During one of our UK-bound trips when we scheduled only 3 days in London, Himself and Yours Truly placed visiting the British Museum at the very top of our agenda. We wanted to see the museum's famous antiquities, including the Rosetta Stone, the Elgin Marbles, and Grecian urns that are worthy of odes.
Established in 1753 on the basis of the collections of Sir Hans Sloane, the museum is over 250 years old and has been open to the public since 1759. Construction on the building in which the collection is currently housed began in 1844 and was designed to resemble a classical Greek temple. The museum’s most recent modification is the addition of the Great Court, completed late in 2000. It consists of a large canopied courtyard structure with a lightweight, transparent roof.
Having cut our museum-going teeth on the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., Himself and Yours Truly were by no means novices regarding great museums. But we also knew that when the Smithsonian first opened its doors, the British Museum had long since established the standard of excellence for the preservation and display of antiquities. We were sufficiently enticed by the museum's attractions to spend 4 hours of our brief stay in London exploring its galleries, and we were not disappointed.
During our time in the British Museum, we found ourselves gazing in awe at mythical beasts that once guarded the gates of ancient Mesopotamian cities. We wandered around and through a series of Egyptian monuments created over a period of 3 millennia. We explored galleries containing Minoan jewelry, Mycenaean pottery, Assyrian reliefs, Etruscan bronze weaponry, exquisite Greek and Roman vases, and much, much more. And, of course, we spent as many long moments as possible savoring the museum's astonishing collection of Parthenon Sculptures, otherwise know as the Elgin Marbles. This, in fact, was our principal goal at the British Museum—to stand in the shadow of the incredible elegance and strength of these astonishing sculptures.
It was in the Parthenon galleries that I overhead another visitor making pejorative comments about the British Museum, focusing on the continuing controversy as to whether the museum should be condemned as a storehouse for some of the grandest thefts of all time (the opinion being expressed by my eavesdropper) or praised for preserving some of humanity's greatest masterpieces (which, I confess, is my personal opinion). To the degree that such a controversy has merit, I would have to acknowledge that there is truth on both sides—not just for the British Museum, but for all similar institutions, including my beloved Smithsonian.
Our judgments concerning these sins, however, are generally based on the political correctness of the moment. Certainly there are lessons to be learned from past mistakes, indeed from past arrogance and presumptuousness. Still, the collectors and scientists of generations past did manage to preserve much that would likely have been lost—or spirited away into private collections. In my opinion, this argument only has merit when such mistakes are perpetuated down to the present. The issue should not be one of casting endless blame for past ignorance and error; rather, it should be on how the wealth of knowledge and human culture preserved within these collections can best be safeguarded for future generations.
Leaving these important (and they are important) political considerations aside, the British Museum is a must-see for anyone with a passion for the ancient accomplishments of humanity. As a living institution nearing its 250th anniversary, it has done much to establish the tradition carried on by most of the world's great museums—that is, to combine practical and scholarly research with public education. It was and is a grand and ambitious undertaking for which I am personally grateful.
Exhibits we did not visit include those on the ancient cultures of the Americas, the Far East, and Africa. The journey of civilization of Europe and Britain from its ancient origins through the modern era is on our agenda for some future visit.
Every museum has its own particular logic and traffic flow. The British Museum gives pride of place to the ancient civilizations of the Mediterranean Basic of Western Asia. All these exhibit areas are striking in their own right, but the lion’s share of the collection belongs to the Roman and Greek galleries, which meander up and down stairs from the basement, to the ground floor, and on to the first floor. (Elevators are also provided, but they do not maintain the continuity of the exhibits as effectively as the stairways.) Most of these galleries are large and relatively open, making excellent use of wall space to showcase ancient murals. The Egyptian Gallery, extending about two-thirds the length of the ground floor, is virtually an avenue of monumental sculpture. Exhibits featuring the Far East, the Americans, and even Britain are a bit less off the beaten track.
Opposite the antiquities collection on the ground floor is The King’s Library—a grand hall 300 feet long, 30 to 58 feet wide, and 41 feet high—which once housed a collection of 60,000 books collected by King George III (of Revolutionary fame to Americans) and donated to the library by his son George IV. The library has been recently restored to its former pre-Victorian glory, but the books (the original collection plus the museum’s subsequent additions) have been moved to a new home, the nearly British Library at St. Pancras. The room is definitely worth a visit for its overall scale and grandeur—and as the library every book lover would covet as their own. The great hall of the King’s Library is now a spectacular home for the museum’s display on the Enlightenment.
Finally, the new Queen Elizabeth II Great Court is said to be "the largest covered public square in Europe." Located in what was the museum’s courtyard, it has been an enduring source of controversy. The glass and steel roof is either an ideal complement to the classical design of the museum or a modern intrusion—depending on your point of view. The interior design features a central "drum" enclosing the museum’s Reading Room, which in turn features two encircling exterior staircases that can double as a stage for performing arts. The remainder of this space provides a setting for a variety of events sponsored by the museum. As a personal response, I found that the new space, which is accented by a selection of large sculptures from the museum’s collection, rather awe-inspiring. In a different age, it might have been a temple forecourt.
The museum's cafeteria also deserves a few favorable comments. Unlike most of our Smithsonian cafeterias, which tend to cater to fast food consumed in noisy and crowded areas, the British Museum’s Court Restaurant offers good food in a setting that encourages relaxed conversation or quiet reflection—a setting appropriate for one of the world’s great institutions. The food is not cheap, but neither is it terribly expensive. For us, it was a pleasant and restful setting for a cup of tea and a croissant.
Wherefores and By-the-Ways
Admission to the museum is free, though a contribution of £2 per person is seriously encouraged. (Museum staff seems to direct younger visitors toward the honor boxes at the entrance, while they allow visitors in the senior-citizen category to slip quietly past.) A few exhibits may be viewed by fee only—including the Rosetta Stone during our 2000 visit.
The galleries and Reading Room of the British Museum are open 7 days a week, 10am to 5:30pm on Saturday through Wednesday and 10am to 8:30pm on Thursday and Friday. The Great Court is open from 9am to 6pm on Saturday through Wednesday and from 9am to 11pm on Thursday and Friday. Located on Great Russell Street in London, the museum is accessible by Tube, city bus, and tour bus.