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.