Dale and I were kids when Raiders of the Lost Ark came out, and it captivated us both. Exotic locales, tomb raiding, lost treasure, mummies—who wouldn’t want to be Indiana Jones? Archeology became a childhood dream for both of us.
So when we visited the British Museum, with its eight million relics, we were like kids in a candy store. The museum’s collection is the most comprehensive of its kind anywhere in the world, with endless artifacts related to world history, culture, and art. It possesses some of the most historically and culturally significant artifacts ever, including the Rosetta Stone and a large portion of surviving artwork from the Parthenon. For these reasons, it is one of the most popular museums in the world.
We only had an afternoon to spend in the museum. Given the sheer size of the place–almost a million square feet of space and over 100 galleries–a single afternoon was woefully inadequate, but we did the best we could, cruising through the rooms and immersing ourselves in the exhibits.
Here are some of our favorite artifacts:
The Rosetta Stone
This priceless piece of stone, weighing about 1700 pounds, is inscribed with three different languages, including Egyptian hieroglyphs (used for important or religious writings), Demotics (the common script of Egypt), and Ancient Greek. It was discovered in Egypt in 1799 by a solider in Napolean’s Army and fell into France’s possession, but when the British defeated the French in Egypt in 1801, the Rosetta Stone became Britain’s. It was studied by linguists for many years and eventually assisted them in cracking the code of Egyptian hieroglyphics.
The Parthenon and ancient Greek art
The Parthenon in Athens was built around 2500 years ago as a temple dedicated to the Greek goddess Athena. It was later used as a church and then a mosque and gradually fell into ruins. In the 1600’s, the Parthenon was used to store gunpowder, and an explosion in 1687 blew the roof off and caused significant damage to the building and its artwork. Until the early 19th century, it lay in ruins and was actively being torn apart by the locals, who were repurposing the marble. At the time, Greece was ruled by the Ottoman Empire. When British ambassador Lord Elgin observed the ongoing destruction, he realized that nothing would be left of the Parthenon if action wasn’t taken. With the Ottoman Empire’s permission, he extracted about half of the remaining sculptures from the ruins and brought them back to England for preservation and study. These became known as the Elgin Marbles. They went on display in the British Museum in 1807 and have been there ever since.
Other random cool stuff:
Most of the remaining photos are from the Egypt sections of the museum because, well, Egypt is seriously cool. Our bias offers a limited overview of what the British Museum has to offer, so here’s a link to the museum’s website for a complete list of items in its collection.
One final thought…
It’s interesting to note that the museum’s collection is not without controversy. The museum started with a small amount of artifacts in 1753, but the collection was extensively expanded over the years to come, benefited by Britain’s colonial rule and its victory in the Napoleonic Wars. Now, several of the countries that once fell under British rule would like to have their priceless artifacts back. Egypt, for example, has requested that the Rosetta Stone be returned to its possession.
Perhaps the longest standing grievance is with Greece, which wants the Elgin Marbles returned to Athens. The British Museum houses a little less than half of the surviving sculptures from the Parthenon, while the rest are primarily in Greece, with a few displayed in several other European museums.
The British Museum argues that Britain had permission to remove the Elgin Marbles and that the sculptures represent not only ancient Greek culture but also its vast, lasting influence on the rest of the world as well. They argue that, in effect, the artifacts have become public domain. Greece, however, asserts that the sculptures were taken with coercion rather than permission and that they belong at home. So far, The British Museum has refused to hand them over.
Having now been to several European museums, Dale and I realize the importance of thinking critically about what we’re seeing. Museum collections have to come from somewhere, and artifacts aren’t always acquired under the best of circumstances, given the history of colonialism and expansionism and periodic attempts by despotic leaders to take over the world. But it’s also true that in the 1800s the Greeks were not taking care of their treasures, and there’s no doubt that Lord Elgin saved the artwork from further damage and preserved it for future generations to appreciate. Major museums can sometimes better care for priceless relics than the countries from which they come.
It’s a complex situation, but regardless of what happens to the Parthenon sculptures or the Rosetta Stone or any of the other objects being contested, I’m just glad that they are being well cared for, and that we had the good fortune of being able to see them.
Here’s a link to an article by the BBC that has an excellent overview of the issue.