Ah, the British Museum. Possibly the best and most engaging museum in the world, free and otherwise. Yes, I am an historian and that probably means that I am biased, but I truly believe that there is something for everyone there. Incredibly easy to find and free to access, it’s the perfect London stop for any kind of trip! Although it’s a little light on the Irish history I normally study, it has several amazing ancient collections that are unparalleled in my own experience. These are some of my favourite shots from my time in the British Museum!
The British Museum can be found in the Bloomsbury neighbourhood of London, and is pretty easy to get to via the Tube! Tottenham Court Road and Holborn stations are both 500m away, and allow you a lovely stroll on the way to the museum. Originally founded from one collection in 1753, it now houses over eight million artefacts and work. The main core of the building was finished in 1852 in the Greek revival style- fairly appropriate given the pieces held within it. The Reading Room is at the heart of the museum and now holds special exhibitions (which usually charge small entry fee).
You could easily spend a week at the British Museum and not see everything there is to see! What really hit me was just how small the smallest coins were and how large the largest statues are; an artefact can be anywhere from 1cm to several metres high. I think I can speak for a most historians when I say that it would be a total dream to work at the British Museum, even for a week.
The Egyptian galleries are fairly impressive. While I think that everyone is fairly interested in Egyptian history- there’s nothing so dramatic as the incest, assassinations, and pyramids of the Ancient and New Kingdoms- it has never been any great focus for me. As such, it was nice to spend a little bit of time with these guys in person. My own research looks at literature in early Irish history, so I don’t often think about statues and architecture. However, when you stop and take a few minutes to look at these, you have to marvel at the skill and talent it took to make them a few thousand years ago!
I’m sad to say that I can’t remember which gallery this is from, but I do remember that it is from the wall of a chapel. What struck me about this is how bright and vibrant it is, the restoration work is pretty amazing here! I think that it’s a common tendency to look at worn away and faded artefacts and assume that the people of the past lived dim and dull lives, but they were just as colourful as our lives now.
I must admit, my favourite galleries were the Greek galleries. Time for a short trip down memory lane: I took Western Civilisation, a twelfth grade class, in grade eleven. So, when it came to presentations and the like, I tended to be on the quiet side even though I was a giant history nerd who knew my stuff inside and out. One of our final projects was to present on a topic in history that is present in the news now, and I chose to write on the Elgin Marbles. For anyone who doesn’t know, the Elgin Marbles were taken from the Parthenon (and a few surrounding buildings) in the early nineteenth century by Lord Elgin. He brought them back to England where they have been in the collection of the British Museum after being purchased by the government.
Greece and England have been arguing for quite some time on whether or not they should be returned. At this point, I do believe that they should stay in England for a few reasons. 1) If they were placed on the remains of the Parthenon, they would most certainly be damaged by acid rain. 2) They are supposedly going to be put in a museum in Athens- a museum is a museum. If we sent all artefacts back to museums in their country of origin, we would all have fairly boring museums…
(London was grossly hot that summer, I swear I’m not just a walking tomato…) It really meant a lot to me as a historian to see what I studied about in person. With a lot of early medieval pieces, they are lost and we either have copies or transcriptions from a later period.
I can’t imagine the time (and talent) that went into carving these; the folds in the material and the human form beneath are so life-like and realistic that you have to wonder if you are doing anything worthwhile with your life because everything you produce is a stick figure….
The central court of the British Museum is one of the most breath-taking pieces of architecture to see. The Reading Room in the centre with the older facades on each side, all with the lattice work glass ceiling, you will want to sit here for hours. (And it appears that some lucky souls actually do this.) If you ever have the chance, you have to spend a few hours at the British Museum and satisfy the historian that lives in all of us!