Saturday, June 25, 2022

Day 17 – The British Museum

On Wednesday, Archivist Francesca Hillier took us behind the scenes for a closer look at what is in the British Museum’s collection and we were stunned, not only by the sheer volume and breadth of their archives but also by the modest staff available to work on it. The British Museum’s Central Archive is located in the middle of its Great Court on the main floor: a large, round room that is blocked off to the public and kept locked.
The oddest thing about this attractive Reading Room is that most of the thousands pouring in and out of the Museum do not know it is there, although they have to walk around it to get anywhere. Although the general public is not admitted, patrons can view items from the collection in specially designated areas and can also submit requests for assistance. The website contains instructions on requesting material, as well as other relevant information. Many of those submitting inquiries are not scholars but are researching a family member who once worked at the Museum. The Museum itself is one of the UK’s leading attractions and welcomed over 5.9 million visitors in 2019-2020 although attendance is down significantly due to the pandemic. The Museum was closed for three months which was not healthy for the building’s infrastructure and because many researchers are older, they wanted remote access to documents which was not always possible.
The British Museum’s Central Archive holds the business and governance records of the Museum. It also holds records relating to the acquisition of the original building from the Trustees' purchase of Montagu House for £10,000. It also possesses acquisition records for objects in the collection and applications to use the Reading Room, including from Oscar Wilde, Karl Marx, and Bram Stoker (being unfaithful to The London Library, which claimed last week it was his first love). Ms. Hillier’s overriding concern is that the Museum has many items that have not been cataloged, due to the volume of material waiting for attention. She only recently acquired two professionals to assist her but she told us that patrons cannot request material they do not know exists and she cannot make it available until it is cataloged. They also have no digital storage so items cannot be scanned for remote access.
The original deed of the Museum
We appreciated hearing about her challenges and she was quick to say that the amazing thing about working in this Archive is that one never knows what will turn up – she turned a page and found an 1813 letter from Charles Darwin. She showed us a pair of 18th-century glasses that were found in a sarcophagus, accidentally lost by a bygone curator. I especially liked seeing Karl Marx’s signature in 1874 when he was a regular in the Reading Room (we were told he sometimes used other names) and the lists of all the former employees and their salaries. The only women staff before WWI were cleaners and housekeepers and possibly a few unpaid research assistants.
See Karl Marx's signature
Afterward, we had lunch at the Museum’s Great Court Restaurant where the service was extremely poor. There was a lot of visible staff but none of them seemed interested in taking our order. “Are you our waiter?” I asked one young man, and he said vaguely, “I could be,” and disappeared. I would have been happier on the first floor where there was quiche as this menu was quite odd. My best bet was Wiltshire ham hock and chicken terrine, rhubarb chutney and sourdough bread, and it looked dreadful when it arrived but I ate it anyway.  We separated to explore the Museum, which I had visited before.  This time, I kept thinking about The Story of the Amulet, which I seem to recall is partially set there.  I feel a reread coming on!
Good old Zeus
I had asked Dr. Steele to reserve a room where we could watch Imitation Game, which is about British mathematician Alan Turing and cryptology work at Bletchley Park during WWII. I thought this would be good preparation for our visit to Bletchley next week, even though several had seen it already, and we got pizza and used the room on the ground floor of the dorm. What a great cast! Of course, it features two of my favorites from Downton Abbey: Allen Leech and Matthew Goode.
Seals of Joanna Plantagenet, daughter of Henry II
Queen of Sicily
Miles walked: 4.5 (probably in the Museum alone which is enormous)


Cath said...

I think when we visited the British Museum we were just able to look at the inside of the library from the entrance. I longed to run amok and look at the books! I do remember running wild in their wonderful bookshop though, which seeing as we had travelled to London via the coach service was possibly a bit mad of me but you only live once!

Ruthiella said...

I think cataloging items in a museum would be my dream job. I've only been to the museum proper once and I think I spent the whole time in the Chinese pottery section. There is so much to see and now you tell me there is even more, not open to the public! WOW.

Lory said...

Yes, the British Museum will always make me think of The Story of the Amulet! Chris posted a review at Calmgrove recently and it made me want to do a reread too.