The British Museum reopened last week, as society slowly returns to some semblance of normality.
Unlike a lot of smaller museums, the British Museum has the benefit of space to spread people out a bit in some of the rooms, but even so, they’re limiting visitor numbers to around 2,000 per day – a far cry from the 18,000 who normally throng the halls.
They’re also only opening up the main galleries on the ground floor, and an often overlooked but excellent basement gallery.
If the smaller Egyptian galleries on the 1st floor were open – which they are not — then now would be a perfect chance to visit them, as they are often so crowded as to put the Central line to shame.
As is the new normal, there’s a one-way route to follow, and with regular checking of your ticket to see what time you arrived, no jumping ahead to get somewhere else faster. Fortunately, the one-way route is per room, and not within rooms, so you are free to wander around the marbles, the stones, the antiques as you want, then follow the arrows to the next room and repeat.
The most famous items have socially distanced circles on the ground for people to stand in, feeling not unlike waiting for a Star Trek energiser to zap you to the next display.
The one-way route is also almost a timeline of classical antiquity, with the Egyptians, skip most of the Assyrians, then the Greeks and Romans, down to Africa, up to Mexico, through the Enlightenment, through the shop, stop for lunch, then out via the medicine gallery.
The current set-up can be described as delivering a taster menu of the museum’s collection, with most of the big blockbuster displays available, while the more specialised collections are locked away upstairs.
Although more topical than usual, the British Museum has long struggled with the issue of how it acquired the items in its display – being more of a museum of Empire than of Britain.
Famously the Parthenon Marbles which will probably never be resolved as it’s more of a legal dispute, but also the Benin bronzes which were an undeniably blood-soaked acquisition, and the Rosetta Stone, which Egypt has occasionally asked to be returned. That’s one that the British stole, but we stole it from the French, who dug it up first.
One of the newest displays though contains the recently moved bust of the co-founder of the museum, Sir Hans Sloane, who has been taken off a pedestal that hardly anyone noticed, and now sits in a prominent glass case which is hard to miss, and is surrounded by documents of context — showing his links to the slave trade and how he made his wealth.
One of the joys though of the corralling people into a predetermined route is that many will visit a space that seems to be missed by many visitors as I’ve usually found it to be one of the quietest in the museum – the Africa galleries. The gallery may now be busier than it has ever been, as it’s difficult to avoid a visit to it — which is a curious irony for the museum at this time. A mix of modern and ancient sit down here, from the aforementioned Benin bronzes to modern art made from disused guns from modern civil wars. It’s only a shallow flavour for an entire continent, but it delivers an impact.
You leave via the medicine gallery, with the huge long table filled with the pills that the average human will take in their lifetime — it’s a lot more than you might expect. It’s also a very topical object in these covid times.
Although probably only a quarter of the rooms are open at the moment, they are the big rooms with the big things that people most want to see. No big exhibitions, although there are two new displays to talk about later. It’s a rare chance for us Londoners to visit the museum while it’s so much quieter than usual.
Sometimes when visiting a museum you see people on a “must see all the things” type of visit, and that’s just so exhausting. With far fewer people around, a visit is more of a relaxing soaking up of history and culture. An indoor ramble through a countryside of stone.
Visits to the British Museum are free, and timed entry tickets need to be booked in advance.