A Trip to the British Museum

Anna B. University of Westminster, England


October 30, 2015

Yesterday, as part of my Art and Society class, we went to the British Museum and looked at an exhibit that's currently running called Celts: Art and Identity. It was really interesting. The exhibit started with an explanation of how the Greeks and Romans never used the term "Celts" to refer to the people of Great Britain. Instead, it was a term used for anyone who is different. However, as the term evolved, it became about people from mostly Ireland, but also Scotland. The exhibit also had a brief section about how the term is used today. It had a jersey from the United States basketball team, the Boston Celtics, named for the large Irish population there. (Which is especially cool considering that's my home team in the NBA!!!)

The information that was given was all very informative and very interesting about how a word evolves, but the stuff that was in the exhibit was just that, a collection of things. The exhibit started with things from 900 B.C.E., I think, I don't remember exactly, but all very old historical artifacts. In the lecture, we discussed the importance of these objects, because 1. History is written by the victors and artifacts can sometimes offer something that we wouldn't otherwise know, and 2. They show a commonality between us and them through a material culture.

Here's where my issue is. With the other weeks where we looked at art, it was clear (at least to me, not so much to everyone) that there was and is value. The value of art whether it be paintings by Van Gogh or Monet or paintings by Rothko and Mondrian, is in the meaning the art has. This can be very deep or just an aesthetic appeal, however this determination is very personal and varies person to person about what art and which artists they like or understand. But that is art. The British Museum holds objects of cultural significance, like the Rosetta Stone, which allowed scholars to learn and understand a language that had been dead for many centuries. The value of these artifacts, in my opinion, is what can be learned from them, or to get a sense of a culture that may not be in existence at this time. But looking at all of these things I either feel 1. The need to de-clutter all of everything and move to a tiny cabin in the woods and be a modern Thoreau against mass consumption and the materialistic culture we all live in. (Although now I live in probably the equivalent of a cruise ship cabin, so no need to move). 2. Absolute utter confusion. The exhibit was so busy, but why? Why is this what people want to look at? Why do people care if what they're staring at is an urn from about 100 C.E.? In another millennium people are probably going to be doing the same thing, except that it will be our jewelry, our cultural artifacts, our coffins they're looking at, and where is the value in that?

Take a spoon, for example, it has value because of its purpose, it can transport food from one place to another. It can move food or liquid, and it is a tool used for eating. That's its value, or its purpose. Yoko Ono created a piece of art called Three Spoons, and it's about how powerful words are, with the ability to completely alter our perceptions. This is because the work is an opaque pedestal with spoons sitting on top encased in glass, all the spoons sitting facing the same way in perfect harmony. It is only when I read further into the description about how there are in fact four spoons sitting encased in the glass that I realized the title of the work convinced me that there were three spoons, effectively removing one from existence, despite the fact that it was still sitting there. But the second a single spoon is in a museum, what purpose does it have? It's not a tool that can be used at that point, and it's not changing how we see anything. But maybe it is, maybe it's changing how we see a certain part of a culture that we don't necessarily understand.

At the end of the day material things have value, because of there immediate usefulness, but once several centuries have passed and we put these "ancient artifacts" of life in museums, does their purpose change? Is the value in the fact that they once had a purpose a long, long time ago? Things definitely become more valuable with age and if they are still intact, but at what point is a spoon just a spoon whether it's in the dishwasher, or in a museum.

Another question, which I can guarantee I don't have the answer to, that crossed my mind walking through this exhibit, is how does housing an artifact in a museum change the perception of the value of a single object? How does the idea of the value change the actual value and significance of it? I don't know how to even go about figuring out the answers to these.

Currently I'm sitting on a train from London to Edinburgh for this weekend. I'm super excited about it.