Unexpected finds at the British Museum


The portico of the British Museum, plus the top of Fiddler’s head

The British Museum opened its doors to visitors in 1759, the first national public museum in the world. From the outset it offered free admission to “all studious and curious Persons.”

When we fetched up on its doorstep recently, thoroughly drenched from a forecasted “chance of rain,” we weren’t feeling so much studious as grateful for a place under a roof where we could drip quietly.

Once we had wrung ourselves out in the entry we did manage to be at least a little curious, and that increased the more we looked. I’ll include here a small sampling of things that caught my attention. Stick with me till the end for some links you won’t want to miss.

First, a nef (I’m adding this to my boggle word collection):

A clock in the shape of a ship

Mechanical Galleon

Here’s a studio portrait of the ship:


circa 1585. Details here.


Next, chess pieces carved of ivory, 12th century, probably made in Norway:

A few of the Lewis chessmen

A few of the Lewis chess pieces


A nice close-up of a berserker (rook)

A nice close-up of a berserker (rook, Lewis chess pieces)



Clearly, being a queen can be trying (Lewis chess pieces).


There's a very cool replica set in the gift shop.

There’s a very cool replica set in the gift shop.


Scenes from the Last Judgement, in bas-relief:



Not being sure how much detail you want, I’ve just tucked in a photo of the label for this set of alabaster carvings, and you can read as much as you’re inclined to.


Speaking of labels, I was amused by this sign on one of the display cases:



It may look like a violin, but those more learned maintain that it’s a distant ancestor of the guitar:

Citole, 1578

Citole, a rare medieval instrument


Citole side view

Citole side view (from Wikipedia)

This is one of those cases where a photo or two just can’t give you much of the experience. But it lets me share a resource that impressed me: below is an audio description of the citole, from the British Museum on SoundCloud. There are 4o9 other tracks to listen to, so I’ve got some exploring ahead of me.

The British museum collection includes about 3.5 million objects. In my damp dash around a few of the galleries I saw very few of them and understood very little about those. But I don’t have to wring my hands and lament opportunities lost: there are amazing digital resources that can help redeem my rushed visit, and provide anyone interested with a chance to learn about a vast number of fascinating things.

First, let me introduce you to a BBC Radio series called A History of the World in 100 Objects. I listened to it as a podcast a few years ago and was much taken with it. The narrator, Neil MacGregor (museum director at the time), has a pleasant voice, plus the ability to say “British” so quickly that it seems to have just one syllable.

The one downside to the podcast was that because it was only audio, I didn’t get a chance to look at any of those fascinating and emblematic items. I’ll say that the stories were interesting enough that this was not a deal breaker, but happily, there are a few different ways that I’ve now discovered for remedying the situation. There’s an image of each of the 100 at the project website, and the Wikipedia page pictures all of them, too.

It wouldn’t surprise me if there were some overlap between the 100 objects and the 410 SoundCloud files I mentioned, but it’s not a bad thing to meet an old friend when exploring a new place. It’s a resource I’m excited about.

Next, the Google Arts and Culture Project lets you look at eight different British Museum exhibits, from a Pacific god named A’a to a Celtic stash of French gold coins packed in a cow bone from the iron age.

Finally, there is The Museum of the World, an interactive experience that I can’t wait to spend some time on. Pick a spot on the timeline and an area of the world, click on a dot, and up come pictures, a description with details about the object, a map showing where it was found, a sound file explaining it all, and other objects in the collection that relate to it. The earliest object dates from 2 million years ago; the most recent from 2000.

I have a feeling that my little visit to the British Museum has started me on a long and fascinating exploration. You come, too!




[Images: Galleon: Trustees of the British Museum; Berserker: Rob Roy; Kings and Queens: Andrew Dunn; citole: Ndaisley]

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