A week at the British Museum pt. 2
Without a doubt the highlights of the week were the three back-of-house tours with Collections Care Managers Richard Wakeman, Wendy Adamson and Alex Truscott. My first tour was with Richard, based in the Britain, Prehistory and Europe department. Richard was excited to show me a Scandinavian Sami ‘magic drum’, the armoury room, a room storing the Sutton Hoo hoard, and a corridor which formally held all the ‘unspeakable’ items…the mind boggles! In a particularly surreal moment we waited outside a conservation studio to be rejoined by Richard’s colleague, who pulled back a piece of cotton covering her basket to reveal we would be transporting some of the Lewis Chessmen pieces through the stores, but to not draw attention to that fact as we would be stopped and hassled for a look by every single member of staff.
Middle East Collections Care Manager, Wendy Adamson, took me first to the Middle East study room, based in the impressive Arched Room. What a sight! Table upon table of students studying cuneiform tablets. We then moved on to the stores, where I was shown everything from human remains and mummified hands to incantation bowls, exquisite jewels and jewelry, painted wall fragments, carvings, and pieces of pottery. I was interested to learn the department actively collects contemporary Middle Eastern art. Having expressed an interest in wall reliefs I was given access to a closed-to-the-public gallery. The former ‘Assyrian Life’ gallery was home to a number of Ashurbanipal’s Nimrud palace reliefs. Due to their demand elsewhere, both within and outside the museum, multiple wall panels have been removed, giving the room an eerie abandoned feel, as various panels remained in situ, and voices from visitors in adjacent rooms drifted into the gloomy, quiet space.
Finally, I was taken on a tour of the Greece and Roman stores by Alex Truscott. Alex had been kind enough to get out a few of the oldest Roman wall paintings from the stores for me to have a look at. We talked about the paint, their removal from their original setting, and the way they had been mounted and set in plaster. We were lucky enough to bump into one of the curators who was working on cataloguing artefacts from Ephesus, an ancient Greek city in modern day Selçuk, Turkey. Having recently returned and having been able to see the site of one of the seven wonders of the world, the Temple of Artemis (where very little remains) from my holiday house, I was just a little excited to be shown into his store, where table upon table of carvings and sculptures from the two sites were laid out. Not being averse to confronting and acknowledging their own controversies, we commented that sometimes you travel half the world to see an ancient monument yet ultimately end up seeing more of it in the basements of the British Museum. On a personal level, I felt I had been put in an incredibly privileged position to ‘complete’ my trip in this way.
Yet another unforgettable experience was a visit to the Prints and Drawings Study Room where I was able to view and handle an 1863 first edition copy of Goya’s ‘Disasters of War’ series. The 82 prints are thought to be Goya’s reaction to the violence of the Dos de Mayo Uprising and the subsequent famine and poverty caused by the Peninsular War. Any of you familiar with the series will know of their brutal, macabre content and meticulous design and execution. They are considered by many art historians to be the first images of war to depict the true barbarities of human conflict. Sitting in near silence surrounded by thousands of books, prints and drawings by the likes of Da Vinci, Rembrandt and Michelangelo was quite something.
A final ‘wow’ moment was when David told me he had managed to wangle me in to the Reading Room, the former British Library building that stands at the center of the Great Court. It has been closed to the public for 5 years now, and its future remains uncertain. As a rule, no one is allowed in, the keys are closely guarded, and almost all newer staff have yet to see inside. To see it completely empty, flooring pulled up and bookshelves half empty was sad. Yet the building is still overwhelmingly beautiful. Dating from 1855, the huge domed ceiling is created entirely from iron struts and papier mâché. The history of the space is incredible, notable readers include Karl Marx, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Oscar Wilde, Sylvia Pankhurst and George Orwell. I was lucky enough to be able to look through some of the registers – and spotted both Karl Marx and Oscar Wilde!
My week came to an end with a meeting with David and Georgia, to go over what I’d learnt and to talk about continuing support and contact. Above all else I came away with a feeling of solidarity, a realisation that no matter the size of museum, whether small and independent or big and government funded, we all encounter similar challenges and are becoming better at sharing successes and working in partnership. I was incredibly lucky to meet such interesting, open and helpful people and feel even more strongly that I see museums as my future!