In the Egyptian sculpture gallery (the large gallery nr 4 on the ground floor) I discovered a beautiful bronze seated cat from 600 BC which was not there at my previous visit.
It is the "Gayer-Anderson cat" which was given to the museum in 1940 and was analysed in 2007 with X-ray fluorescence.
Since I discovered Egyptian art I have been impressed by the cat-goddess Bastet and this cat is a particularly fine example of the many statues of cats from ancient Egypt. It has gold rings in the ears and nose, a silvered collar round its neck. The eye sockets, which are now empty, would originally have held eyes made of stone or glass.
Funny is the scarab beetle on the cat's head.
Cat-goddess Bastet or Bast was much honored at the temple of Bubastis where there was a festival attracting several hundred thousand visitors according to Herodotus!
It was my first visit to this magnificent former library of King George III located on the right side of the Great Court. The books from the King's Library are now at the British Library at St Pancras. The books you see on the shelves are from the House of Commons.
I liked it because I was always a fan and user of libraries (before the time of computers) and because this large room nr 1 on the Ground floor shows thousands objects demonstrating how people in Britain understood their world during the period of Enlightenment. Objects on display reveal the way in which collectors, antiquaries and travellers during this great age of discovery viewed and classified objects from the world around them.
The Enlightenment was an age of reason and learning that flourished across Europe and America from about 1680 to 1820.
What makes me feel sad is the fact that Enlightenment has now to be confined to a museum gallery and is no more the usual way of thinking.
The controversy started at the time of Melina Mercouri and increased in such way that the British Museum feels now obliged to put leaflets in the Parthenon room (n° 18) as justification of keeping the Elgin marbles.
The British Museum's position is the following:
"The Parthenon sculptures are integral to the Museum's purpose as a world museum telling the story of human cultural achievement…
The current division of the surviving sculptures in eight countries … allows different and complementary stories to be told about them, focussing respectively on their importance for the history of Athens and Greece, and their significance for world culture."
I think the British Museum is right but for more general reasons:
1° Museums worldwide have protected artefacts from destruction.
Just an example about Athens: in the seventies, I have seen four of the original Caryatides on the Acropolis. They were so corroded by the air pollution that they had to be put inside a museum and replaced by copies.
In the British Museum, room 19, there is one Caryatid in a much better state than those of Athens. What would be the condition of the Elgin marbles if left in Athens?
2° Museums gave the opportunity and still give the opportunity to millions of people, who had/have not the means to travel to Greece or Egypt, to see, close to their home, artefacts of past civilisations. Without museums such as the British Museum ancient cultures would still be ignored by most people.
3° These controversies hide economical interests linked to tourism. A number of countries on the southern border of the Mediterranean Sea - I do not include Greece among them - show interest for their past civilisations only since tourists want to spent money to visit them.
It is well known that animals were associated with deities. The ancient Egyptians believed that their gods and goddesses could appear on earth under the form of animals.
The ibis was associated with Thoth, the hawk or falcon with Horus and cats with the goddess Bastet whose cult centre was at Bubastis in the Nile Delta.
I always liked the fact that Egyptians not only found cats a very useful company animal but associated their pet with the protective benevolent goddess Bastet, while in our middle ages cats were often associated with the devil!
The museum has a remarkable and elaborately wrapped cat mummy from Abydos dating from the 1st c. AD.
I was surprised to read from the documentation of the British museum that many of these cats did not die a natural death but that kittens were raised and killed for mummification. These cat mummies were sold to the visitors and left at the temple catacombs as offerings.
Later, cat cemeteries were plundered and there were so many that it is know that at the end of the 19th c. about 15000 kg of cat mummies were shipped from Egypt to the UK to be pulverized and processed into fertiliser!
The Museum is open daily, 10.00–17.30 h.
Closed on 1/01, Good Friday, 24, 25 & 26/12.
My first visit goes back to the early sixties so that I have seen on my successive visits a fantastic transformation from a somewhat dusty, old fashion, museum to the present outstanding museological achievement with the Great Court.
The success of the British Museum, with more than 6 million visitors/year, is certainly due to the quality of its collections, of which about 50.000 items are shown over 75.000 m2 with a number of world highlights and also disputed items like the Parthenon marbles, which do attract a range of visitors interested by this controversy.
Furthermore, and not without importance, the entry is free; I have never seen queues as there is no ticket or security check. If at the opening there are people waiting at the main entrance Russell Street, there is a second entrance on the back at Montague Place.
What is also great is the fact that on the contrary of several London museums, a.o. National Gallery, taking photos is allowed here.
The facilities are convenient and there are enough lifts for less young legs like mine.
One thing I don't like are the two "court cafés" behind the "Reading Room" of the Great Court; makes me think of factory canteens. Better is the Gallery Café near the Ancient Greece rooms (11 & 12) on the Ground floor. If you have money you can go to the chic Court restaurant at level 3 (is currently undergoing a refurbishment).
Actually outside around the museum there are lot of places to eat and drink.
On my visit begin of July the crowd was huge, especially in the Egyptian sculpture halls on the Ground floor (rooms n° 4). Schools had transformed this part of the museum in a play ground. As long as Ramesses the Great does not complain about the noise …
Open daily 10.00 - 17.30 h. Selected galleries are open until 20.30 h on Fridays.
Closed 1 January, Good Friday and 24, 25 & 26 December.
You could spend a day here and still come away wishing you had seen more! Despite the name, this isn’t a museum about Britain – the collections include artefacts from all over the world (including controversially some that people feel should have stayed where they were, such as the Elgin Marbles from the Acropolis), and span 2 million years of history.
~ From Ancient Egypt (one of my favourite collections): statuary & decorated architecture, inscribed with hieroglyphs; coffins & mummies of individuals; furniture, fine jewellery & other burial goods.
~ From Imperial China: calligraphy, paintings & ceramics
~ From Anglo-Saxon: one of the most impressive collections, the treasures from the ship burial at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk.
~ From the Aztecs: stone & ceramic sculptures; musical instruments such as drums, decorated with intricate carvings; rare turquoise mosaics.
~ From Iron Age Britain: one of the items that has fascinated me since I first saw it, Lindow Man. This is the body of a man discovered in August 1984 when workmen were cutting peat at Lindow Moss bog in NW England. The conditions in the peat bog meant that the man’s skin, hair and many of his internal organs are well preserved, and scientists have been able to do lots of research to learn about his life and death, concluding that he was probably the victim of a ritual sacrifice by druids.
Do open up my 2nd photo to see a view of the museum few people will get – the stunning green glass roof photographed from above. This is part of the wonderful view I enjoy from my office window :)
Admission is free, as it is to all the major museums in London. Open every day 10.00-17.30, and later on Thursdays and Fridays.
The Parthenon Sculptures in room 18, the largest of the museum, are certainly the best known highlights of the British Museum.
In another comment I expressed my position about the controversy by the Greek government concerning the Elgin Marbles. I'm definitively in favour of a status quo and this is my position for all museums. It would be a non sense to move all artefacts back to their country of origin.
Nevertheless on each of my visits, I found the display of the sculptures in the Duveen Gallery questionable because the original perspective is ignored.
The friezes, metopes and pediment came from the upper part of the Parthenon. The Doric columns are 10 m high so that the sculptures above them stood at a height of about 12 m as you can see from the figure on my photo n°2.
The perspective was therefore quite different from the present display in room 18 at eye-level (photos 1 & 3).
The Duveen Gallery is high and wide enough to recreate a perspective closer to the original one of the Parthenon.
In the next room 17 is a reconstruction of one of the sides of the Nereid monument, the largest and finest of the Lykian tombs found at Xanthos in south-west Turkey.
This reconstruction of the Nereid monument shows how the perspective of the display of the Parthenon sculptures could be improved.
On my first visit to the British Museum it was a shock to discover the body of this man who died in the "Late Predynastic period" around 3400 BC.
The body of this Predynastic Egyptian man, probably from Gebelein, was placed, in a contracted position, in a desert grave in direct contact with the dry sand.
It is therefore not a mummy in the sense of the Egyptian mummies who, starting around 2700 BC, underwent the elaborate mummification process. Here it was the desiccation and absence of bacteria which preserved remarkably well the body, the nails and also the somewhat red hair. It is due the colour of the hair that the name of "ginger mummy" is used. The mummy is surrounded by burial goods, tools, as well as pottery once filled with food for his afterlife.
The body is on display since 1900 in a reconstructed Egyptian grave-pit.
In the mid-eighties a treatment has been applied to the mummy because in some areas the skin was cracked and lifting away from the underlying bone and tissue.
It goes without saying that the body is checked and monitored regularly.
Ginger mummy in Room 64 is probably the most photographed item in the museum (photo 3).
Interesting in the same room is a basket coffin from the 1st Dynasty showing a mistake of the beginning artificial mummification. The body probable rotted by the moisture trapped in the basket; only bones are left (photo 2).
From the crowds met on the Ground floor (rooms 4) with the Egyptian sculptures and at Level 3 with galleries 61 - 66 mainly dedicated to life, death, afterlife in ancient Egypt and Nubia, this department is certainly the most visited of all the British Museum.
It is the second world's largest collection of Egyptian antiquities outside the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, but only 4% of its Egyptian holdings are on display; what is a pitty I think.
Best known is certainly the Rosetta Stone, on public display at the British Museum since 1802, which contributed greatly to the deciphering of the principles of hieroglyph writing in 1822 by the British scientist Thomas Young and the French scholar Jean-François Champollion credited as the principal translator.
The dispute which arose over the fate of French archaeological and scientific discoveries in Egypt after the surrender of the French troops in Egypt in 1801 is captivating for those who like to know how the British Museum and Le Louvre built up their Egyptian collections.
The Rosetta stone arrived in the British museum more than two centuries ago but Mr. Zahi Hawass, former chief of the Antiquities in Cairo, was aggressively claiming its return to Egypt!
It is not the only artifact claimed by Mr. Hawass; there are some thousand objects he wants to get back including the bust of Nefertiti in Berlin. It sounds a bit strange knowing that the Egyptian museums have already no room to display thousands and thousands antic objects (security was a new problem as seen on 28/01/2011).
Much crowded by visitors are rooms 62-63 at Level 3. Here is on display a selection of the 140 mummies and coffins which make of the British Museum the largest collection outside Cairo.
Best known is the "Ginger mummy" in Room 64 (ref. my tip).
There are always some exhibitions going on at The British Museum, some of them are permanent exhibitions and others no, however, still very interesting to see.
One of my favourites is the Great Court and Circle Library, as the Entrance at the Museum..... hmmmm I can stay hours and hours there, watching and enlightening myself. [See picture :-)
Also, there is one piece of Art I really like in the Egypt section.... The Rosetta Stone! If you come to London and to the British Museum, do not miss it! is amazing!
The Rosetta Stone data from the Fort St Julien, el-Rashid (Rosetta), Egypt
Ptolemaic Period, 196 BC.
It is a valuable key to the decipherment of hieroglyphs.
The inscription on the Rosetta Stone is a decree passed by a council of priests, one of a series that affirm the royal cult of the
13-year-old Ptolemy V on the first anniversary of his coronation.
The decree is inscribed on the stone three times, in hieroglyphic (suitable for a priestly decree), demotic (the native script used for daily purposes), and Greek (the language of the administration).
The importance of this to Egyptology is immense. Soon after the end of the fourth century AD the knowledge of how to read and write them disappeared. In the early years of the nineteenth century, some 1400 years later, scholars were able to use the Greek inscription on this stone as the key to decipher them. Thomas Young, an English physicist, was the first to show that some of the hieroglyphs on the Rosetta Stone wrote the sounds of a royal name, that of Ptolemy. The French scholar Jean-Fran?ois Champollion then realized that hieroglyphs recorded the sound of the Egyptian language and laid the foundations of our knowledge of ancient Egyptian language and culture.
Height: 114.4 cm (max.)
Width: 72.3 cm
Thickness: 27.9 cm
If you have read my Easter Island pages, you will already know I am a big fan of the Island and the stone heads (Moai) that you can find there.
This statue, 'Hoa-haka-nanaiai' (no, I'm not going to pronounce it!) was discovered at Orongo. It had been buried under rising soil levels. In 1868, the British Mar of War H.M.S. Topaz (His/Her Majesties Ship) stopped at Easter Island and removed two Moai. These apparently are both currently in the British Museum although only this one is on display.
This statue was taken for two reasons. One being that it is relatively small (i.e. much easier to carry), the other being that it has very ornate carvings on the back.
Two hundred people were needed to help move this Moai from Orongo (the ceremonial village) onto the ship. Unfortunately, During the voyage to England, the red and white paint on the Moai was washed off by the water spray from the voyage. Once it arrived in the UK it was given to Queen Victoria, who later gave it to the British Museum.
This statue is supposed to have been made around 1000 AD and is extremely well preserved. It is likely that this moai was carved during the dark ages of Easter Island. This was when the naives had cut down all the trees and were effectively stranded on the island. At this point in time, they stopped building Moai, as they no longer had the ability to move them without wood, and started the Birdman-cult. This theory is specified as there is a birdman carved on the back of the Moai. It is possible however that this was carved on to it later.
I have to admit that whilst the statue is in extremely good condition (preservation wise) which is nice to see as the statues you see on Easter Island are more worn by the high winds they get there. It is a bit of a shame to see one standing so out of context inside the British Museum. I was greatly looking forward to seeing it, but felt little satisfaction once I had.
There has been a campaign to return what are known as the 'Elgin Marbles' to Athens since about the 1940's when an MP asked about it in the House of Commons.
Despite Greece's valiant efforts in wartime, which returning the marbles would have given recognition to, the request was refused.
The 'marbles' are in fact the stone friezes that once surrounded the inside of the Pathernon building in Athens. The Greeks refer to them as the 'Parthenon marbles' and are constructing a large museum in Athens in which they can be viewed - one day.
Despite a determined push to return them before the 2004 Olympics the British Museum still has it's most prized possession still firmly fixed to it's walls.
Lord Elgin himself purchased the stonework at the beginning of the 19th century from a Turkish Sultanate who ruled Athens at the time. Recent evidence has come to light that that the 'charms' of his wife may have had something to do with the Sultan's decision as well. Elgin tried to sell the marbles to the British Government, and after a period where the marbles were stored in Elgins coalshed, they were purchased for the nation.
The main problem with returning the marbles is that it will set a precedent, which may mean many famous museums could lose almost all their entire stock !
In the words of Byron :
Dull is the eye that will not weep to see
Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed
By British hands, which it had best behoved
To guard those relics ne'er to be restored.
Curst be the hour when from their isle they roved,
And once again thy hapless bosom gored,
And snatch'd thy shrinking gods to northern climes abhorred!
The Rosetta Stone is probably one of the most famous pieces in the British Museum. It is an old stone that was found in Egypt in 1799 by some French Soldiers, although it is much much older than this. Apparently it dates back to 196 BC.
The reason it is considered so special is that it is entirely covered in writing, but more importantly than this, it is writen in two languages (Egyptian and Greek), and uses three different scripts (hieroglyphic, demotic and Greek). The reason 3 scripts were used was because one was used for religious and official documents, one was used for the common people, and one was used for the rulers. By using all 3 and repeating the message in each, it was legible to all people who could read in Egypt.
The stone helped scholars decipher heiroglyphics which had always been impossible to read. By reading the two scripts they did understand, they could start deciphering the heiroglyphics.
BTW, apologies for the strange lighting at the bottom of the photo, kids had been wiping their greasy fingers on the glass and this was reflecting the light.
Almost as soon as you go through the front entrance of the British Museum, you will find yourself in the Great Court.
This is a very new addition to the British Museum, having been built for the year 2000 celebrations by Norman Foster. There is something of the Louvre Pyramid (in Paris France) about it. In the middle of this court is a world famous reading room, with shops selling iitems related to the muesum around the outside of the reading room.
If you want to get a good picture, just before you go into the Great Hall, go up the staircase to the left, and once you get up to the first floor, look out for a little opening looking down on to the hall. It's stops people getting in the way of your shot.
If I remember correctly, before this great court was built, there was just a big open courtyard which was open air, so you had to go into this to move between different sections of the museum. These days, the Great Hall makes a great focal point.
The British Museum is particularly well known in Greece. This is because the British Museum contains quite a lot of marble pieces from Greece, and in particular the Elgin Marbles (named after Lord Elgin who "collected" them). The Greeks want these back, but this would cause a bit of a dilemma to the British Museum. Should the repatriate them to Greece, the whole museum would probably empty as every foreign piece (which is most of the museum) was reclaimed.
Anyhow the Elgin Marbles are displayed as part of a large display, but to be quite honest, my favourite piece was in the room next door, and is called the Nereid Monument. This can be seen in my picture below.
The Nereid Monument is a tomb and it was built around 380 BC by the Greeks, for a king of the Lycia region (this is in south-west Anatolia - which is in present day Turkey). The monument itself looks like a Greek temple and stands on a large podium. Both the podium and the monument are very well decorated with sculpture. The monument has some impressive mable freizes on it.
Inbetween the columns are several statues of women, (they are referred to as Nereids) - hence the monuments name. The Nereid Monument has been in the British Museum since the middle of the 19th century.