Museum stories
Seeking Inspiration

From personal tales of amazement and wonder to the inspirational stories of people and places that objects can tell us, Museum staff reveal some inspiring anecdotes and powerful objects.

We’ll have more staff selections coming next week!

Jessica Harrison-Hall, Head of Chinese Section and Curator of the Sir Percival David Collection

Chinese porcelain flasks

Keats was right “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, —that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know”. He was referring to another type of ceramic vessel – a Grecian urn – but I think of his immortal lines when I look at these beautiful blue-and-white porcelains, with designs of birds resting on blossoming branches. They are delicate, but they also represent strength, specifically the strength of the ties between nations.

They were made in China, yet the form of the moon-shaped flask derives from Middle Eastern glass, while the geometric borders are copied from the patterns found on Middle Eastern metalwork. They inspire me to think of beauty and strength simultaneously, and the links between the two.

Joanne Dyer, Scientist: Colour Science

Newton’s prism

As the British Museum’s Colour Scientist, the inspirational object that immediately comes to mind isn’t on display, yet it probably played a huge part in defining our modern understanding of light and colour.

Measuring a little under 20 cm, the unassuming object is a glass prism once owned by Sir Isaac Newton himself. It remained in his family until 1927 when it was donated to the British Museum. Almost 350 years ago in 1672, Newton published a series of experiments to prove that the refraction of light was responsible for colours. He used a series of glass prisms (maybe even this one!) to refract white light, resolving it into its component colours, and disproving the belief at the time that colours were made from a mixture of light and darkness.

Jim Peters, Collection Manager: Care and Access

Lindow Man

When the body of a 25-year-old male was discovered in Cheshire I was a 10-year-old boy with an interest in history. However, hearing the story of his discovery on TV changed this ‘interest’ into a full-on obsession. The discovery of Lindow Man subsequently influenced my subject and career choices.

At this time, I was in University College Hospital having surgery on my legs and was bed bound while the Lindow Man story was revealed. To keep me stimulated I would be taken to the British Museum – and during these visits I fell in love with the place. On the day Lindow Man was put on display I was right at the front of the queue to be one of the first people to see him.

20 Years ago I started work at the Museum and it felt like my story had come full circle from a wide-eyed 10-year-old to becoming the person responsible for the daily care of Lindow Man.

Davina Seelumbur, Security Warder

Statue of Amenhotep III

I have been captivated by ancient Egypt ever since my mother first spoke about her visit to the British Museum in 1972 to see the golden mask of the boy king Tutankhamun. Now, as an employee of the Museum, it is always a pleasure to walk through the Egyptian Sculpture Gallery to view my favourite object – Amenhotep III.

The imposing granodiorite seated statue depicts the official image of the pharaoh – half human, half divine, with head dress complete with a cobra for divine authority. The pharaoh’s enchanting face and strong form evokes images of the fascinating art and culture of ancient Egypt.

Sir Paul Ruddock, Museum Trustee
The Lewis Chessmen on a chess board.

The Lewis Chessmen

For my 8th birthday (in 1966!), my parents bought me the British Museum’s replica set of the Lewis chess pieces. They were incredibly realistic and were coloured to look like the original weathered walrus ivory. The pawns on the two sides are different shapes and the kings, queens, bishops, knights and rooks are all slightly different, as they are in the originals.

It was on this set that my father taught me to play chess 53 years ago. I still have the entire set (intact!) and colleagues at the Museum tell me that occasionally people still bring in a piece of their own thinking that it is real, only to be disappointed when the tiny ‘BM’ stamp on the back is pointed out!

Without a doubt, this is what started me on a life-long love of medieval works of art which continues to this day.

Jasmine Lota, Visitor Assistant

18th-century chocolate cups

Nestled away in the corner of one of my favourite rooms, the Enlightenment Gallery, lie some inconspicuous cups, so easily skimmed over but behind which lie a fascinating story. It’s such a pleasure to really have a good look around the collections to find small treasures.

These little cups are for drinking chocolate – promoted for its health-giving properties by the founder of the Museum, Sir Hans Sloane. His advice, which is still relevant today was to ‘take it in moderation’ as he found it in great quantities ‘nauseous and hard of digestion’.

From its origins in Central America thousands of years ago, to its travels around the world, chocolate truly is a global phenomenon. So, as you tuck into your eggs this Easter, take heed of Sloane’s words, and enjoy.

Sebastien Rey, Lead Archaeologist

Temple guardian from ancient Sumer

Among all the treasures from Mesopotamia exhibited in the British Museum, the one which holds the most symbolic meaning is this 4,000-year-old Temple guardian from the Sumerian site of Girsu in Iraq. Made from copper in the form of a kneeling god with the horned crown of power, it holds a foundation peg marked with the name of the temple’s divine owner, Ningirsu, and the seal of the ruler, Gudea. Also known as praying wizards in Sumerian, they were placed in temple foundations to commemorate the ruler’s piety.

New research at the temple site in Girsu has shown that they were far more than ordinary votive objects dedicated to Sumerian gods – they delineated the sacred space and moored the temple symbolically to the ground protecting it from the supernatural forces of chaos.

Dr Kate Fulcher, Research Assistant

Ancient Egyptian paintbrushes 

In ancient Egypt people used plant materials to make paintbrushes. The simplest ones were just sticks with frayed ends, but some were complex, using different plants, or different parts of the same plant. During a research trip to the ancient Egyptian town at Amara West, now in Sudan, I attempted to recreate the process of making and using paints in ancient times.

No paintbrushes survive from Amara West, so I took these ancient Egyptian brushes in the collection as my inspiration! I experimented with various local plant resources to attempt to manufacture a paintbrush. I had the most success with the fruit-bearing branches of the date palm. The broken end can be beaten with a hammerstone to create bristles, which can be held together using a thin strand tied around. It’s harder than it looks!

Aprille P Tijam – Senior Manager, Exhibitions and Collections, Ayala Museum, Philippines. ITP Fellow 2019

Altarpiece 

Looking at this 18th-century Philippine retablo – an altarpiece from the Ayala Museum Collection with elaborate wooden framework enclosing religious sculptures – allows me to step back in time when life was perhaps less complicated. I appreciate the natural beauty of the local wood transformed by artisans with beautifully hand-carved estofado design, simulating local foliage. I admire how creative the artisans were, with no computers to aid them, in putting together this huge altarpiece with wooden pegs alone, akin to Lego bricks.

I reflect on the role of this altarpiece which served as sanctuary to parishioners for more than 300 years.  It provided them solace where prayers were offered, allowing momentary quiet and peace in their hearts for the difficulties in life. For me, the retablo represents faith in a powerful being.

David Noden, Collection Manager: Loans and Display

Yaxchilan lintel

For me, the Yaxchilan Maya lintels proved to be a gateway into a world I knew nothing about. I joined the Museum as a technician in 1983, straight from a building site, so my knowledge of museums was limited.

But the thing about objects is that they inspire you to learn more – the lintels did that for me. I started to read about Mesoamerican cultures, to take more notice of other objects in the collection, and to read about them. My interest may have moved on to other parts of the collection over the years but I still love going into Room 27.

Find an object that sparks something in you, learn about it, and go where it takes you.

Hartwig Fischer, Director

The Gayer-Anderson Cat

Closing the British Museum to the public and asking colleagues to stay home during the Corona crisis was a very emotional moment. The Museum wants to welcome visitors from all over the country and the world, the objects want to be looked at, the collections want to be explored; when walking through the deserted galleries just before leaving myself, sunlight directed me towards this bronze cat, an avatar of the Egyptian goddess Bastet, donated to a temple by a wealthy worshipper. I love cats, admire their elegance, independence, sensuality, and caprice. I marvel at their enigmatic silence, their unfathomable gaze. Time stands still when they sit motionless, languidly opening their eyes that disdain to see us.

This cat has traversed millennia; sitting motionless it holds the past, awaits the future – I felt consoled in its unperturbable presence, thinking that it was there to guide us silently to another epoque, full of promises and new directions. Then I read the label: ‘The scarab beetles on the cat’s head and chest symbolise rebirth, while the silver udjat-eye on the pectoral invoke protection and healing.’

Sir Richard Lambert, Trustee and Chairman of the British Museum
Alabaster sculpture of the Virgin and Child. Probably made in the Midlands, England, c. 1360s.

14th-century alabaster carving of the Virgin and Child

She’s not the biggest star of the collection, but it’s her backstory I find compelling. The Madonna with Child was made in the Midlands in the 14th century out of alabaster that had been mined nearby. That’s remarkable enough, but what makes her really special is that she survived the English Reformation in the 16th century, when most of her sisters were smashed.

She’d found her way to Belgium, and there she survived another round of destruction, when her abbey home was pillaged in the French Revolution. Somehow, she’d found her way into safe private hands. She arrived in Bloomsbury in 2016, and the only marks on her face are those of devotion – worn from centuries of caresses by pilgrims.

Jiyi Ryu, Curator of the Korean Collections

Decorated roof tile

This Korean roof tile from the ancient capital city of Gyeongju was made in the 7th or 8th century AD. Decorated roof tiles with beastly faces – 귀면와 (Guimyunwa) – started to become widespread in the late 7th century and enjoyed a golden age throughout the 8th century in the Unified Silla Dynasty (AD 676–935) of Korea. These kind of tiles were placed at the top corners of the roofs of royal buildings, Buddhist temples and houses.

This particular tile is around 30cm tall with the moulded decoration of a striking face. The fierce face features a monster mask or portrays a dragon – it was designed to ward off evil spirits as a cause of sickness, death and disasters.

Sarah Jaffray, Project Officer, Bridget Riley Art Foundation

Henry Moore’s Shelter Sketchbook

After his studio and home were destroyed during the London blitz, Henry Moore (1898–1986) sheltered in a nearby tube station. His experience of regularly sheltering was explored in a series of drawings that we now call The Shelter Sketchbook (1940–1941). Respecting the vulnerability of his fellow ‘shelterers’, Moore did not draw from them directly. Instead, he drew them from memory in the privacy of his studio as an outlet to express himself during the war.

He described the works as reflecting the tension and apprehension shared by everyone at the time. The Shelter Sketchbook provides us with imaginative, poetic interpretations that are also historically accurate, documenting what it felt like to live through sudden devastation. For me, they are some of the most inspirational artworks in the collection.

Elizabeth Morrison, Marketing Manager

El Anatsui Man’s Cloth

One of the most striking objects in Room 25 is what looks like a large, flowing tapestry – it’s directly in front of you as you walk into the gallery. As you get closer, you’ll realise that it’s not quite what it seems to be – although the panel says it was inspired by traditional West African woven textiles, Man’s Cloth is actually made up of strips of recycled bottle-neck wrappers that are stapled together with wire, creating a wonderful three-dimensional work.

The object is a reminder that small actions or moments, when put together among many others, can add up to great effect. It’s currently on loan to Kunstmuseum Bern, in Switzerland in an exhibition dedicated to Anatsui’s work aptly called Triumphal Scale – hopefully re-opening soon.

Saeed Ba Yashoot, Documentation Collections Curator, Seiyun Museum, Yemen. ITP Fellow 2016

Rose-water sprinkler

This object, a rose-water sprinkler, is just one of many related to the Hadhrami culture donated to the Museum by the late Ms. Leila Ingrams and her parents who lived in the Hadhramaut region of the Aden Protectorate (later part of Yemen) during the 1930s and 1940s.

I was inspired by the story behind this object and its similarity to objects at my museum. This sprinkler, made in India and taken to Hadhramaut, helps us understand the link between the Hadhrami community and the Indian Ocean. The people of Hadhramaut travelled the Indian Ocean region and East Africa for many centuries, and when emigrants returned back to their homeland they brought objects with them which would influence their home cultures.

Eleanor Ghey, Curator: Iron Age and Roman Coin Hoards

Figurine of Senuna

My inspirational object is the Romano-British figurine of Senuna found at Ashwell, Hertfordshire in 2002 (show in the centre above). This silver statuette of a previously unrecorded deity was found in fragments alongside a spectacular collection of gold and silver plaques and jewellery. An excavation was carried out by local archaeologists working with the British Museum to understand more about this hoard. Was it a temple treasure? When was it buried, and by whom?

The results of this excavation are inspiring to me because they revealed an important deposit of Iron Age coins at the same place, buried several hundred years earlier. This shows that people in Roman Britain had a continued understanding of special places in their local landscape that survived the Roman conquest. Senuna also inspires me in the knowledge that there is always more to discover about our past.

Sue Brunning, Curator: Early Medieval Collections

Shoulder-clasps

These spectacular shoulder-clasps were buried in a ship with a VIP – possibly a king – at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk in the early ‘Anglo-Saxon’ period. They are decorated with hundreds of glass and garnet inlays, arranged to create intricate geometric and animal designs. Despite the technique’s limitations, the maker achieved incredible levels of detail. At the curved ends, boars – powerful symbols in Early Medieval thought – have sharp tusks, bristled backs and curly tails. Below, the chequered panel is bordered by sinuous beasts with blue glass eyes, as small as a dot from a felt-tip pen.

20 years ago, as an undergraduate visiting the British Museum, these clasps inspired me to study the Early Medieval period. I suppose you could say they are responsible for me being a curator here today!

Clarissa Farr, Museum Trustee 

Dawn

Deep in the Mitsubishi Corporation Japanese Galleries is a beautiful ceramic plate, a suspended celestial disc glowing with blue, green and yellow glaze, like liquid light. Made in 1992, Dawn by Tokuda Yasokichi III (1933–2009) shows us how a traditional Japanese glazing method has been given a mesmerizing modern interpretation through Yasokichi’s  blended, watercolour-like technique.

When I learned that Japan was the birthplace of ceramics 17,000 years ago, I marvelled at how different forms of making, developed across millennia, connect us to our past. In times of trouble, the British Museum’s collection shows us how stories of survival can strengthen our imagination for what lies ahead. Dawn is not only a beautiful object in its own right – it speaks of the future’s infinite possibilities.

Stay tuned for more staff picks to inspire and delight coming soon.

We’d love to hear what inspirational tales you’ve found in museums or galleries, or which artworks you think are powerful – share your stories by tweeting us @britishmuseum.