This past weekend, I went to the British Museum for the second time. The first time I went, I was alone, and I told myself that, since I have plenty of time in London, I didn’t need to rush through the museum trying to see as much as possible; I could take my time and try to appreciate what I was seeing. This second time, I went with Faith, and she also wanted to see the superstars of the museum’s collection, so I got to see many artifacts twice (especially in the Egyptian and Assyrian rooms) and theoretically gain a deeper appreciation for them…
Many people love the British Museum because it has such a wealth of treasures and, crucially because it makes those treasures free and open to the public for viewing.
Others of course find the British Museum’s collection quite scandalous and ill-gotten. Indeed, this past Saturday, I was handed this by Greek and Cypriot demonstrators outside the museum’s gate:
I can certainly symphatise with these protestors, to say nothing of the peoples of countries much poorer (at least for now) than Greece whose archaeological heritage is now stored behind a glass in Bloomsbury. But my critique of the British Museum is rather different. And I can only think to express it in terms of the principle of diminishing returns.
Of course, the British Museum contains some treasures that are truly in a class of their own, like the Rosetta Stone. There are many others which, perhaps while not in that same class, are nevertheless so incredible that they tend to attract the attention from visitors that they are due: the giant statues of the pharaohs, for example or the wall panels from the Assyrian palaces at Nimrud and Nineveh.
But then there are a whole host of other artifacts that, in many other museums, would be one of the crown jewels of the collection, but that in the British Museum look sad and unloved. There’s a collection of jade spanning 7,000 years of Chinese history shunted into a room that was probably originally built to be a corridor, and intricate 1000-year old Indian statues tucked away in dimly lit corners of the museum’s upstairs.
These less-appreciated treasures aren’t completely neglected, of course. Even if only a tiny fraction of the 5.8 million annual visitors to the British Museum make it up to some of these hidden gems, that’s still a lot of people! Nevertheless, one can’t help but wonder if some of these items might get more traffic and, more importantly, more appreciation elsewhere.
On an individual level, I found the museum somewhat overwhelming on my first visit. The amount of history contained within the collection is dizzying. I made an effort to see some of the more obscure items (one of my favourites was a 12th century Chess set from the Hebrides made of walrus ivory), but I have to say, a small, bronze Celtic helmet seems less impressive when viewed shortly after the remains of the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus.
I wouldn’t suggest that the British Museum needs to give everything away. But surely there is a more optimal (if not just or equitable) distribution of the world’s treasures.