Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

"British" Museum

August 25, 2009 · No Comments

Instead of perusing the Portrait Gallery along with everyone else, Sarah, Alli and I decided to chip away at the vast collections of the British Museum a short walk away from the Arran House in Bloomsbury. Because their collection is so vast, we were only able to manage the Egyptian and Southeast Asian exhibits in one afternoon, but so far I think it’s safe to say that the British Museum is my favorite of all that we have seen.

At every turn in this country, I am astounded by the amount of history and the age of buildings, artifacts, and communities on display both in museums and on the city streets, but the Egyptian section of the British Museum takes the cake for being the most impressive and mindblowingly old. As an American, when something is over one hundred years old, I usually find it quite impressive and worthy of special honor and delicate hands. However, many of the Egyptian artifacts at the British Museum are out in the open, which strikes me as almost irresponsible, since “PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH” signs usually don’t stop small children and excited tourists from running their hands all over these ancient hieroglyphs and pharaohstatues. Besides my worries about greasy fingers and eroded stones, however, I believe I have a new-found interest in hieroglyphics and Egyptian culture based on what I saw this afternoon. While I’m usually not a fan of dead things on principle, I particularly liked an exhibit in a glass case of a remarkably well-preserved man, buried and surrounded by various jars of important things he would need in the afterlife. The idea of preparing a dead person for the unknown with worldly goods fascinates me, and seeing the mummies up close and in person is something I don’t think I’ll soon forget.

Even though we didn’t make it to about 75% of the museum today, by glancing at the floor plan, it was immediately obvious that despite the fact this was the British Museum, there was very little having to do with the Brits in the exhibits. There were whole floors and wings dedicated to Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece, Southeast Asia and Asia, and Africa, and seemingly most other continents and cultures besides Great Britain. The name “the British Museum” is certainly a misnomer, and I hope to find out the origins behind the name. If there had been a feedback section for visitors to leave their comments like there was in the Docklands Museum, I wonder what the patrons would have said. Because the exhibits I saw were not as politically charged as the slavery exhibit at the Docklands Museum, perhaps the comments would be less scathing, but I imagine that many tourists and visitors have arrived at the museum expecting a museum of British history and leaving without getting what they came for (many comments at the Docklands had been about “missing” components of British history and an imbalance of representation of thinkers and innovators).

Perhaps the name of the museum remains the somewhat confusing “British Museum” because of the elusive definition of “British” itself. Since Britain, specifically London, is such a patchwork of histories and cultures and traditions, perhaps making the British Museum focus on everything but the history that went down on this particular piece of land is actually fitting: each culture gets a historical representation in the broad strokes of the various African and Asian and European galleries, and together these collective histories make up the histories of the individuals who make up Britain.

Categories: Chelsea · Museums
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