Tuesday, October 10, 2006

The British Museum Experience

Analysis by Cathrine Wambach

From 5 Days in the...

The British Museum contains uncountable artifacts from all over the world, including the famous Parthenon marbles and the Rosetta stone. However, despite the incredible artifacts that I viewed there, aspect of the museum experience left me dissatisfied and puzzled about the museum’s mission. My first source of dissatisfaction was the organization of the Ancient Near East Wing. The displays appeared to be new, and organized to tell the story of the Levant, Iran and Iraq in chronological order, but it was difficult to know where the display started, which made the story unfold in a disjointed way. The story also moved back and forth across the rooms rather than around the rooms, which made it tempting to skip one side of the displays. It is also never clear why these objects are in a “British” museum.

The second puzzle came with the display of the Enlightenment library. This recreation of the library of Charles II included scientific instruments from the era, busts of famous people, as well as shelves full of books, ancient artifacts from around the world, fossils, gems, coins, minerals – personal collections of all kinds. Here the artifacts are not organized historically, and many are not labeled; yet this gallery makes more sense than the historically oriented Ancient Near East Gallery because it tells us something about the British. More could be done in this gallery to describe the philosophy and way of life that led to the assemblage of these objects during the Enlightenment. Why were they valued? What does this say about Britain in the age of Empire?

The third puzzle came in the British history wing. First, the early Britain display is undergoing renovation, so only the medieval to modern sections were accessible. The displays were not very impressive compared to the medieval wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. For example, very little medieval armor is displayed – nothing compared to the fully armored horses and knights at the Met. One reason might be that the British armor is on display at the Tower of London, but it was disappointing to not see more of it at the Museum. Once the displays reached the 17th century the artifacts included many objects from other parts of Europe – without an explanation for why they are in a “British” museum.
The most satisfying display in the museum was the Elgin or Parthenon marbles. The entry to the display included information about how the marbles came to Britain and the controversy about their continued presence in London. The marbles themselves were arranged around a rectangular room in the way they would have appeared on the building.

After viewing just a portion of the museum it struck me that the museum is in search of a mission. It could be an Art museum and focus on the artifacts as works of art from different eras and places around the world. Or, it could focus on Britain – its history as an island, its age of Empire, its relationships with other nations and empires. The Age of Enlightenment room seems headed in the direction. It could also focus on great ideas – the current display on Living and Dying is an example of this direction. The renovation of the early Britain room may give us a signal about the direction the museum plans to go in the future.

As a side note- for those who want to see a great preview of the British Museum, check out this article from Wikipedia.

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