Why Is The British Museum So Dull?

Film, London, Observatory

I hate seeing museums dumbed down. The shameful ruination of the Maritime Museum and the ghastly disaster that is now the Bethnal Green Museum Of Childhood have dumbed history to the point of imbecility, but there is another extreme – to me at least, the British Museum, despite its blockbuster exhibitions, remains painfully boring.

Why are so few of the exhibitions placed in contexts that bring history alive for visitors? We look at a papyrus, we stand before a carved stone, but the fascination of the story resolutely fails to catch fire. On his excellent London blog The Great Wen, Peter Watts points up the same problems I felt when faced with an overwhelming amount of material not so much curated as dumped into a series of rooms.

‘The British Museum make museum-going into something worthy rather than fun. My fear is that thousands of people will push through heaving crowds to see this exhibition drawn by fawning publicity and out of a sense of duty, before emerging battered and bored, vowing to never visit another museum until the next blockbuster rolls into town.’

I couldn’t have put it better. The British Museum is an astonishing resource, but the sheer volume of history here is tricky to access, and is especially challenging for the young. When I was small, I vividly remember seeing the Pompeian body preserved in ash, and the very few things in the museum that looked human. No amount of broken pottery can capture the feeling of seeing history through the eyes of someone who lived.

3 comments on “Why Is The British Museum So Dull?”

  1. Alison says:

    Although I admit to being biased, since I live here, one of the best museums I know is actually the Kirk Museum in York. It’s completely interactive – you can play games like hopscotch and what have you – and it goes right up to the 1970s/80s, offering a real social history – they have displays of ranges and ovens, kitchens and vacuum cleaners – and you wander around going “ooh I remember those…” I really do recommend it. It has something for everyone, and it makes history fun.

  2. Helen Martin says:

    Being able to put yourself into the historical context, imagining yourself using whatever the artifact is makes a museum truly educating. One problem is cost and the other problem is space. It is expensive to set up scenes, it takes time and it requires a lot of space. Our provincial museum was set up at a time when there was money available so the Victorian era is a street with shops and a view into a living room (although they would have called it a parlor). There are sound effects so when you’re on an Interior farm in winter you actually feel cold as the crows caw and things creak around you. There is a small movie theatre where you can see films of the period and a kitchen where you can smell the cinnamon that’s going into the apple pie. I am a real museum freak so it’s hard to bore me, especially with the treasures of the British Museum, but I would like some speculation about that 16th (?) century English jug that was found in Kenya (?) Kids always find something to attract them. There were five boys posing “King Tut” fashion next to Egyptian figures when we were in that area of the museum and at least the cases have clean glass.
    How about a display of “Cooking Round the World and Through the Ages”?
    Was there a display of “The Tudors and their World” last year? There was the Henry VIII display at the Tower, but something at one of the accessible museums? Oh, Hampton Court, perhaps? By the way, enjoy the free museums you have, because it isn’t so in many places.

  3. Martha says:

    When I (still) lived in London, my favourite museum was the Geoffyre in North London. You could wander from room to room progressing through the years, periods and styles of English interior decor. The folded-linen wainscotting of the Elizabethan period was especially beautiful.

    At Christmas the decoration were the most magical of all. If you have time – go and see them. Take a photo for ma please. They have a nifty little cafe as well.

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