British museum

Jam-packed with treasures: the eccentric Sir John Soane’s Museum

Sir John Soane’s Museum is one of London’s most eccentric buildings, containing a riot of classical fragments, paintings, architectural models and plaster casts jammed in to overflowing narrow galleries packed into a Georgian town house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Soane viewed it as a reflection of his busy intellect, ‘studies for my own mind’, he said, and Bruce Boucher’s new book reveals how the architect, famous for designing the Bank of England, put together the remarkable collection that visitors can still see today. The author was director of the Soane Museum from 2016 to last year, and his privileged access to its archives ensures we get an insider’s view of

The jaw-dropping story of the British Museum thefts

It’s August 2023 when news breaks that artefacts have gone missing, presumed stolen, from the British Museum. I’m about an hour into investigating the story for a feature when a suspect is named in the press. I know him. He’s the curator I was seated next to at a British Museum dinner nine months earlier. Listening this week to three preview episodes of Thief at the British Museum, an electrifying nine-part series on Radio 4, I kick myself for the second time for spending most of that evening talking to the professor on my left. What can I remember of the man on my right? He was quiet. Ruddy-faced. Nothing

Fascinating insight into the mind of Michelangelo

You’re pushing 60 and an important patron asks you to repeat an artistic feat you accomplished in your thirties. There’s nothing more daunting than having to compete with your younger self, but the patron is the Pope. How can you say no? Besides, it’s an excuse to get away from Florence, where your work for the republicans who expelled the Medici has become an embarrassment since their return. So you tell Pope Clement VII that, yes, you will move to Rome and paint a Last Judgment on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel. Bladder stones, colic, backache, gout – Michelangelo had them all and moaned about them in letters

Could I find love at the British Museum?

Mirabile dictu, as we Latin lovers like to say. In other words, wonderful news! Attractive women have fallen for ancient Rome – and for classicists. Well, that’s what the British Museum thought when it cooked up its advertising campaign for its new show, Legion: Life in the Roman Army, about Roman legionaries. The Museum put up a controversial social media post, promoting the exhibition as an opportunity for single women to find single men. I spotted a lissom blonde in green T-shirt and tie-dye trousers. We fell in step as we approached the gift shop The post read: ‘Girlies, if you’re single and looking for a man, this is your sign

How Damien Hirst ruined Devon

There are few better locations to resist la rentrée than the wilds of Exmoor. The late August heather and gorse. The hidden coves. The bracken and this year’s superb crop of blackberries. Then the rain. So much rain (though of course the reliably incompetent South West Water still has a hosepipe ban in place). The only blot on the landscape remains Damien Hirst’s ill-conceived 65ft statue of ‘Verity’ – a flayed pregnant woman, with her innards on show, standing on a pile of books and holding a sword – which dominates Ilfracombe’s harbour. It exemplifies the worst of public-private art, lacking any meaningful connection to the history or culture of

Portrait of the week: Dorries finally quits, Braverman cracks down on crime and Prigozhin is confirmed dead

Home Suella Braverman, the Home Secretary, told police that they must investigate every theft and follow all reasonable leads to catch criminals; the Police Federation of England and Wales said forces were already ‘stretched beyond human limits’. Home Office figures showed that only 3.9 per cent of residential burglaries resulted in someone being charged, and for thefts from the person it was 0.9 per cent. Hartwig Fischer resigned as the director of the British Museum and Jonathan Williams stepped aside as his deputy when it became clear that information about 1,500 or so missing objects had been wrongly dismissed; police continued investigations. Two men were arrested on suspicion of arson

Douglas Murray

George Osborne’s midlife crisis

There should be a term in anthropology for what happens to a certain type of Tory male in middle age. The type who after decades of espousing often unpopular causes suddenly attempts to ingratiate himself with the masses. Ordinarily this breakdown expresses itself in a desire to legalise drugs, but it can take other forms. If you become the chairman of the British Museum, there is one rather obvious way to try to please people Anyway, the moment that George Osborne was made chairman of the British Museum I expected what has come to pass. Osborne has long been a prime candidate for a Tory midlife crisis. He always had

The 19th century Chinese craze for all things European

By the 1800s, the mechanical clock had become a status symbol for wealthy Chinese. The first arrived with Jesuit missionaries and Portuguese merchants years earlier, but it wasn’t until the early 19th century that those outside of the imperial court could afford them. Rich merchant families displayed their clocks proudly, like their European counterparts had showed off pineapples. Women’s jackets started to be decorated with ‘clock buttons’ made of enamel and one family embroidered a clock face on to their baby’s silk bib. European aesthetics made their way into other parts of Chinese society too. Traditional ink portraits became colourful and hyper-realistic, inspired by photography. Courtesans learned to play billiards

British Museum keeps the Chinese golden era alive

It’s been a bit of a bad week for the British Museum. High temperatures forced staff to close the site early on Monday and Tuesday, damaging revenue flow and prompting renewed criticism of its BP sponsorship deal. Then today Sadiq Khan – the museum’s own local mayor – called on the government to find a way of sharing the highly-prized Elgin Marbles with Greece. In such circumstances, the British Museum needs all the friends it can get. So it was no surprise therefore that two new names have been appointed as directors of the British Museum Friends, which serve as trustees of its collection. One of them is private equity chief Weijian Shan, who

A mess: British Museum’s Feminine Power – the Divine to the Demonic reviewed

The point at which the heart sinks in this exhibition is, unfortunately, right at the outset. That’s where we meet the five commentators that the British Museum has invited to respond to the objects and ideas in the exhibition. But only Mary Beard knows her subject. There’s Bonnie Greer, playwright and critic; Elizabeth Day, podcaster and novelist; Rabia Siddique, humanitarian (that’s a calling, it seems) and barrister; and Deborah Frances-White, podcaster and stand-up comedian. Each presides over part of the exhibition, which is ordered by categories such as Passion and Desire and Magic and Malice. It’s an odd exercise. I’m not entirely sure whether Frances-White, for instance, brings much to

Stupendous: The World of Stonehenge at the British Museum reviewed

This exhibition is Hamlet without the Prince, and all the better for it. Stonehenge is not there; it remains in Wiltshire. But 430 astonishing artefacts from the neolithic and bronze ages fill a hairpin course like a Roman chariot-racing circuit in a vast room. It is blessedly free from videos of prehistoric Britons tugging on ropes to move monoliths. There is a henge on display, though. (The word in its technical sense was invented in 1932 by Sir Thomas Kendrick, later director of the British Museum.) This is the Seahenge that emerged on the shore at Holme-next-the-Sea in 1998: 55 big oak posts round a two-ton upturned rooted trunk. Gloriously,

A show of ample and eerie majesty: British Museum’s Peru: A Journey in Time reviewed

Growing up on a farm outside Lima, I was aware that indigenous Peruvians did not understand time in the same way that their white countrymen did. On our visits to the highlands, we would encounter a very different mode of thinking. Ask an Andean villager where the next settlement was and you’d be told, ‘aquisito no más’ — just over here. Whether ‘aquisito’ meant around the next bend or four days’ schlep across the mountains was, for aboriginal people, a meaningless question. They were not ruled, as their European-descended neighbours were, by clocks. You’d sometimes see Quechua-speaking herdsmen sitting motionless for so long that they seemed to have switched off

Who really owns the Benin Bronzes?

Should the British Museum return its priceless collection of Benin Bronzes? For years, the museum has stood firm in its refusal to hand back artwork looted from the ancient kingdom of Benin, in what is now southern Nigeria. In doing so, it has defied the trend set by regional institutions in Britain, such as the university of Aberdeen. Earlier this year, the university confirmed that it would repatriate a bust of an Oba, or king of Benin, which it has had since the 1950s. As a result of refusing to take a similar stance, the British Museum has been heavily criticised – but there is a strong case to be made that its

A nicer side of Nero

New York I haven’t felt such shirt-dripping, mind-clogging wet heat since Saigon back in 1971. The Bagel is a steam bath, with lots of very ugly people walking around in stages of undress that would once upon a time have embarrassed that famed stripper Lili St Cyr. How strange that very pretty girls do not shed their clothes as soon as the mercury hits triple figures, but less fortunate ones do even if the number is a cool 80. June is my London party month, or used to be before the city was transformed into a prison camp. And what about The Spectator party? I haven’t heard a woid, as

Why Thomas Becket still divides opinion

Visitors to the British Museum’s new exhibition will become acquainted with one of the most gloriously bizarre stories in the history of English Christianity: the tale of Eilward, a 12th-century Bedfordshire peasant. One day Eilward is in the pub when he has the misfortune to run into his neighbour Fulk, to whom he owes a small debt. An angry confrontation follows; eventually Eilward storms off drunkenly — in the direction of his creditor’s house, where he breaks in and starts trashing the place. Fulk catches him red-handed, beats him up and then hands him over to the authorities. One account suggests Eilward was framed; but whatever the truth of the

The problem of the Benin Bronzes will never go away

A book about the looted African art known as the Benin Bronzes begins by clarifying that most of them are not actually bronze, and none of them comes from the country of Benin. Yet as this gripping work of live history makes clear, such name ambiguity feels entirely appropriate for art so sophisticated in creation yet so controversial in acquisition. Little about the Benin Bronzes is black and white. The exact age is unknown for the cache of carved ivory, coral and metal plaques, heads, statuary, swords and other ceremonial objects, the best guess emphasising the circa in ‘circa 16th century’. Who the heads represent is also not settled —

The distortion of British history

The British Museum has announced the appointment of a curator to study the history of its own collections. On the face of it, nothing could be more anodyne. The history of collecting has been a fashionable topic in academic circles for decades. What sort of people collected, why, and how, tells us much about their cultural assumptions and their ways of seeing the world. It would be mildly surprising that the BM has been so slow to catch on – except that there seems more to it than scholarly pursuit of knowledge. While the research will indeed cover ‘wider patterns’ of collecting, the Museum announced that it is ‘likely that

Our love affair with the Anglo-Saxons

On 5 July 2009, an unemployed 54-year-old metal detectorist called Terry Herbert was walking through a Staffordshire field when his detector started to beep and didn’t stop. Herbert guessed almost immediately that he’d found gold. What he didn’t realise was that he had made Britain’s greatest archaeological discovery since the second world war. Three hundred sword-hilt fittings, many of them spectacular examples of Anglo-Saxon metalwork; a mysterious gold-and-garnet headdress, apparently for a priest; miniature sculptures of horses, fish, snakes, eagles and boars. The Staffordshire Hoard, as it became known, led to a sold-out exhibition, an Early Day Motion in parliament saluting ‘the UK’s largest haul of gold Anglo-Saxon treasure’, and,

These rediscovered drawings by Hokusai are extraordinary

Lost boys, lost women, lost civilisations, lost causes — the romantic ring of the word ‘lost’ is media gold. So when the British Museum announced last autumn that it had acquired 103 ‘lost’ drawings by Hokusai, one was tempted to take it with a large pinch of salt. How do 103 drawings by Japan’s most famous artist simply disappear? The answer is, surprisingly easily. Hokusai’s works have never commanded the sorts of prices a draughtsman of his calibre would be expected to fetch, not even in Japan. His art was designed to be affordable: in his day, you could buy a print of ‘The Great Wave’ for the price of

Spectacular and mind-expanding: Tantra at the British Museum reviewed

A great temple of the goddess Tara can be found at Tarapith in West Bengal. But her true abode, in the view of many devotees, is not this sacred structure itself but the adjacent, eerily smoking cremation ground. There she can be glimpsed in the shadows at midnight, it is believed, drinking the blood of the goats sacrificed to her during the day. Many holy men and women live in that grisly spot too, adorned with dreadlocks, smeared with ash, and dwelling in huts decorated with lines of skulls painted crimson. As a domestic setting this wouldn’t suit everybody. But the varieties of religious experience (to borrow the title of