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British Museum Review
With a facade like a great temple, this celebrated treasure house, filled with plunder of incalculable value and beauty from around the globe, occupies an immense, imposing, neo-classical building in the heart of Bloomsbury. Inside are some of the greatest relics of humankind: the Parthenon Sculptures (Elgin Marbles), the Rosetta Stone, the Sutton Hoo Treasure—almost everything, it seems, but the Ark of the Covenant. The three rooms that comprise the Sainsbury African Galleries are a must-see in the Lower Gallery—together they present 200,000 objects, highlighting such ancient kingdoms as the Benin and Asante. The museum's focal point is the Great Court, a brilliant modern design with a vast glass roof that reveals the museum's covered courtyard. The revered Reading Room has a blue-and-gold dome and hosts temporary exhibitions. If you want to navigate the highlights of the almost 100 galleries, join the free eyeOpener 30- to 40-minute tours by museum guides (details at the information desk). Or alternatively, hire a multimedia guide for £5.
The collection began when Sir Hans Sloane, physician to Queen Anne and George II, bequeathed his personal collection of antiquities to the nation. It grew quickly, thanks to enthusiastic kleptomaniacs after the Napoleonic Wars—most notoriously the seventh Earl of Elgin, who acquired the marbles from the Parthenon and Erechtheion in Athens during his term as British ambassador in Constantinople. Here follows a highly edited résumé (in order of encounter) of the British Museum's greatest hits: close to the entrance hall, in Room 4, is the Rosetta Stone, found by French soldiers in 1799, and carved in 196 BC by decree of Ptolemy V in Egyptian hieroglyphics, demotic (a cursive script developed in Egypt), and Greek. This inscription provided the French Egyptologist Jean-François Champollion with the key to deciphering hieroglyphics. Also in Room 4 is the Colossal statue of Ramesses II, a 7-ton likeness of this member of the 19th dynasty's (ca. 1270 BC) upper half. Maybe the Parthenon Sculptures should be back in Greece, but while the debate rages on, you can steal your own moment with the Elgin Marbles in Room 18. Carved in about 400 BC, these graceful decorations are displayed along with a high-tech exhibit of the Acropolis. Be sure to stop in the Enlightenment Gallery in Room 1 to explore the great age of discovery through the thousands of objects on display. Also in the West Wing is one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World—in fragment form—in Room 21: the Mausoleum of Halikarnassos. The JP Morgan Chase North American Gallery (Room 26) has one of the largest collections of native culture outside North America, going back to the earliest hunters 10,000 years ago. Next door, the Mexican Gallery holds such alluring pieces as the 15th-century turquoise mask of Xiuhtecuhtli, the Mexican Fire God and Turquoise Lord. The Living and Dying displays in Room 24 include Cradle to the Grave, an installation by a collective of artists and a doctor displaying more than 14,000 drugs (the number estimated to be prescribed to every person in the U.K. in his lifetime) in a colorful tapestry of pills and tablets.
Upstairs are some of the most popular galleries, especially beloved by children: Rooms 62–63, where the Egyptian mummies live. Nearby are the glittering 4th-century Mildenhall Treasure and the equally splendid 8th-century Anglo-Saxon Sutton Hoo Treasure (with magnificent helmets and jewelry). A more prosaic exhibit is that of Pete Marsh, sentimentally named by the archaeologists who unearthed the Lindow Man from a Cheshire peat marsh; poor Pete was ritually slain in the 1st century, and lay perfectly pickled in his bog until 1984. The Korean Foundation Gallery (Room 67) delves into the art and archaeology of the country, including a reconstruction of a sarangbang, a traditional scholar's study.
- Address: Great Russell St., Bloomsbury, London, WC1B 3DG | Map It
- Phone: 020/7323–8299
- Cost: Free; donations encouraged
- Hours: Galleries Sat.–Thurs. 10–5:30, Fri. 10–8:30. Great Court Sat.–Thurs. 9–6, Fri. 9–8:30
- Website: www.britishmuseum.org
- Tube: Russell Sq., Holborn, Tottenham Court Rd.
- Location: Bloomsbury and Holborn
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