Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

Wait, is the Rosetta Stone British?

September 9, 2010 · 2 Comments

The British Museum is probably the best place in the world to get a historical narrative of the collective human race. This is probably because at the end of the 18th century when the museum was founded, the British Empire was at its peak and the government wanted to show its citizens items from the mysterious and exotic reaches of the empire. So throughout the century items from all over the world were shipped to London.

We can still see all of those items there today, and I have already spent many many hours exploring the museum’s diverse and extensive collection. I really enjoy the opportunity to listen to the podcasts (the history of the world in 100 items) on my journey through the museum. It was while listening to the podcast today about the Chinese Han Lacquer Cup that I began to notice something. Although the podcast references the items role in its specific country of origin, its primary goal is to show the listener where the piece fits in the history of the human race, as most items represent an idea or new technological skill.

This is a very globalizing force because all of the objects, whether Greek, Chinese, or Roman, are discussed in a way that illustrates them as items of human creation rather then objects of any specific empire or nation.  In fact the museum tends to make the pieces culturally neutral as well by making most rooms look exactly the same. Each room has a glass case on each wall with perpendicular glass cases jutting out into the center of the room. In the middle occasionally there will be a larger item of more significance. As an avid attendee of American museums, I am spoiled by the Metropolitan Museum’s ability to change the layout and design of each room depending on what culture is on display.

Perhaps this monotonous layout is designed to do what the podcast also attempts to do, make it one universal history unified in the museum by carbon copied rooms. This then gets to the debate brought up all over the world of whether or not those items even belong in the British Museum, but that is entirely too much to discuss in one blog.

Categories: 2010 MatthewG · Museums

2 responses so far ↓

  •   sarahb // Sep 9th 2010 at 18:59

    I think that the question now is whether the neutralizing rhetoric your talking about is a good or bad thing. On the one hand, I think the world could us more unifying mediums. However, I seriously object to a museum which dismisses the fact that these artifacts have national and ethnic identities.

  •   Karl // Sep 10th 2010 at 13:04

    Could the layout simply be to ease traffic flow? I find the BM to be the easiest to navigate because of the “corridors” down each side of the rooms.

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