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The British Museum: A History by David M.…
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The British Museum: A History

by David M. Wilson

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201515,329 (3.75)None

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I read this exhaustive history of the British Museum on-and-off for seven months before I finished it, but that’s not a slam on the book-- it just shows you how hard it is to read scholarly work on the side when you're in graduate school more. Also, I kinda forgot about it for four of them. I bought this when I was at the British Museum, after spending most of my time ther looking at an exhibit about the history of the Museum itself. The idea that museums themselves had to be invented, that people had to figure out what museums did and how, hadn't really occurred to me before then, and I was eager to learn more. I had to scour the Museum bookstore for this thing, but once I found it, it had been remaindered. Bad luck for them, I suppose, but good for me.

Written by a former director of the British Museum, it's exhaustively complete. The best sections are definitely those covering the Museum in the 19th century-- not coincidentally my era of academic interest. It's fascinating to watch the Museum staff figure out what it should cover. Initially formed to house collections of natural history material, the Museum soon found its remit shifting as massive donations of cultural artifacts started coming its way. Even more interesting (I thought) was the slow way public access to the Museum was allowed, a phenomenon we now take for granted. Back in the day, you had to have an appointment, you had to go on certain days, and you were lucky if the exhibits had been organized! David Wilson covers the personalities, the conflicts, and the ideas in great detail.

The 20th-century sections are less successful for a couple of reasons. With more detail available to Wilson, the book becomes much more pedantic. He generally lists Museum staff salaries throughout, but that data becomes much more prevalent here. Sometimes it gets too nitty-gritty to be worthwhile. In addition, once we reach people Wilson knew personally and incidents he was personally involved in, the book becomes much less impartial, Wilson's total refusal to even consider the return of the Elgin Marbles being an excellent case in point. On the other hand, there's also a greater number of personal anecdotes, which strengthens the sometimes-dry historical narrative, and the material covering the Great Court Scheme is especially excellent.

(One last quibble: I hate endnotes to begin with, because I don't like flipping back and forth in a book, and this book makes it worse by also using endnotes for citations, meaning that nine times out of ten, I flipped all the way to the back to find out it was just a reference to the British Museum Archives. So eventually I stopped checking the endnotes altogether, which makes them pretty pointless.)

Though the book is perhaps overly detailed and a little slow, it's good reading for anyone interested in the history and development of 19th-century science, a fascinating case study in how knowledge has been systematized and rendered available for public access.
  Stevil2001 | Aug 12, 2010 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0714127647, Hardcover)

The British Museum is the oldest publicly funded museum in the world. This volume tells the story of the collections, the buildings that house them, and the people who have administered and curated them since its foundation in 1753.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:13:38 -0400)

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