The British Museum in London is undoubtedly ranked as one the best museums in the world, containing approximately 8 million artifacts. It was founded in 1753 as the first free, national museum. Its enormous collection contains items from every continent in the world except for Antarctica. This is largely in part to the fact that the “sun never set on the British Empire” during the 19th century, meaning that Britain controlled so much of the world then, that the sun was always shining on one part of its Empire. Because of this, the British were easily able to acquire artifacts from most of the world. Additionally, the Brits were pioneers in archaeology, so a large portion of the British Museum’s collection comes from them.
I had the privilege of spending a few hours at the British Museum in 2009. Unfortunately, I probably saw less than ¼ of the collection because it is so large. Entrance into the Museum is free, as are the different tours that they offer, including a tour of the Museum’s highlights. Additionally, there are audio tour headsets available in 10 different languages that people can pay to use. Perhaps this is no longer the case, but when I was at the Museum 11 years ago, they offered free tours of specific sections of the Museum. I did tours of the Ancient Egyptian and Ancient Assyrian collections.
Perhaps the most famous object at the British Museum is the Rosetta Stone. French soldiers in Egypt found this stele fragment and took it in 1799, but soon surrendered it to the British after experiencing a defeat under Napoleon. The stone is important because it helped scholars discover how to decipher the long-forgotten Egyptian hieroglyphs, ultimately allowing us to learn more about Ancient Egypt. Since the Rosetta Stone was created during the Ptolemaic period, when Greece oversaw Egypt, three scripts were written on it (all saying the same thing): Ancient Greek, Demotic (a form of Egyptian script), and hieroglyphic. Scholars already knew how to read Ancient Greek, so that helped them with deciphering the other two scripts. Over the years, Egypt has requested the return of the Rosetta Stone to its native land.
Since many famous objects at the British Museum came there through war or theft, many countries frequently ask for the return of their artifacts. For example, many of the statues at the Parthenon in Athens are replicas of the originals at the British Museum, so Greece would like them returned. Similarly, the British army essentially stole the Benin Bronzes from Benin City, Nigeria in 1897, so Nigeria would like them back. Although I do not believe that countries should be robbed of their artifacts, I do see two positive results of what the British did. First, the British Museum allows you to view the history of many different cultures all in one place, which is an experience that is not easy to replicate elsewhere. Second, the British may have helped preserve artifacts that would have otherwise been destroyed later. For example, in 2015, the group ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) destroyed many ancient artifacts in Iraq. This included using a sledgehammer to destroy a lamassu (Assyrian winged bull). Fortunately, the British Museum has several lamassu that used to be located in the same area as the destroyed one. A very disturbing video of the 2015 destruction of Iraqi artifacts can be found Here.
In addition to world-class exhibits, the British Museum also has study rooms (where you can request to study a specific object from the collection), an archive, and a library complementing the collection. Britain’s national library used to be a part of the Museum, but it became so large that it had to move into its own space. While the British Library was still a part of the British Museum, famous people used to study there, including Sherlock Holmes’ author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and the exiled Karl Marx.
The British Museum has a nice gift shop full of items reflecting the Museum’s collections. Although it is more fun to browse in person, it is also viewable online. Unfortunately, my time in the gift shop was cut short due to a situation that I hope is not common at the Museum. As I was looking at some tiny knick knacks of Ancient Egyptian artifacts, an Eastern European man twice my age came up to me. He said, “I can buy those for you.” I think I looked at him confused and said that I did not want them. He then said, “Yeah. What would you do with those? They’re garbage. Throw them down the toilet. I can get you something else.” By then, I was too creeped out, so I nervously smiled and escaped from the gift shop. Perhaps my American flag bag made me a target, but I am not sure.
Thankfully, if you are never able to make a physical trip to the British Museum, you can still view an enormous portion of the collection online. Amazingly, some objects can even be viewed at 360 degrees, and then downloaded to be printed on a 3D printer: https://sketchfab.com/britishmuseum. You can also learn more about the Museum’s objects from a series called A History of the World in 100 Objects, which was done by former Museum director, Neil MacGregor. In 2010, he recorded 100 lectures on 100 different objects from the Museum that best represent the history of the world. This project is available as a podcast and also on the BBC’s website.
Sources and Further Reading
“The British Museum.” Sketchfab. https://sketchfab.com/britishmuseum (accessed February 27, 2020).
“Collecting Histories.” The British Museum. https://www.britishmuseum.org/about-us/british-museum-story/collecting-histories (accessed February 27, 2020).
“Collection Online.” The British Museum. https://research.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/search.aspx (accessed February 27, 2020).
“Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about the Rosetta Stone.” The British Museum. https://blog.britishmuseum.org/everything-you-ever-wanted-to-know-about-the-rosetta-stone/ (accessed February 27, 2020).
“A History of the World in 100 Objects.” BBC. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00nrtd2 (accessed February 27, 2020).
“Video: ISIS Destroys Centuries Old Iraqi Artifacts.” Al Arabiya. http://english.alarabiya.net/en/News/middle-east/2015/02/26/With-sledgehammer-ISIS-smashes-Iraqi-history.html# (accessed February 27, 2020).