The British Museum

It’s the first national museum in the world and it’s still one of the biggest–a structure built to house historical artefacts for the edification of “curious and studious persons,” belonging neither to King nor Church.

The British Museum

The British Museum

Admission has always been free, from the moment  it opened in its original location at Montague House in 1753.

Montagu House

Back then the collection mainly contained objects that belonged to physician Sir Hans Sloane, but it got so popular that by the 1820s not only did  the collection outgrow the building, but everyone already knew where the restrooms were. This was not acceptable. To rectify this problem, construction for the current site began and thanks to architect Sir Robert Smirke, the tradition of tourists wandering around yet another wing of sculptures, desperate for the bathroom, continues.

Admission Ticket from 1790

Admission Ticket from 1790

Today, it is lauded as a “museum of the world,” housing things of historical importance from many different parts of the globe that the (mostly) British had “collected” from their “travels,” miniatures of which could be bought for a tidy sum at the gift shop.

I got a Rosetta Stone bookmark.

I got a Rosetta Stone bookmark.

It’s an uncomfortable testament to British Imperialism. The way that many parts of the collection were procured (like, say, the Elgin Marbles) is considered controversial. There’s no doubt the pieces are well cared for and treated with respect, and maybe the fact that they’re in the museum is the reason many of these things still exist in their preserved state.  If they’re not here, how will people learn about the cultures their country once exploited? On the other hand, if a person from one of those countries (say, Egypt) wanted to see a piece of their heritage kept in the museum, how difficult would it be for him to get a visa and plane ticket to Britain?

It’s a conundrum. If someone took the roof of your shack, will it be better to let that person take your furniture to their mansion as well and save it from rain damage, or will you keep your stuff and sleep on a bed that will become wet, mouldy and of no use to anyone, including you?

And no, you can not live in the mansion until you can afford to rebuild, whether or not you give up custody of your furniture. However, you are welcome to visit the mansion to see your furniture any time. Everyone is welcome, but good luck getting past the butler with those sodden clothes. Why don’t you sort yourself out, you loser?

british museum ivory sculpture

And, while you’re at it, can you help us find the bathroom?

References:

http://www.britishmuseum.org/

http://www.history.ac.uk/makinghistory/resources/articles/museums_and_history.html

http://www.open.edu/openlearn/history-the-arts/history/heritage/250-years-the-british-museum

http://www.open.edu/openlearn/history-the-arts/history/heritage/museum-history

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_Museum

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