up with 17,000 manuscripts from the Old Royal Library, and George IV donated his father’s collection.
Other gifts include David Garrick’s plays, Lord Elgin’s Marbles, and Captain Cook’s boatload of artefacts from his voyages around the Pacific.
The building was opened to the public in 1759 and continued to grow in size. In the 1880s the decision was taken to split the goods in two, and the flora and fauna was moved to the Natural History Museum. In 1973 the books were moved to the newly-built British Library near King’s Cross.
The museum’s inner courtyard was once hidden from public view, but has now been transformed into one its grandest attractions. The Great Court boasts the largest covered square in Europe, and was put in place by Norman Foster.
The Reading Room was opened in 1808 and soon became a haven for students and museum curators. It quickly grew in size, and an improved room was commissioned by Sydney Smirke.
It has been frequented in the past by the likes of Mahatma Ghandi, Karl Marx and George Bernard Shaw.
The British Museum houses one of the finest collections of Egyptian antiquities outside Cairo – with masses of mummies, sarcophagi and funerary equipment. The huge granite head of Rameses II dominates the wing, keeping watch on ‘Ginger’ – the 5,000 year-old man with tufts of hair on his head.
One of the most important artefacts in the collection is the Rosetta Stone. This was discovered by Napoleon’s army in 1799, and bequeathed to the British on the battle field. Its granite rock consists of three strips of language: one in Greek, one in Egyptian, and another in a cursive script. This triple translation allowed Jean-François Champollion to decode the pictograms.
The museum’s most controversial exhibit is the Parthenon Marbles – commonly called the Elgin Marbles after the guy who brought them back to Britain. He chipped them from the Parthenon walls in 1816, as he was worried they would be damaged in a skirmish with the Turks.
His license from the occupying forces gave him a legal right, which we still maintain today. But modern-day Greece has been clamouring for their return – claiming they were spirited away by the English diplomat.
The 5th-century frieze features figures, beasts and a festival in honour of Athen’s patron goddess – Athena.
The British Museum’s Assyrian collection comes from modern-day Iraq, and features huge friezes from King Ashurbanipal’s Palace. The grand entrance to Khorsabad – Palace of Sargon – should definitely not be missed. The alabaster wall reliefs show battle scenes from ancient Nineveh.
The Rome collection’s most famous piece is the Portland Vase, made sometime in the 5th-century BC. It is one of the earliest examples of glass-blowing in existence. Unfortunately, it was smashed into a hundred pieces by a drunken guest in the 1800s, and major repairs can be seen in the glaze.
Other major exhibits include the Mildenhall Treasure – a treasure-trove of Roman tableware – and Lindow Man, a.k.a. ‘Pete Marsh’, who was preserved in a Cheshire peat bog for 2,000 years.
A big chip in Pete’s head tells us that he was pelted with an axe and garrotted… so I guess he must have upset someone. This unfortunate fellow is still being unlucky even now, because when the farmer found him in 1984 his peat-thresher sliced his body in half!
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