Seven must-see objects at the British Museum
Go and see the Parthenon ‘Elgin’ Marbles of course. They are amazing. But be prepared for the gallery to be packed with grumpy Greeks in ‘Give Them Back’ T-shirts. For relief, visit the nearby room of the Mausoleum at Halikarnassos. Constructed in the fourth century BC, in what is now Bodrum, Turkey, this huge tomb gave us the term ‘mausoleum’, and was decorated with massive sculptures, which got bigger the higher up the building they were placed, so their effect was still powerful from the ground. These days, you put your statement art in your corporate boardroom. Not King Maussollos: this enormous marble horse was part of a chariot group that surmounted the edifice.
Find it in Room 21
Among all the incredible virtuoso displays of cultural and artistic power and wealth in the British Museum, it’s nice to see such humble objects as these clay figures from Bab edh-Dhra, near the Dead Sea. Although they’re 5,000 years old, you can picture kids making them today all over the world. Okay, maybe not the penises. On which note, they have arguably the best caption in the whole museum: ‘Two of them certainly represent men. The third is either female or has lost a small piece of clay.’
Find them in Room 59
I always go and look at these sculpture reliefs from around 650 BC. For my money (ie, none), they’re among the greatest works in the BM: a savage but curiously relatable depiction of the bloodsport of kings and dentists: lion hunting. Like an ancient Walter Palmer, the Assyrian king is seen offing a series of big cats in a symbolic display of power and manliness. It’s not that simple, though. The mechanics of the hunt are shown: lions are released from cages and guided towards the king, while packs of attendants with dogs and spears safeguard his highness. The lions themselves are portrayed as ripplingly magnificent, the king stylisedly anonymous. Repeat visits are recommended.
Head to Room 10a
Not everything in the British Museum is ancient. The institution has an ever-growing collection of artefacts from cultures and peoples across the world. This silver ring, in the form of a Dodge pick-up, was made in 1998 by Navajo silversmith Clarence Lee, in a tradition of native American metalworking that stretches back 150 years. It’s not just a status symbol or a witty bit of bling: there’s a water butt in the back of the truck, inset with turquoise. The Navajo got motor vehicles after WWII, and they made everyday tasks like collecting water for the community a lot easier. The piece helps reminds you that the objects in the BM are not just exhibits: each of them has a specific cultural story to tell.
Find it in Room 26
The afterlife: what’s it like? Few peoples in history have been as preoccupied with this question as the ancient Egyptians. The BM has an unrivalled collection of mummies and grave goods, including some astonishingly lifelike Roman-period mummy portraits. You assume that this false toe must have some symbolic purpose, perhaps to ensure that your body went into the hereafter complete, in case you wanted to play ‘this little piggy’ or fancied a kickabout. Wear and tear, though, suggests it was a genuine prosthesis, from 600 BC. There’s a joke to do with a Bangles song here: I just can’t think what it is at the moment.
Find it in Room 63
Bet you didn’t know that the BM had a whole gallery devoted to money? Well it does, and in it is this not-very-exciting-looking copper coin. Read, on, though, because this is basically the PayPal of the seventeenth century. Money, you see, was dead easy to fake, and even the non-dodgy stuff was put out in an unregulated way, so was widely regarded as worthless. So coffee houses – the equivalent of the internet, where you went to be seen, gossip, show people etchings of cats etc – started issuing their own coinage which they and their clientele could trust. Ye hipsters of the day were well pleased with themselves about that, no doubt.
Find it in Room 68
This is one of the most visceral moments in a collection that – let’s face it – presents death in plenty of grotesque and unpleasant forms. One of the imperial palace guards of the ancient city of Ur in what is modern-day Iraq clearly came to a sticky end, probably as part of a rite which saw royal staff and retainers take part in a suicide pact to accompany their king into the afterlife. This soldier’s crushed skull inside his crushed helmet has survived from 2,500 BC, in an object that looks like it could have come from a trench in Flanders just a century ago.
Head to Room 56