Writing Portfolio


A morning in the British Museum

London is home to a lot of fantastic museums, and I will freely admit that I haven’t visited them all (somewhat inexplicably, I still haven’t been to Sir John Soane’s Museum, which I must do at some point). My favourite is the British Museum, home of artefacts from all aspects of human history, mainly because I am a history addict but also because I always manage to find something new to look at whenever I go. It is, like all of the ‘national’ museums in Britain, free to get in – which also adds to the appeal.

After entering via the impressive porticoed entrance on Great Russell Street (although I usually prefer the northern entrance on Montague Place, opposite Senate House; less crowds) I wandered, as I usually do, over to the Egyptian collection to look at both the Rosetta Stone and the crowds of people looking at it, then taking in the bust of Ramesses II that apparently inspired Shelley to write ‘Ozymandias’ (“I met a traveller from an antique land…”). Having taken in the nearby Elgin Marbles and pieces from not one but two of the Seven Wonders of the World (the British Museum has bits from the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus and the Temple of Artemis), I followed the crowds upstairs to Rooms 62 and 63 – the ones with the Ancient Egyptian mummies (I read somewhere that the British Museum’s collection of Egyptian things is second only to that of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo).

From there I passed through various rooms to get to the Weston Gallery (Roman Britain, including the 4th century AD 28-piece silver dinner service that is the Mildenhall Treasure), and thence to admire the finds from the Sutton Hoo burial site and – one of my favourite exhibits – the Lewis Chessmen. By this point I’d lost track of the time completely – a good thing, as the best museums are always the ones in which you’re so taken by what’s on display that you’re not fully aware of the passage of time.

So much to see, and I’d only covered a fraction of the museum. But what was the ‘something new’ that I saw on my latest visit? Tucked into a corner in one of the larger rooms was a crystal skull – a life-size carving of a human skull made from a single block of clear quartz crystal. I knew that the British Museum had one of those (there was something in the news about it when Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull came out back in 2008), but I had never come across it before and, given its provenance I hadn’t though that it would be on display. Back in the late nineteenth century, the British Museum had acquired it on the assumption that had been made by the Aztecs – although scientific tests (including a joint project with the Smithsonian Institution in the USA, which has a similar item in its collection) later showed that it is in fact a fake – made in the nineteenth century at a time when public interest in ancient cultures was high, and passed off as an ancient artefact to cash in on such interest. The accompanying sign says that it’s “probably European, 19th century AD” and “not an authentic pre-Columbian artefact”.

I wonder what I’ll find there next time?

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