British Museum in London: A Giant Archive

Posted on January 27th, 2010 by

The first time I stepped onto the grounds of the British Museum I was fascinated.  I felt so small and muted as I walked into the sea of white marble in the main lobby.  The overwhelming Pantheon-like building towered over everyone as they walked through the large marble pillars.  The museum was first founded 250 years ago and has gone through numerous renovations throughout that time to become the current size and splendor that it is today.  Little did I know this museum and how I felt about it would change drastically after more than one visit to its galleries.

Before our first visit each of us in the class were to choose an Eye Opener tour of a specific gallery in the museum.  An Eye Opener tour at the British Museum is meant to give you a bit more insight to a specific gallery of your choosing.  The galleries ranged from different time periods, dynasties, or specific subject such as money.     After this tour we were to present to the rest of the class an overview of the gallery and choose a specific piece to show the other classmates.  We were to give the specific historical context of the piece and the reasons why we chose it.  This seemed like a very simple and exciting task because it meant we would get to go back to the museum again and learn about a subject of our choosing.  Apparently a bit of snow will surprisingly shut down the city of London, and so the majority of our tours were cancelled on the first try.  Its not only the snow that causes a problem either, but because the tour guides are volunteers the museum is completely at the hands of these volunteers when it comes to these tours.  This causes a problem because it is hard for the museum to know if the tours will happen until the day of the tour.  So, we do not know if the tour will happen until we actually arrive at the museum and check.

On this particular visit I took my time to explore this mansion of artifacts spread through 95 rooms.   All of the rooms were quite intriguing from Ancient Egyptian mummies to Japanese samurai suits.  My whole view of the organization of the museum changed after we read Art With a Difference by Leonard Diepeveen and Timothy Van Laar.  The authors bring up questions of organization and who controls what is in a museum and who controls what that is and where it is placed.  They propose that the answers to these questions provide us with insight to the museum’s agenda and what it wants you to take in while you are there.  To illustrate some of these ideas I will explain the entrance and a brief overview of the organization of the British Museum using examples from Art With a Difference.

When approaching the museum you see a fence that encloses it and you must enter through a gate.  This gives the feeling that the museum is a separate entity from the rest of the city, or it survives as its own special entity.  When you walk in to the main lobby you are presented with an amazing sea of white and high ceilings to give you the feeling that this building and everything in it is very important and almost larger than life.  There are two large information desks along with numerous different gift shops on the main floor.  The only two exhibits that can be accessed without climbing a numerous number of stairs are the ancient Egypt and Greece gallery on one side and The Enlightenment Room on the other.  The Enlightenment room is essentially a whole room of artifacts from all over the world that were collected during this time period.  How these artifacts arrived at the museum is quite dubious, and its presence reminds the audience of the effects of British colonialism.  In order to find the Japan, Africa, and Mexico exhibits you must go through a maze of other galleries and take hidden steps down into the basement of the museum or the top floor where nothing else exists.  I say the Mexico exhibit because it is the only country represented among any of the countries south of the U.S.  The museum map directs you to the “highlights” of the museum.  It is likely to see many people surrounding the “highlights” taking pictures of them.  The Rosetta Stone is a good example of just that.

All of these tactics by the museum give us insight into the British Museum’s agenda to show you the powers of Western civilization and British colonialism.  In order to find exhibits of some of the first cities in history of humanity you need to read a map and find the Ancient Mesopotamia exhibit, which is located next to the Egyptian death and afterlife room, which contains primarily mummies, so it only really gets passer-bys.  Ultimately it comes down to the museum must act as an archive of historical objects, but it must also survive as a capitalist institution.  So, the board of trustees has a large say in what goes in and where it is placed.  By the entrances and exits you have donation bins and gift shops strategically placed.  With these ideas I am not intending to place any thoughts for or against general museums. Just take a little more time to observe beyond the pieces within the exhibit.

I learned a lot about many different exhibits when all of our presentations were ultimately given, but I learned the most about this museum by taking my time around it and soaking up   more that just the artifacts or art pieces.  When I think about this museum I think first about how I question its contents and how they are presented, but I must also realize I have used it to learn about museums as a whole because it happened to be a perfect entity for this.  In the end you can learn as much as you wish to from this marble giant.


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