Image of the Main Entrance of the British Museum, London.

Museums Under Construction: On Loss, Disorder, Destruction, and Objects in Storerooms

Archaeological artefacts from the Ottoman Empire have only recently attracted attention in current debates over decolonization and restitution. Mirjam S. Brusius of the German Historical Institute London is researching the excavation of objects, the role of the local population, and why certain items have languished for decades in the storerooms of European museums.

The Arrival of Ottoman Archaeological Finds in Nineteenth-Century Britain

On 28 February 1852, a cartoon was published in the British weekly Illustrated London News. It did not show a recent incident; rather, it was a visual construct that retrospectively legitimized an event that had taken place two years earlier. In the background, we see the facade of the new British Museum in London—at the time still a building site. A ramp has been placed on the steps leading up to the monumental Ionic portico, which not only provides an architectural frame for the museum’s entrance, but also serves as a statement of its institutional agenda. A number of people have gathered here to observe a spectacular sight: an enormous sculpture of a winged lion being dragged up the ramp into the museum (see Fig. 1). The lion is facing backwards, as if taking a final glimpse of freedom before entering a new canonical order inside the museum.

Fig 1: ‘Reception of Nineveh Sculptures at the British Museum’, Illustrated London News, 28 Feb. 1852. Photo by Alemazzi, Wikimedia Commons, published under a CC BY-SA 4.0 licence.

The sculpture became an icon of the successful addition to Europe’s museum collections of archaeological finds from ancient Mesopotamia, a province of the Ottoman Empire. 

Austen Henry Layard and his Excavations

The first objects of this kind were unearthed around 1850 by the British adventurer Austen Henry Layard (1817–94). At this time, Layard could hardly have been considered an archaeologist. In fact, he never chose this as his career; the academic discipline of archaeology did not yet exist. He was simply travelling to Baghdad on diplomatic business. On his way he more or less accidentally stumbled across the excavations of his French colleague Paul-Émile Botta, a consul and botanist. Layard’s biography reads like that of a middle-class English student who, for a change of scene, decides to take a gap year and travel the world, before returning home to take up the comfortable duties of bourgeois Victorian life that await him there. Although the British Museum is now primarily associated with the artefacts, it only began funding their excavation at a later stage. 

Biblical Locations as Imperial and Diplomatic Targets for Excavation

The main motivation was the search for sites from the Bible, a book that stood at the heart of intellectual and religious life in Victorian Britain and was also a source of historical evidence, alongside texts from classical antiquity. However, we should not assume that Layard’s excavations were planned in detail. The potential significance of the site alone was enough to make its artefacts worth collecting. This frequently threw up challenges: some of the finds contradicted biblical sources, and thus threatened to destabilize the canonical order. 

In other words, nobody was deliberately sent to the region to search for specific objects. Instead, these excavations were a sideshow to a more complex interplay of imperial and diplomatic interests that were instrumentalized to support the scientific expeditions of the nineteenth century. As a result, the digs soon came to be promoted by commercial and strategic interests in the region.

My research project, ‘The Empire in Storage’, addresses the spatial and temporal grey area that exists between two supposedly stable historiographical points: the excavation of artefacts and their display in museums. What happened between these two stages? What role was played by local actors who were involved primarily as diggers, but also often as mediators? When did they offer resistance, or show that there were other possible uses for ancient remains? After all, the social spaces and structures of the indigenous population were often destroyed by European colonial powers as they sought to acquire and ‘preserve’ material culture. These histories were rarely recorded in documents and archives, and this poses a methodological problem today.

The Challenges of Classifying Ancient Objects in European Collections

When they finally arrived in the museum, the artefacts did not enter a ‘disciplined’ space that contrasted with the chaos of the archaeological expeditions. Should these strange figures be grouped with the firmly established European canon of Greek sculpture, or were they closer to the Egyptian tradition? And what should be done with the cuneiform tablets, which nobody had managed to decipher, but which might contain important historical evidence? Many objects ended up in the storeroom, where they were often kept for decades before a specialist could assign meaning to them. Even today, we are oblivious to the existence of many smaller artefacts, as shown by a recent theft of uncatalogued objects in the British Museum.

Prussia and France also acquired collections of antiquities during the nineteenth century. Although these great European powers were ostensibly competitors, they often cooperated with each other—for instance, when objects were lost during transportation, or became stranded in ports such as Bombay and Lisbon. On Museum Island in Berlin, fragments of the famous Ishtar Gate wandered through various basements, storerooms, and depots until a place was eventually found, or made, for them (the modern-day Pergamon Museum only opened in 1930) (see Fig. 2). Artefacts from Babylon, in present-day Iraq, could not be readily integrated into the dominant antiquity collections of ‘Athens on the Spree’, as Berlin was known back then.

Fig. 2: View into the workshop, provisionally set up in the Säulenhalle in the Neues Museum in Berlin, where shards of brick from the Ishtar Gate in Babylon were sorted and classified. © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin—Vorderasiatisches Museum, Photo Archive, Bab Ph 3700. 

Research Aims

My project does not aim to tell the story of the sculpture of the winged lion that I mentioned at the beginning of this post; instead, it seeks to present the history of the building site at the museum (see Fig. 1). It focuses not on the history of the museum’s facade, but on the staircase connecting inside and outside, which symbolizes the time and space between the excavation of the artefacts and their inclusion in a systematic collection. It does not tell the story of the museum staff who discussed where best to display the sculpture, but rather foregrounds those who wondered what they ought to make of all these artefacts. I therefore also aim to reveal which (object) histories are deemed worth telling, and when; whose perspective and knowledge counts; and who has the authority to interpret historical decision-making processes and narratives. A single object can contain many histories; but these only come into view if it is not locked up forever in an anonymous storeroom.


Featured Image: Main Entrance of the British Museum, London. Photo by Ham, Wikimedia Commons, published under a CC BY-SA 3.0 licence.

Blog post translated by Jozef van der Voort (GHIL).



Cite this blog post
Mirjam Brusius (2024, May 1). Museums Under Construction: On Loss, Disorder, Destruction, and Objects in Storerooms. German Historical Institute London Blog. Retrieved May 29, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/10s5e

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search