Tuesday, July 21, 2009

British Museum: Journey into the Centre of History

The British Museum is an absolute marvel and a treasure, but it is also an incredibly overwhelming place to visit. There is, amazingly, no admission fee, so over six million people visit each year. One should probably prepare by reading books about the collections beforehand, and mapping out where one wants to visit in a certain amount of time. Even then, the massive crowds will probably thwart any set plans. Our group did not have any formal tour, so we were left to our own perusal of the place. I knew I could spend weeks in there and not see everything, so I tried to find my primary areas of interest and spend the most time there.

A little background: the British Museum's founding collection was formed by Sir Hans Sloane, a physician, who by his death in 1753 had collected almost 80,000 objects, which ended up in the hands of Parliament after the museum was established by a public lottery fund. The museum was placed in a mansion called Montagu House, and opened its doors to the public in 1759. The Museum has a lot of history, so I cannot possibly write the whole story here (I recommend purchasing The British Museum Souvenir Guide for £6, or reading a book such as this), but I will say that the Museum has had lots of problems with space throughout the years, and built a new building in 1850. The Museum's library actually became the British Library after it moved out to create space in 1973. The British Museum is currently funded by the Department of Culture, Media, and Sport, although it also has the support of private donations, Heritage Lottery, National Art Collections fund, and British Museum friends. Certain exhibitions do charge a fee (none of the permanent collection, though). It has never been a museum concerned with only British objects; thus, in the museum, one can see collections about: The Ancient Near East, the Islamic World, Africa, Egypt, China, South & South-East Asia, Japan, Korea, The Pacific and Australia, Mesoamerica, Central, & South America, North America, Prehistoric Europe, The Greek World, The Roman Empire, Roman Britain, Medieval Europe, Renaissance & Later Europe, and Modern Europe & America (from the Table of Contents in the British Museum Souvenir Guide).

Yes. Overwhelming.

I was a little disappointed that a fee-charging exhibition was on in the Reading Room, an incredibly beautiful space that normally houses the Paul Hamlyn Library (which is currently in another space). Alas, one day I will come back and view it for myself.

As for the exhibits, I probably spent the most time in the Egyptian section. The ancients Egyptians had such a distinct style for everything they created, so I loved seeing their sculptures and day-to-day accessories. And then there were the mummy-related items. There were sarcophagi, mummified feet of children, and mummified cats!I made sure that I fought the crowds to find the Rosetta Stone, as I'm fascinated by linguistics and languages in general. I thought it was quite an amazing sight, even if I almost couldn't get near it.
Finally, I spent some time in the Ancient Greece section, which is always classic and wonderful, but I somehow wandered into the Parthenon sculpture exhibit, and I'm so glad I did. I remember studying the Parthenon in my Art 101 class, and even writing a short humorous play about it, so it was amazing to see the reliefs and picturesque scenes up close.
However, I had a question that many people must have had - why are the Parthenon ruins in the British Museum, and not in Athens? The British Museum had a pamphlet for just such questions, and mentioned that Greek Government has asked for the permanent removal of the sculptures to Athens (www.culture.gr). It offered several "explanations": that Lord Elgin, British ambassador to the Ottoman empire, gifted the sculptures to the British Museum in 1816; that the sculptures are in several different museums, not just the British Museum; that the Museum publishes results of its research extensively; that six million people a year see the sculptures here. The pamphlet is very interesting, and recounts the debate more eloquently than I.

This debate truly made me think about which artifacts might "transcend" culture, and at which location artifacts "should" be housed. Should artifacts (any artifacts in ANY museum) be housed in a place where they will be seen by the most people, or in their original home? Who gets to decide, and who gets to claim ownership of these artifacts? It is a truly fascinating, thought-provoking dilemma indeed. I only know that I am grateful that the British Museum is free for all, and that for now, they provide an incredibly culturally-enriching service for everyone.

For more information about the Parthenon debate, or any other aspect of the British Museum, visit the website: http://www.britishmuseum.org/

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