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Around the World in 90 Minutes at the British Museum

4 August 2017 Oskar Oprey

Any Londoners reading this who aren’t going abroad this summer need not fret. The British Museum’s hugely popular Highlights tour promises to take visitors ‘Around the World in 90 Minutes’. Running every weekend at specific time-slots, this adults-only walking tour (guests are forewarned: expect a lot of walking) offers an expert’s perspective on some of the key pieces within the Museum’s gargantuan collection. It’s perfect as an introduction for anyone planning to spend the whole day there, or as a concise experience for any hectic but curious Londoners with a couple of hours to spare.

London Calling took the tour on a rainy Saturday afternoon with the Museum overflowing with visitors, convening at the information desk in the main courtyard (some advice: leave plenty of time to actually get into the building, as the bag-checking system outside can take a while, and the tour leaves promptly). Our guide, Ferelith, has been doing the tours for four years but is, by her own admission, “still a newbie”. Each of the twenty guests is provided with a head piece connected to Ferelith’s own microphone. This seemed odd at first - considering we were standing a few feet away from her - but the din of 18,000-odd daily visitors does tend to cause a bit of noise pollution.

Our journey officially began in The Enlightenment Gallery (the oldest in the building), huddled around a bust of the man who inadvertently kick-started the trend for huge, publicly funded museums: Sir Hans Sloane. The famous 18th century physician passed away in 1753, generously (to a point) bequeathing his collection of 80,000 curiosities to the people of Britain. There was a catch – the people of Britain had to pay for it, but thankfully the government of the day managed to cough up the funds and his hoard of artifacts became the founding collection of what we now know as The British Museum. That collection has, over the centuries, grown to a staggering 80 million objects; 1 million of which are currently on display. That’s a Rosetta Stone or Egyptian mummy for every person living in the UK, but as Ferelith was keen to stress, “this is a museum for the whole world, and has always been free.”


British Museum - Room 1: Sir Hans Sloane © Paul Hudson

Speaking of the Rosetta Stone, this was next on our list – well, not the actual Rosetta Stone, but a fully hands-on replica that we’re allowed to prod, poke and leave our dirty fingerprints on. The original is on view on the other side of the museum, but is always mobbed, so Ferelith prefers to use this version when explaining its immense historical significance (spoiler alert ahead!). Dating back to the year 196 BC, and inscribed with a decree proclaiming the divinity of the then newly crowned King Ptolmey V, the significance lies in the fact that the same message is inscribed in three different languages – Egyptian hieroglyphics, Egyptian demotic script and ancient Greek. Budding 19th century scholars were able to use their understanding of the Greek part in order to decipher the Egyptian texts; the first hieroglyphics to have ever been translated. This huge hunk of black stone was the key to unlocking much of what we now understand about Ancient Egypt.


Rosetta Stone. Image courtesy of Singaporean in London.com

Many of the highlights featured were familiar, but Ferelith’s in-depth knowledge and enthusiasm offer a scholarly yet personal insight that is hard to convey via your standard museum wall-mounted text. She was able to reel off dates, facts and figures before switching from English to fluent North Sea Germanic when and where appropriate (Room 41: Anglo Saxon Europe AD 300-1100). But it was our guide’s choice of lesser-known and more discreet objects, such as a golden reliquary (a container for holy relics) embedded with a thorn from Christ’s crucifixion crown, that really make this tour worth your while. Let’s face it – many of us would have wandered past such objects without a proper look; in fact it’s estimated that the average visitor spends roughly eight seconds looking at a single artifact in a museum.


Reliquary pendant © The Trustees of the British Museum

Meandering through the crowds, up staircases and back down again, we lost Ferelith a few times but luckily the trusted headpieces kept us informed as to her whereabouts (“go to the plinth at the end of the gallery and then turn left”). We darted from the peat bogs of 1980s Cheshire to the Kingdoms of Ancient Egypt (“where I always lose people; the Nile’s full of children and crocodiles”) and then a further 3000 miles across the pacific to Easter Island. In fact the tour is rather like an Easter Egg hunt but, instead of chocolate, you’re on the lookout for medieval chess pieces, Assyrian winged lions and the preserved corpse of a 2000-year old man (“are people OK about human remains?”). As well as historical context, it’s fascinating to hear of the internal journeys these objects have made across London itself over the decades – the mammoth Easter Island Moai statue displayed in the Wellcome Gallery spent much of the Second World War hiding under Aldwych station to avoid Hitler’s air raids.

Having covered several thousand years worth of history whilst burning off the same amount of calories, we concluded the tour in the immense display of Greek Pantheon sculptures which, surprisingly, would have been garishly coloured in their original form. “The Ancient Greeks weren’t afraid of bling because it made you look.” We concur, but would add that it’s also great to listen: especially when your guide knows her stuff.

Around the World in 90 Minutes, the British Museum's Highlights tour, runs every Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 11:30am and 2pm. Tickets are £12.
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