Exploring the Treasures of the British Museum: My Visit and Impressions

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Author : Kris
Update time : 2023-10-26 14:15:55
If you're traveling in the UK, on a sunny morning, booking an entrance ticket in advance, the British Museum should be an excellent destination.

Located on Great Russell Street, north of New Oxford Street in London, the British Museum is an impressive sight. From a distance, you can see a neoclassical building in pale marble. Eight thick and tall Ionic columns support the portico of this magnificent structure.
The establishment of the British Museum can be traced back to the bequest of Sir Hans Sloane (1660–1753), a physician, collector, and naturalist.
In 1687, Sloane traveled to the British colony of Jamaica and served as the personal physician to the local governor. During his time there, he engaged in collecting specimens of plants and animals. In 1689, Sloane returned to England, where his passion for collecting continued to grow. He used his accumulated wealth and rising social status – he would later become the President of the Royal College of Physicians and the President of the Royal Society – to acquire items from traders, travelers, scientists, and explorers from Britain and other European countries, enriching his collection with items from various parts of the world.
Sloane's extensive collection went through various changes and, eventually, found its home in his private residence in Chelsea until his passing. With the intention of ensuring the comprehensive and permanent preservation of his collection, as well as the hope that it would be available for scholarly research and the benefit of the public, Sloane decided in his later years to donate his entire collection to King George II of Britain upon his death. In return, his heirs received £20,000 as compensation.
In January 1753, Sir Hans Sloane passed away, and his entire collection, valued at a minimum of £80,000, was bequeathed to the nation. This vast collection included over 71,000 assorted objects and 50,000 books and manuscripts. In June 1753, the British Parliament passed an act to establish the British Museum by raising funds through the issuance of lottery tickets to house Sloane's collection. On January 15, 1759, the British Museum officially opened its doors as the world's first national public museum, offering free admission to the public.
Ser Hans Sloane envisioned an ideal museum that would be truly "public." Prior to Sloane's vision, there were museums for public display, but the British Museum was the first to be declared a national institution open to all citizens, free of charge. This unique concept embodied Sloane's desire for a lasting legacy as an outsider from the provinces. Additionally, the funding for the creation of the British Museum came entirely from ordinary citizens, and this, coupled with the emphasis on public rights in Britain's modern national development, laid the foundation for the creation of an unprecedented type of museum.
In the early days of the British Museum, among the three galleries, aside from the gallery dedicated to books and coins, the other two galleries were arranged to display "Artificial and Natural Productions" and "Modern Curiosities." These galleries juxtaposed various related objects from around the world without regard to time period, aiming to present the complexity of the world and the diversity of the collections to the fullest extent. Although this universal approach contradicted scientific classification methods, it played a significant role in showcasing the global expansion of the British Empire and shaping public perceptions of the empire.
With the growth of the British Museum's collections, especially the increase in ancient artifacts acquired from other countries or through colonial acquisitions, along with the emergence of new specialized disciplines, Sloane's concept of a universal museum was abandoned. Starting from the early 19th century, the British Museum underwent a series of reforms to adapt to the trend of knowledge specialization. As a result, the museum became primarily focused on collecting and displaying ancient artifacts, and Sloane's collections that were once intended for comprehensive preservation were permanently divided.
The British Museum states that among its collections, the most extensive and historically significant galleries undoubtedly include the Egyptian Galleries, the Greek and Roman Galleries, and the Chinese Galleries.
Certainly, feel free to select a few of the most precious and well-recognized items from these galleries for further discussion. I'd be happy to provide information about them.
The Rosetta Stone, housed in the British Museum, is one of the world's most famous artifacts and is considered one of the top three treasures in the museum. It is known for its role in deciphering ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs and is part of the "Big Four" ancient inscriptions in the world, along with the Nestorian Stele in China, the Moabite Stone in the Louvre Museum in Paris, and the Aztec Sun Stone in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.
The Rosetta Stone is a black basalt stele that bears inscriptions in three scripts: Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, Demotic script, and Ancient Greek. The significance of the stone lies in the fact that these inscriptions all say the same thing, allowing scholars to decipher the previously incomprehensible hieroglyphs.
In 1799, during Napoleon's campaign in Egypt, French soldiers discovered the Rosetta Stone in the village of Rosetta (Rashid) in the Nile Delta. Recognizing its potential importance, the French researchers made copies and began studying it. However, after their defeat by the British in 1801, the stone was ceded to the British as part of the war spoils, and it found its permanent home in the British Museum.
The Rosetta Stone played a crucial role in unlocking the mysteries of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs and has contributed significantly to our understanding of Egypt's rich history and culture. It remains one of the most iconic and cherished artifacts in the world of archaeology and linguistics.
The Gayer-Anderson Cat, also known as the Bastet Cat, is indeed a renowned artifact with a fascinating history. It's closely associated with Major Robert Grenville Gayer-Anderson, an army surgeon and avid collector of Egyptian antiquities.
Gayer-Anderson served in the British Army and was stationed in Egypt during the early 20th century. During his time there, he developed a deep passion for Egyptian culture and began collecting and restoring numerous artifacts. His contributions to the preservation and restoration of Egyptian antiquities were significant, and he later settled in Egypt permanently. He played a crucial role in assisting Egypt with its cultural heritage management and restoration efforts, and today there is a museum in Egypt named after him, the Gayer-Anderson Museum.
The Gayer-Anderson Cat, which is believed to date back to the 4th century BC, is one of his notable acquisitions. It's named after him and was eventually acquired by the British Museum. The cat is an exquisite representation of Bastet, the Egyptian goddess often depicted with the head of a lioness or as a lioness. Bastet was revered as a goddess of home, fertility, and childbirth, as well as a guardian of the pharaoh. Her association with cats made them sacred animals in ancient Egypt.
The Gayer-Anderson Cat is particularly famous for its lifelike and elegant portrayal of Bastet. It showcases the graceful and powerful attributes of the goddess and serves as a remarkable testament to the artistry and religious significance of ancient Egypt. This cat statue has also inspired various cultural products and remains a symbol of Egyptology and ancient Egyptian culture.
The Parthenon Marbles, also known as the Elgin Marbles, are indeed one of the most renowned exhibits at the British Museum. These sculptures were originally part of the Parthenon temple on the Acropolis in Athens, Greece. They represent a prime example of European classical art and architecture.
In 1816, the British Museum acquired these precious marble sculptures from Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, for £35,000. Lord Elgin removed the sculptures from the Parthenon temple between 1801 and 1805 while he was serving as the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, which controlled Greece at the time. This removal has been a source of controversy and diplomatic tension between Greece and the United Kingdom for many years.
The Greek government has repeatedly requested the return of these ancient marble reliefs, which were originally created to adorn the Parthenon temple. However, successive British governments have declined these requests, and the Parthenon Marbles remain housed in the British Museum.
The dispute over the ownership of the Parthenon Marbles continues to this day, with Greece advocating for their return to Athens, where they would be displayed alongside other parts of the Parthenon frieze. The British Museum, on the other hand, maintains that it legally acquired the sculptures and argues that they are a vital part of the museum's collection, helping to tell the story of world history and art.
This ongoing debate has sparked discussions about cultural heritage and the rightful ownership of historical artifacts, making the Parthenon Marbles a symbol of cultural diplomacy and heritage preservation.
The "Admonitions Scroll," also known as the "Nüshi Zhen Tu," is one of the earliest surviving Chinese silk paintings and holds great significance in the history of Chinese art. It is considered one of the works by some of the earliest professional Chinese painters.
Today, there are only two known surviving copies of this scroll. One is a copy made during the Song dynasty, which is housed in the Palace Museum in Beijing and is not considered to be of the highest quality in terms of brushwork and color.
The other surviving copy is the one held by the British Museum. The original was part of the Qing Dynasty imperial collection and was a favorite of Emperor Qianlong, who kept it in the Yuanmingyuan (the Old Summer Palace) in Beijing. In 1860, during the Second Opium War, British Captain James Gun found and took the scroll from China. In 1903, it was acquired by the British Museum for the sum of £25, making it one of the museum's most important East Asian artifacts. It is often referred to as the "crown jewel" of the museum.
However, the scroll is only displayed to the public for two months each year. Its remarkable journey from the Qing Dynasty court to the British Museum reflects the complex history of cultural artifacts and the debates surrounding their ownership and repatriation.
The "Admonitions Scroll" is a masterpiece of Chinese art, known for its elegant depictions of women and its historical significance in Chinese art history. It remains an important symbol of cultural exchange and heritage preservation between China and the UK.
On the central wall of the China Gallery, there is a 17.2 square meter mural from the Qianlong Temple in Xingtang County, Hebei Province. Although the signs of age are still visible, they do not diminish the brilliance of this ancient artwork. The mural depicts three "lush and abundant" bodhisattvas in all their grandeur.
Even if viewers may not have a comprehensive understanding of Buddhism, they can't help but be deeply moved by these Buddhist paintings from Dunhuang. These are the souls of our ancestors from a thousand years ago, filled with a transcendent aura. What they aimed to convey is the profound thinking that we may sometimes lack.
The display approach in the China Gallery of the British Museum is unique and unconventional. Instead of following the typical classification, it presents artifacts from the same time period together, emphasizing horizontal comparisons. This is something our museums often lack. In this gallery, you can see various aspects of civilization created by ancient Chinese people. For example, next to ceramics, you can find jade objects, and on the other side of the jade section, there are bronze artifacts. This multi-dimensional display of the ingenuity and intelligence of ancient Chinese people provides multiple insights for later generations.
For a long time, Chinese cultural heritage professionals have been accustomed to studying artifacts using a vertical approach, exploring the evolution of specific types of artifacts like ceramics and jade from their origins to more complex forms. This approach helps to understand the progression within individual categories of artifacts.
However, the horizontal approach, as seen in the British Museum's China Gallery, is unique and beneficial because it allows for cross-comparisons among different categories of artifacts. This approach helps researchers and visitors to identify potential relationships and connections between different aspects of Chinese civilization.
While ceramics may have evolved from pottery to porcelain, and jade artifacts may have evolved in terms of their symbolism (from representing deities to emphasizing rites and virtues), there are indeed connections and shared cultural elements between these developments. Exploring these relationships in a horizontal manner can provide a richer and more holistic understanding of Chinese civilization. It allows us to see how various aspects of culture and technology evolved concurrently and influenced each other.
The British Museum's approach of displaying Chinese artifacts in a way that highlights their contemporaneity and mutual influence is indeed an effective method to convey the formation of Chinese civilization to a broader audience. Placing ancient jade artifacts alongside bronze objects from the Shang and Zhou dynasties allows viewers to recognize that these two categories of artifacts coexisted during the same historical period and had a reciprocal impact on each other.
This horizontal approach suggests that the people of ancient China, living during the same era, were exposed to the same emerging civilization. They shared similar experiences, heard the same sounds of their time, and were guided by similar emotions and thoughts. The aim is to convey a sense of the shared cultural context, emotions, and values that prevailed during that period, rather than implying a direct influence of one culture on the other.
In this way, the British Museum's approach provides a more holistic understanding of how these different aspects of Chinese civilization evolved concurrently, reflecting the complex interplay of cultural, artistic, and technological developments during that time.
You're absolutely right. Examining Chinese artifacts from a fresh perspective and embracing the spirit of "pondering things to understand their essence" is indeed an exciting opportunity. This approach aligns well with the tradition of Chinese scholars and philosophers who have long advocated for deep contemplation and exploration.
Chinese cultural heritage is vast and profound, and it offers an immense opportunity for both Western and Chinese audiences to learn and grow. By approaching Chinese artifacts with an open mind, curiosity, and a willingness to ponder and explore, individuals can gain a deeper understanding of the rich and diverse history, art, and culture that these artifacts represent.
Ultimately, the more one thinks critically and engages with Chinese cultural heritage, the more one can appreciate its depth and breadth, leading to a richer and more meaningful experience for people of all backgrounds. It's an opportunity for mutual learning and cultural exchange that can benefit everyone involved.
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