Fun article – “The 99% of the British Museum Not on Show”

Here is an interesting read from last year on one of my favorite places – the British Museum in London. I’ve visited a few times (it’s free!) and always enjoy going. I normally focus on its ancient Mediterranean/Near Eastern collections but there are many other things to see. The museum has items from across the world, spanning the past and present. From my first visit, I recall a special Beatles display that included handwritten lyrics to “Eleanor Rigby” used by Paul McCartney in the studio. (Possibly on loan for the exhibit?) There is always plenty to to see that suits all kinds of interests.

The article linked above states that only 1% of the museum’s collection is on public display. That sounds incredible until one learns that the museum has over 8 million artifacts in its complete collection.

Question: Why not display more than a measly 1% of the collection?

Answer: That 1% comes out to around 80,000 items, more than a person can reasonably view in several days. There would undoubtedly be space issues as well.

A sampling of interesting quotes from the article:

– “The stimulus that gave rise to writing was nothing to do with poetry or literature, it was tax, bureaucracy and horrible things like that.”

– “Dr Finkel estimates there are 200 cuneiform readers left in the world, and ‘only 15 who are any good'”.

– “There is the conception that people in ancient times were not fully evolved. Modern humans think, cavemen grunt and Babylonians are somewhere in between. But ancient people thought and created, they lied and schemed and were afraid of disease – these people were every bit as intelligent as us. And that is deeply significant.”

On Samurai swords, “Many staff are too worried to handle them because they are ‘downright dangerous’. ‘You have a softer steel inside and a harder one on the surface’, said Mr Clark. ‘The softer metal inside creates a whiplash effect. That gives more force behind the strike. And the outer steel gives you a harder blade. So you have a combination of whiplash and slice.'”

– “It’s like opening a cupboard door in Narnia and finding yourself back in this ancient culture.”

– “If I go senile I will forget how to read English long before I forget how to read cuneiform. It is engrained into my very being.”

Scholars and students may find this last sentence intriguing: “Although the museum rotates the objects on show, any item can be seen by appointment.”

If you haven’t visited the British Museum, make time for it whenever you may find yourself in London. Plan for more than a couple of hours – that’s just enough time to warm up.

Here’s the article link again. The British Museum’s web site may also be useful for planning in advance what you want to see.


About LukeChandler

Luke holds an M.A. in Ancient and Classical History and has been an adjunct professor at Florida College in Temple Terrace, Florida. Luke and his wife Melanie have five children. He serves as a minister with the North Terrace Church of Christ and has participated in multiple archaeological excavations in Israel. Luke leads informative, meaningful tours to Europe and the Bible Lands.
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