The British Museum is a treasure trove of inspiration for writers. There are countless artifacts housed inside and it is a wealth of knowledge for historians. Some of the artifacts are more notorious than others.
For example take the famous Cursed Mummy. A Mummy housed in the British museum is said to be cursed and brings ill luck to all of those who own it or even see the exhibit. The exhibit number is EA 22542 and the story goes that the first recorded owner brought the Mummy while attending an archaeological dig in Egypt. While hunting on the Nile his shotgun misfired, injuring the man’s arm. Due to bad weather they couldn’t reach help in time and the arm had to be amputated. On the journey home three people who tended to the Mummy died in mysterious circumstances. Upon their arrival in England the Mummy was loaned to a reporter who also suffered a series of unfortunate events. Her mother died, she became very ill and her dogs went mad. The reporter returned the Mummy to the original owner. It was loaned around with each recipient receiving ill luck. One particular event was when the Mummy was photographed and furious human eyes glared through the picture. Every plane of glass in the house the photo was being viewed in exploded. Eventually the Mummy was sold to the British Museum who began to experience haunting and ghostly events. They tried to loan the Mummy to an American museum and transported it by sea, on the Titanic. The Mummy was returned to the British Museum and given its own display case which ceased the hauntings.
It’s a great story but it’s just that. A story. The truth is far less glamorous. It was sold to the British Museum by an old woman in 1890. The artifact isn’t a “Mummy.” It’s only a coffin lid. It has left the museum on a handful of occasions (one of which was to Aldwych station’s disused tunnels, see my last inspiration post) and it has not brought bad luck to anyone. There isn’t a special sign for it in the museum but there is a leaflet. The story of a curse was thought up by the media.
While I was walking around the museum I felt uneasy being around so many coffins. Are there actual bodies inside? Are the coffins just for show and are the bodies hidden away in a secret morgue somewhere? I wondered about the relatives of the deceased and the deceased themselves. Would they have wanted to be put on display? True, the deceased have no say in the matter and most, if not all, of the bodies on display have no living relatives left. I’m not going to raise a complaint about this but many complaints have been made about one of the more controversial exhibits, the Elgin Marbles. The Marbles were removed from the Parthenon temple in Athens by Lord Elgin in 1801 under the guise of protecting the stonework from the ongoing war (Greece was under occupation at the time). The marbles were later sold to Parliament and then to the British Museum. When the war in Greece ended they asked for the marbles back… and the British Museum said no.
The Elgin Marbles (or to give them their official name, The Parthenon Sculptures) are absolutely beautiful. Here is a slideshow of them…
They are positioned around the gallery in a rectangle and show a image of humans bringing cattle and other treasures before the gods. Several pieces depict a war between the Centaurs and the Lapiths (A tribe of humans). The stones are badly damaged. In 1687 The Parthenon was being used to hold ammunition and was blown up. The roof was destroyed as was much of the interior. Later The Parthenon was attacked by Greek forces and later by the Ottomans both of whom caused damage. To transport the stones to Britain Lord Elgin hacked and sawed them off the walls. One of the ships carrying the marbles sunk in a storm and the art work was kept submerged for two years until it was brought to the surface. Like many other exhibits in the museum they was damaged by pollution and later by cleaners. Despite these setbacks The Parthenon Sculptures are still breath taking.
There are arguments on both sides as to who owns the marbles. The British say Lord Elgin legally brought the marbles when he shipped them back to Britain. The Greeks say they were was under occupation at the time therefore the sale was not legal. In UK law once an artifact enter the British Museum’s collection then it can’t legally leave (There are several exceptions to this of course). The marbles are a large part of Greek identity. Some argue that anything belonging to a museum should be universally owned. The curator of the British Museum has said that if he agreed to return the artifact then every country could ask for their items back and the museum would be empty. Celebrities such as George Clooney and Stephen Fry have voiced their opinion on the matter but for now it seems as if the Elgin Marbles are staying where they are.
You can read more about the The Parthenon Sculptures/Elgin Marbles and their complex history on the British Museum website.
The museum itself houses a great secret. Underneath the museum is a disused London Underground station. The station’s purpose was to take passengers to the museum but the near by Holborn station already allowed people to do this. The British Museum station suffered from lack of traffic and in 1933 it was closed. It was used as a military office and underground command post in the 1960’s (for reasons unknown) but after that the street entrances were knocked down. The platform has also been removed but the track remains and is still in use. Engineers use the track to store goods and equipment for repair work. Apparently the ghost station can be glimpsed from passing trains.
Of course, there has always been rumours of ghost trains and secret tunnels leading to the station. In the film Death Line the station is manned by a crew of cannibal Victorians who snatch unsuspecting passengers from stations and eat them. The ghost of Amen-Ra (the same ghost of the Cursed Mummy above according to some accounts) haunts the tracks and screams into the darkness which can be heard on passing tube trains. The station also features in Neil Gaiman’s novel Neverwhere.
These are only a few examples of what the British Museum can offer. Have you been to the British Museum recently? What did you think of your visit? Leave your answers down below and I’ll see you next time.