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A personal view by Alan S.

Whilst I’m aware that the British Museum is about much more than what the public see, I have to say that although the floor staff were very helpful, friendly and accommodating (I was pushing a wheelchair user) and are a credit to the institution, my recent visit to the BM was nevertheless very disappointing.

I fondly recall many educational visits there as a child, but it seems the whole purpose of the place has changed significantly. Granted, entry is still free, but at every turn the visitor is bombarded with requests for money: Suggested donation £5, Become a Member £50, Buy a sandwich £4, Buy a colour map £2, Buy a guide book (various prices), Buy a postcard (£1.20?!!) and many more souvenirs. It would have been very easy to have emptied my wallet before I’d even seen an exhibit!

And the types of exhibit have changed too. No more the interpretive panels explaining about an artefact on display, now all details of selected exhibits are available via ‘multi-media guides’ (only £5) – only minimal information is available at the point of display for most items. And the information given has also changed in a very noticable way. Information is largely restricted (on the majority of the exhibits I examined) to a short description; ‘flint blade’, ‘bronze sword’ etc followed by the source of the object and how it was aquired. And whilst the objects which have been in the museum for a considerable time were invariably uncovered during an archaeological dig and donated by a named finder, many of those in the last 30-40 years have been ‘discovered by a metal detectorist’ – often unnamed – and ‘purchased with the help of the Heritage Lottery Fund’ or similar grants.

The contrast in the lack of information on show, compared with my recent trip to the Museum of the Iron Age in Andover where a full story was told, was simply staggering.

Whilst I’m sure that there is an element of education remaining (preserved for organised school tours in the Clore Education Centre perhaps?), I have to wonder exactly what it is that’s being taught. I certainly came away with the impression that Greed is Good, and the bad old days of Empire and Colonialism are still with us – the vast majority of the older displays having been brought to Britain from overseas. The ‘British’ Museum?

But the place was packed with tourists and guided tours and the donation boxes were stuffed with money, so maybe the old saying that money attracts money is true? Bling certainly (and sadly) seems to be popular, but I can’t help but think we’re losing something in the process. Visitors willingly in many cases being prepared to part with their money, but for what? It seems to me all we’re doing is encouraging further rape of the archaeological resource by offering ever increasing amounts of money for dug up treasures.

Howard Carter’s “Wonderful Things..” indeed!


June 2013

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