The British Museum is an internationally acclaimed institution committed to preserving and sharing humanity’s story. With a collection that spans two million years from prehistory to today, its vast array of artifacts reflect our shared history.
In 1753, Dr. Hans Sloane donated his collection of art objects to the state. At first housed in an elegant mansion on Montague Street, today it resides in an expansive neoclassical structure designed by Robert Smirke.
The Pediment is an architectural element first utilized in Greek temples. Later it became widely utilized throughout Roman, Renaissance and Baroque architecture to add decorative accents over doors, windows and other openings in buildings as well as some Neoclassical structures.
In the 18th century, this form of architecture became fashionable throughout Britain’s empire. The pediment became an expression of national pride while elevating its status and making buildings appear grander than they really were.
This sculpture by an unknown artist shows the progression of civilisation through allegorical figures depicting its development and science, becoming an iconic representation for the British Museum.
It traces man’s journey from primitive and barbaric status through religion, becoming Hunters and Tillers of the Earth. Egyptians, Chaldeans, and other cultures worshiped heavenly bodies which they believed had an effect on humans – this led them to study Astronomy.
Lord Elgin removed these statues from the Parthenon and moved them to the British Museum in the early 19th century. Their pediment features a female Britannia figure representing Enlightenment as well as allegorical statues representing various artistic and scientific disciplines.
Dionysus or Heracles, the god of wine and dancing, can be seen sitting to his left alongside two goddesses and facing away from a scene depicting Athena being birthed from Zeus’ head.
Though successive governments in Greece have campaigned for the return of these sculptures since 1941, British authorities have consistently refused. Recently though, other museums around the world have changed their tune as they address concerns over how ancient artifacts were acquired during periods of imperial dominance and colonial expansion.
The Angel of Enlightenment
The Angel of Enlightenment sculpture by The British Museum Sculpture captures the development of human society over time, depicting both scientific advancement and humanity’s development over time. As one of their signature pieces, this masterpiece symbolizes this change with grace and clarity.
Richard Westmacott was an acclaimed British sculptor who created this masterpiece of pediment design, officially unveiled it at the south entrance to the Museum and officially known by its name since 1852.
Westmacott’s sculpture depicts scenes that illuminate human civilization throughout time, surrounded by allegorical figures representing art and science disciplines.
Astronomy stands in the center of this sculpture holding both a globe and instrument; Painting holds up their palette; Mathematics stands next to Drama with their comic mask on, while Poetry stands by with their writing tablet and scroll.
This sculpture depicts mankind’s progress from being an animal-like state, through being saved by religion, to becoming an independent entrepreneur in their own right. Additionally, the composition serves as an excellent example of pediments with allegories and symbols to depict civilization’s development.
The Enlightenment was an intellectual revolution that occurred across Europe between the 17th and 18th centuries that gave birth to new ways of thinking, including questioning tradition and religion in favor of scientific reasoning, leading to important developments that paved the way for modernity. It had an enormous influence on art at that time – writers such as Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope produced influential works which are still remembered today.
The First Man
The First Man, one of the earliest examples of sculpture at the British Museum, is an intriguing work of art. It depicts human life before written history existed: a primitive man climbing through debris to meet with Angel of Enlightenment to receive their Lamp of Knowledge.
The crocodile’s snout behind him is a key detail of this sculpture; it draws attention to debates surrounding human evolution from animals, as well as Charles Darwin’s book On the Origin of Species which would soon follow this statue’s unveiling.
Lankester wasn’t alone in his criticism of casting Sandow’s muscular form into a statue at the British Museum in 1901, as some people saw it as evidence of unfit bodies or felt it didn’t suit its serious setting.
At first criticized by critics and museum employees alike, eventually becoming an iconic image of the British Museum, this sculpture eventually found favour with the public and has since been borrowed by numerous European museums such as Paris’ Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac Museum and Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.
This piece is widely renowned and influential within Oceanian sculpture, serving as an invaluable source of inspiration to many European artists. Lent to various exhibitions for viewing purposes and currently on display at Te Fare Iamanaha/Museee de Tahiti et des Iles in French Polynesia.
The British Museum is under intense pressure to return the Parthenon Marbles back to Greece following their seizure from Acropolis by Scottish nobleman Lord Elgin in 1801. Although they claim they acquired them legally for preservation purposes, growing calls to return them are placing increasing strain on this institution and could force it to reconsider its position on returning the sculptures to Greece.
“The Hunter”, cast in 1753 and used for teaching anatomical anatomy at The British Museum. This small bust represents William Hunter’s original anatomical figure created for artists and medical students.
This sculpture depicts a fully Civilised Man reclining among animals and exotic plants in an Eden-like environment. His elbow rests upon a lion while his knee sits upon an elephant; both creatures surrounded him are Putti (wingless cherubs). There’s an ostrich hiding behind him while there’s also an aquatic turtle nestled into one corner of the sculpture.
Charles Read, British Museum curator between 1880 and 1921, had this equine figure created to adorn their pediment as “an excellent specimen of an Indian elephant with an especially well-developed trunk”.
This object is one of several artifacts in the British Museum that has been claimed by foreign governments such as Greece, Nigeria and Easter Island. Despite legal and historical arguments that they belong to all these countries, however, the British Museum has declined their request to return items such as Elgin Marbles, Benin bronzes and Hoa Hakananai’a statue from Greece, Nigeria or Easter Island.
African museums have taken steps to reclaim objects looted from their region by Western curators; but this approach ignores a complex history of colonisation and war that has resulted in widespread conflict over objects taken from Africa and stored in Western museums.
The British Museum Sculpture stands as one of London’s iconic works of art, witnessed by millions of visitors annually and photographed by even more. But its true power only becomes clear upon closer examination of “The Farmer.”
Doggerland existed long before farmers arrived in Britain, providing a land bridge between continental Europe and Britain. At certain points throughout the year, people would gather here to mark seasons changing or commemorate individuals or special events.
But when farming arrived, it wiped away much of the preexisting gene pool and replaced it with seed and domesticated animals from East. Thus began a new era.
In order to demonstrate this point, curators have amassed objects from around the globe – including an ancient gold and bronze disc from Northern Germany thought to be depiction of cosmic phenomena; an age-old chalk drum found buried alongside three children in Yorkshire grave; as well as a 4,000 year-old timber circle known as Seahenge found on Norfolk beach.
A picture emerges here of a remote yet hearty people connected with their past through monuments such as Stonehenge that align perfectly to winter solstice, often having religious or ritual significance and believed to have sacred significance for its users.
Reflections is a poignant and timely reminder that history remains an invaluable resource in today’s uncertain and fearful environment. Be it violent, unsettling or beautiful events from our pasts, they hold the power to bring about positive change while awakening us to who we are as individuals in relation to others in society.