Posts Tagged ‘British Museum’

My first trip into Central London for nearly 18 months was to visit the British Museum to see a couple of exhibitions which were due to close in the next few weeks.

The first exhibition was about the Roman Emperor Nero. The traditionally held view is that he was a mad, cruel man who did anything to hang onto power, but this is largely taken from writings after his death. Contemporary evidence suggests that for much of his reign he was extremely popular with the people of Rome, if not it’s elite and nobility, from whom most history writers were drawn. One myth is that he ‘fiddled while Rome burnt’ or even that his excesses in burning Christians led to the fire. Evidence shows that Nero was not in Rome when the fire started, but on hearing of it rushed back to the city and organised the fighting of the fire and the relief effort. It is true however, that in order to deflect any blame from the Imperial authority, he did blame the Christians and instigate a harsh persecution as a punishment. In fact, in many ways, he was the Roman equivalent of some Populist leaders we have encountered in modern day history.

Eventually he lost the support of the people and the senate took this opportunity to move against him. Seeing the signs, Nero committed suicide rather than be taken by the authorities. This was the end of the Julio-Claudian dynasty and after a year during which 4 Emperors reigned, some for only a matter of days, Vespasian emerged as the strongest candidate and assumed the purple. Roman society tried to eliminate any reference to Nero, statues were destroyed or taken down and some, such as the one below, were re-carved into likenesses of the new Emperor.

Thomas a Becket was the clerk to the Archbishop of Canterbury during the reign of Henry II and eventually became Chancellor of the Kingdom. He and King Henry were good friends and worked well together. Henry had an ongoing argument with the church authorities about whether members of the church should be tried in secular or church courts and in attempting to win this he arranged for Thomas to be appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, thinking that his friend in this post would strengthen his position. He intended that Thomas should combine that role with continuing as chancellor, but to Henry’s surprise Thomas resigned his court post and argued firmly for the independence of the church courts. This led to a rapid worsening in relations between the two. On one occasion, when in France, Henry heard that Thomas had once again defied him and a small band of knights set out immediately for Canterbury. Did Henry send them or know where they had gone? Did they mean to kill the archbishop or merely to arrest him? These are questions to which the answers will probably never be known. What is known is that on the night of 29 December 1170 they arrived at Canterbury and insisted that Thomas accompany them to Winchester to answer for his actions. Thomas refused and the knights killed him in the cathedral.

Thomas was canonised by the Pope a mere two years after his death. King Henry did public penance at Thomas’ tomb but took no action against the Knights although the Pope excommunicated them. They later travelled to Rome in penance and were sent by the Pope to serve as Knights in the Holy land for a period of 14 years as their penance for the killing.

Being a history buff, the British Museum is probably my favourite of the many museums in London. The collection dates back to the middle of the 18th century when the physician and naturalist Sir Hans Sloane bequeathed his collection of over 71,000 objects on the condition that it was not broken up. The government accepted this and the British Museum was founded. In 1757 King George the second donated the Royal library to form part of the new collection. The first British Museum was housed in a 17th-century mansion in Bloomsbury on the side of the current building and the open for public viewing on 15 January 1759. In the early years the annual attendance was about 5000 people per year. The museum continued to acquire important pieces related to world archaeology and cultural studies. These included the Rosetta Stone, which was the key to understanding Egyptian hieroglyphics amongst other ancient languages, classical sculpture and, perhaps rather more controversially, the Parthenon sculptures from Greece. In the mid-19th century, the existing building was expanded and the natural history collection was moved to its own location in South Kensington (now known as the Natural History Museum). The collection continued to expand and the late 20th century saw new developments to enable more, and better, display of the collection. This included a complete reworking of the centre of the museum building and the removal of the British library from the site to a new purpose-built library near St Pancras. This work continues today and a brand-new set of galleries, together with new conservation facilities will be opened in 2014.

Further details and vistor information can be seen at



Detail from the portico over the main enterance

Detail from the portico over the main enterance

The Museum in the 18th century

The Museum in the 18th century

The new conservation and exhibition building

The new conservation and exhibition building

By the middle of the 19th century it was becoming evident that the British Museum collection was outgrowing its home in Bloomsbury. It was therefore decided to create a new museum to exhibit the natural history component of the collection. The site chosen was the site of the 1862 exhibition building in South Kensington (this had been labelled as one of the ugliest buildings ever built). Ironically, the architect chosen to design the new museum was the same one as had designed the 1862 building. However, shortly afterwards he died and was replaced by Alfred Waterhouse, who designed the building, which stands today and is reckoned by many to be one of the most attractive buildings in London.





Natural History Museum London
Photo by Jancsi (

The museum opened to the public in April 1881.

It is interesting that apart from the materials from which they were made the Roman doctor /surgeons instrument kit resembles that which was still in use up until relatively recent times

Probes, needles and sharp hooks

Probes, needles and sharp hooks

Scoops, probes and spoons

Scoops, probes and spoons





These examples all from the collection of the British Museum


This image of a doctor’s surgery is taken from a Greek vase made in Athens about 480 to 470 BCE. On the left the dwarf can be seen ushering the patients into the surgery, where people are waiting to be seen by a physician. In the centre a seated Physician is seen treating a patient’s arm. Another patient who was already been treated and has his arm bandaged looks on. The hare or rabbit held by the dwarf may be the patients payment to the physician for the treatment he is receiving.

This frieze can be seen in the British Museum and the vase in the Musee du Louvre in Paris

Originally posted in July 2013

Went to see the British Museum Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition over the weekend. It was very good but we both agreed that it lacked a little something for us. This is most likely because we visited both sites a few years ago and saw the artifacts in situ which really adds to the sense of just how caught out the people were by the eruption – literally life stopped in an instant.

So I thought I would post some of my pictures from the two sites.

The villain of the piece - Mount Vesuvius from Herculaneum

The villain of the piece – Mount Vesuvius from Herculaneum

These shots of Herculaneum really give you an idea of how much higher the modern town level is compared to the Roman town and hence how much deposit rained down on the town in the hours following the eruption.




Hokusai exhibition

Posted: July 25, 2017 in Art, London, UK
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Yesterday evening Sue and I went to see the exhibition of Japanese art by Katsushika Hokusai at the British Museum. Now I confess I am not a great fan of Oriental art but I do love Hokusai’s best-known work ‘The Great Wave‘ and so was interested to see other examples of his work. This proved to be a wide range of styles ranging from traditional oriental to a fusion style in which he incorporated elements of western art.

Under the Wave off Kanagawa also known as ‘The Great Wave’ from ’36 views of Mount Fuji’ 1831

Katsushika Hokusai was born in Japan in October 1760 in Edo (modern day Tokyo). It is believed he started painting at the age of 6 and he was apprenticed to a wood carver at 14 and at 18 entered an art studio of a woodblock print artist. From 1793 he began exploring other styles of art and was expelled from the studio. He illustrated books and became more and more famous. He did not produce his most famous works Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji which includes The Great Wave until he was 60.  In fact, there are more than 36 as they proved so popular that the publisher prevailed on Hokusai to produce 10 additional prints.

Clear Day with a Southern Breeze also known as ‘The Red Fuji’ from ’36 views of Mount Fuji’ 1831

Shicirigahama Beach from ’36 views of Mount Fuji’ 1831

Hokusai produced works under many different names during his life and was of the firm belief that his art got better as he aged. He said that when he reached 100 his art would be at its best. Sadly he never reached this milestone as he died in May 1849 at the age of 89. On his death bed he is reputed to have said ‘ Just another 5 years, then I could become a real painter’.

Tametomo and the bow of Onoshima (A Japanese legend) 1811


I was pleased to see more of the pictures from 36 Views of Mount Fuji and these continue to be my favourite works by Hokusai. It was also interesting to see how his style changed over his lifetime as he encountered new influences.

The Hukosai exhibition ‘ Beyond the Great Wave’ continues at the British Museum until 13th August and I highly recommend it.

I have got into a bad habit when major exhibitions occur. I don’t go initially because they will be too busy and then before I know it they are almost over. So it was with the Celts exhibition at the British Museum, which closes at the end of this week and which I finally got round to seeing yesterday.

Extent of Celtic Culture in Europe - "Celts in Europe" by QuartierLatin1968. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

Extent of Celtic Culture in Europe – “Celts in Europe” by QuartierLatin1968. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – 

The exhibition follows the development of the Celtic culture, a single culture shared by a number of different peoples from eastern ( Czech Republic and Turkey), Central (Switzerland and Germany) and western (Iberia, France and Britain) Europe. It reached it height during the Iron Age and is perhaps most famous for its metalwork, much of which is on display in the exhibition.



The Celtic metalwork is amazing and these were the star exhibits on show.

Photo by Jessica springer (

Photo by Jessica Spengler (


Celtic Shield. Photo by rachel H (

Celtic Shield. Photo by Rachel H (


Celtic Torc. Photo by tallis Keaton (

Celtic Torc. Photo by Tallis Keaton (


It has always been imagined that the culture expanded from a foundation in Central Europe westwards and eastwards, as shown on the map above. However I recently saw a documentary on the TV which reported the apparent finding of ‘bronze age’ Celtic artifacts from Iberia and Britain. Since no such items have been found in central or Eastern Europe, this may, if substantiated, suggest that the origins of the Celtic culture may in fact have been on the lands of the Atlantic coast and spread eastward from there.


The exhibition closes on Sunday.

The Meroe head

Posted: February 13, 2015 in History, Roman History
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This fantastic piece of sculpture is currently on exhibition at the British Museum.


The Meroe head was originally part of a life sized statue of the Roman Emperor Augustus (reigned 27BC-14AD). It likely was made in Egypt (c26BC) for a town in Southern Egypt following Augustus’ earlier campaigns in that area. It has an amazing story because it was found, not in a Roman context, but buried in the ground at Meroe, the capital city of Kush, in what is now Sudan. It is recorded that shortly after Augustus became Emperor, King Teriteqas of Kush raided across the border into Roman held souther Egypt and that as part of the subsequent peace agreement between the two sides the Romans demanded the return of stolen statues. It seems that this decapitated head of Augustus never made it back. Instead it was ritually buried in the capital as a sign of the “victories” that Teriteqas had achieved over his Roman counter=part, perhaps as an offering to their gods in thanks for the victorious campaign. Also in the city of Meroe is a monument celebrating victories which includes a frieze with captured soldiers who could be wearing Roman uniforms.

Meroe Royal Cemetery - the northern group
The Royal Cemetery at Meroe Sudan
Photo by Carsten ten Brink (

The head is remarkable to look at. It is made of bronze and its fantastic eyes are made from black and green glass paste set in polished limestone. It achieves an amazing penetrating stare which must has surely given the citizens of its home town the idea that the Emperor had his eyes on them at all times. This life like quality may have led it to be the reason why it was this item which was chosen as an offering to the gods.


Posted: June 16, 2014 in Dark ages, History
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A meeting at the British Museum enabled me to finally visit the Viking exhibition in the new exhibition gallery a few days before it closed.

British Museum
Photo by Allan Harris (

The exhibition chose to focus away from the traditional view of Vikings as blood hungry raiders who pillaged the neighbouring territories and instead to look at them in terms of their culture, craft and explorations.
There were many beautiful objects gathered from collections all over the world which bore witness to their skill as craftsmen.

British Museum: Viking badges "The Penrith Hoard"
photo by Moorina (

British Museum
The Lewis Chessmen
Photo by Allan Harris (

The geographical range of goods discovered told the tale of their wide ranging exploration and their involvement in Kingdoms from Byzantium in the east to Ireland and Normandy in the West.
The centre of the main hall is the reconstruction, together with some original timber, from the largest Viking warship ever unearthed at Roskilde in Denmark. It is over 37m long and is estimated to have had around 70-80 oars and a probable crew of 100 warriors.

photo by Wolfgang Jung (

The Sea-wolf
photo by Zoe (

A very interesting exhibition and a great start to the new gallery. The exhibition closes on June 22nd. So if you can get along and see it.