Six million visitors, 8 million objects across 3 millennia, and hundreds of worlds cultures. If we could measure a museum simply on “heft,” few institutions could compete with the British Museum. That’s why we put together a guide for what to see at the British Museum, guided by our proclivity for the intellectually curious. We sat down with bioarchaeologist (yep, that’s a thing) Lawrence Owens, who leads our British Museum Tour, and asked him to share five of his favorite works in the museum. Lawrence did much more than rattle off a list. He gave us five historical themes and five incredible artifacts that illustrate these perfectly.
Herewith, Lawrence’s intellectual guide to navigating the British Museum.
A personal memorial
Commemorating and remembering someone’s life or one’s own life through a personal memorial is a common theme in art. Cultures expressed this necessity differently, serving unique cultural functions and expressing unique cultural values and roles.
In traditional African culture, specifically the Yoruba culture of Nigeria, twins or ibeji, were thought to share one soul and considered to have preternatural powers. We find several of these in the Africa and Oceania department of the museum. If one or both of the twins died during childbirth or infancy, small, wooden figures or statuettes symbolizing the souls of the deceased would be sculpted and tended to as if they were alive. The figures would be fed, bathed, caressed, carried around by family members and involved in elaborate rituals.
Pomp and glory
Over the centuries, rulers and other powerful and influential individuals have used art to convey a certain image. In this way, art functions as a strategic tool to transmit and reinforce identity.
Ancient Egyptian pharaohs used art to glorify themselves, creating a public image that emphasized their role as kings and gods. The colossal statues they erected were status symbols, leaving no one in doubt of their wealth and their power, justifying their need and desire to be venerated. One of the most famous examples of this theme is the bust of the Pharaoh Rameses II in the Eqyptian section of the museum, one of my top things for what do see at the British Museum. It was erected to depict Ramses II not only as a powerful ruler, but also as a living god. He owed much of his reputation, popularity and success to his skills as a “self-publicist,” erecting monumental statues throughout Egypt. He even went as far as to appropriate statues and sculptures of previous pharaohs, changing or adding inscriptions on them glorifying himself.
Art can function as a guide and can be used by rulers to justify their powers. This kind of propagandistic art can give us an insight into unusual and oftentimes violent rituals that different civilizations incorporated into their daily life.
For the ancient Maya, bloodletting was a common practice, performed by rulers to communicate with the gods. The Yaxchilan lintels, located in the Americas section, which date back to the early 700s AD, were commissioned by the Mayan king’s most prominent wife, Lady K’ab’al Xook. The scene of one of lintel 24, represents a bloodletting ritual performed by the king of Yaxchilan, Shield Jaguar II and his wife, Lady K’ab’al Xook. The lintel would have originally been located above the doorway of a Mayan temple, showing those that passed what one ought to do in deference to the unforgiving gods. The king holds a flaming torch over his wife, while she pulls a thorny rope through her tongue, blood dropping down to a bowl near her knees. Today, we might cringe at the thought of such a practice, but for the Maya it was merely a “how to” on appropriate behavior.
Death, disaster, destruction: things ancient populations feared just as much as we do so today. Civilizations used art to illustrate these fears and to, in some ways, try to control, understand, even overcome, them. The world was a frightening, mysterious place and their art was a direct response to this conception.
Much of Aztec art is about death. The Aztecs had witnessed firsthand the decimation of a powerful civilizations like the Maya. Aztec art reflected the desire to avoid death and disaster and to somehow explain the unexplainable. The turquoise mask of the god Tezcatlipoca, part of the Turquoise Mosaics, is made of turquoise and obsidian mosaics, placed on a real human skull. The wide-eyes, the deep red color of the nasal cavity and the gaping mouth were meant to inspire fear and apprehension in any who encountered the face.
A damned lie
Spinning the truth is a common practice in art. Whether it’s to make oneself more appealing or imposing or to rewrite history in your favor, it has been happening for centuries.
Eighteenth dynasty Egyptian pharaoh Horemheb was a master of deception. Acting as advisor to the young Tutankhamun, Horemheb assumed the throne after the young king’s death and began a nation-wide campaign to erase his predecessors’ names from history. Not only did he participate in the well-established practice of appropriating other rulers’ statues as his own, but he also commissioned artworks that represented him as a youthful and vigorous king, which he was not. The pinnacle of this deception can be seen in the statue of Horemheb with the god Amun-Ra. The latter is represented with the attribute of the ithyphallic god Min, who grasps, with his left arm, the base of the phallus (now missing). Horemheb stands beneath Min’s right arm, wearing the iconic beard of Egyptian kings. To any individual who encountered this less than subtle statue, any belief or question of Horemheb’s physical or sexual impotence was put to rest.
If this unique guide to what to see at the British Museum has intrigued you, you may be prime for one of our London tours. You can book our British Museum Tour or, for a kid-friendly visit of the museum, book our British Museum for Families tour. If you are booking a private tour, we can customize the walk according to your interests and desires.