Wednesday, 7 July 2010

British Museum Archives tour

This year our class was fortunate enough to take a tour of the central archives at the British Museum.  Stephanie Clarke, the Museum Archivist, offered us a behind the scenes tour that winded through the basement of the museum.  Here we saw some pretty important documents and learned about the way information is arranged and preserved.  There are eight archival departments, divided by geographic location of the major collections.  While not all departments have professional Archivists, Stephanie and her staff help them where they can and provide advice as needed.  The archives team are not actually a part of the library, however they are considered to be part of legal services.  This includes records management, freedom of information and data protection, among other aspects.  

Archival documents include a series of six subjects; governance, staff records, finance, building plans, temporary exhibits and records of objects.  These are all documented and saved in books dating back to the foundation of the museum in 1753.  Since preservation is always a concern the information has been transferred to microfilm, which is how the general public usually accesses it.  Since 1753 there has been a book to document donations as well as a book of letters to and from the director. 

The archives collection holds about 8,000 pictures of which we were shown a few of the most fascinating.  Particularly, the photos capturing the destruction from WWII were really devastating, as well as a bomb shell that was found at the museum. Interestingly, this shell is not part of the collection! 

The Natural History Museum archives are also housed in this location since it started here at the British Museum.  There are photos proving how packed the collection was, it is no wonder they had to start a new museum!

Years ago, potential patrons had to supply a letter of reference with their application.  An interesting application we studied was that of a Mr. Thomas Stearns Eliot, for those who know the name!  What is so fascinating about this is that it records all of the addresses where he lived while abroad as well as his intended course of study at the library.  The American Consular wrote his letter of recommendation and cited him a student at Oxford.  We were also shown the signature card for Karl Marx from 1918. 

Ah, the British Museum...

Upon entering the Great Court, pictured above, visitors are greeted by the seven ton Lion of Knidos. Once guarding a tomb on a cliff in Turkey, this colossal marble monster is believed to be from 370-350 BC while others date it around the 2nd century BC.  Either way, massively impressive and a sight to see, it was 'discovered' in May of 1858 and brought to the British Museum.  What interests me in this lion is that the marble to make it travelled across the Aegean Sea from Mt. Pentelikon, near Athens.  What a journey this marvel has endured and the only loss was his eyes, lower jaw and front paws.

Moving on, my next goal was to find this giant arm that I took a picture with last summer.  In keeping with tradition, I had to have another photo.  I learned this time around that this arm is desperately holding onto a container for documents.  It comes from a statue commemorating a king of the Eighteenth Dynasty, about 1390 BC (?). 

Here is the rest of him, so you can realize just how massive it all is:

Outside of the museum there is a recreation of a lush African landscape.  Besides for the apparent natural beauty, I was struck by the description of the landscape.  Everything has another purpose...nothing is wasted.  How did they learn, for example, that the coleonema pulchelllum, or the confetti bush, is a natural insect repellent?! 

Who was the unfortunate soul who discovered this:

Looks good enough to eat, and similar to other plants or flowers that are edible...!

Other fauna is used to treat hard corns, warts,  and boils.  Sap that is poisonous to eat is used to make rubber.  Some are used in traditions such as charms to help crops.  Others like the dioscorea elephantipes, or elephant's foot, is used in multiple ways; medicinal as well as fermenting it to use as a yeast to bake bread.  This was a very interesting perspective and a lovely outdoor exhibit. 

Visit the museum at

They have a great gift shop! Last year I bought a CD that has the sounds of London...saved it for a long time before listening to it (with a big smile on my face)!

1 comment:

  1. Hi Jenn
    I went to the British Museum in 1998 and I was amazed by a giant arm. I clearly don´t remember if it´s the same from the picture you took. I do remember that this giant arm had a Henry Moore comment.
    In the last two years I have tried to get a photo from the Internet of such arm in the BM, but I couldn´t.
    I am from Chile, so I haven´t been in London for a long time. Regards. Horacio