British Museum: Host to the History of the World
A MUSEUM SHELTERING UNDER ITS ROOF, PHARAOH MUMMIES, THE TEMPLE OF ARTEMIS FROM EPHESUS, THE HISTORICAL HERITAGES OF COUNTRIES SUCH AS INDONESIA, SUDAN AND NIGERIA: AN UNEQUALLED COLLECTION CONSISTING OF 7 MILLION PIECES; HOSTING YEARLY 6 MILLION GUESTS, THE BRITISH MUSEUM’S OWN HISTORY DESERVES TO BE EXAMINED.
Host to the History of the World
London is on the top list of world capitals worth seeing and visiting. One associates immediately with the name London, the Thames river, the famous Big Ben Clock Tower and of course the British Museum. No wonder that this museum, a ‘must see’ for all visitors of the city, is one of London’s, yet more Great Britain’s best known symbols.
The giant museum, located at London’s city centre, houses a vast variety of works of art bearing the potential of straining Great Britain’s relations with almost every country in the world. The tension’s cause is that a large majority of the artefacts on display here, were removed from their countries of origin and brought thousands of kilometres away to the British Museum. The civilization of Ancient Egypt, with the mummies of its principal pharaohs, its statues, its treasures of jewellery and hieroglyph tablets keeping history’s records, is almost completely revived here with its most essential components.
The cultural heritages of Nigeria, Sudan and even Indonesia are all present… One of the most prestigious departments of the museum is also the one with the pieces hurting the most our Turkish souls, starting from parts of the Artemision (Temple of Artemis) of Ephesus, all the way to the vestiges, originating from Bodrum, of the Mauseleion, the famous funeral monument of Carian King Maussollos.
“Free entrance” gesture The entrance to the British Museum is free of charge, as if it were a ‘generosity’ towards the citizens of countries coming all the way to London to see their own cultural heritage; as if this gesture conveyed the message: “We removed your heritage from its roots, but don’t worry, you don’t have to pay to see it here!” In short, it is easy to enter the museum, but not easy to leave, because it is impossible to complete the visit in one day. The collections are exhibited under four main headings, Antiquities, Coins and Medals, Prints and Drawings, and Ethnography.
Antiquities, probably the museum’s most interesting department, comprises the Egypt, West Asia, Ancient Greece and Rome, Prehistoric Britain, Medieval Age and Asia Collections. On top of it, the displayed items are like a drop in the ocean in comparison with the huge treasure on the inventory of the museum which consists of 7 million pieces, of which only the limited number of 50 thousand can be publicly displayed.
Before the sunset!
Those figures are evidence to it; the huge neoclassical building erected in the middle of London is a giant monument embodying the historic evolution of human culture! The history of the museum itself is symbolic of an era where the British Empire was known as “the Empire on which the sun never sets”, the period where Asia and Africa were considered “backyard of the Empire”. The British Museum was established in 1753, largely based on the collections of the physician and scientist Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1723).
During the course of his lifetime Sloane gathered an enviable collection of curiosities and, not wishing to see his collection broken up after death, he bequeathed it to King George II, for the nation, for the
princely sum of 20 thousand Pounds. At that time, Sloane’s collection consisted of around 71,000 objects of all kinds including some 40,000 printed books, 7,000 manuscripts, extensive natural history specimens including 337 volumes of dried plants, prints and drawings including those by Albrecht Dürer and antiquities from Egypt, Greece, Rome, the Ancient Near and Far East and the Americas. On 7 June 1753, King George II gave his formal assent to the Act of Parliament which established the British Museum.
The “foundation collections” included many of the most treasured books now in the British Library including the Lindisfarne Gospels and the sole surviving manuscript of 11th century Old English epic poem Beowulf.
The British Museum was the first of a new kind of museum-national, belonging to neither church nor king, freely open to the public and aiming to collect everything. The body of trustees decided on a converted 17th-century mansion, Montagu House, as a location for the museum, which it bought from the Montagu family for 20 thousand Pounds. The Trustees rejected Buckingham House, on the site now occupied by Buckingham Palace, on the grounds of cost and the unsuitability of its location.
The museum first opened to the public on 15 January 1759 in the Montagu House in Bloomsbury, on the site of the current museum building. In 1772 the Museum acquired its first antiquities of note; British Ambassador to Naples, Sir William Hamilton’s (1730-1803) collection of Greek vases. From 1778 a display of objects from the South Seas brought back from the round-the-world voyages of Captain James Cook and the travels of other explorers fascinated visitors with a glimpse of previously unknown lands.
British Museum’s expansion over the following two and a half centuries was largely a result of an expanding British colonial footprint. While the language and culture of ‘the Empire on which the sun never sets’ was spreading out to four corners of the world, the cultural and artistic treasures of countries under British colonial rule were being transferred to the British Museum.
The museum was expanding constantly through various acquisitions and donations and its reputation was growing. People from all parts of Britain were rushing into the museum to admire treasures of art, statues, jewellery and drawings depicting far away countries, originating from places and cultures whose existence they could not even imagine.
Archaeology’s greatest achievement
The Museum owned a great number of amazing pieces. However, the foundations for an extensive collection of sculpture began to be laid in the early 19th century, with Greek, Roman and Egyptian artefacts. An ancient Egyptian stele inscribed with a decree issued in 196 BC on behalf of King Ptolemy V, discovered in 1799 near the town of Rashid (Rosetta) in the Nile Delta by a French soldier during Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt, led to a major breakthrough in archaeology. The Rosetta Stone, an ancient Egyptian stele inscribed in three scripts: Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, Demotic script (popular language in Ancient Egypt), and Ancient Greek, proved to be a most valuable tool for the deciphering of hieroglyphs.
Because it presents essentially the same text in all three scripts, it provided the key to the modern understanding of Egyptian hieroglyphs. The Rosetta Stone, a 114 centimetres high, 72 cm wide, and 28 cm thick stone of black granite, paved the way to the inception of Egyptology as a science. Meanwhile, British troops defeated the French in Egypt in 1801, and the original stone came into British possession under the Capitulation of Alexandria.
Transported to London, it has been on public display at the British Museum since 1802. It is the most-visited object in the British Museum. Gifts and purchases from Henry Salt, British Consul General in Egypt, beginning with the Colossal bust of Ramesses II the Great in 1818, laid the foundations of the collection of Egyptian Monumental Sculpture.
Weighing 7 tons, this fragment of his statue was cut from a single block of two-coloured granite. He is shown wearing the striped nemes head-dress surmounted by a cobra diadem. It was retrieved from the mortuary temple of Ramesses at Thebes (the ‘Ramesseum’) in 1816. The arrival of the head in England in 1818 not only aroused widespread interest by the public and the scientific community, but inspired poets like Percy Bysshe Shelley to write poetry glorifying Ancient Egypt.
Ottoman lands were next
The interest manifested towards Ancient Egyptian art, prompted the British to expedite their archaeological activity in the East. The plundering started in Greece spread out to other parts of the Ottoman Empire. In 1806, Lord Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1799 to 1803 removed the large collection of marble sculptures from the Parthenon on the Acropolis in Athens and transferred them to the UK. In 1816 these masterpieces of western art, were
acquired by The British Museum by Act of Parliament and deposited in the museum thereafter at the Duveen Gallery built especially for the Elgin Marbles.
With the progressive extension of collections, the construction of new wings became indispensable. The famous circular Reading Room was designed and built by neoclassical architect Sir Sydney Smirke from a sketch drawn by Sir Anthony Panizzi, Chief Librarian at the British Museum Library opened in 1857.
In 1840 the Museum became involved in its first overseas excavations with Charles Fellows’s expedition to the Antique settlement of Xanthos near Antalya Kınık in Turkey.
Fellow removed and transferred to London historic treasures from the tombs of the rulers of ancient Lycia, among them the priceless Nereid and Payava monuments. In 1857 Charles Newton was to discover the 4th century BC Mausoleum of Halicarnassos, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and equally transferred various treasures, among them, friezes from the Mauseleion and statues of King Maussollos and Queen Artemisia, riding a chariot drawn by four horses from the crest of the monument to the British Museum.
The dilapidation was continuing through further excavations in other parts of Ottoman territory. Several valuable pieces from the Nineveh Assyrian settlement near Mosul and the Temple of Artemis at Ephesos were transferred to Britain. Two more wings were added to the building between 1900 and 1925.
Ethnographical fieldwork was carried out in places as diverse as New Guinea, Madagascar, Romania, Guatemala and Indonesia and there were excavations in the Near East, Egypt, and Sudan, adding to the museum’s majesty.
Today, the British Museum has grown to become one of the largest museums in the world, covering an area of over 75,000 m2 of exhibition space, hosting yearly over 6 million tourists. The Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan alone houses over 110,000 objects. The museum is a monument sheltering world’s most outstanding marvels of culture and art.
Against the background of intense controversy over the acquisition circumstances of a large portion of its treasures and calls for their restitution to their countries of origin, the British Museum continues to attract world’s attention as a cosmopolitan ‘Temple of Art and Culture’.