The British Museum is the world’s first national public museum, open to all “studious and curious persons.” With a collection of over 8 million objects, it provides a vivid portrait of cultures around the globe.
The museum is an expansive complex of galleries and museums housing artifacts from antiquity to the present, covering archaeology, art history, natural history and science. Its neoclassical architecture was inspired by Greek temples and designed by Sir Robert Smirke in the early 18th century.
The Elgin Marbles
The Elgin Marbles are a collection of marble sculpture that once adorned the Parthenon, an ancient temple in Athens, Greece. Nowadays they can be viewed at the British Museum in London, England.
For centuries, the Greek government has sought to return the Marbles. Additionally, they have become a source of contention between Greece and the United Kingdom.
Lord Elgin, a Scottish nobleman, stripped the marbles from the Parthenon in 1801 and sold them to the British Museum for PS74,240 (equivalent to around PS6,730,000 in 2021), although there is debate as to whether this was legal. The Elgin Marbles contain approximately half of all remaining sculptural decoration from the Parthenon – its frieze and pediments included.
Pediments were large triangular-shaped niches that filled an impressive portion of the Parthenon on both east and west sides. Here were depictions of various stories such as Athena’s birth or a fierce battle with Poseidon.
Although the original Parthenon was constructed in 5th century BC, it suffered destruction over time and eventually fell into disrepair. In 18th century, Lord Elgin served as ambassador to Ottoman sultan and was granted a firman by him which allowed him to remove its marbles from Greece.
This decision caused much controversy, with many advocating that the Marbles should be returned to their original location. On the other hand, the British Museum maintained that Elgin had saved them from further harm and thus should remain in the UK.
Critics contend that this breached international law and that the Marbles should be returned to Greece, their rightful home. After nearly two centuries at the British Museum, there remains no resolution in the debate over their return.
As of 2021, the Elgin Marbles issue has remained at the centre of a political battle between Greece and Britain. Recently, Prime Minister George Osborne of Great Britain revealed that they are in talks with their Greek counterparts regarding their return. While this could mark an historic breakthrough for both countries, time will tell whether this agreement will last or be accepted by Greek voters.
Oceanic Collections at the museum, one of its largest, span two continents. This vast array of artwork includes both pre-contact art and works created after Europeans first arrived in the region – making it both an important part of their permanent collection as well as a fascinating subject for study.
Thus, there is much to discover about the cultures of these islands and the impact of European exploration. The museum boasts an impressive collection of early Oceanic art, such as the Wilson cabinet of curiosities from Palau that was assembled before Western culture had any real influence on these communities.
Artifacts from the past can offer us a fascinating look into people’s lives and how they perceived themselves, their society and environment. They may also be employed to investigate issues such as class, gender equality and spirituality.
Oceanic art from Polynesian islands such as Easter Island, New Zealand and Hawaii is widely sought-after by avid collectors. These pieces hold great value in the eyes of these discerning buyers.
They illustrate the intricate connections between cultures as they have developed over time and across different lands. The museum boasts an exceptional collection of Polynesian sculpture, including large Moai statues that commemorate significant figures within their culture.
Polynesian islands are home to many exquisite wooden sculptures carved with love to honor ancestors, which are highly sought-after by serious collectors.
Oceanic collections boast a diverse array of styles and materials. As such, there is ample scope for an enthusiastic curator to work with the collection on collaborative research projects as well as exhibitions.
The Oceanic Collections at the British Museum are an important component of their holdings, featuring art from Asia, Africa and the Pacific Islands. As such, it is essential that a new Project Curator be appointed to oversee their care, research and development.
The Pediment, commonly referred to as the gable or pinnacle, is an architectural feature used in many designs. It can serve as either a structural support or decorative element and helps create visual balance, add grandeur, or serve as the focus of attention in the design.
Through history, pediments have been employed in a variety of different ways and styles in both classical and modern architecture. They add an air of grandeur or serve as a focal point when combined with other elements like columns or pilasters.
Greek and Roman architecture often featured triangle-shaped pediments on top of structures such as temples. These would be decorated with sculptures and reliefs that symbolized the building’s purpose.
One of the key characteristics of a pediment is its high profile. This allows light to filter through, creating an eye-catching effect and adding value to a building’s design.
The British Museum’s pediment is an outstanding example of this, featuring several sculptures that would have been visible to visitors during the 19th century. These artworks were designed in a Greek Revival style that emulated ancient Greek architecture and further demonstrated civilization’s progress (albeit in more masculine terms).
These statues provide a fascinating look into the evolution of pediments as they have been used in architecture over time. The South entrance pediment at the Museum serves as an excellent example, showcasing how pediments can be used to add visual interest and charm to a building.
This pediment serves as a prime example of how to incorporate elements of Greek and Roman architecture into architectural designs over time. It showcases several Greek figures, such as gods and goddesses.
These statues were originally part of the Parthenon, but were removed and sent to England when Thomas Elgin, founder of the British Museum, arrived in Greece. Although multiple attempts by Greek officials to have them returned have been futile, multiple requests have been turned down by the museum over time.
The Townley Gallery
The British Museum Sculpture Collection boasts some of the finest sculptures from the 19th century and it’s one of Britain’s most significant ancient art collections. The Townley Gallery plays an essential role in this impressive array.
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, The Townley Gallery was an important hub of learning and exchange among artists, scholars and students. It was founded by Charles Townley (1737-1805), a wealthy English collector and antiquary who made three Grand Tours to Italy to collect antique sculptures, vases as well as drawings and paintings by Old Masters.
He was an enthusiastic patron of art, spending much time and money on works by Rembrandt, Rubens, Caracci, and Raphael. His preference lay with 17th-century Dutch and Flemish painters.
In the early 19th century, The Townley Gallery emerged as an unofficial alternative to Royal Academy. Artists and scholars visited regularly to study and copy from Townley’s collection – among them William Skelton who was admitted in 1809 and Henry Fuseli who worked there from 1823 on.
Townley’s collection was an invaluable asset to the British Museum and served as a source of inspiration for contemporary artists and scholars. Throughout his lifetime, he commissioned works from several British painters such as Thomas Lawrence, Joshua Reynolds, George Stubbs, and Thomas Gainsborough.
His collection also included reliefs such as this piece from Hadrian’s Villa near Tivoli around 125 AD. The figure depicted on this relief is a female torso holding an arrow in her hand.
Furthermore, he owned an extensive collection of sketches by Claude. These, together with his own sketches, served as inspiration for many of his artworks.
Townley’s sculptures are imbued with the memories of social upheaval and power dynamics. Furthermore, they speak to the continued creation of sculpture across millennia.
Townley’s work is especially relevant at a time when national conversations often revolve around monuments. His practice examines how restoration and iconoclasm have always been embedded into sculpture’s design process, reflecting upon how statues have shaped history while becoming memorials to events, human mistake, and personal hubris.