Summary of Findings

With classes starting in nearly two weeks, it’s time to wrap everything up by sharing my findings with you.  My time in the British Museum Archives really helped open my eyes about the institution, and revealed that many preconceptions are somewhat unfair. For example, the idea that the Museum goes out and steals artifacts from other nations and cultures is misleading. Yes, it is true the Museum occasionally funds digs, but most of their collection comes from donations or purchases from individuals or groups; in 1841 alone there were over 206 individual donors. Now it is possible these individuals obtained the objects in potentially questionable ways, but what is important is that the Museum was not directly involved in “looting”, something that appears throughout literature, and even in the public consciousness.

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First Post-Archives Thoughts

As the new semester begins to dawn over the horizon, I’m back in the US fresh from the British Museum. Archives research is quite a tedious process, involving lots and lots of reading of information that is frankly useless to my project. However, I was able to find lots of bits that will undoubtably be invaluable as I begin to write. As I compile everything I will have a much more detailed post in the future, but for now I’ll just share this one tidbit. After Oscar Wilde was convicted of “indecency” and imprisoned, the British Museum’s Board of Trustees decided to ban him from ever using the Reading Room again, even after he was released. In addition, they refused to write in the crime he had committed that led to his imprisonment. All in all the trip was definitely worth it, even if now I have so much work to do!

Shelley’s “Ozymandias”

The past few weeks have been mostly just reading, from historical texts and documents to poems and literature, and making connections between them. The first of these came in the shower, the best place I find for coming up with ideas. I wasn’t even thinking of my project, when out of nowhere I realized the significance of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias.” During the first half of the nineteenth century, the British Museum believed that the only high art of ancient times was the work of the Greeks and Romans. Anything from the near East or Egypt was simply considered a historical artifact, and had no artistic value or merit. Shelley’s poem works to change that. He takes the carving of the pharaoh Ramesses II in the British Museum, and turns it into a piece of art, through the art of his verse. In this way, the poem becomes a reactionary and revolutionary piece against the older, conservative policies of the British Museum, which fits in nicely with Shelley’s own political beliefs.

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British Musuem Archives

Hello everyone. In my first post I mentioned that part of my research is going to take place in the archives of the British Museum. However, at that time I was not entirely sure what would be in there. Well, I’ve spoken with Stephanie, the head archivist at the Central Archive, and set up an appointment, as well as found more about what exactly I’ll be looking at. There are the Trustees Minutes, documents I already knew about, which will provide first-hand evidence of policy building at the Museum. I’m really excited to delve into these, because I know there is going to be so many little gems and tidbits that I just wouldn’t be able to find in books. In connection with these are the Trustees Papers, which correspond to the Minutes and are the documents and personal writings of the Trustees. There are also early guides to the Museum, which will let me know exactly how the layout has changed through the years, showing what objects they highlighted, and what language they used to describe them. (I’ve already done a little bit of this, but only with how the Museum is currently laid out. Something interesting is that Africa is represented by a single room in the basement. Yikes!) Last I have the signature books of every reader in the Reading Room from 1795-1970. This is going to be a lot to go through, but I’ll be able to find out who was working there, and at what time. Plus I get to see the signatures of so many famous historical figures. Well, that’s my update for now. I’ll post more in future as my research comes along. Cheers!

Literature and the British Museum

Hello everyone, my name is Rory Sullivan, a junior here at the College. I am an English major, and my work this summer is research for my Honors Thesis, which is looking at the relationship between literature and the British Museum. The British Museum is an iconic institution of Western culture, making it a naturally attractive topic for literary figures. While the various writers work in different ways, for example Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s poem “The Burden of Nineveh” focuses on an artifact in the Museum, while Virginia Woolf  repeatedly comes back to the Reading Room, generally the aims are the same. The Museum projects a certain British identity, and these writers interrogate it through writing. My thesis will uncover these thoughts, and articulate the different answers writers found to these questions, creating a better understanding of what exactly it means to be British through the Museum.

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