Wednesday, October 8, 2014

To Collect and To Remember

Although I've been fortunate to visit London many times, I've somehow never found the opportunity to go to the British Museum (much to the chagrin of a few friends.) But today I've remedied that great slight with a visit to one of the most remarkable museums.  The British Museum, founded in 1753, is the epitome of the Age of Enlightenment and Empire and the first national public museum in the world. The Museum's early collection was mainly books, manuscripts, and natural specimens with some coins, medals, prints, and drawings collected by the physician, naturalist, and collector, Sir Hans Sloane.

Sloane collected more than 71,000 objects throughout  his life. He wanted his collection to be preserved intact after his death so he bequeathed the entire collection to King George II. Accepting the gift, an Act of Parliament established the British Museum on June 7,1753. Opening to the public on January 15,1759, the British Museum was first in Montagu House in Bloomsbury on the site of today's building.

The British Museum's collection grew as the British upper classes traveled the globe in the 18th and 19th centuries, uncovering antiquities and artifacts of distant civilizations and shipping them back to Britain for investigation and display. These acquisitions formed the basis of the museum's collection and has been built to be one of the largest and finest. A number of high profile pieces were discovered in the 19th century - the Rosetta Stone in 1802, the Townley collection of classical sculpture in 1805, and the Parthenon sculptures (Elgin Marbles) in 1816. And the 7th century Saxon burial ship and treasures was discovered in 1938 in Sutton Hoo, Suffolk.

It is a testament to the breadth of the Empire at one time to have been able to collect artifacts from such different civilizations around the world. And in some way, the British Museum is a remembrance to all  of these past cultures and societies.

Remembrances to the past are all over London, from Christopher Wren's Monument  that commemorates the Great Fire of 1666 to the current installation at the Tower of London. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War. To remember the British citizens lost in the war, 888,246 ceramic poppies will progressively fill the Tower's moat.  Each poppy is created by hand and installed by hand, creating an undulating wave of red across the greenery of the grassy moat. Singular poppies rise from the tide reminding you that each poppy represents an individual person. The installation is equally breathtaking and heart-wrenching to realize the destruction of the war, truly an event to pause and a remember and a collection I will be hard-pressed to forget.

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