Thursday, July 10, 2014

Too much and not enough

This morning's trip to the British Museum left me with two thoughts: too much of a good thing can be bad, and although an institution's mission centers on the preservation of history one cannot assume all departments are treated equally.  

Inside the British Museum

The British Museum was founded in 1753, and opened its doors in 1759 as the world's first national public museum. From the beginning, entrance to view the nation's treasures was free. Its early days saw 4-5,000 visitors per year, carefully regulated through a mandatory application process and escorted hour-long journeys through the museum. Today, people are free to come and go as they wish. I witnessed the results firsthand--hordes of people making it difficult to maneuver through the exhibits and see the items. Trending in museums and libraries is the idea of increasing public access. I never thought there should be a limit until this more frustrating than beneficial experience at the British Museum. Allowing people to see the valued cultural and historical artifacts for free is truly remarkable, but in this case the cost outweighed the benefits. With this much difficulty in the middle of a working day, I cannot begin to imagine what a weekend must look like. I'm too afraid to go back and find out!

Beneath the museum and through security doors lies the museum archives. The entire documented history is tucked away in cramped quarters. Many of the volumes are crumbling and in serious need of conservation work. Housed here are the original papers, staff records, finance papers, gift records, trustee minutes, excavation records and reading room registers. Although the public can use the materials in the archives, it is unlikely that a prospective user will even think to contact the archives, as a catalogue of materials is not available to the public. The archivist currently maintaining the collection indicated that a catalogue is in progress, but this will take time. 

Cramped quarters of the archives

All users of the reading room were required to apply for a ticket. If one cares to decipher the signatures in the reading room registers, several literary giants including Bram Stoker, Oscar Wilde, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle can be found among the pages. The British Museum once had a grand collection of books and manuscripts, but slowly lost those resources to the British Library. The Cotton and Sloane manuscripts, mainly consisting of medieval documents, were sent to the British Library in the 1970s. Today, the reading room is used as an exhibition space since the remaining books were transferred to the British Library in 1997. 

Can you spot Bram Stoker's signature in this reading room register?

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