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The Power of Objects
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Throughout the PAGES of this book are images of just 250 ofover six million objects, drawings and prints that are looked after by the British Museum. Our selection includes objects that are extremely well known to visitors, such as the Rosetta Stone, mummy cases from Egypt and the Sutton Hoo helmet, possibly the most iconic object from Britain’s early history. Yet our selection has also deliberately included a wide range of other objects, some huge, others very small, which show the wide range of the collection and reveal aspects of the Museum that may surprise even regular visitors. Relatively few people are aware that the Museum continues to collect modern contemporary objects, such as the Throne of Weapons, badges from recent elections and political campaigns, works of art from the Middle East and examples of twenty-first-century Japanese crafts as well as manga comics. This is because the Museum is as much about understanding the present as it is about helping people to understand the past. To fulfil both these functions, the Museum needs constantly to add new items that can create fresh and different perspectives from which visitors can connect the past with the present. In this sense, museums are always looking to the future.

Objects are deliberately included in this book that may not immediately be associated with the concept of'masterpieces’. Is a rag doll from Roman Egypt a ‘masterpiece’ comparable to a watercolour by the artist Turner? Other pieces may stand out for the great skill involved in their making, or their immediate visual impact and ‘beauty’, but may be known only to a small number of specialists. This is why the notion of‘a masterpiece’ may perhaps strike some as odd, considering the British Museum is not an art museum or gallery despite containing many wonderful works of art. Certainly, many visitors come to the Museum to be inspired by the works of art they see here, but this is just one of the many functions of the Museum. Another is to offer a place where people can explore the history of the world, or specific cultures and geographic areas, through the objects those societies have created which tell us about all aspects of their lives. In this sense, the rare survival of a Roman rag doll may not be a particularly beautiful or well-made object, but it does make a powerful connection between us and the everyday lives of thousands of people in the Roman world 2000 years ago.

The Power of Objects

Roman rag doll from Egypt

The British Museum exists because of the power of objects, be they celebrated works of art or broken sherds of ancient pots or the waste left over from making Ice Age stone tools. The power of things – as evidence of past lives and witnesses to some of the great events and processes in human history - is what draws over 10,000 researchers and scholars annually from around the world to visit the Museum to study the objects and works of art housed here. This is also why these objects continue to act as a powerful inspiration for creative artists, writers and designers, whatever their chosen medium, just as they have for over 250 years.
The British artist Henry Moore first visited the British Museum in the 1920s, and the Egyptian, Greek and African sculptures he saw then had a striking influence on the sculpture he went on to make, which has in its turn influenced modern artists around the world.

This power, especially when visitors can see an object close up, or touch an object from one of the Museum’s handling tables, is also why millions come to the Museum, see its objects on loans and tours in other parts of the world, and explore the collections online via the website (www.britishmuseum.org). The power of things to help us understand our world is why the British Museum was founded, over 250 years ago, as the first public museum in the world. An Act of Parliament called for the Museum and its collections to ‘be preserved and maintained not only for the Inspection and Entertainment of the learned and curious, but for the use and benefit of the Publick’.

The Power of Objects

Hokusai’s ‘Under the Wave'

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