London Lantern

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The British Museum - Anything And Everything

23/11/2003, By David McIntosh

Reader Rating: 2.9 from 17426 votes


Use your imagination; try to imagine a museum that seems to have just about anything and everything you could think of a museum having - and a few things you may not have thought of, even in your wildest dreams. Well, that just about sums up on Great Russell Street, home of the British Museum, one of the worldís truly great museums.

If you wanted to see everything the British Museum contains it would take your twelve years, assuming you spent only a minute viewing each item in its collection. If you do the maths, that translates to six and a half million items. Now, not all of the objects in the collection are on display at any one time - displays are rotated on a regular basis - still you get an idea of the vastness of the holdings that comprise contained by the British Museum. The British Museum is not only one of the largest museums in the world, there are over a hundred galleries, itís one of the oldest, founded in 1753 by an Act of Parliament and opening six years later.

Among the treasures in the collection are world famous pieces such as the Rosetta Stone and the Elgin Marbles. Within its walls have the famous have walked and worked. Perhaps the best known example of the course of history being altered through the efforts of one of the museum's patrons would be Das Kapital written by Karl Marx. Much of the research and writing of that misguided work, which while maybe well intentioned has resulted in a philosophy that only brought misery to many million, took place in the reading room of the British Library which was at the time a part of the British Museum.

The reading room is now at the centre of the Great Court, a building renovation that took place in the late 90's when the British Library moved to new quarters on Euston Road. The Great Court is now the largest covered public square in Europe; the whole area covered by a glass ceiling - the effect is stunning.

A note at this point about the appearance of the British Museum; when I first visited it as a boy the exterior had that grimy, maybe even slightly grubby look, common to London buildings in the sixties. Inside displays and exhibits seemed jammed together and there seemed to be little scheme in the organization. Those days are now far in the past, as todayís British Museum has the appearance of the great museum it is. Inside exhibits are organized by theme, the interior sparkles and the result is that a visit is an unforgettable and truly eye-opening experience. The British Museum of the 21st century has placed itself at the leading edge of what a modern museum should be. It not only educates, it entertains.

It is because of one of the pieces in the museumís collection that we now know as much as we do of ancient civilizations. Thanks to the Rosetta Stone we are now able to understand more of what the ancient Egyptians were trying tell future generations about their accomplishments and the world in which they lived.

Simply stated the British Museum can almost be considered a history of the many civilizations of the world; it in fact contains the history of civilization. Want to know where we're going by knowing where we've been? The place to start is the British Museum.

Need some examples? Letís start with the mummies, probably one of the most popular parts in the museum. Outside of Egypt the best collection of ancient Egyptian mummies in the world can be found in London at Great Russell Street. Not only will you find mummified humans, but also cats, dogs, fish, even crocodiles that have undergone the ancient process of preservation of preparation for the afterworld.

Next we move to Greek civilization and the Elgin Marbles - to call them world-famous is to engage in understatement. Much controversy surrounds the marbles; the Greeks want them back, conveniently sidestepping the fact that had they stayed in Greece they would have at best been irreparably damage through lack of care and at worst been destroyed when the Parthenon was almost totally destroyed by the Ottoman Turks.

Another treasure within the walls of the British Museum is the Rosetta Stone without which we would not know what we now know of Egyptian civilization. Discovered in the 19th century, the Rosetta Stone would allow scholars to begin the process of decoding the previously mysterious symbols called hieroglyphics. In the same room you will find a giant sandstone head of the pharaoh Ramesses II. The word is that Shelly got the idea for the poem Ozymandias after viewing the piece.

Early British civilizations are not left out. In one of the rooms you'll find the Sutton Hoo Ship Burial, treasures from a longboat the 7th century which possibly served as the burial place for an East Anglian king. Weapons, jewellery, coins, armour and household utensils are just some of the items that were yielded from the find made by scholars just before the start of World War II. Collections also include other items from early Europe including an array of Celtic items as well as artefacts from the time that a portion of Britain was part of the Roman Empire.

Other parts of the British Museum include collections dealing with the cultures and history of Africa, Asia, the Americas as well as a collection that will appeal to numismatists everywhere; over three quarters of a million coins dating back to the 7th century and notes back to the 14th century.

Thereís a lot I could have mentioned but then to try and tell about all that one can found at the British Museum is also to beg the question: is there enough space? That takes us back to our original thought: imagine a museum with about everything you could think of. Thatís the British Museum.

David McIntosh

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