November 8, 2010

New book looks at what happens behind the scenes at the British Museum

Posted at 2:06 pm in British Museum

A new book by a longstanding member of the British Museum’s staff promises to expose some of what happens behind the scenes at the museum. This may or may not be interesting – depending on your point of view & on what is actually revealed in the book.

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Norman Jacobs lifts the lid on one of London’s oldest historical institutions

A “fascinating and insightful” expose of the British Museum hits the shelves in November.

Behind the Colonnade lifts the lid on London’s oldest historical institution, and reveals the building’s “secrets, charms and colourful past”. The 216-page autobiography chronicles events of the last four decades, as witnessed by one of its longest-serving – and most trusted – employees. Author Norman Jacobs spent 37 years at the museum where he “watched, listened and recorded” life in its corridors. The father-of-two, 63, compiled his “notes and memories” and decided to pen Behind the Colonnade following his retirement in 2004 aged 57.

Pre-publication copies have secured praise from critics and readers alike. It is now set to become a genre bestseller when it hits the bookshops on November 1. Speaking yesterday from his home in Clacton-on-Sea, Essex, Norman – an established history author with 25 titles to his name – said his latest offering was among his “personal favourites”.

He said: ”I spent 37 years at the British Museum, and I thoroughly enjoyed every second. ”That said, there were times when I wished I was anywhere but at work! Thus Behind the Colonnade contains a number of anecdotes about my time at the museum, and has been written to shed some light on an institution some people may consider ‘secretive’ or, at the least, publicity-shy.”

Norman, who grew up in Hackney, east London, joined the British Museum, on Great Russell Street, at the age of 20. His first junior position was one of administration assistant, where he could put his passion for history to good use. ”I dropped out of college after training to become a history teacher,” he said. ”One morning, I happened to open the paper and saw the job advertised on one of the pages. I took it as a ‘sign’ that I’d done the right thing, and applied. ”The rest, as they say, is history.”

Thanks to his talent and ”unstoppable energy”, he worked his way quickly through the ranks. One of his fondest memories was in the Medieval and Later Antiquities department, where he where he catalogued the thousands of medieval tiles in the BM’s collection. “You can’t imagine how many kinds of different medieval tiles there are in the world!”, he said.

Norman later became Welfare Officer at the museum’s Welfare Department and, some time later, manager of the Building Department. This was the most challenging time in his career. He was involved in a number of major projects such as the separation of the British Museum from the British Library, in 1973, and the building of the new Great Court, in 2000.

Behind the Colonnade (The History Press), is Norman’s 25th title. He said his goal was to change people’s perceptions of history as a ”dull and boring” subject. For example, Norman recounts a time when the Archbishop of Canterbury got lost in the museum and was desperate to find his way out. Norman, who retired as manager of the Human Resources department, said: ”The Museum’s Trustees used to meet about eight times per year and always on a Saturday morning. ”The Board Room was through the swing doors and first on the right. ”One morning I was sitting at the Reading Room Admissions counter when the swing door flew open and Dr Michael Ramsey, the Archbishop of Canterbury, came rushing out. ”Between the swing doors and the corridor there were a couple of oak cupboards and he began tugging furiously at the handles on one of these cupboards. I said, ‘Can I help you?’ He turned to me and said, almost pleading, ‘Yes, how do I get out of here?'”

The book contains a glowing foreword by Dr Robert Anderson, the director of the British Museum between 1992 and 2002. He writes: “Surprisingly few autobiographies have been written by those who have spent their working lives in museums and art galleries. “Other authors might have avoided his outspokenness, but their account would not have offered so vivid a picture. “His memoir has added a new dimension to the historical record, and he must be admired for having decided to set down his thoughts so others can gauge what it was like, in his particular case, to have given over a significant part of his life to the service of the British Museum.”

Behind the Colonnade (The History Press. ISBN: 9780752452791) is out on November 1 priced £9.99. For advance or signed copies, visit
ISBN: 9780752452791
By Jason Taylors

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