The British Museum at 250

By Cunliffe, Barry; Renfrew, Colin et al. | Antiquity, December 2003 | Go to article overview

The British Museum at 250

Cunliffe, Barry, Renfrew, Colin, Gosden, Chris, Geake, Helen, Antiquity

Barry Cunliffe

The opening of the Great Court in 2000 heralded the renaissance of the British Museum and one has only to glance through the bi-monthly give-away What's on to appreciate the new-found bounding energy of the institution in its 250th anniversary year. The pace of change over the last three years has been remarkable. The most striking symbol of the new order is The Great Court itself, a place of orientation and recreation for visitors, providing the Museum with a new heart--it pulsates with life; but behind the scenes a gentler revolution is underway. Among the many inspirations for this new sense of direction perhaps the most significant has been the return of the Ethnographic collection from Burlington Gardens, to be newly housed and displayed in space vacated by the old British Library. This has encouraged a new philosophy to emerge--the conscious breaking down of rigid Departmental boundaries to allow the collections to be presented in cross-cultural ways. Earlier exhibitions, Smashing pots and Pottery in the making were the pioneers. The new exhibition, The Museum of the Mind, is an ambitious and highly successful attempt to develop the concept still further. It echoes and underscores the Museum's now frequently displayed by-line 'Illuminating world cultures'.

The theme of the exhibition is simple--memory is essential to our being: it provides us with a sense of identity and continuity. Since all societies create images and objects to sustain memory, museums, as repositories of artefacts, are the guardian of the world's cultural memories. It is a neat restatement of the Museum's purpose and one highly appropriate to the multinational, multicultural audience which it seeks to serve. That said, it is an ambitious concept and one not easy to communicate in a popular way. Yet, by any standards, this exhibition must be judged a spectacular success. Part of that success lies in the crisp and highly selective presentation. Six clearly signposted themes are developed: the museum as the theatre of memory, aide-memoires, keeping memory alive, commemoration, mementos and the future of memory, this last reminding us of the unlimited power of computers and video to record memory. To illustrate the themes, sixty items from the museum collection are displayed. This deliberate restraint has paid off. The exhibition space is not large and is rather awkwardly shaped, rather like a wide corridor curved to fit around the old Library building. Previous experience has shown that it is not easy to use and can appear cluttered and confusing. This time the designers have been highly skilful, creating a simple bilateral symmetry with, at its local point, a stunning greater-than-life sized papier-mache skeleton, entwined with plants through which birds, snakes and animals crawl and nest, made for the Mexican Day of the Dead celebrations in the 1980s. You never see the skeleton full frontal but glimpse him wherever you are, often through clever use of mirrors. He provides a visual and intellectual focus for the entire exhibition.

This same visual excitement runs through the exhibition with unusual juxtapositions taking us by surprise and making us think comparatively. Gold death masks of the second century AD from Nineveh are placed next to a wax death mask of Oliver Cromwell while a rather dreary Roman funerary monument is outrageously upstaged by a brightly coloured Ghanaian coffin made in 1999 in the form of a rifle. The message is clear--cultures across time and throughout the world respond in similar ways to similar emotional needs.

Memory is, of course, a particularly relevant theme for the Museum celebrating the 250th anniversary of its foundation. As you turn to leave the exhibition, you are confronted by a striking construction crafted largely in white satin. It is a Mexican Day of the Dead altar created specifically to honour the BM's birthday. Made to resemble the facade of the museum, there, in the place usually reserved for an image of the revered ancestor, is an engraving of Sir Hans Sloane, looking slightly bewildered, in whose collection lay the Museum's origin. …

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