Things to Look Out for in the British Museum
What is the best British Museum must see? Decide for yourself with our comprehensive list of the top things to look out for in the British Museum.
Despite being somewhat embroiled in the controversial debate about the rights of national ownership of ancient objects surrounding their display of the Parthenon Marbles, the British Museum remains one of the world’s greatest resources of cultural objects. With their impressive collection ranging from pre-historic documents of mankind’s early developments to contemporary art, the timespan covered is the grand total of 8,000 years. Aside from their famous collection of Ancient Egyptian Artwork (currently holding the title of the world’s largest collection) and the Rosetta Stone, the museum has enough objects to make a cultural history feint from the overwhelming information housed within. Even what is displayed is actually a fragment of the total collection (a large enough topic to be reserved for another article, another time). To act as a shining beacon in the darkness of confused wonderings, here is a compilation of some of the most interesting objects to lead you through the collections, allowing you to score brownie points with anyone you visit with as a connoisseur of vague world history with approximate knowledge of many things.
The Fiji Mermaid, Enlightenment Hall
One of the most peculiar items in the London British Museum is the Fiji Mermaid. The object is actually the combination of a taxidermied monkey torso attached to the tail of a fish, secured onto a wire skeleton. There is a whole segment of academia dedicated to the history of these mermaids. During the 18th and 19th centuries a host of them miraculously appeared, being toted as genuine preserved mermaids which drew in crowds of thousands when displayed in Covent Garden by Captain Barret Edes in 1822. During this era in history, the world was only beginning to be truly explored and documented by scientists and explorers. Within this context, dinosaur bones were attributed to dragons, Narwhale horns appeared to belong to unicorns, and Orangutans were considered some other species of human. It was no small leap of the imagination to logically consider mermaids as real creatures. However, the truth of the matter is that Japanese fishermen were constructing these curiosities to sell to tourists. P. T Barnum, the world’s greatest showman (or conman, depending on who you’re asking) popularised these mermaids in the mid 19th century, even managing to convince the American Museum of Natural History to put one on display.
Throne of Weapons, African Rooms
The most recent addition to the British Museum is the long-awaited African Rooms. This artwork created by contemporary artist Kester is made from decommissioned weapons that were collected at the end of the civil war in Mozambique in 1992. The work was patronised by Graça Machel, widow of Samora Machel the founding president of Mozambique, who later married Nelson Mandela. The inspiration for the project came from the biblical reference in Isaiah (2.4) ‘..and they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.’ The Throne of Weapons is a powerful work that questions the role of the international arms trade, local gun crime, conflict resolution, sustainable development, and the influence of art.
Bronze Gladiator’s Helmet, Room 69: Greek and Roman Life
This Bronze gladiator helmet from Pompeii circa the 1st century AD is an exquisitely preserved example of combat-wear. Although it is, more than anything, a reminder of man’s inherent brutality and lust for violence, it is also a showcase of carefully considered design and the psychological power of emblems. The helmet has a grille of linked chains to protect the face, a broad brim to protect the back and sides of the head. At the front of the helmet is a medallion of Hercules, no doubt in part to associate the status of the wearer to that of a demi-god (gladiators were celebrities in their own right, each with an avid following of fans), as well as allowing the wearer to feel a connection with the hero that would have helped them to travel into a mental state designed to cope with the gorey realities of battle. This helmet would have been worn by a Thaex (who battled with a curved short sword and small shield), a Murmillo (short sword and large shield), or a Hoplomachus (spear and small shield).
Human Skull from the Turquoise Mosaics, Room 27: Mexico
This fascinating object made from human remains and turquoise is believed to represent the Aztec deity Teszcatlipoca. Originating from 15th century Mexico, it is speculated to have been used as a ritualistic back ornament. Tezcatlipoca was also known as ‘Smoking Mirror’ which references the diety’s connection to obsidian mirrors and explains the use of black polished pyrite in the eyes. In Mesoamerica these mirrors were used in shamanic rituals and prophecy. Set as the antagonist for Quetzalcoatl, he was often seen as a spirit of darkness and was associated with the night sky, hurricanes, discord, rulership, jaguars, sorcery, and beauty. Although his exact meaning evolved with Aztec society, his cult was associated with royalty, and was the subject of the most lengthy and reverent prayers in the rites of kingship, as well as being mentioned frequently in coronation speeches.
The Winged and Eagle-Headed Genii, Rooms 7-8: Assyria’s Palace of Nimrud
The detailed reliefs on display originally stood in the palace throne-room and in other royal apartments of the Palace of Nimrud. The palace was built by the Neo-Assyrian King Ashurnasirpal II in the 9th century BCE, in what is now northern Iraq. Within these reliefs, look out for the two types of Genii depicted in Neo-Assyria: the winged, and the eagle headed. These are the amicable demons from which we developed the now familiar idea of the Genie, as well influencing the hybrid creatures of Greek mythology such as the Griffon, Pegasus, and Talos. The mythos and meaning of Genii are too complex and lengthy to go into here, but in brief, they were beings that existed during a godlike generation of mankind. During this generation, the world was covered in a great flood and the inhabitants were purified and roamed the earth as invisible Genii. As such, they are associated with purification, supernatural protective powers that watched over royalty, and tenders of the Tree of Life.
British Museum opening times: daily from 10am – 5:30pm British museum opening hours as before; likewise with British Museum hours
The British Museum shop is open during the same hours as the main museum and is located near the main entrance.
The London British Museum restaurant is open 12pm – 5pm and is in the main foyer, accessible by lift.
British museum opening times.
British Museum London address: Great Russell St, Bloomsbury, London WC1B 3DG British museum times 10am-5:30pm
For information on British Museum exhibitions, see their website here for details. British Museum postcode: WC1B 3DG
British Museum free entry for all.