Behind The Scenes – The British Museum

Main Hall
Main Hall of the British Museum © Trustees of the British Museum

Since January 2015, I have been a volunteer at the Department of Greece and Rome at the British Museum in London. This has been an honour to me in many ways. For obvious reasons a volunteer placement is very competitive, scarce and utterly desirable by many Humanities students. The reasons for this are, as I already outlined, obvious due to its phenomenal collection, history and reputation.

The British Museum was founded in 1753 by Sir Hans Sloane as the very first national public museum in the world, and already attracted in the 18th century around 5,000 visitors a year. Today the number of visitors has grown to over 6 million! The admission to the collection is free (except, naturally, for temporary exhibitions) and comprises 8,000 objects with its oldest object being a stone chopping tool of nearly 2 million years old. Its enormous building of 75,000 m² is subdivided into ten departments:

Department of Coins and Medals
Department of Prehistory and Europe
Department of Portable Antiquities and Treasure
Department of African Oceania and the Americas
Department of Prints and Drawings
Department of Greece and Rome
Department of Conservation and Scientific Research
Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan
Department of Asia
Department of the Middle East
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The marbles and sculptures of the Parthenon, Athens © Trustees of the British Museum

Having said that, it is almost impossible to overview all departments, especially as a volunteer since we are always allocated to a specific department, mine being Greece and Rome (G&R). However, as far as I can tell, there is a strong cooperation between different departments as many projects, as history itself, constantly overlap in regards of geography and period with other cultures.

To me, the importance of the British Museum for Classical Archaeology came with the knowledge of the artefacts. The collection prides itself with an outstanding and vast contribution on the Classical world with valuable possessions such as the Parthenon marbles, parts of the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus and the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus (both belonging to the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World). Furthermore, the famous bronze head of Augustus from Meroe contributes to its reputation, as well as the Discobolos with its complexity and outgoing body position and many more. Being part of such a great institution and in an academic environment with world leading curators was to me like a dream coming true.

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The entrance to the library of the Department of Greece and Rome (gallery 69) © Trustees of the British Museum

The British Museum works, as already mentioned, like a big body consisting of many organs and limbs, and everybody plays their role. The many departments are subdivided further into areas of specialism, i.e. G&R contains different sections of specialisation, such as curators for Greek and Roman sculptures, Roman Art, Etruscans, Cyprus, and Greek pottery. My volunteer placement is within the Naukratis Project which is led by the curator for Greek pottery, Dr Alexandra Villing, and joined by many other specialists, such as Dr Aurélia Masson-Berghoff, who is an Egyptologist and deals with the many Egyptian materials, and Dr Ross Ian Thomas whose responsibility is – amongst others – the small finds of the Ptolemaic period from the ancient city of Naukratis. The team is furthermore joined by Marianne Bergeron, the project curator for Greek pottery, as well as Giorgos Bourogiannis, Alan Johnston and François Leclère. Daniel von Recklinghausen, Jeffrey Spencer, Valerie Smallwood, Virginia Webb and Susan Woodford were responsible for different material categories of the many finds of the excavations since 1884.

In joining forces, this team has built since 2011 a collection of impressive and admirable work. This work can now be reviewed through the British Museum online publication at the homepage, including the vast catalogue of over 18,000 objects ranging from the 7th century BC to the 7th century AD. The team has been busy with the illustration and cataloguing of the finds from the excavations of the late 19th and early 20th century in the ancient trading town in the Nile Delta of ancient Egypt. The richness and diversity of the artefacts tell about the impact of many completely different cultures, such as the Egyptian, Greeks, Cypriot and Levantine culture, and how they interact. Before Alexandria was built in BC 331, the port of Naukratis had been the main harbor town where goods from Egypt and the Mediterranean were exchanged. Therefore, this town has been the place where many cultures came together to coexisted alongside each other. By publishing an online catalogue the British Museum has opened a free and easily accessible research platform for interested parties all over the globe. This project had and still has the challenging task of dealing with a range of objects from different periods and cultures, and finds from over 80 museums and other institutions. It furthermore has a highly educative character with graphics and statistics, as well as detailed descriptions of each object, and analytic chapters for every artefact category. I therefore strongly advocate having a look at this masterpiece.

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Staff canteen © Trustees of the British Museum

As a volunteer, the working day starts at 9.00 am and finished around 5.00 pm. During this time I was able to be an active participant in this project whilst taking up responsibility in different areas, such as checking the records, images and descriptions, on the database. When needed I was able to check references, especially those written in my (second) native language German. I was very happy for taking the task of translating the objects’ descriptions on the architectural fragments of the first and second sanctuary of Apollo, and the sanctuary of Aphrodite.

As a volunteer you will gain a further benefit of great advantages such as 20% off at the museum’s shops and, not forgetting, the fantastic staff canteen, which offers a wide range of delicious, cheap food and truly amazing coffee. As a student I can’t really complain. I have my hot meal once a day for not too much money and get to eat next to the world’s finest curators and archaeologists every day. During my volunteer time, I could also work alongside and observe the working area of a curator, which is very much a potential career possibility as an Archaeologist. If you ever wondered what a curator does or where his obligation lies, I have put together a list:

  1. Maintaining and caring for the permanent collection: The Department of Greece and Rome has a range of specialists on certain periods (Roman art), materials (i.e. pottery, sculpture etc.), cultures and regions (i.e. Etruscan). Each curator has to look after the permanent collection that relates to his field of specialism. This affects for instance, the display of the collection in the appropriate galleries, as well as the supervision of the storage of the objects, which are not open to public (i.e. temperature of the storage). Naturally it is the curator’s responsibility to keep the display of the objects in the best possible way by selecting the best pieces and exposing it properly with labels and panels in the galleries. Furthermore the curator needs to be up-to-date on the current research on his objects and has to have a broad knowledge of the archives owned by the BM thus trying to re-contextualise museum’s artefacts whenever possible. Moreover, if the resources are provided, the permanent collection should be digitalised on the museum’s own online catalogue hence making it known to everybody. Lastly, the curator has to produce articles in order to share his research on the objects of the collection with the public, students and scholars.
  2. Public requests: The curator’s responsibility is to answer to public enquires of students, scholars or visitors from time to time. Please consider that the curator will mainly give information on objects owned by the British Museum and that which relates to the curator’s specialisation. It also might well be possible that the curator will review some antiquities coming from private collections by giving information on the dating, context and way of production, however, it should be considered that this role varies from department to department. Please note that the curator (at least at the British Museum) is by law not allowed to give any information on the value of the artefact!
  3. Occasionally a Research Project like the Naukratis Project might become part of a curator’s work, however, it is by far not usual because of various factors (most of them being financial). In this case the curator has to be highly well connected to other departments and museums and be able to overhaul specialists (so-called project curator) for the different areas needed. At the Naukratis Project, the BM cooperates with numerous museums and a large number of specialists in periods (i.e. Ptolemaic) and materials (i.e. glass).
  4. Planning of exhibitions: Curators can also have the opportunity to plan and execute an exhibition. Potential topics are discussed among the curators of the department that might be interesting for the public. The suggestions will be forwarded to the appropriate department that decides if each exhibition has the potential be organised at the BM or to become a traveling exhibition in UK or even around the world.

And that is basically it. As already mentioned several times, the rules and tasks differ in every museum and department. Speaking of the British Museum, the curator should be a sociable and helpful person that is available for exchange of knowledge to his colleagues, but also to the universities, students and interested institutions.

I hope you have found this article helpful. If there are any enquiries, drop a comment.


Acknowledgment: A huge Thank You to the volunteer office for allowing me to share this article, as well as the great help by the project curators of the Naukratis Project, especially Aurélia Masson-Berghoff and Ross Thomas. Also thank you to Anna Lee for reviewing this article.
Copyright: Please note that all the images have been taken with my private camera, however, by laws of the museum, they are not allowed to be shared. If you are interested in good quality images from different objects you can have a look on the British Museum Homepage, as many objects have images in high quality to download.
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5 Kommentare Gib deinen ab

  1. pollyglotta sagt:

    Was für ein toller Überblick über Deine Arbeit im BM und das Museum selbst!
    Ab wann bist Du wieder in München?

    1. marisollang sagt:

      Hey Polly, DANKE fürs lesen. Ich bin ab April wieder in München. So sad leaving London! Wann bist du wieder zurück? x

  2. Marcelo Lang sagt:

    *the first and last links don’t work. Please check them!!!!!*

    1. marisollang sagt:

      Thanks. I already changed it! Thanks for reading and sharing! 🙂

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