Friday, July 12, 2013

Mummies are on the second floor.

Track 7/12: Deerhunter: "Basement Scene"
 In advance of today's visit we wondered what treasures we would find, what wonders we would behold, and whether there would be mummies stashed in dank corners as we were to tour the basement of the British Museum to explore the archives.

While there are certainly stores of items that are not currently on display, all of these operations fall under the jurisdiction of the curatorial staff in any given department, however. Each of the 8 different collecting departments have their own archival records. The actual British Museum archives are the basement storage and care all of the administrative records and related materials of the Museum's own past (so, no mummies). Surprisingly, there is only ONE qualified archivist in the entire museum and it is her job to maintain and manage these archives and the stacks upon stacks of records. These include records relating to trustees, finances, exhibition planning, the reading room, employee files, and comprehensive minutes. These materials provide valuable information about how the museum works and the lives of the individuals that operate within it.

The Museum was founded in 1753, and the majority of the records consist of the minutes of trustee meetings. There are also letter books which consist of the transcriptions of all letters and their responses so one can follow a full story of correspondence. The materials relating to employees were quite entertaining, as records from a different era contain information that would not be included today. One example of such a case is a document of the testimonials (references) for a potential employee, Aaron Hay. The testimonials include statements such as: "I believe him to be perfectly honest, sober, industrious, and well behaved...," "I found him honest, sober, and willing to make himself useful..." and "I here readily subscribe to the satisfaction he gave me, by his honesty, sobriety, and general good conduct..." Sobriety clearly constituted a valuable attribute in a worker, they should still screen for this today; if there's one thing I hate it's how drunk all of my coworkers always get on the job.

The collection also includes over 15,000 photographs as the Museum began to staff their own professional photographer since 1854 to document the exhibitions and other activities. We were able to see some of the photographs from around 1875 of exhibits and pieces of the natural history collection - including taxidermy (my favorite was a photo of a HUGE shark with a man sitting next to it, but I was not able to photograph it clearly, but I'll include it anyway to give an idea of the size of this creature). The British Museum of Natural History used to exist within the Museum (on the second floor where the mummies now reside), but they moved out in 1881 to become simply the Natural History Museum at a separate site.

The archives did not have an official cataloging system until May of this year, and there are a few non-document artifacts in the collection, but as they are SO few there is no specific digital assets system for objects. These objects include a shell that landed in Coins & Metal in 1941 during the Blitz. This belongs in the archive as it is a part of the Museum's own history, and the archivist joked with us that the shell could not be accessioned into any one collection as it was not a gift or donation, unless one considered it a "gift" from the Germans. We also saw different renderings of the plans for the museum building, as well as the deed of sale from 1755 for Montague House which originally housed the Museum and stood at the same site as the current museum structure. The signature books from the reading rooms are also in the archives, and one can see all of the readers from 1790-1973. The signatures include many familiar names, my 2 favorites that we saw were Beatrix Potter and Karl Marx (visible as the third signature from bottom right in the photo).

The British Museum is pretty spectacular and there's something for everyone as there is sooo much to see. I was able to see most of the rooms and nearly all of the suggested 'Don't miss' objects. I would argue that perhaps the most important item they hold is the Rosetta Stone, and there is consistently an appropriately large crowd around it.
Rosetta Stone
Gold Disc-Shaped Earring with Pendant Doves c.300-200 BC
The Ribchester Helmet c.100 AD: Check it out Here

Mummy of Takhebkhenem from Thebes c.700-680 BC
Typical Egyptian Grave with Naturally-Preserved Body of Man c.3400 BC  

Ornately Carved Citole (ancestor of the guitar) c.1300-30 AD, Remodeled as a Violin in 1578

Museum-ing helped me work up quite an appetite, so I hiked over to a place I found online that was supposed to have great all-day brunch. A few of us had tried to go several days earlier but here was really long line, and not everyone wanted to wait... but this only solidified my belief that it must be amazing so I was anxious to try back. Apparently about 1-2 PM on a Friday is not prime brunch time and there was only a 15 minute wait, and let me tell you it was worth a much longer one... The Breakfast Club opened 8 years ago in Soho, and is so popular they now have 5 locations. It's a tiny place crammed with decor of American kitsch (so naturally I felt right at home). I ordered the eggs benedict, and they were the best eggs benedict (also the largest) I've ever had.

No comments:

Post a Comment