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THE MUSEUM - Behind the Scenes at the British Museum
(BBC Books) ISBN 978-0563539131

The British Museum was established for public access by an Act of Parliament in 1753 to tell the story of mankind by preserving in its collections items representing human history, culture and knowledge. THE MUSEUM gives a detailed "behind the scenes" description of work in the British Museum: how departments and volunteers perform various services and organize exhibits, the Museum's role with other U.K. museums and its association with British and international organizations.

Written to accompany a BBC television series, THE MUSEUM describes the past, present and future of this London landmark.

Rupert Smith personalizes THE MUSEUM with sidebars by assistants, curators and some of the 1,000 staff who manage the galleries and plan exhibits. The 191-page hardcover book also features photos and descriptions of unique artifacts like the wax death mask of Oliver Cromwell and the Raffles Gamelan.

The back of THE MUSEUM lists books published by British Museum Press for further reading.

Black and white archival photos and 120 color images illustrate the British Museum, its staff and collections.

Rupert Smith describes how the British Museum raises funds to purchase new collectibles, contemporary collections of art and pieces of modern design. Readers learn how Octavius Morgan's donated collection of clocks and watches became the basis of the Museum's collection.

Readers learn the stories behind the Rosetta Stone, the Parthenon Frieze, the Lindow Man, a well-preserved 1st-century body found in a Cheshire peat bog, the Admonitions Scroll from China and many other priceless items representing countries, cultures and civilizations.

The British Museum can easily boast: "You don't have to go all the way to the Middle East to explore the mysteries of the ancient world..." British Museum collections are so extensive that they could keep scholars busy for decades. For 19th century scholars, Edward Hincks and Henry Rawlinson, Assyrian clay tablets yielded clues to decode Akkadian cuneiform, Sumerian and Babylonian languages. Eleven tablets in the collection describe the Gilgamesh Epic, an account of the great flood. The result is a much clearer picture of the Mesopotamian civilization and culture.

A Memorandum of Understanding with China led to an exchange of exhibits such as the Assyrian and Egyptian collections and the terracotta warriors from Xian.

The Museum: Behind the Scenes at the British Museum


Foreward by Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum
  1. 'For the use and benefit of the publick'
  2. All human life passes through those doors
  3. Preparing objects for use
  4. A place full of treasure
  5. Adding our bit to the sum of knowledge
  6. Building the collection
  7. A place for learning and debating
  8. A museum for everyone
  9. A virtual space for the twenty-first century
Further reading


Rupert Smith is a television and arts journalist and the author of A Year at Kew and the novels I Must Confess, Fly on the Wall and Service Wash.

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