Sunday, January 8, 2012

British Museum top ten exhibits - the must see items if you are in a hurry

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British Museum
Great Russell Street
London WC1B 3DG
Nearest Tube station:
Russell Square, Tottenham Court Road
British Museum, in my opinion, is one of the most misunderstood attractions in London. If you are into history of London, it's clearly isn't the best place to go and you would have more luck at the Museum of London. Neither does it have any direct ties to the Royalty (check out Clarence House, Buckingham Palace or Tower of London for that). Neither is it instantly recognisable like the Tower Bridge and Westminster. The tourists will head straight to the mummies in the Museum after having their photos taken in front of the main stairs, while the Greeks will probably never going to step into it unless the Parthenon sculptures are returned to Athens.

Despite visiting it countless times over the last couple of years, I was never able to properly cover the entire exhibit floor - I was either mesmerised by the majestic Egyptian sculptures, the intricate china cherished by the Chinese courts centuries ago or even the Assyrian reliefs. Time flashes past whenever I'm at the British Museum.

This time round, I decided to be a bit more disciplined. Instead of wandering around aimlessly, I'll seek out the most notable items in the Museum. Thankfully, there is already a prepared list of must see exhibits on the British Museum brochure with their locations mapped out. If you are in a bit of a hurry, these are the 10 must see items at the British Museum.

1. The Lewis Chessmen

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In Room 40 (level 3) lie the most famous chess set in the world. Discovered on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland (thus their name) in 1831, these 12th century chess pieces are thought to be made in Norway. Carved from walrus ivory and whale teeth, they were in surprisingly good condition when found. All in all, 78 pieces which include 8 kings, 8 queens, 16 bishops, 15 knights, 12 rooks and 19 pawns were found - more than enough for just one chess set. Because of their good condition and odd numbers, they are thought to be stock pieces for replacing those lost or broken.

Check out the famed Beserkers (the rook piece) with his teeth on his shield as well as the forlorn Queen with her hand on the face tilting to her side.

2. Oxus Treasure

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In Room 50 (level 3) is a hoard of gold and silver metalwork (dating back to the 5th century B.C.) found by the the Oxus River in the 19th century. Their makers, the Persians, were known to be skillful metalworkers.

The main pieces on the display include a griffin headed bracelet and a horse chariot complete with riders.


3. The Royal Game of Ur

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Photo by Julio Marteniz

In Room 56 (level 3) is an popular pastime in ancient Sumer. The game (also known as the Game of Twenty Squares) that dates back to 2600 B.C. is apparently still being played in present day Iraq. Interestingly, the game, which is played with two sets of markers and a tetrahedral dice, can be seen scratched out on the base of one of the Assyrian guardian figure (presumably by bored Assyrian guards) in the British Museum.

4. The Portland Vase

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In Room 70 (level 3) is a fine example of a Roman cameo glass vase. Made by etching into several layers of glass fused together, the vase dates back back to 5 A.D. The piece on display in the British Museum was there since 1810 and is claimed to be the original inspiration to the many Wedgewood design.

Note that the vase was smashed onto the floor by a drunken student in 1845 and was severely damaged as a result. Proper piecing it back began only in 1987 when a suitable epoxy resin was found. To be honest, you can't really see where the cracks are - a proof that the restorers have done an excellent job.

5. Samurai armour

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Few ventured up to level 5 of the Museum and if you do, you would be rewarded with an extensive display of samurai armour (in Room 93) - a raw display of the military might in medieval Japan. Even after centuries, the armour (with its whiskers and all) still looks rather intimidating. Check out for the accompanying samurai swords and daggers, as well as the history behind the making of the weapons.


6. Cloisonné jars

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Head down to level 1 (Room 33) for some marvelous porcelain pieces that once resided in the Chinese imperial courts. The Chinese having mastered the cloisonné enamel in the 15th century adorned the jars, pots and vases with auspicious objects and figurines. The many pieces on display include motifs of dragons, kirins and lotuses.


7. Easter Island statue Hao Hakabanai'a

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You can't possibly miss this colossal figure (Room 24 on Ground floor) from a lost Polynesian civilisation. Dating back to 1250, this imposing monolithic human figure (or moai) is one of 887 found. It was said that the obsession to produce them is one of reason for the depletion of much needed resources, which led to the eventual demise of their creators.

8. The Rosetta Stone

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Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs has always baffled scholars with its pictorial characters. Like all languages, there is certainly a pattern behind it but the key to that is only fully unlocked with the discovery of the Rosetta Stone (Room 4 on Ground floor) in 1799 in the French expedition to Egypt. It was then brought under British possession when they defeated the French in Egypt in 1801 and brought to the British Museum in 1802.

Inscribed on the stone is the decree issued by King Ptolemy V in 196 B.C. But the fascinating thing is that the decree was inscribed in three languages - ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, Demotic script and ancient Greek. Call it a tri-language dictionary if you will, the link proves to be the key to unlock our understanding of the Egyptian hieroglyphs.

There is a constant crowd around this exhibit. For some reason, the light around the dark coloured stone is dimmer than I would prefer so you might have to squint your eyes a bit to catch the inscriptions.

9. Assyrian Lion Hunt reliefs

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On the way to the Parthenon sculptures, you'll pass by the two intimidating Assyrian guardian figures (depicted with a bull or lion's body, eagle's wings, and human's head) on your left. Just behind these figures in Room 10 (Ground floor) lie reliefs of Assyrian Lion Hunts featuring hunts led by King Assurbanipal, one of the last great neo-Assyrian kings of the 6th century B.C. These reliefs, excavated from Nineveh, show the King triumphing over lions - a symbol of the King's ability to guard the nation.

10. Parthenon sculptures

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One of the most controversial exhibits in the British Museum tucks right at its western end. In Room 18 (Ground floor) lie the Parthenon sculptures, which once adorned the Parthenon in Athens, a temple built nearly 2,500 years ago for the Greek goddess Athena. The sculptures were damaged over years of neglect as the temple was converted to other uses. The final straw came in 1687 when the former temple was used as a gunpowder storage as city was besieged by the Venetian - it blew up, bringing the entire roof down.

Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire brought part of the surviving sculptures back to Britain in 1801 and sold it to the British Museum in 1816. These sculptures have been in the public view ever since.


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If you have only an hour or so to spend at the British Museum, be sure not to miss out on the above must see exhibits as recommended by the British Museum. The Museum also run some special exhibition in its Reading Room (check) all year round. They can get rather popular and most operate on a timed entry basis so do book your tickets online to beat the queue and avoid disappointment.

You might like to check out the Museum shop for some souvenirs (your Lewis Chess set etc.) on your way out. Otherwise, there's always the British Museum online shop if you missed out anything.

Like most other established museums in London, the British Museum does not charge an entrance fee. Although the institution receives funding from the government, it still requires additional funds for its daily operations, maintaining its exhibits while acquiring new items and visitors' (that means you) donations would go into this. If you like what you've seen, do contribute a bit in any of the various donation bins around the Museum. Every bit helps!

What's your favourite exhibit?

Which exhibit created an impression on you the last time you visited the British Museum? Are they one of the above? If not, I would love hear from you.

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