What’s British about The British Museum?

As far as I can tell, The British Museum is inappropriately named.

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The Egyptian Museum in Cairo contains Egyptian antiquities. The Swiss Museum in Zurich features objects and art representing the history of Switzerland in the 18th and 19th centuries. The German Museum displays the cultural history of German-speaking central Europe. The British Library – once part of The British Museum – holds millions of books, newspapers, patents and recordings, and its exhibitions and events feature works of British writers and artists.

After wandering through exhibitions of Ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt at The British Museum, I’ve yet to see anything British. All I’ve seen seems to be what our British ancestors brought back from other nations and – I haven’t figured out why yet – it makes me feel slightly uneasy and very confused.

Traditionally, museums were a place where artefacts of the world could be shared with ordinary people who did not have the means to travel. Take the Horniman Museum for example – Horniman, a Victorian tea trader brought artefacts from his travels to south east London to share with the public so they could learn about the world; whereas now, travel and education is available to all.

So what am I expecting? Exhibits through the ages from Stone Henge to feudal England to the industrial revolution and Victorian age (Britain’s most prominent era in world history)? Maybe items from royal palaces and great buildings and architecture? Some kind of homage to Tim Berners Lee and major 20th century inventions? Any artefacts of cultural and human value in Britain’s history, really.

I wonder what visitors to the UK make of The British Museum and if they expect to experience British history here. Today, it’s fun and engaging to learn about a place and its history by visiting it and experiencing it first-hand. I’m fortunate enough to have been to Egypt to see the pyramids and Egyptian Museum, to Greece to see the Acropolis, to India to see the Taj Mahal, to Rome, to China, etc.

The Africa, New Zealand and Japan sections interest me most. Perhaps in part because I haven’t been to those places and they’re very intriguing to me. While the artefacts of the world seen here are fascinating, I’m disappointed that my expectations were so wrong.

I’m pleased to see a sign explaining why parts of the Parthenon on the Acropolis are here, despite their real heritage being that of the Greeks: the Parthenon was destroyed when the city was under siege by the Venetians in the 17th Century; Lord Elgin, British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire was passionate about Greek culture and transported some of the sculptures and ruins to Britain. “Elgin’s removal of the sculptures from the ruins has always been a matter for discussion, but one thing is certain – his actions spared them further damage by vandalism, weathering and pollution… The sculptures from the Parthenon in the British Museum and other European museums cannot for conservation reasons be returned to the temple.” It’s reassuring to know that without their rescue and transportation to Britain by Elgin, they would not have survived.

In the Enlightenment room, a sign says: “When the British Museum was founded it was a place not only of learning but also of wonder. This gallery focuses on the museum’s early collections, recreating that first sense of amazement and exploring some of the ways that people in Britain viewed their world and its past.”

This goes some way to answer my question but if there’s nothing British in The British Museum, would it be more appropriately named Britain’s World Museum?

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Tree of Life – made by four Mozambican artists from decommissioned weapons

More:
~ British Museum website
~ Tree of Life

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One Response

  1. […] an imaginary coin between Thai Garden Cafe and the Korean cafe opposite, on Museum Street (near the British Museum). Two of us hadn’t been to a Korean restaurant before, so hey – it was calling out to […]

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