Tag Archives: collections

The British Museum

The Grand Foyer of the British Museum
The Grand Foyer of the British Museum

The British Museum is one of London’s landmark buildings, home to some of the world’s most precious treasures, birthplace of many great works of history and literature, the inspiration of poets and an eternal source of interest and wonder to countless visitors from all over the world.

The British Museum was originally established to house the collection of more than 71,000 objects, a library and a herbarium gifted to the nation by Sir Hans Sloane. It opened on January 15, 1759 in a 17th century mansion, Montagu House, on the present Bloomsbury site. However, over the next century the rapidly expanding collections outgrew it. The present imposing rectangular structure was designed by Sir Robert Smirke and completed in 1852. The circular reading room, in the centre of the grand court, was added in 1857. A glass and steel ceiling now covers the court, linking the reading room to the main building and creating new indoor spaces for restaurants, cafes, shops and ticketing.

Over the years the British Museum has acquired one of the largest and best collections of documents, artefacts and antiquities in the world, although some collections, like the British Library and the Natural History section have been re-located and become separtae enmtities. Star among the museum’s antiquities is the Rosetta stone, key to the secrets of Egyptian hieroglyphics and the mother of the written word. Its documents include the Magna Carta, the Lindisfarne gospels and the manuscripts of Beowolf. It has halls of treasures from Asia, peat-preserved men from pre-historic Britain, fine porcelain from the Royal Courts of Europe and spectacular feather head-dresses and beaded cloaks from North America. It has dark-polished glass-fronted display cases full of fossils and crystals, artefacts and effigies from the Pacific including taonga from Aotearoa-New Zealand; carved waka huia (feather boxes) along with patu and mere (weapons) of bone and of greenstone of a weight, depth and lustre no longer seen.

The museum played a significant role in the lives and work of many political figures and writers. Karl Marx researched Das Kapital in the British library here. Charles Dickens was a member. Wyndham Lewis worked constantly in the reading room during the 1920s. The Bohemian Socialists, including George Bernard Shaw and Eleanor Marx, daughter of Karl, used to meet here. Colin Wilson wrote his first novel, the Outsider here. The British Museum features in the work of many writers including Virginia Woolf (A Room of One’s Own), Arthur Conan Doyle (The Adventures of Wisteria Lodge) and Bram Stoker (Dracula). Shelley’s sonnet Ozymandias and Keats Ode to a Grecian Urn were both inspired by objects in the Museum. Finally and best of all, for the sentimental and tender-hearted, romantic Malcolm Bradbury (The History of Man) wooed his girlfriend in the British Museum reading room, with notes left between the pages of T.S. Eliot’s The Cocktail Party.

Entry to the British Museum is free. It is open daily but times are subject to change. Further Information on the museum times, special exhibitions, collections and history visit www.thebritishmuseum.ac.uks

Prague’s National Museum

From its lofty seat at the top of the rise, the National Museum looks down like a grand old dame on Prague’s busy Wenceslas Square. Its gold dome and magnificent neo-Renaissance façade dominate the skyline.

The entrance to Prague's National Museum
The entrance to Prague’s National Museum

Although the Museum collection was established in 1818, it did not have a dedicated home until the present National Museum opened on May 18, 1881. Designed by the Czech Technical University’s Professor Josef Schultz, who was also the architect of the Rudolphinum and the National theatre, the National Museum was born of the Czech National Revival movement. It soon became an important symbol of Czech culture, science and learning.

The interior, which was not completed until 1903, is the product of the genius of 19th century Bohemia’s foremost artists and craftsmen. The pillared entrance hall is peopled with sculptor Ludwig Schwanthaler’s statues of Princess Libuse and her ploughman husband Premysl, King Wenceslas and Premysyl Otakar II. Dual staircases, flanked by paintings of Czech Castles and landscapes, lead up to the main gallery. The beautiful glass domed Pantheon displays busts and statues of famous Czech writers, artists and scholars. Its walls are lined with paintings depicting important Czech historical events.

The National Museum collection, which is the Czech Republic’s largest and oldest, is fascinating. It traces the evolution of the country and its people. It also includes a vast collection of minerals, fossils and animals, both skeletal and stuffed.

Today, the building across the road, which was once the seat of Parliament and then home to Radio Free Europe, is part of the museum complex. State-of- the- art exhibition spaces and 21st century displays have replaced the old vast echoing, halls with their polished wood and glass-fronted cabinets where once I lost myself for hours on a quiet, contemplative journey of discovery.

Still, the grand old gold-domed dame, survivor of World War II, when its central staircase was hit by a bomb and of the 1968 Soviet intervention when it was peppered with machine gun fire, will always be the mainstay of the institution, as strong a symbol of Czech culture, science and education as it was over a century ago.