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The British Museum

The British Museum

Words Harvey James

Photography Alan Schaller

The British Museum is a monolith in the heart of Bloomsbury, London. Its Greek pillars stand proud and imposing. The black (technically, ‘invisible green’) railings that surround, make it a sanctuary amidst the blaring London streets. While the queues of excitable tourists, the nearby fish and chip shop and the various gift emporia would suggest we have arrived at any other tourist attraction in England; any museum, The British Museum is not. 

Once inside, any semblance of the quotidian further dissipates as the majestic domed roof, designed by Lord Norman Foster, soars overhead. The Reading Room, nestled in the centre, is the fulcrum around which the crowds and exhibits pivot. As Hannah Boulton, Head of Press and Marketing, explains: ‘The British Museum is a museum of “things”,’ but the physicality of objects, while often beautiful, withers in comparison to the curious and powerful tales they bring with them.

Hannah continues: ‘An object like the 2,000-year-old Warren Cup, for example, is able to tell us about Roman drinking – and sexual – habits, the extent of the Roman Empire, and prejudice in the early 20th century when it was discovered. Now, it’s an object that can tell important stories about LGBTQ histories throughout time.’ It is these stories that make The British Museum a compendium of human cultural history, and truly a place for your mind to get lost in.

Despite the large – indeed, often overwhelming – geographic and historic span of the museum (it covers ‘the whole world with over 90 galleries’), adept categorisation and specificity help break it up, creating many museums in one: a Russian doll of tourism. ‘In 2019, we are hosting exhibitions on Norwegian print making, Japanese Manga, the myth of Troy, money-based board games, collecting in the Solomon Islands – and many more!’ As Hannah points out, that means the herd of tourists will tend to skim over some gems, or miss them entirely. ‘Whilst we are busy, there are always quieter spots that can be sought out. My favourite is the Percival David Foundation Gallery of Chinese Ceramics. It’s a stunning space full of wonderful ceramic pieces but is a bit off the beaten track!’

The British Museum itself has a history of devolution. Sir Hans Sloane, whose bequest of his vast collection of antiquities instigated the founding of the Museum in 1753, had also amassed a huge number of natural history specimens. But in the 1880s, with space in Bloomsbury at a premium, it was agreed that these collections should move to a new site in South Kensington, now known as London’s Natural History Museum (it was officially called ‘The British Museum (Natural History)’ until 1992). Similarly, the large number of manuscripts and books in the founding collection continued to grow until it became too large, leading to the creation of the British Library in 1973.

The Museum’s combination of scale, specificity and free access means everyone can trace their collective histories here, as well as more personal ones. As Hannah says, ‘What ties this all together is a focus on human stories and human interaction. At its heart, the Museum is about being human.’ But despite its honourable humanitarianism, controversy has never been far away from The British Museum. ‘The Museum’s collection goes back over 260 years. Many objects entered the collection during the period of the British Empire, so there is, of course, debate about how some objects came into the collection. We need to acknowledge this and provide visitors with enough information about collecting histories so they can make up their own minds. But I do believe the strength of the collection is in its breadth and depth, it is a place – freely available – where you can see the whole world under one roof and learn about the human experience.’

As well as wrestling with its past, the museum must keep looking over the horizon to stay relevant in modern society. With everything imaginable having the potential to be digitised in some way, surely this changes the way people interact with the physical world, or at least offers some practical benefits. So, what does the future hold for The British Museum? ‘We have always been a global resource but we have the ability now to make that promise much more of a reality, sharing the collection through our online database, website, social media, YouTube etc. Within the Museum we look to use digital means to provide visitors with contextual information, to help them make more sense of the objects and the periods and cultures they come from.’

If this has piqued your interest, then visit The British Museum and see the wonderful collections for yourself. It is, after all, the material reality of things that is paramount in our very human fascination with history.





Words Kirk Truman

Photography Alan Schaller

“I see it as more about being a fisherman than a hunter…”

Alan Schaller and I are wandering in the metropolis. To be precise, we’re walking through the streets of Soho. Alan is watchful and observant, seeking every possible opportunity for the next image in his signature monochromatic style. He cradles a Leica in his hands, just as he does every day as he travels around our capital. He takes street photography seriously. He lives and breathes his work, and has a killer sense of humour. A modern-day Fan Ho, he creates stunning black and white images expressing the emotion, pace and character of contemporary city life in London and beyond.

Alan didn’t start out as a photographer. In fact, in his early 20s he had his heart set on music. “I was writing music for TV and ads. I’d been playing since I was a kid, and that already felt like my dream. I guess I began to get tired of the way musicians were treated in the industry. For me, none of the commissions I was taking on felt relevant to me, my style, or the music I enjoyed making,” he explains. “If the truth be told, my ex-girlfriend had a camera and I wanted to begin shooting like her. I wanted to have a hobby, and street photography felt like an obvious choice for me at the time. All I knew was that I wanted to take pictures of things I liked. I remember going to an exhibition close to the time I got my first camera and I was totally blown away by what I had seen. I knew it was something I wanted to chase. And from there, I shot whenever I could. I saved up, and spent what cash I had on a Leica and I’ve shot with them ever since.” Alan began shooting a bit of everything in order to appeal to a range of people and brands. He soon felt that it was better to not be a jack of all trades. “I liked black and white photography, so I shot what I liked and developed my own style as a photographer.”

As his work has grown and he has developed his own defining characteristics and style as a photographer, London – where he was born and bred – has become vital to his work. “It wasn’t long before I had built up a body of work and was discovered by one of the picture editors at Time Out, which led to my first ever interview. This was about six months in, and it focused mostly on the London Underground and quickly led to other things. After I worked with The Independent, I was beginning to build an audience. Music had now become totally phased out, and photography took over,” says Alan. “I had hit a style that I felt was my own and identifiable. What still gets me today is when people say they know my images before they see the name.”

A couple of years into his new career, Alan and a number of select collaborators formed SPI (Street Photography International). The idea was to create an online platform for street photographers to submit their work, and have the opportunity to see their photos appear on the SPI feed as the winner of weekly competitions. “We wanted to use 90% unknown photographers’ work as a way of recognising genuine talent from the online bubble of Instagram. As the three members of SPI, our work makes up the other 10%. For us, what was key was to create a community of street photographers,” he says. SPI is the biggest resource for street photography in the world. Today, it has an Instagram following of around 750,000 and is set to hit a million followers in the coming months.

Soho in particular has become an important canvas for him and his work. “Semi-planned, thought out, watching, waiting and occasionally in the moment; my images are the product of thinking. I see it as more about being a fisherman than a hunter. Soho is a fascinating place for any photographer. For anybody who shoots street [photography], they should come here. Its particularly good at night; the neon lights and tight streets make it a photo haven. There’s always something going on, from someone in a coffee shop window to the range of people going about their day-to-day lives. I’ve spent a lot of time here these past years, and I’ve really wanted to begin documenting the time I’ve spent here. I’ve always been into people watching since I was a kid. It was like a game to me. I’d try and spot the person wearing the silliest hat or try to guess someone’s background or profession based on how they were dressed. Photography gives you that perspective, especially in Soho. It’s a place where life, emotion and culture from all sorts of backgrounds are united.”

Alan explains that he has certain elements that he looks for in an image, and that without these limitations, great pictures won’t always fall into your lap: a street photographer needs more than just serendipity. His understanding of light is first and foremost, at the heart of every image. After that, Alan cites emotion, timing and patience as the key elements of his style. Most of all, though, he jokes that he gets his biggest kicks out of photographing dogs and pigeons. “Pigeons are kind of horrible, but if you watch them mid-flight they’re actually incredibly beautiful,” he laughs. Alan is currently producing an ongoing series about the Soho neighbourhood. Beyond that, he is an official ambassador for Leica and works internationally as well as hosting an array of talks and street photography workshops, mostly in London and New York City.