Friday, 9 July 2010

The British Museum - its many strengths and a few weaknesses

This morning I visited The British Museum and for the first time came away pleased I’d made the effort.
I still found the Great Court, which circles the old Reading Room, uninviting. There is something about the dimensions of this entrance zone, which is intimidating. About the only positive is that it so big you hardly notice the large number of visitors.
The light is harsh and it is as though, dwarfed and powerless, people are funnelled towards islands of gift shops, information stands, ticket booths, and what must be one of the cultural establishment’s least appealing eating areas.
The anti-climax after entering from Great Russell Street through ancient portals that embody the Museum’s reputation for learning is daunting.
It is usually at this point I turn tail and promise myself the Egyptian mummies, the Easter Island statute, the Rosetta Stone and the rest for another occasion.
But this time I had an incentive. I’d been following, whenever I could, the BBC Radio 4 series A History of the World in a 100 Objects. Made in conjunction with the museum and presented by its director Neil MacGregor, it consists of 15-minute programmes that focus on a single exhibit.
MacGregor tells a good story. There were a number of treasures I wanted to see for myself – and I did. Finding them required planning. I got a free map of the museum and charted my route.
This had always been my mistake on previous visits. I had become used to breezing into museums – even the Louvre – and expected to see everything I wanted to by aimlessly wandering around.
The British Museum doesn’t lend itself to the casual approach – a cause not helped by poor signage. But with a map and some thought, a crazy logic about its layout became evident.
Rather than the museum’s shortcomings, its strengths began to emerge. Its ‘Hands On’ desks in six galleries particularly impressed me. There you can handle real objects from the collection and discuss them with volunteers.
Aside from special exhibitions most events and activities are free; children are definitely welcome. All this is just minutes from Oxford Street and Covent Garden.
I’d guess that many thousands of tourists visit London because, unlike other other capital cities, our major museums do not charge. The new Government would be wise to make certain it stays that way.

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