August 22, 2010

How many of the British Museum’s artefacts are actually on display?

Posted at 10:20 am in British Museum, Elgin Marbles, Similar cases

When people argue against restitution of cultural property, much is made of the argument that it would leave the great museums of the world almost empty. Aside from the notion that this suggests nearly all the items in the collection were acquired in dubious circumstances (few claims are made about items that were legitimately purchased), this goes completely against the reality of the situation. Well over a hundred years ago, the British Museum already had far more in its collection than it could possibly display. Due to the prohibition on deaccessioning, this situation has only got worse since then. Certainly, some of the artefacts that are hidden in store rooms might not be particularly worth seeing – but there must be many that are.

Heritage Key

How Many Ancient Artefacts Are on Display at the British Museum?
Submitted by Sean Williams on Thu, 06/03/2010 – 14:48

How many ancient artefacts are on show at the British Museum? Sounds like an easy question: after all, surely it’s just a case of finding the right person and writing down a figure, right? I mean, the British Museum is the second most visited museum on the planet behind the Louvre, and well over half the Louvre’s collection is non-ancient (for an explanation of what ‘ancient’ actually is check out Jon’s blog here) – someone must know how much stuff is on show. For the short story, the numbers and how I came to my conclusions click here. If not read on and suffer with me.

First port of call: the museum’s press office, who could only tell me the museum holds a total of around 6,000,000 artefacts. Around? It’s not a great omen if the press office doesn’t even know its own total collection, let alone how much of that has made it from storage into display cases. I was whisked off to another department: “We have around six million items in total, sir, but I’m not sure of the number on display – maybe one of our guidebooks has what you’re after.”

No other web source had the answer, unsurprisingly, so it was off to the BM itself, on a balmy summer’s afternoon, to find out for myself just what its magic number was. My first port of call was the information desk. By definition that was where I should be looking, right? Again, no. I had a very nice flick through some of the museum’s guidebooks, and a perfectly pleasant conversation, but no number. So armed with nothing but a phone, notepad and a C in GCSE Maths I set off in search of the British Museum’s magic number (see the British Museum’s top ten treaures here).

I quick foray into the Egyptian Gallery later I’d noted 160 Egyptian artefacts, alongside 100 Near Eastern pieces (I counted the Assyrian Lion Hunt as one item). There were even fewer in the nearby Greek marbles room – just thirty with the controversial Elgin Marbles counted as one. But these were three of what I’ve cleverly dubbed the BM’s ‘big’ rooms, the showcase bits with the headline treasures like the aforementioned marbles and the Rosetta Stone. On my reckoning there are eight of these, counting the famously beautiful stair wells.

That leaves another 87 rooms unaccounted for – 85 when you consider that two of the rooms, ‘Enlightenment’ and ‘Life and Death’ are non-ancient. So I headed up to some of the ‘small’ rooms to see what they would add to the number. ‘Greeks in Italy’: 740 (roughly, mind – I couldn’t count each and every item individually). ‘Cyprus’: 400; ‘Tomb of Nebamun’: 100 and the upstairs Egyptian galleries a whopping 1,500 between the four of them. Based on that information, and by checking how large or small the rooms are, I finally found my (rough) answer: 43,000.

How did I get 43,000? I flattened out each ‘big’ room’s items at 100, and multiplied by six. I then added this figure to that of the smaller rooms, which I averaged at 500 items per room. I then rounded down ever-so-slightly, though I think this number is fairly accurate. Even if I’m a fair distance out my number betrays a massive discrepancy between the museum’s six million artefacts in total and what’s on show: less than one per cent. I think we’d all like to explore the British Museum’s vast archives, but judging by this you’d be dead before you made it halfway.

Heritage Key is completing a list of the world’s greatest museums, taking in visitor numbers, collections and great treasures. We’ll also have an amazing map of the top museums for you to enjoy!

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1 Comment »

  1. v.kalyani said,

    08.26.10 at 12:05 pm

    I think the British Museum should display their own objects which may not be having an interesting history(many of which are in the store rooms of the museum) alongside their important objects. Rather than giving complete story of all the possible aspects of their history and culture, the museum is focussing on giving complete information of just one aspect of theirs, which is imperialism, to the visitors. This way, their people are not given a chance to see all of their things. Also, this shows that this museum believes only in boasting its own attitude and power, and not in displaying its good old culture

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