It was a humid day in early September. Bloomsbury was heaving with tourist groups, families and students. The British Museum, which used to house the materials which later formed the British Library, is an enormous building fronted by Greek-style columns. Unlike the last time I visited (around a decade ago), you can’t simply walk in, as there is now a queuing system and security check. It didn’t take long and I was soon joining the crowd milling through the entrance hall.
Whenever the British Museum is in the news, it’s usually about the issue of repatriating ‘looted’ antiquities, as if today’s Museum is somehow to blame for conserving, restoring and interpreting these long-ago acquired objects so that millions of people can marvel at them and learn about the past. I half-expected there to be empty cases where objects have been sent back to where they came from. However, there’s so much on display that it’s easy to get ‘museum fatigue’ unless you focus on the civilisations and eras you’re most interested in. Some of the most popular objects include the Ancient Egyptian mummies, the Rosetta Stone, Lewis Chessmen and Sutton Hoo burial (including the iconic helmet, pictured).
I do wonder what people from long ago would have thought if they knew that their combs, shoes, chainmail, religious icons, even their bodies and caskets would be on show to the public in the far future. I’m not really sure about mummies in particular. On the one hand, they’re cool and fascinating. On the other, however sensitively they are presented, to be on display at all might not be respectful. Sure, they were excavated a very long time ago and died many centuries before that, but this can’t be the afterlife they had in mind. There are of course ethical guidelines and laws about human remains in museums now and yet I still feel conflicted about it. So I didn’t look much at the mummies. Lots of other things caught my eye, such as…
The Cuerdale Hoard (a large amount of Viking silver treasure), displayed to great effect so that they almost look like little sea creatures in the ocean.
“A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” This Derby porcelain figure of the 18th century actor David Garrick playing Shakespeare’s Richard III.
Roman wall-coverings. The one on the lower right looks like it could be from the 1970s!
This Roman glass window-pane from the 1st or 2nd century AD. Although it’s cracked, it seems a miracle it survived at all.
The coin displays were very interesting. I didn’t have much time to look at them in detail but I thought it striking how these different coins are formed into a spiral, one of the most ancient symbols.
This Doctor Who £10 note (‘Ten Satsumas’ if you look carefully) was a prop made for the show. If you squint at it from a distance, you might think it’s real, but then you notice David Tennant instead of the Queen, and a little Tardis instead of the holographic bit.
I’m sure I’ll be back again some day, as there is so much to see.