Episode 25: The British Museum
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Hazel Baker: Hello and welcome to London Guided Walks London History podcast. In the coming episodes, we will be sharing our love and passion for London, its people, places and history in an espresso shot with a splash of personality. For those of you who don’t know me, I am Hazel Baker, founder of London Guided Walks, providing guided walks and private tours to Londoners and visitors alike.
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Today, The British Museum has become one of the largest museums in the world. Covering a staggering area of over 92,000 square meters. It has a permanent collection of over 8 million works from all continents. It was established in 1753, largely based on the 71,000 item collection of the physician, naturalist, and collector, Sir Hans Sloane. The British Museum first opened to the public in 1759 at Montague House, which is on the site of the modern day museum.
Its expansion over the next 250 years resulted in the creation of several branch institutions. The first being what is now known as the Natural History Museum. Taking advantage of the quieter London streets, City of London tour guide Ian McDiarmid and I visited The British Museum, not once but twice. And we’re here today to share our experiences. So, hello Ian.
Ian McDiarmid: Hello.
Hazel Baker: Ian, you kindly booked the tickets for us. So, what was the experience like?
Ian McDiarmid: It was good. It was nice and easy and straightforward. So you go onto The British Museum website, you select your date and time, it’s timed entry. You get your tickets and it’s very straightforward. And it’s free, they ask you for a donation. And then you turn up. And then on the turning up part, we had differing experiences, didn’t we? We went, I think at the same time on the same day. But the first time, three weeks ago, we had to join quite a large queue and it was pretty slow moving. It wasn’t bad bad, but it took a while to get in there and then it was pretty crowded. And then the second time we went this week and it was absolutely fine, there was no queue at all. And indeed, when we got in there, our time entrance was 10:30. It was empty, which was great. And once you get your tickets and you you’ve gone into The British Museum, the big difference is that your are restricted to what you see and you’ve got to follow a prescribed route. And maybe Hazel I could ask you to describe the route that you’re forced to go along?
Hazel Baker: Yeah. You’re forced to go along. But you you know what? It was nice because normally I would avoid these places like the plague. But because of course there’s fewer people, I found it actually rather pleasurable seeing things I haven’t seen for a long time. So when you go in, you go into the Egyptian Galleries and then go through to the Assyrian and then you go into Ancient Greek. And through that, and then you do a few other continents before being sort of spat out the shop. But saying that, we spent two hours each visits there?
Ian McDiarmid: Yes.
Hazel Baker: There was plenty to see in that time. We didn’t feel rushed.
Ian McDiarmid: You were saying that the whole point about the visit was to go during these times of the COVID because there are two things: there’s the push factor that speaking personally, I’m stuck at home and fed up with it and want to go out. And then there’s second, the attraction there are a few people around.
Obviously one of the most important things in The British Museum is the Egyptian Collection. Perhaps we focus too much on this but if I’m honest, that’s the main reason for me going these two times.
Hazel Baker: And most people.
Ian McDiarmid: Yeah, probably. The Egyptian Collection in The British Museum is regarded by The British Museum at least. I’m sure pretty much everybody else has being able to find this outside their car. So it’s of enormous importance. The trouble is, as you were saying, Hazel, is that whenever I go to The British Museum, you kind of stick your head around the corner of the entrance and you just think, Oh, I’m not going in there.
I mean, it just looks like a sort of rugby scrum most times, and now. You can go around and you can go around fairly peacefully, can’t you? You can spend time on the objects and not only is this important for whatever you’re looking at, but I think it’s particularly important with Egyptian things, because I’m fascinated by Ancient Egypt. But I’m in no way an expert on it. And therefore it’s very important for me and I’m sure I’m speaking for most people to try and get some kind of context behind what you’re looking at. And it’s enormously important just to spend a bit of time to realize how old what you’re looking at is, and try and place it within those, well 3000 and a bit years of, ancient Egyptian history. And also to place them geographically as well. I mean, I don’t know why but I find that psychologically kind of necessary to try and remember things about the objects that I’ve seen.
Hazel Baker: We’ve both been to Egypt. We’ve been to the Vatican, which has a large connection of Egyptology stuff. Same as a Turin and also the MET Gallery in New York. And the . So we’re not novices in this, but it is such a vast history. It takes your mind a while to put these together. So we have a high expectations of the experience here, especially being delivered by the MET and also the Turin Museum was really rather fabulous.
So the collection, you know, you walk through at the Egyptian stuff. What was nice was that you could actually sit on the benches. They’re normally filled with all children. You didn’t have to elbow them out the way and really take account of what you’re looking at and the magnitude of really, what had been created so long ago.
The downside for me the first time was that I could see these QR codes. Scan the QR code and get more information about what you’re looking at. And I was really frustrated because I didn’t have any headphones with me. So the second time I came, I made sure that I had my headphones with me and kind of regret doing that.
Ian McDiarmid: I just couldn’t get it to work. I should say that Hazel is far better at things like this than I am.
Hazel Baker: And so just to clarify it wasn’t the QR code that wasn’t working. That’s easy enough. You just scan it in with any QR reader or if you’re using an iOS device then you just open your camera scanner is. And it will then allow you to open up into a web browser.
Then the web browser will ask you to, download Spotify, the app. You then have to create an account because of course I didn’t have a Spotify account. We tried to get onto The British Museum Wi-Fi, which allowed us, but then it wouldn’t allow I was to download the app. So I had to then do it via 4G.
And then when I had finally got the audio file on Spotify. It was a pre COVID audio file of the gallery. And then of course, you’ve got to contend with the adverts in Spotify because it’s a free account. So I felt I’d wasted a lot of energy and also had been looking forward to coming back to The British Museum to get this extra information. And I was just…it was a big let down.
Ian McDiarmid: You can make that easier for yourself by downloading Spotify before you go. And then finally, well, once you’ve got it, it doesn’t, it’s not really worth bothering with. This is, I mean, the introduction was well done, but it didn’t tell us anything we didn’t know already.
Hazel Baker: And you read the little snippet of… next to,
Ian McDiarmid: Yeah. And then there was a disappointing, lack of further QR codes to listen to. I was expecting that they’d go into detail on some of the objects.
Hazel Baker: Yeah. So this wasn’t an audio tour at all. This was just a couple of minutes. Introduction of the gallery. That’s it. So that part of the experience is very disappointing, especially as they’ve already got an audio guide. But that’s not available because of the physical handset. So why they haven’t moved those audio files onto Spotify? So you could actually, cause they’re still the numbers, outside the, the artefacts in that.
So you actually have a very minimal visitor experience and I don’t know about you, but I like to look at something, you read the little snippet. If I want to know more, I want to have the option of finding out more information and there was nothing about the context of that. It was completely lost on me.
Ian McDiarmid: Hmm. Going back to what you were saying about being able to spend time with the objects. That was really good. So when you go into the Egyptian rooms or when, as you, as I normally do, you stick your head around and then avoid it, but your line of sight is dominated by this huge bust of Amenhotep III.
Hazel Baker: Well it was.
Ian McDiarmid: Well it was, but this is one of the good things you can read a bit about the objects and try to remember it. And this was reworked about a century later to look like Ramses II. And again, this is bits of information that I’ve taken in from going around The British Museum that Ramses II was the Pharaoh who had reworked the largest number of statues to…
Hazel Baker: Well he also had the longest reign, 65 years.
Ian McDiarmid: Was it? Are you serious? Oh yeah
Hazel Baker: You see? But that sort of thing, having middle king go to late kingdom, the Romano period, and actually physically having these explained would have been great, but they don’t do any of that. This is digitally. Here’s an artefact. Here’s literally one or two sentences. Thank you very much. Goodbye. And that’s exactly what the Cairo Museum is. And they could do so much more.
Once again, we have been spoiled with the MET. We have been spoiled with the Louvre, but also, so we were paid to enter the lieu. If we’ve paid to get to MET. This is a free experience minus the donations.
And that’s all we have to remember.
Ian McDiarmid: The MET in New York is in theory free, but they’re kind of…unless you hand over $20. But anyway, it was this, huge, bust of Ramses II or Amenhotep III. Both of them would have to dominate your line of sight. It’s a fantastic thing. And I’ve seen it so many times. And yesterday we could go and sit on a bench and just sit there and look for ages and not be under pressure and not have sight lines to ruin it, not have my ears assaulted by screaming kids. That was great.
Hazel Baker: Yep. And also being able to have a look at the detail of like the sick off of it as well. You know, normally you’ve got fingerprints on the glass around it, and lots of little kids in your way where you feel that you can’t really elbow them, but they weren’t there. And you could actually bend down and have a look at the hieroglyphs and the detail and the work. So you could actually…for me I had a much better connection with the collection because I could see it. And also I had the time and space to enjoy it.
Ian McDiarmid: Yeah, they, and they’ve got some fantastic statuettes, haven’t they? Various officials and again, they’re, they’re standing there, they stand on their own and they’re in glass cases. And normally you just can’t see them
Hazel Baker: And then the Greek stuff, you know, I do love looking at this stuff and they’ve got like, a copy of the first example of a coinage ever in the world. I mean, it’s amazing, but it’s literally just on the shelf with loads of other items. And there’s just a little bit a cardboard saying what this is and that’s it. And hey, just, there’s so much to know. There’s so much context to learn as well. And I feel that. It doesn’t really pander to the audiences who are maybe educated, maybe going back for a second or indeed 50th time, or how many times I’ve been. I can’t develop my knowledge further with what they’re offering me.
Ian McDiarmid: No, it feels as though you need to be an expert before you go, you need to, you need to know the stuff or you don’t really appreciate it. Yeah. I think the, just the fact we didn’t have access to the audio guide in some way that’s not really their fault though. They could have done better on that.
Hazel Baker: And that’s what’s missing, it’s literally artefacts in glass cases with a couple of lines and that’s it you’re done.
Ian McDiarmid: For me it was the Egyptian stuff that was the big draw. Because that’s the stuff that I have avoided looking at in the past. And I spent about two hours just looking at the Egyptian stuff on the second visit as a result of that, I was completely tired out. Because you, your ability to take in stuff after a couple of hours is limited, going around a museum is just like going around an art gallery, really. You can take in so much and then, and then you’ve had enough. And, I’m saying all this, because the prescribed route really isn’t a limitation. I mean, you, you’re going to be looking at stuff in my case, looking at things that you, you were interested in, but just didn’t feel comfortable looking at. And the great thing about going now is that you can’t go and have a look at them.
Hazel Baker: Yeah. No, I think it was, it was worthwhile doing I’m certainly will be going back again and next time I’ll be putting my blinkers on and I won’t be taking them off until I get to ancient Greece.
Ian McDiarmid: So Hazel, was there anything else from the, about the general visitor experience that struck you going round?
Hazel Baker: yeah. I managed to get a coffee without, queuing for an hour, so that was nice. And also, even though there was a queue for the ladies toilets, it wasn’t as bad as it has been in previous years. So a lot more pleasurable experience there and just the, the space in itself.
Ian McDiarmid: Yeah. Yeah. And that’s one thing that strikes me when you have you go around there. There’s always a huge queue outside the ladies. And I think you explained it to me that, British planning laws, you have to allocate the same amount of space to the ladies as you do to the gents? It’s absurd. Isn’t it? Why, why, why, why do they do that? Why don’t they just give the ladies double the space? I mean, it’s just so inadequate at which museum when you normally go around there. Sorry to harp on about this.
Hazel Baker: Thank Foster for that one.
Ian McDiarmid: Well, also in the regulations that he had to follow,
Hazel Baker: You didn’t have to follow the minimum.
Ian McDiarmid: Oh, okay.
Hazel Baker: So Ian, what are your recommendations for people to see at the British Museum?
Ian McDiarmid: Well, as already mentioned, I really liked that colossal head of Amenhotep III which was subsequently remodelled, probably to look like Remesses II. The changes that were made, I’ll just quickly mention this, the changes that were made to the face was that the cosmetics on the eyes was reduced and two little holes were drilled either side of the mouth to make the lips look smaller. That’s the changes to the face, to Ramesses to make it look like Ramesses. But anyway, even with these changes, you’ve got this fantastic head made of granite with these cosmetic lines on the eyes, or rather round nose, full cheeks, these rather large lips and the whole effect on the face is a sort of series of curves. And it has a kind of geometrical pleasing quietness to it. And it is very serene and the whole thing is just very magisterial. And you can imagine being overawed by the power and the God-like qualities of Amenhotep III and then Ramesses II. And as I say it, I mean, it dominates the room in terms of its size, and it’s just fantastic to be able to go and see it properly.
Hazel Baker: And anything else on your favourite list for people to see?
Ian McDiarmid: Yes. I like the full stores they’ve gotten there. And there’s one very large one to a man named Ptahshepses. So four stores where sides of the tombs of people, and a lot of the high officials in Egypt were buried in so-called Mastaba tombs.
Mastaba means that they, comes from the Arabic means they look a bit like a bench. And one of the sides of these tombs often had a full store and a full store, is, carving that looks like a door and was a means for the spirit of the dead to pass through the tomb and also to be communicated with by the living so they could make offerings. And these would go through the, Go pass through the full store itself. And this one is absolutely huge. A bit like my, the head I was talking about. I’m impressed by the, the sheer size of these monuments. And it’s fantastic because it’s got, very good, remains of the original colouring in yellow and red ochre. Lots of carving on it.
And, I have written a blog post about this one, so that’s rather good timing, isn’t it? And that’s on the website now?
Hazel Baker: Yeah, I’m at the link to the show notes.
Ian McDiarmid: Thank you very much, Hazel.
Hazel Baker: You’re welcome, Ian.
Ian McDiarmid: And what about you, Hazel? Do you have a favourite object to talk about?
Hazel Baker: Favourite object? Hmm…not one. So the ones I mentioned were the electric types. These copies of 19 Electrum coin were found in a jug in the foundations of a temple of Artemis at Ephesus. And they’re the oldest known horde of coins in existence. So I think they’re really rather remarkable.
But I do love the marble crouching Venus, and yes, I know it’s Roman. The Greek marble or perhaps it was Brahms originally is now lost, but that was probably made between 200 and 100 BC. The near yet monument is pretty special as well. And I think a lot of people really enjoy seeing that one.
And also the King’s Gallery, as much for the room itself, rather than the objects.
So to summarize, you’ve got space, everyone’s wearing masks. And it was a very enjoyable experience and I was glad to reconnect with The British Museum. Something I have been avoiding.
Ian McDiarmid: Yeah, me too. And that cup of coffee. That was really nice because going around a museum, you actually need a cup of coffee and you could actually enjoy it.
Hazel Baker: Yeah. It should be nice for 3.60.
Ian McDiarmid: Yeah, that’s true.
Hazel Baker: That’s all from us for now. Don’t forget to check out our blog posts and also The Daily London for inspiration for things to do in London for Londoners. And of course, get yourself on a guided walk. It’d be lovely to see you.