Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The British Museum

The British Museum is a museum of human history and culture situated in central London, immediately south of Russell Square. Its collections, which number more than seven million objects, are among the largest and most comprehensive in the world and originate from all continents, illustrating and documenting the story of human culture from its beginning to the present. Among its greatest treasures are the Elgin Marbles, fragments from the frieze that adorned the Acropolis in Athens (Greece very much wants them back, and the brand new Acropolis Museum that opened this month in Athens reopens the controversy). The British Museum was established in 1753, largely based on the collections of the physician and scientist Sir Hans Sloane. The museum first opened to the public on January 15, 1759. Admission is free.

Among its greatest ancient holdings is the Rosetta Stone, crafted in 196 BC and rediscovered at Rosetta (the Egyptian port city of Rashid) by Napoleon’s army. This astounding find subsequently contributed to the deciphering of the principles of hieroglyph writing. Comparative translation of the three languages (including Classical Greek) chiseled onto the stone assisted in understanding many previously undecipherable examples of hieroglyphics. The text on the stone is a decree from Egypt’s King Ptolemy V, describing the repealing of various taxes and instructions to erect statues in temples.

The Rosetta stone is about four feet tall and two feet wide and has been displayed in the British Museum since 1802, three years after its discovery by the French in 1799. In July 2003, Egypt demanded the return of the Rosetta Stone. The secretary general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Cairo, told the press: "If the British want to be remembered, if they want to restore their reputation, they should volunteer to return the Rosetta Stone, because it is the icon of our Egyptian identity." In 2005, the secretary general was negotiating for a three-month loan, with the eventual goal of a permanent return; in November 2005, the British Museum responded by sending him a replica of the stone. No further negotiations have since taken place.

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