Museum stories
Looking forward to reopening

From African hats to Maya lintels, our staff, like our visitors, cannot wait to spend time with the collection again when the Museum reopens on 27 August. We asked them to tell us about the objects they’ve been thinking about the most since the Museum closed in March, and why they’re looking forward to seeing them again.

Monique Pullan, Senior Conservator: textiles and fibres
Image of hat made from mixture of organic materials.
Hat made of spider’s web, twig, twine and feather. Botswana, late 19th century.

As a conservator I am fascinated by the materials objects are made of and how they are constructed. The display of African hats in case 11, Room 25, doesn’t disappoint, with a Botswanan spider web hat and a scarlet disc-shaped isicholo (headdress), worn by married Zulu women made from human hair coated with red ochre.

Image of crocheted hat.
Crocheted man’s hat, Cameroon Grasslands, mid-late 20th century.

Perhaps my favourite is a crocheted Cameroonian ashetu hat with its distinctive protruberances – each one stiffened by a wooden stick as I discovered during conservation, imitating elaborate knotted hairstyles. Seeing a London busker wearing the very same hat, I smiled at this assertion of ethnic identity, and wondered about a potential lockdown crochet challenge.

Claudia da Lanca, Project Coordinator: Iraq Scheme
Image of lammasu stone scultpure: a winged bull with a man's head.
Sculpture of a winged lion (lamassu) from the Assyrian city of Nimrud. 865–860 BC.

Guardians of everything most sacred, the lamassu have watched over people since the third millennium BC. In ancient Assyria (modern-day Iraq), these monumental, human-headed winged bulls and lions were placed at entrances to cities, palaces and temples in the belief that their supernatural powers would ward off any threats. As a society, the feeling of being threatened is something with which we’ve become increasingly familiar, for example by illness, insecurity and separation from loved ones. The lamassu’s compelling presence has endured over thousands of years, and generation after generation, their symbolic imagery as keepers, defenders and protectors perseveres. Before March 2020, in the quiet of the early morning, as I made my way to the Middle East department every day, I felt the watchful gaze of these powerful deities of the past. Now I find myself anticipating their reassuring presence once again. 

Blandine Courel, Research Assistant: Molecular Analysis, Scientific Department

Among the objects I cannot wait to see again, the human-headed winged bull sculpture in Room 6 is, like Claudia, at the top of my list. Made of a single piece of gypsum, these half-animal, half-man guardians were usually placed to protect important Assyrian places, such as king’s palaces or cities, from evils. I have always been fascinated by the great civilisations of antiquity, including the Assyrian empire. For me, these beautiful and colossal figures reflect the grandeur of those civilisations. I am enthralled by the powerful imagination and creativity of the craftsmen of the day, expressed by these hybrid creatures with five legs and wings, and their technical skills are revealed in the fineness of the detail.

Alice Christophe, Benioff Curator of Oceania
Image of carved wooden hand.
Carved hand made from toromiro wood. Rapa Nui (Easter Island), 18th century.

With the Museum reopening approaching, I am counting the days until I am afforded the opportunity to be in the presence of the objects stewarded by the Museum. In particular, I am excited to rediscover a taoʻa (treasure) from the island of Rapa Nui (Easter Island), on display in Room 1. This elongated hand, carved in toromiro wood, is one of the earliest pieces from the Pacific region at the Museum. It is said to have been collected by Hitihiti (also known as Mahine), a high-ranking man from the Society Islands who joined Captain James Cook’s crew while they sojourned on Raʻiatea during the second voyage.

Reaching Rapa Nui aboard the Resolution (Cook’s ship) in 1774, thousands of miles from his home, Hitihiti went ashore and either traded, or was given, this enigmatic wooden hand. He later gave it to Johann Reinhold Forster, the naturalist aboard the Resolution, who subsequently gifted it to the British Museum.

Vivian Hunt, Managing Partner for McKinsey & Company and Museum Trustee
Kerma ware ceramic beaker. The Kingdom of Kush (present-day Sudan) 1750–1550 BC.

When I graduated from secondary school, I wanted to study ceramics at The Rhode Island School of Design in America. At my father’s prodding, I chose a different path but, nonetheless, my appreciation for timeless design has remained. That’s why I am looking forward to revisiting the Kerma ware (made in what is now Sudan) pottery beaker in Room 65 when the Museum opens its doors again. The beaker is ancient; it is technically excellent, functional and prized in ritual. Produced in the Kingdom of Kush, a state which ruled the Middle Nile Valley from around 1750–1550 BC and threatened pharaonic Egypt, its aesthetic is surprisingly contemporary. For me, it is a reminder that our modern choices are grounded in – and informed by – history, and it begs the question ‘Are we as modern as we think we are?’ I hope not. I would love to think that beauty is not only in the eye of the beholder, but also in my cultural DNA.

You can see the beaker when Room 65 reopens later in the year.

Ashley Almeida, Greengross Family Young People’s Programme Manager
Detail of bronze band from Balawat gate showing embossed images of people.
Bronze band from the Balawat Gates of Shalmaneser III. Assyria, 858–824BC.

I’ve always had a fascination with artistry and the techniques that craftspeople use in their work. One of the objects that really beautifully and skilfully shows this that I’m keen to see again is the door fittings from the Balawat gates from the ancient kingdom of Assyria (in modern-day Iraq), which date from 858–824 BC. Perhaps an odd choice but, as you look closer and see the detail on the trappings on animals and the clothing people wear, one can’t help but be impressed at the skill at being able to emboss such intricate designs on such a massive object and still have them draw the eye.

Tariq Rasheed, Volunteer Tour Guide

Image of stone lintel showing blood-letting ritual.
The Yaxchilan Lintel 25. Carved limestone, Mexico, AD 723–726.

This lintel was found in Yaxchilan, a Maya city located in the modern-day state of Chiapas, Mexico. It shows Lady K’ab’al Xook – the wife of the ruler Shield Jaguar. Lady Xook has just performed a bloodletting ritual.

The queen’s head is knocked back as if she is in a trance. From the saucer she holds, a vision of a serpent emerges. The serpent’s mouth holds a warrior who is pointing a spear straight at Lady Xook’s forehead. It seems a connection has been established between Lady Xook and this strange messenger.

I find this lintel to be intriguing because it reminds me of the dreams we have and the meanings we often try to find in them.

Muriel Gray, author, broadcaster and Museum Trustee
Image of bronze amulet
Head of Pazuzu. Bronze, Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq), 800–600 BC.

In Room 55 there is a case of tiny objects. There are seldom crowds around it, giving the visitor plenty time to contemplate the exquisite, unique and unsettling nature of these treasures. It’s a case of amulets from Mesopotamia. Of them all, my attention always returns to Pazuzu. This is a small cast bronze object dating from 800–600 BC, depicting the terrifying head of the king of demons. His face is the stuff of nightmares, the essence of horror. Such was his power he warded off lesser demons, in this case the female Lamashtu, hunter/killer of women in labour and their babies. I adore him and cannot wait until we meet again.

What are you most looking forward to seeing? Let us know by tweeting us @britishmuseum!

The British Museum reopens to the public on 27 August. Plan your visit and book tickets here.