Claire’s CC Assignment C

Opened to the public in 1759, the British Museum is one of the largest free museums in the world. Its exhibits range from African art to Levantine archeology to the famous Elgin Marbles. Since its creation, the Museum has been an important resource, opening its libraries and collections to visiting scholars; however, it has had important artistic benefits as well. Because of its location in the Bloomsbury area of London, it became a haven for the writers and artists who migrated to that neighborhood in the early twentieth century. The large museum and its library (now known as the British Library and housed in a separate location less than a mile away) provided inspiration and research opportunities for modernist authors interested in nationalism, colonial history, and philosophy (Sara Blair 823).

The British Museum began as a glorified storage cabinet. Scientist Sir Hans Sloane stipulated in his will that his vast collection of books, specimens, and antiquities were to be sold and put on public display after his death (Anne Goldgar 199). When the Museum was first established, the prevailing view of the eighteenth century was that ‘high culture’ should be limited to elites (Goldgar 196). Despite this belief, the foundation of the Museum demonstrated an important cultural shift: unlike most private museums that were mostly for royal use, the Museum was a public museum run on public funds (Goldgar 198). Proposals to begin charging admission, partially in order to keep out the lower classes, were consistently defeated in Parliament (Goldgar 213). As the nineteenth century wore on, the Trustees of the Museum welcomed the presence of the lower-classes and the museum had up to 12,000 visitors a year (Goldgar 229). As it entered the twentieth century, the Museum saw its population further diversify as Bloomsbury and the surrounding neighborhoods began to fill with immigrants. The Museum was seen as such an important site to new immigrants that the South Asian London community called the Museum their Mecca (Blair 822).

Then, as today, one of the most popular exhibits was the Elgin Marbles. Though originally housed in the Greek Parthenon, the Marbles have resided in England since 1801. Over the course of 1801 until 1812, Thomas Bruce, the Seventh Lord of Elgin, made trips to Greece to purchase the Marbles in order to expand his collection of antiquities (John Henry Merryman 1882). Elgin took 247 feet of a partially fallen frieze inside the Parthenon; the total length of the frieze was 524 feet (Merryman 1884). The Ottoman Empire controlled Greece at that time and gave Elgin the permission to remove the Marbles from the Parthenon, an action that was in accordance with early nineteenth century law (Merryman 1897). In 1816, Elgin sold the Marbles to the Museum to pay off his debts and the sale was approved by Parliament. Though the ownership of the Marbles is now heavily debated as not only a legal but moral issue, there was limited debate on the subject at the turn of the twentieth century. A 1916 article in the Journal of Hellenic Studies celebrated the acquisition of the Marbles as not only right but a patriotic duty, though the early nineteenth century version of patriotism was to one-up Napoleon in his plunder of the world’s antiquities (Phillip Hunt and A.H. Smith 171). The article, which includes letters and detailed accounts of Elgin’s journeys and spans over two hundred pages, shows that the Marbles had become an important part to the Museum’s history. In Asphodel, it’s clear that H.D. saw the Elgin Marbles as being tied to England and Greece. “I mean seeing the Elgin marbles this morning gave me the same feeling and I didn’t know, don’t know whether I’m in Rome or Paris. I mean the Louvre and the British Museum hold one together, keep one from going to bits.” (H.D. 41). Though the Museum and the Louvre were filled with artifacts from other nations, Hermione sees them as holding the world together.

Though the Greek and Roman antiquities were very popular, the Museum’s collection expanded during the early 1900s. An article written in June 1914 notes new additions to the collection, including German woodcuts (Bowyer Nichols and Campbell Dodgson 164). That the acquisition of German art despite the increased tensions between England and Germany could be a sign that the Museum valued its collection over politics. The early 1900s also saw the collection expand beyond Europe. During that period their collection of East Asian artifacts grew. Laurence Binyon, a modernist poet and friend of Pound and Aldington, was responsible for purchasing the bulk of the Museum’s collection of Japanese prints throughout 1906-1909 (Rupert Richard Arrowsmith 32). Aldington attributed the inspiration for his poem “The River” to the Japanese prints at the Museum (Arrowsmith 33).

Unlike other museums in London, the British Museum was uniquely influential to the early modernists. The scope of its Greek collection gave writers classical inspiration while also allowing them to consider how the artifacts came to be in England. And as the collection moved beyond Greece and into the antiquities of other areas, the Museum gave writers a chance to be exposed to art they might never have encountered before. Most importantly, it was a social destination. The story of H.D.’s ‘creation’ didn’t take place in the Elgin Marbles room; it was in the Museum café. Given its location in Bloomsbury, the Museum became a meeting place for the writers who inhabited the area. During the early twentieth century, the British Museum was a place to see classical sculptures, explore new exhibits, and mix with fellow Londoners in a museum that was seen as theirs.

Works Cited

Blair, Sara. “Local Modernity, Global Modernism: Bloomsbury and the Places Of the Literary.” Elh 71.3 (2004) : 813-838. Print.

Goldgar, Anne. “The British Museum and the Virtual Representation Of Culture In the Eighteenth Century.” Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned With British Studies 32.2 (2000) : 195-231. Web. 25 Mar 2011.

H.D. Asphodel. Durham: Duke University Press, 1992. Print.

Hunt, Philip, and A. H. Smith. “Lord Elgin and His Collection.” The Journal Of Hellenic Studies 36 (1916) : 163-372. Web. 25 Mar 2011.

Merryman, John Henry. “Thinking about the Elgin Marbles.” Michigan Law Review 83.8 (1985) : 1881-1923. Web. 25 Mar 2011.

Nichols, Bowyer, and Campbell Dodgson. “The New Print Gallery, the British Museum.” The Burlington Magazine For Connoisseurs 25.135 (1914) : 163-170. Print.

[Bonus/Bragging rights! Last summer, I worked at the British Museum in the Ancient Near East Department. The majority of that department’s artifacts were added during the Great War and the 1920s and its library was built during that time period. Since H.D. mentions the Phoenicians sometimes, I thought you would appreciate a picture from the Ancient Near East library. Unfortunately, I don’t have pictures of the Greek and Roman Department’s library. Just imagine the Trinkle Study Room; it looked a lot like that.

The first floor is cuneiform tablets; the second and third floors were all books. There were also some old-school spiral staircases in the back (horribly lit) corners of the library that I almost killed myself on several times.]

5 Comments, Comment or Ping

  1. Gracie

    all i have to say is you posted this on a friday night sometime between 10pm and midnight. a little too dedicated maybe?

    March 25th, 2011

  2. Claire

    It was mostly finished around 7, I just had to do the bibliography.

    Although, really, should you question my dedication to EDHD? I would never question yours, Gracie Who Comments On The Blog Somewhere Between Midnight And One AM.

    March 26th, 2011

  3. If it makes you feel any better Claire, I’m checking this at 2:04 a.m. in the Trinkle Study Hall, which is totally empty except for me and everett, who is currently hunkered over his laptop at the table in front of me, chugging coffee, wearing the biggest pair of headphones ive ever seen and typing like his life depends on it.

    Sorry Everett, if I just totally shattered your street cred.

    March 27th, 2011

  4. No it’s cool. If anything this gives me more street cred where it counts.

    March 27th, 2011

  5. Claire

    Thank you Ryan and Everett for supporting my nerdy life decisions.

    March 27th, 2011