More of the British Museum

By Rob Packer

The incomparable British Museum

The British Museum is one of my favourite places in London and I’ve written about it before here. As I was looking through the photos to put on this blog, I started thinking about the advantages of growing up in a city with such a wide swathe of world history at hand—the BBC’s excellent History in the World in a Hundred Objects to see how wide it really is. At the same time, the museum’s history reawakens memories of European colonialism’s ambiguous legacy and the can of worms of restitution. The image of foreigners carting off a nation’s history is an unpleasant form of expropriation (the Parthenon Marbles is just the most famous example) and restitution would be a fillip both for national pride and the tourism industry. At the same time, the argument that such and such cultural artefact has been better preserved in this or that museum might actually be true in some cases, but it sounds self-serving and overly simplistic to apply it to the entire collection, resting as it does on counterfactuals. After all, we often have no way of proving that monument X would have survived if piece Y had survived in situ.

But these arguments all fail to see the biggest advantage of the Louvre or Met, British or Pergamum Museums: their educational value. My very awareness of world history began at the British Museum and I’m not exaggerating to say that my life would have taken a different course without so much so close and tangible. And my own view* is that artefacts like this should be more spread out, not less, so that everyone has a grounding in the sheer interconnectedness of world history and cultures.

*Of course this view is unrealistic, idealistic, plays badly with any remotely patriotic government and these museums can hardly be said to have had an effect on 19th and 20th century world history. All the same, it’s nice to dream about Mayan figurines in Shanghai and Assyrian friezes in São Paulo.

Gandhara: The Hellenistic influence on the Buudhist culture of Gandhara (today's northern Pakistan and Afghanistan) looks particularly strongly here.

Gandhara Buddha

Shiva and Parvati

A 19th-century lacquer box from Burma

A Sri Lankan statue of the Buddhist goddess, Tara

The lid of an offering vessel from Mandalay

A Chinese statue (I forgot to note down what it was)

A Chinese Buddha from the Liao Dynasty

Part of the Parthenon Marbles

Pericles (and in the cabinet opposite, arrowheads from the Battle of Marathon)

A royal lion hunt from Nineveh

Cuneiform

A protector eagle of Assyrian king, Ashurbanipal (the man who created the Library at Nineveh). Quite frankly, they look like they're in drag: covered in feathers, carrying handbags and giving a little flutter of the hand at Ashurbanipal.

These handbag-like objects have always fascinated me in Assyrian friezes. If anyone knows what they mean, put it in the comments.

A terrifying scene from Bonampak: in the previous scene, a Maya noblewoman lets blood into a bowl. In this one, she hallucinates a two-headed snake emerging from her blood and a man coming out of one of the snakes' mouths.

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5 Responses to More of the British Museum

  1. Ged says:

    Nice post!

  2. Marissa says:

    Who knows where these objects might end up in 100, 200 years! Its sad to think of the British Museum being dispersed, but I can imagine that these objects probably have a long life ahead of them, and a lot more travelling to do!

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