In Greek mythology the nine goddesses who preside over literature and the arts and sciences are the Muses. The Greek word “mouseion” refers to the seat for the Muses and it is from this word that English has acquired the word museum. In the ancient museums people came to discuss ideas with others, to look upon beauty, to think deeply and learn, and to be amused. Today, museums are places—buildings, rooms, and institutions—where artistic, scientific, or historical objects are displayed.
In 1753, the British Parliament created the British Museum with the aim of gathering into one building objects from the whole world, past and present. According to Neil MacGregor, the Museum’s director:
“This enabled visitors to compare the ways in which varied societies had organized themselves and different people had addressed the common problems of humanity. The outcome, it was hoped, would be greater understanding and tolerance, an affirmation of what unites us all.”When the British Museum opened it was based primarily on the collections of Sir Hans Sloane, a noted physician and scientist (or “natural philosopher” in the terminology of the era). His collection consisted of about 71,000 objects, including 40,000 books. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it was not uncommon for wealthy individuals to collect rare objects—ranging from art, to fossils, to objects from “exotic” cultures—and to display them in cabinets of curiosities. Public access to these collections was very limited.
Sir Hans Sloan is shown above.
The British Museum claims the distinction of being the first national public museum in the world and it granted admission to “all studious and curious persons.” While the British Museum was a “public” museum, public access was initially restricted to the middle and upper classes. To get into the museum, potential visitors had to apply in writing, thus eliminating many lower class people. Once the application had been submitted, it was often two weeks until the admission ticket was issued. Small groups of visitors were allowed in and their stay in the museum was limited to two hours.
As the British Empire expanded, the British Museum became a showplace for the empire, showing objects obtained from its far-flung reaches. In 1778, for example, Captain James Cook brought back objects from his voyages around the world. These objects provided visitors with glimpses of strange, exotic, and relatively unknown lands.
Captain James Cook is shown above.
The map above shows Captain Cook’s voyages around the world.
Sir William Hamilton, the British Ambassador to Naples from 1764 to 1800, collected Greek vases and other antiquities while in Italy. He also wrote a book on the ancient Roman city of Pompeii. In 1784, he sold a portion of his collection of Greek and Roman artifacts to the British Museum and thus began the museum’s collection of antiquities.
Sir William Hamilton is shown above.
During the early nineteenth century, the antiquities collections in the British Museum were dominated by displays of the ancient Greek, Roman, and Egyptian cultures. In 1802, the museum acquired the Rosetta Stone and in 1821 the Colossal bust of Ramses II.
The Colossal bust of Ramses II is shown above. The bust is 2.7 meters high, 2 meters across, and weighs 7.25 tons. It was cut from a single block of two-colored granite. The British Consul General Henry Salt hired the adventurer Giovanni Belzoni to dig out the statue using hydraulics and engineering skills. With regard to Belzoni, archaeologist Brian Fagan in his book Archaeologists: Explorers of the Human Past writes:
“Giovanni Battista Belzoni was a flamboyant circus strongman and tomb robber whose life story reads like a Hollywood movie.”In Egypt, Belzoni blasted (he was skilled at the use of gunpowder) and dug his way into royal tombs, pyramids, and temples. When he was hired by Henry Salt to transport the half-buried bust of Ramses II from its resting place in the pharaoh’s mortuary temple at Luxor to the Mediterranean port of Alexandria, many people considered this to be an impossible task. Belzoni, however, turned to some of the skills and knowledge that he had acquired in the circus, and rigged a series of levers to move the head. Brian Fagan also reports:
“When a local headman tried to make difficulties, Belzoni simply picked him up and shook him until he cooperated.”From 1799 to 1803, Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, served as the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. He felt that ancient Greek art, particularly that found in Athens, should serve as the model for artistic taste and practice in Britain. He was granted free access to the Acropolis in Athens for the purpose of making sketches, taking casts, and carrying out some digs. He then bribed the local Ottoman authorities into permitting him to remove about half of the Parthenon frieze. He transferred these antiquities to Scotland where they decorated his mansion. These were not small pieces: the backs were sawn off the largest pieces as it was feared that they would sink the ships.
Due to escalating debts, Elgin sold the marbles to the British Museum in 1816. A parliamentary committee vindicated Elgin’s conduct in acquiring the antiquities.
The 7th Earl of Elgin is shown above.
Shown above are the models of the Acropolis and the Parthenon used by the British Museum in their Body Beautiful exhibit which is touring the United States.
Shown above are the Elgin marbles at the British Museum. Greece has asked that these sculptures be returned, but the British Museum has refused. The museum asserts that it is the appropriate custodian for the marbles and has a right to the artifacts under British law. Greece feels that the marbles are important symbols of the cultural heritage of the country and should be displayed in Greece.
While much of the museum’s early collections came from passionate collectors, in 1840 the museum became involved in archaeological excavations overseas. The first British Museum expedition, led by Sir Charles Fellows, resulted in the discovery of 13 ancient cities in Asia Minor. Fellows was knighted as an acknowledgement of his services in the removal of Xanthian antiquities to Britain. Xanthos, located in present-day Turkey, was a center of Lycian culture.
In 1857, Charles Newton discovered the Mausoleum of Halikarnassos which was considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The mausoleum was constructed between 353 and 350 BCE for Mausolus and his wife and sister Artemisia II. The Greek architects Satyros and Pythius of Priene designed the structure. When the British Museum sent Newton to Asia Minor to search for the remains of the tomb its exact location was unknown. Newton used the accounts of ancient writers, such as Pliny, to obtain the approximate size and location of the structure. He then purchased a small plot, dug down and explored the surrounding area with a series of tunnels. In this way, Newton was able to locate three of the corners of the foundation.
The British Museum display of the Mausoleum of Halikarnassos is shown above. As Keeper of the Greek and Roman section of antiquities, Newton supervised the construction of the Mausoleum Room which housed the antiquities he brought back from Asia Minor. When Newton joined the British Museum in 1840, the museum’s Antiquities Department included classical, Oriental, and medieval antiquities as well as ethnographies.
Shown above is one of the lion sculptures from the Mausoleum of Halikarnassos which is on display in the British Museum.
In 1847, Henry Layard discovered more than a half-dozen winged pairs of colossal statues of lions and bulls at the site of Nimrod in Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq). He brought one bull and one lion, each weighing more than 9 tons, to London for the British Museum.
One of the massive portal guardians from Nimrod is shown above. This is on display at the British Museum.