The British Museum at 250

By Cheng, Scarlet | The World and I, December 2003 | Go to article overview

The British Museum at 250


Cheng, Scarlet, The World and I


The world's oldest national public museum celebrates two and a half centuries of existence with an enlightening series of commemorative exhibitions and beautiful architectural innovations.

On my first visit to the British Museum in London nearly three decades ago, I was especially eager to see its famous collection of Egyptian mummies. From childhood I had been fascinated by the mysteries of ancient Egypt, and I imagined that the mummies would answer some of these mysteries for me--or at least emanate the magical glow of another dimension. When I arrived, there were certainly a lot of mummies: crammed into showcases and rather poorly lit, they were less exciting than I expected. Mummies are perhaps less interesting to look at than their decorated casings.

However, in another gallery I did find something that fascinated me: dozens of manuscripts, including letters, literary drafts, and musical scores written by famous authors and composers. Written in ink on parchment and in notebooks, each piece of handwriting was highly individualistic, even idiosyncratic, and offered a direct glimpse into the personality behind the famed creations.

This year the British Museum--the world's oldest national public museum--celebrates 250 years of existence, and every day thousands of visitors from around the world pour through its doors. They may be drawn by such celebrated objects of the ancient world as the Rosetta Stone (200 b.c.), which was used to "break the code" of Egyptian hieroglyphics; the Elgin Marbles, which graced the Parthenon in ancient Greece; or the Standard of Ur, which depicted the ideals of kingship, both at war and in peace, in ancient Mesopotamia. But most will also find, as I did, a trove of unexpected treasures.

A child of the Enlightenment and the latter part of the Age of Discovery, the British Museum, according to its own literature, was founded to "promote universal understanding through the arts, natural history, and science." Many items in its vast collections relating to natural history and science have since been removed to form the core of other museums in London. What remains is still an immense collection of art and antiquities from cultures the world over, from times ancient to modern. This staggering array creates a context in which one can both explore a single culture in depth and examine affinities and contrasts between cultures.

These days the venerable museum boasts a face-lift: To commemorate the new millennium and anticipating this anniversary year, major physical changes were carried out. Since the 1850s the museum had been housed in a huge building with four principal wings, which together framed a two-acre quadrangle. In the center of this courtyard was another building, not intended for general public use--the famous round Reading Room, part of the British Library, which itself was part of the museum. The Reading Room was open only to those who were granted a reader's ticket, and the courtyard was clogged with a disarray of outbuildings housing bookstacks, to which only librarians had access. The space, originally intended to be a public square, was utterly shut off from the public for 150 years.

In 1998, the now independent British Library and its vast collections (including the manuscripts I saw on my first visit) were moved to a new building in the St. Pancras area of the city. This freed up the Reading Room, courtyard, and other gallery spaces for the museum.

Architect Sir Norman Foster took on the job of making the courtyard area usable while keeping the historic round Reading Room intact--indeed, he enhanced its drumlike structure with a noble limestone exterior, covering the humble brick that was never intended to be seen, and restored its glorious interior. (Now open to the public, the Reading Room has become a reference library containing 25,000 volumes focusing on the world cultures represented in the museum, and a number of computers with access to COMPASS, the museum's multimedia database. …

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