British Museum

A visit to the British Museum in London

The British Museum ranks as one of the oldest museums in the world, dating back to 1753. It probably won’t surprise you to learn that it was very high on my list of places to see in London. Let me tell you, I was like a kid going to Disney!

London is one of my favourite places that I’ve been to so far and it has a lot of great museums. I’ve read so much about it and have seen it in so many movies that it felt like home. The British Museum has been prominently edged into my brain by books and movies. It has become an extension of the city itself.

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Reality vs the movies

I might have mentioned before that I love The Mummy series (the original with Brandon Fraser). In the movie, there is a scene where the characters drive up to the museum in the middle of the night, torches blazing in the dark.

That in itself is not a significant reason for the desire to visit, but the fact that it is where the noteworthy Egyptian objects are stored is. Just another reason to visit and get a kick out of the connection to one of my favourite movies.

However, as we got there, I realized something was off. The front of the museum was not the same as in the movie. For some reason, it bugged me. After looking it up, I found out that the movie was shot outside the University College London, not the British Museum. The museum itself was under reconstruction at the time and the buildings are close enough in appearance that most people would not tell them apart. Nevertheless, I was right! How is that for a movie obsession?  

History of the British Museum

The British Museum is the legacy of one Sir Hans Sloane who, at the ripe age of 92, donated his collection of some 70,000+ objects to the British nation. Sloane, born in Ireland, was a physician, naturalist and avid collector.

His extensive collection was the basis for the founding of the British Museum, as well as the British Library and the Natural History Museum. How cool is that? He travelled as a well-renowned physician and managed to amass his collection from distant places. I’m so glad people like him existed so we can enjoy what they left behind.

The British Museum was the first national public museum in the world, providing free admission to the public since it opened in 1759.  It is still a popular destination, with over 6 million visitors coming to check out its exhibitions. I think I would be there a lot if I lived in London.

The later years

The 19th century brought new high profile acquisitions and expansion. Along with the Rosetta Stone, Parthenon pieces and classical sculptures, the donation of the King’s Library by George IV added to the collection. Additions of Assyrian excavations, British and medieval objects along with oriental art and items made things crowded.

As the number of artifacts grew, it prompted a much-needed addition and reconstruction to the museum. Today’s building design, including the Reading Room, dates to 1857.

During the 20th and 21st centuries, the museum additions included guides and lectures as well as further expansions. This includes the magnificent Queen Elizabeth II Great Court, which originally meant to be a garden. Over time, it was filled with book stacks and the original courtyard was forgotten. This renovation opened up the museum space to the public once again.

Why visit the British Museum

The British Museum is home to several very significant items. Their discoveries and subsequent preservation have allowed us to understand the past and learn about old cultures. I have always loved museums and the opportunity to visit a place with so many such unique items was just too tempting.

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The Rosetta Stone

When it comes to discovering key archeological artifacts, the Rosetta Stone takes the top spot as one of the most famous archaeological finds. How cool is that? I don’t know how someone would not want to see it in person. I was certainly in awe of actually seeing it.

The Rosetta Stone is a giant slab, called stele, carved in three different scripts used in Egypt at the time of its creation in 196 BC. The languages inscribed on the stone are in Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics, Demotic script and Ancient Greek. The carvings are a priestly decree establishing the royal cult of Ptolemy V as the ruler of Egypt.  

You see, over time, all knowledge of Egyptian Hieroglyphics had disappeared. Finding the Rosetta Stone allowed experts to use the Ancient Greek inscription as a key to deciphering the rest of the text. This find also made the translation of the pictorial writing system possible.

The stone, discovered in 1799 by Napoleon’s troops, gets its name from where they found it, Rosetta. It then made its way to the British Museum, where it has been housed since 1802.  

The Parthenon sculptures

The British Museum is also home to the various objects and statues from the Parthenon in Greece. There is quite a controversy over how they made their way to London, but it’s worth a stop to see them while there.

One Lord Elgin, who was the ambassador to the Ottoman sultan Selim III, decided to bring a whole collection of objects from the Parthenon back to England in the early 1800s. Whether he was in the right to do so based on the interpretation of the sultan’s permission, is still a controversial subject. While Greeks would like the statues and freezes returned to their original location, the British Museum feels it has a right to their ownership.

The Parthenon was a significant architectural marvel with impressive displays of artwork that influenced cultures that came after. I found it very impressive while we were in Athens. Having said that, I also loved being able to get close to the statues and freezes at the British Museum. After all, their beauty is worthy of admiration and study. Regardless of how you feel about their location, seeing them in person is an experience.

The Egyptian mummies

Out of all the cultures I’ve studied in school, Ancient Egypt was probably the only one I didn’t get a chance to delve into. I’ve been fascinated by it all my life. Any time there is an Egyptian exhibit, I jump on the opportunity. While Toronto’s own Royal Ontario Museum has an extensive collection from Egypt, the British museum’s extensive collection is truly spectacular.  

There are over 120 human mummies, 80 of them directly from Egypt, and over 300 animal mummies. Despite the ghastly mummy unwrapping parties so popular in England at the time, all mummies at the museum have their original wrappings. Nothing has been unwrapped since the 1790s, and rightfully so.

While the mummies donated as part of Hans Sloan’s collection were fake, the museum acquired real ones later. The collection is so popular that it even appeared in the Night at the Museum movie. Just another tie between the British Museum and Hollywood.

Final thoughts on visiting the British Museum

There are tons of exhibits here and I don’t think it’s possible to see them all in a day. The thing about museums is that they can get overwhelming both from their size and from seeing so many exhibits. If time is on your side, a visit to the British Museum can easily be broken down into a few different trips. After all, entry is free.

My trip to this museum was a dream come true. It allowed me to see some of the historically significant pieces and appease the history nerd in me. Would I go back? In a heartbeat!

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