13 July 2013

Day 23 - London: British Museum Archives

My first impression of the British Museum Archives (http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/libraries_and_archives.aspx) was "wow its small!" You'd think that the museum would have oodles of things, but mainly in the archives are records generated during the course of daily museum business. A bit of background on the history of the British Museum - originally the British Library was a part of the museum, and was located inside the Reading Room, the round part of this picture:
Unfortunately you can't get inside the Reading Room today unless you buy a ticket to whatever special exhibition is on. When the two split up in 1997, the British Library got all the library-related items, and the British Museum kept items specifically relating to the museum. And within the archives are only general museum-related records, as each of the eight collecting departments maintain their own archival records. That leaves the remainder under the care of Stephanie Alder, the sole archivist for the museum. 

After going through many tunnels, we reached the archive. I always love getting to go where the public is not allowed, but you could definitely get lost in the tunnels under the British Museum! The trustees of the BM kept meticulous meeting minutes, along with bound letter books of all letters received and a book with transcriptions of letters sent, meaning you can often trace the history of an item. Another large part of the collection is reader applications and signature books. In order to get into the Reading Room, which was a very prestigious place to be, you had to be 21 years old, fill out the application, explain why you wanted to be there, and include a letter of reference. Then you were issued with a reader card, valid for either three or six months, and every time you came into the library you had to sign in. The archives contain signature books from 1790-1973 of every reader, and the reader applications from 1830-1920.  Ms Alder explained that they do get family history requests from relatives of people who either worked at the museum or were readers, and it would be a find for a genealogist to be able to see the reader application of their ancestor, as they tell you a bit about someone's life instead of just being static documents. This photo shows the signature book where Beatrix Potter signed in (her sig is on the lower left side of the page):
There are not many objects in the archive, as objects would more likely be a part of the museum collection. Yet this one is in the archives:
It is the shell that fell in the Coin room during the Blitz. We saw the photos of the damage it caused; luckily the majority of the holdings were hidden away in quarries in Wales for safe keeping, however the museum did remain open with duplicate items on display for anyone wanting to visit. 

My favorite items in the collection were the stereoscopic images from 1857, created with the intent to sell in the museum gift shop. You put them in a holder like this:
And you saw a 3D image of something in the museum - it was super cool that this was technology from 1857.

It was interesting to hear all the responsibilities of the archivist, and to be honest surprising that only a single person works there, although she does have some volunteers. Unfortunately this might be the way a lot of archives end up going, due to budget cuts. One person can still get things done, it just happens a lot slower - for example, in May of this year a catalog was begun of the BM archives, and it currently has around 25 items in it, as she has to fit that in along with all the day to day things, such as answering the 30-40 email queries a week, all of which take time to research. 

After our visit, I toured the museum a little more, seeing all of the Egyptian collection, or trying to, as this was as close as I could get to the Rosetta Stone:
It's funny how certain things are "must-see" items in any museum, like the Mona Lisa, and you get hordes of tourists viewing them, and probably missing out on other hidden treasures. Yes, the Rosetta Stone has importance as it led to the deciphering of hieroglyphics, but I have to wonder how many people know and care about that as opposed to crossing off a well-known item from their list. 

Then I went over to see the Parthenon marbles, which I feel should not still be in the British Museum. They were taken off the Parthenon by Lord Elgin, who did have signed paperwork saying he could recover any items from antiquity, and he removed them and brought them to the British Museum. Greece wants them back, and for the longest time the BM said it was keeping them because it was a better place for the marbles, partly for conservation reasons. But recently Greece built a museum, solely for the purpose of holding the marbles, and I visited it in Athens two years ago - it is a gorgeous museum, but kinda sad to go through because there are placeholders on the top floor for the marbles. They do have a few in Athens, but it would be so nice to have them all united, in one museum, right near the Parthenon so everything could be in context. 
I suppose they fear it would set a precedent if the marbles were given back to Greece, as would then Egypt want all its treasures back? I'm so grateful that there are Egyptian treasures around the world, as I don't want to think about what has become of those in the Cairo Museum. 

I'll close with another picture of the South Bank - this bagpiper has been somewhere along the Thames every day - when its low tide you can walk along the Thames on a beach, but I really have no idea how he got here other than a boat:

1 comment:

  1. So interesting, love it! You're off to Scotland tomorrow! Have fun, take pics, be sure to write in the blog! Love Mom and Dad :)