The British Museum and the History of its Special Library

BM-1Andrea here, due to a family health issue, I’m posting an “oldie but goodie” past blog today in which I’m musing on two of my favorite subjects: libraries and museums. And as it so happens, the British Museum in London—an amazingly wonderful institution that always makes my heart go pitty-pat—has a fascinating story in its history that combines the two!
BM-12It all begins with Sir Hans Sloane, who donated his vast collections of “interesting stuff” (a true cabinet of curiosities of 71,000 items—you can see one of the drawers to the right) to King George II and  the country in return for £20,000, to be given to heirs. The items included books, coins, prints, drawing and ethnographic artifacts. By an act of parliament, the gift was accepted and established as the British Museum in 1753. It was the first national public museum in the world, and admission was free to “all studious and curious persons.”

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Hokusai and Japanese Woodblock Prints

Hokusai booksChristina here. Ever since I lived in Japan, I’ve been drawn to Japanese woodblock prints. They are both simple and beautiful, and the variety of subjects is endless. Mostly they depict nature and/or people and places, and one of the absolute masters of this art was Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849). I think most people are familiar with his most famous print known as The Great Wave, which was actually entitled Under the Wave off Kanagawa. I love how he managed to create such wonderful scenes with just a few brushstrokes and his prints really show the Japanese way of life as it was back then.

HokusaiHe is mostly known for his landscape prints and paintings, but he was also the most amazing illustrator for various types of books. Recently, I was fortunate enough to attend an exhibition at the British Museum in London of some of his preliminary sketches and drawings for one such, a sort of picture encyclopedia that was going to be called The Great Picture Book of Everything. It was extremely interesting to see how he’d gone about creating the prints and where he got his ideas from. Most of the drawings were quite tiny and a little dark, but all were exquisite and showed his sense of humour and incredible imagination.

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The Art of Collecting . . .

Met Fashion 1Cara/Andrea here,
I’ve recently been to several really wonderful museum exhibitions, and just love how seeing a carefully curated collection, put together with a focused point of view, can be so inspiring and educational. For me, the best sort of exhibit focus on a specific theme—Fashion and
Met Fashion 2Impressionist Painters, for example—and through the art/objects also give us not only an aesthetic enjoyment but also a broader of context of how they fit into their era and history in general.

That said, it should come as no surprise that museums are some of my very favorite places to visit, no matter what the subject matter. Which got me to thinking about how the concept of the museum itself came into being . . . So I decided to do a little research and here is my own highly abbreviated little catalogue on its history.

The word “museum” derives from the Greek “mouseion,” which means “seat of the Muses. Interestingly enough, in ancient times it referred to a place of scholarly contemplation and philosophical discussion rather than a place with any physical objects on display.

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100 Reasons to Love History!

AP-avatarCara/Andrea here,

Book-coverThe Holiday Season is traditionally a time of festivities with friends and family—parties, sweets, tinsel and song! (Today is the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year here in the Elgin_MarblesNorthern Hemisphere, so it’s no wonder that we celebrate the long, dark stretch of hours with festive lights, blazing Yule logs, glittering candles and copious amounts liquid good cheer.) And of course, it's a time for exchanging gifts. Now, many of you still have your gaily-wrapped gifts to open, but I received an early present from a friend who loves history just as much as I do. And it’s such a fun thing that I want to share!

Mummy SealsIt’s a book—ha, no surprise there why I’m waxing poetic! A HISTORY OF THE WORLD IN 100 OBJECTS by Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, started out as a joint venture with the BBC Radio 4 as a 20-week series of  5 short (15 minutes) programs per week, focusing on one item from the Museum’s collection in each spotlight. The mission was to tell the history of the world through 100 objects, using just the British Museum’s resources. Well, much to the delighted surprise of both the curators and the broadcasters, the series was a runaway hit. So MacGregor and his colleagues decided to put the show in book format.

Hand-axOh, joy. 707 pages of it, to be exact. Yes, it’s heavy, but hey, it’s carrying the weight of the world between those glorious red covers! (The U. S. edition is red beneath the dust jacket.) MacGregor starts out his preface by saying, “Telling history through things is what museums are for.” Tipping his hat to the Parliamentary Act of 1753, which directed that the Museum be “aimed at universality,” he goes on to say that the rules of this intellectual game were as follows—the objects had to range from the beginning of human history (approximately 2 million years Alex-coinago) to the present. And the goal was “to tell the history . . . by deciphering the messages which objects communicate across time—messages about peoples and places, environments and interactions, about different moments in history and about our own time as we reflect on it.”

SA-textileAnd then, MacGregor is off and running through the centuries. The richly detailed photograph (or photographs) of each object is accompanied by a short essay. The text is is very informative—but far more than that it’s wonderfully entertaining. MacGregor’s enthusiasm and love for history—and his delightful sense of humor—dances over the pages as he describes the Buddhaobject and why he and his staff feel it is significant. Of added interest is that he often asks an expert in a specific field, but not necessarily a scholar—a sculptor or an economist—to write a paragraph within the essay saying what Arab-handthe object means to him or her. It provides a fascinating perspective.

The range of objec
ts is breathtaking. MacGregor covers a dazzling array of cultures from every corner of the globe, and the objects themselves represent an incredible array of mediums. Mummies, stone tools, clocks, tapestries, coins, woodcuts, jewelry, bronzes, pottery, to name just a few.  As the New York Times book review says, “These objects, some humble, some glorious, embody intriguing tales of politics and power, social history and human behavior.”

Japanese-woodcut Chess menI’m up to #30 on the List (it’s arranged chronologically, except for the first item, which is a mummy—a nod to the British Museum’s most famous attractions!) A nice thing is you can read a few each day, as they are stand-alone essays, and so go at your own pace. I’m enjoying it immensely—and for those of you who still have a few last-minute gift hints to drop . . .well, hint, hint!

Cuniform-tablet African-head Helmet
It’s wonderful to see history striking such a chord with the general public, isn’t it? The BBC radio broadcasts regularly attracted an audience of nearly four million listeners, while the podcast downloads of the programs have totaled over 10,441,884. And the museum curators are delighted that the public has uploaded well over 3,240 objects as their choices for the Top 100 List. The success of the British Museum’s idea has also encouraged other museums to come up with their own Lists, thus engaging the public in a fun and interactive experience of history.

You can explore more about the 100 Objects here at the wonderful British Museum website, which including, podcasts, blogs and an interactive visual display of the featured items.

Tang-figuresOkay, so now let’s us have a little fun! What one item (or maybe two) would you put on a History of the World in 100 Objects list? I would put the Gutenberg Bible and the first Apple home computer for the way moveable type and simple-to-use advanced technology  revolutionized the dissemination of information.