British Museum Archives

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Date Visited: July 10, 2014

For those of you who may not know, the British Museum has one of the largest collections in the world.  It is incredibly impressive and massive in size.  The first time I visited the museum was in February of 2009.  I remember being taken aback by how massive it was and the collection it contained.  It was a little different visiting the museum during the height of tourist season.  We also received a great opportunity to visit the central archives of the museum.  

I would strongly recommend that anyone who wants to truly experience the British Museum and get as much out of it as they can, do not go during the summer.  The museum was crowded.  It was irritably crowded, to the point where one had to maneuver through a sea of people in the rooms containing the more popular items.  At this point I feel like I am no longer enjoying the artifacts or appreciating what I am seeing because I am trying to avoid the large amount of people around me.  

After fighting the crowds my class and I got to go down to the basement to see the central archives of the museum.  The museum has nine archives.  The central archives contain the history of the museum itself.  The documents date back to the eighteenth century.  Because the British Museum is one of the most popular and well known museums in the world, I expected their central archive to be very well kept.  I was shocked to find that it is kept in a tiny room in the basement.  There are shelves and drawers everywhere so there is just a small hallway for the few librarians and archivists to get through.  

The basement itself is not climate controlled or even safe-guarded from water.  The archives contain some very interesting materials.  They contain varies manuscripts and histories of the museum itself, including old guides.  Individuals used to have to apply to use the reading room.  Each application had to include two letters of recommendation.  The archive still contains these records which include artifacts from very famous authors and scholars.  The archive also contains rare excavation histories from several places around the world.

The collection itself is not properly cataloged.  Francesca Hillier was our tour guide.  She was nice enough to show us varies items from the collection including Bram Stoker’s signature when he signed into the reading room.  The collection is not completely available online and the easiest way to find out if the collection has something to e-mail the museum.  I also found that really surprising.  

It is still unusual to me that such a large and well known museum would have such a small and unkempt central archive.  I expected the British Museum to have the latest technology, and a wealth of staff members to assist in maintaining their archives.  A tiny cramped room that is not temperature controlled or fully cataloged was quite shocking to find.  

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