The British Museum: Home of British Culture

London is a town filled with museums of all sorts: large and small, gaudy and elegant, historical and just fun. Of them all, though, the British Museum, located in the Bloomsbury district of the borough of Camden, will always stand out as the grand old mistress. Her exhibits outshine all the rest.

The British Museum celebrated its 250th birthday in 2003. It was established by an act of Parliament in 1753, and based on the collections of Sir Hans Sloan; Robert Harley, 1st earl of Oxford; and Sir Robert Cotton. Montagu house, Great Russell Street, was its first home, though the current building was built on the same site between 1823 and 1852. It has been the subject of several subsequent additions and alterations. The Reading Room, quiet study of people such as Karl Marx, Virginia Woollf, and Thomas Carlyle, was built in the 1850s.

But the British Museum caused a sensation in the early 1800s when it dared display the Elgin Marbles. The Marbles were actually ancient Greek carvings and friezes cut away from the Parthenon at Athens and from other ancient buildings; they were shipped to England by Thomas Bruce, 7th Lord Elgin, British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire (1799-1803). This was controversial; Lord Byron and other public figures reviled Elgin for the theft of the marbles, while ladies fainted at the sight of carved genitalia (later covered up with fig leafs). But after an investigation by Parliament, it was concluded that Lord Elgin probably had saved the Marbles from being destroyed through neglect and malice. Though today the controversy over who owns the Marbles continues, there is no doubt that Lord Elgin probably did the world a true favor when he purchased the Marbles.

Besides the Marbles, the British Museum houses the Rosetta Stone, key to reading ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics; the Black Obelisk from Calah and Ninevah; gold, silver, and shell work from Ur; Sutton Hoo ship’s treasure from the famous burial site; and Chinese ceramics from the Ming dynasty. You can find items here from every corner of the old British Empire, and from many archaeological sites in England herself.

But the British Museum is much more than a repository for ancient things. It’s also one of the largest libraries in Britain. Until about 1997, half of the National Library’s holdings were stored at the museum. The Reading Room has been recently refurbished, with a new reference collection and state of the art computer systems. You can visit the Great Court, a two acre glass-domed hub of culture within the museum. Another new edition, is the Ethnographic Galleries, collections on life in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. And at last, if you just get tired of the history and culture, you can visit the shops and the restaurants inside the Museum.

If you visit the British Museum while in London, arrive early; it’s as large as many malls. Spend your first hour or two just wandering in the halls and staring at everything. Later, focus on the Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Greek sections; they are the homes of the by far most fascinating collections of the British Museum. Huge winged lions that once guarded Assyrian palaces now guard the gateways to these collections. In the Egyptian section, you can find the Rosetta Stone as well as mummies and a fantastic collection of treasures from Egyptian tombs. In the Nimrud Gallery, you’ll find royal propaganda reliefs (some things never change in Iraq!) and wounded lions.

But the best section of all is the Greek section. Starting with the most simple and primitive Cycladian fertility figures (the little fat women with exaggerated female features), moving to painted vases and ultimately to the great Elgin Marbles, the Greek section really gives you a feel for the vast history that belongs to Greece.

To properly appreciate the Elgin Marbles, be certain to read all the orientation material available in the intro rooms between rooms 7 and 8.

The Museum is open most days, but is least crowded on weekday mornings. You can get a 90-minute guided tour every day (three on Sunday, two per day in the winter) at a good price.

Copyright 2005 S Wander

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