Craig recommends… Here’s my latest British Museum review. If you like Egyptian archaeology then here are some more places worth visiting: Sir John Soane’s Museum contains the sarcophagus of Seti I, and the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology has lots of pots and plates and broken statues. And don’t forget Cleopatra’s Needle that dates from the reign of Pharaoh Tuthmose III.
The British Museum houses over six million artefacts from ancient Egypt, Assyria, Greece and Rome. It also has treasures from China, Africa and America.
The British Museum began when Sir Hans Sloane bequeathed his ‘cabinet of curiosities’ to the nation in 1759. King George II embellished the collection with more than 17,000 manuscripts from the Old Royal Library, prompting the public to come in with many more gifts like David Garrick’s plays, Lord Elgin’s Marbles, and Captain Cook’s collected treasures from his voyages around the Pacific.
The original building proved to be too small for the ever-expanding collection, and in the 1880s a decision was taken to shift the flora and fauna into the newly-built Natural History Museum. In 1973 the books were moved to another new building by King’s Cross station: the British Library.
The museum’s inner courtyard houses the circular Reading Room, which quickly became a haven for historians and has been used by the likes of Mahatma Ghandi, Karl Marx and George Bernard Shaw, but now houses a series of temporary exhibitions.
The inner courtyard serves as the museum’s central crossroads. Norman Foster put a glass roof on top, and transformed it into one of the British Museum’s chief attractions.
The British Museum houses one of the finest collections of Egyptian antiquities outside Cairo with cabinets full of mummies, sarcophagi and a huge granite head of Rameses II, keeping watch on ‘Ginger’ – a 5,000 year-old man with tufts of hair on his head.
One of the museum’s important artefacts is the Rosetta Stone. This was discovered by Napoleon’s army in 1799, and bequeathed to the British after their victory on the battlefield.
This granite rock consists of three strips of language: one in Greek, one in Egyptian, and another in a cursive script. This triple translation of the same piece of text finally allowed Jean-François Champollion to decode hieroglyphs.
The museum’s most controversial exhibit is the Parthenon Marbles (more commonly called the Elgin Marbles, after the Lord who brought them back to Britain). This 5th-century frieze depicts a festival held in honour of Athen’s patron goddess, Athena, and is one of the wonders of the ancient world.
Lord Elgin was worried that they would be damaged in a local skirmish, and obtained a license from the occupying Turks to chip them from the Parthenon walls. Modern-day Greece has been clamouring for their return ever since.
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 (the Palace of Sargon) should definitely not be missed. The alabaster wall reliefs show battle scenes from ancient Nineveh.
The most famous piece in the Roman collection is the 5th-century Portland Vase. It is one of the earliest examples of glass-blowing in human history, but unfortunately it was smashed into a hundred pieces by a drunken guest in the 1800s, and major repairs can still be seen in the glaze.
Other major exhibits include the Mildenhall Treasure and Lindow Man (aka. ‘Pete Marsh’), who was preserved in a peat bog for 2,000 years.
A big chip in his head suggests that he was bludgeoned with an axe and garrotted… so presumably he must have upset someone. His bad luck continued until 1984, because when the Cheshire farmer found him his peat-thresher sliced his body in half!
This review originally appeared in his London blog
My idea of hell is spending all day in a big museum filled with rocks and busted cups and plates. That’s basically what the British Museum is: a building filled with bits of busted junk. Statues with their arms missing, old vases with their handles snapped off, and a couple of old bones with some skin clinging to it. The ancients chucked all this stuff in the dustbin and 3,000 years later we dug it up and put it on display.
Quality control goes right out the window when it comes to museums. In an art gallery, the works generally have to be of a pretty high standard to get on the wall (unless it’s modern art, of course). But in a museum, if it’s old, it’s in. If it’s broken, it doesn’t matter. If half of it is missing, then who cares. These days if you found a statue with its fingers missing then you’d send it back for a refund, but not in the British Museum – they put it in a big glass box and shine a load of lights on it..
But I’m not a complete philistine. I can see that they’ve got a few decent bits and pieces, so let me tell you about them. But let me tell you about the building first… because when you enter you go straight into the best bit: the Great Court. This is basically a big open courtyard with a glass roof on top, and the famous Reading Room is bang in the middle.
All the different galleries lead off from the sides of the Great Court, and you can be walking around there for days if you don’t know where you’re going. This place is huge. And what makes it even more confusing is that some of the subjects span a couple of different floors, so when you think you’ve exhausted the Egyptian artefacts downstairs all of a sudden you find another six rooms upstairs. You really do need to look at the map to find out where everything is or you will miss all the good stuff.
The Egypt gallery has some very impressive pieces. They’ve got some huge monumental statues of the Pharoahs – one of the heads which must be about 10 feet tall! They have plenty of sarcophagi and wall inscriptions, too. The most famous historical object is the Rosetta Stone, which helped them to decipher hieroglyphs. I like it because we nicked it off Napoleon. (I went to Apsley House last week and that was full of Napoleon’s treasures too – I think half of London must be filled with his stuff.)
I think the Persian galleries were next, or maybe it was the Assyrian ones, I can’t remember, but I do remember the big gateway that they’ve installed on the wall. They must have demolished the city gate of a sizeable town and carted it back to Britain. I’m not sure I agree with that, but it looks good anyway. Then you come to the Greek and Roman stuff. The most famous exhibit in the whole museum can be found here: the Elgin Marbles. (The ones we nicked from Greece.) They’ve built a few rooms especially to house these pieces, and I was a bit surprised at how old and broken they were.
I thought the whole argument for us keeping them in Britain was that they would be well protected from further damage. But they are all in broken bits and pieces anyway. There are very few figures which aren’t already well-worn or busted. I suppose most of the damage occured when the dopey Turks were taking potshots at it with their cannons, but I don’t think us chiselling them off the walls helped much.
But who cares anyway, because they are ours now, ha ha! We stole them fair and square. I don’t think the Greeks quite appreciate how much time and effort it must have taken us to dynamite those things off the walls and drag them back 1000 miles to Britain. That was no easy feat. And they want us to just give them back? Those crazy Greeks!
The part I saved for last was the only thing that I really wanted to see: the world famous Reading Room. That’s the big circular room in the centre of the museum where Karl Marx wrote all his famous works. You’ve probably seen pictures of it with the curved walls covered in huge wooden bookcases and lots of little benches and desks in the middle lit with lamps. Unfortunately that’s all disappeared now. The books have been transported over to the British Library, and the Reading Room is being used as a space for their museum exhibitions.
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I object — Ian Hislop's search for dissent to British Museum Bloomsbury
Witnesses — Emigre medallists in Britain to British Museum Bloomsbury
I am Ashurbanipal — King of Assyria to British Museum Bloomsbury
If you enjoy this then try: Petrie Museum (walk it in 12 mins or catch a train from Tottenham Court Road to Goodge Street); Sir John Soane’s Museum (you can walk it 10 mins); Victoria & Albert Museum (catch the tube from Tottenham Court Road to South Kensington) and Wallace Collection (walk it in 24 mins or catch a train from Tottenham Court Road to Bond Street).