THATMuse

Ever heard of the terrible 5th century Plague of Athens? Over 2400 years later we’re living though another dreadful health crisis. How did the Greeks handle theirs? And is coronavirus comparable to the many illnesses that have hit the world so far? Historians and art-historians like us love to say that the past always teaches us something. Some stories, like that of the Plague of Athens, are timeless, and we can learn from them even today.

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Il Diadumeno di Vaison è una statua Romana in marmo che rappresenta un atleta vittorioso. Trovato a Vaison, una cittadina Romana nella Francia Meridionale, questo meraviglioso tesoro è oggi al British Museum (perché il Louvre si rifiutò di acquistarlo per il suo ‘prezzo spropositato’!). Si tratta di una copia romana realizzata su un modello originale greco in bronzo. Prova a pensare a quanto i Romani impararono dai Greci… Dopo aver conquistato le loro terre, portarono a casa tutte le loro opere più belle per farsi ispirare da esse. Chiaramente, non avrebbero potuto dimenticare il Diadumeno, un meraviglioso pezzo realizzato da uno dei più famosi artisti della Grecia Classica, Policleto.

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The Daidoumenos of Vaison is a Roman marble statue of an ancient Greek athlete. Found at Vaison, a Roman town in Southern France, this beautiful piece is at the British Museum (because the Louvre refused to buy it for its ‘unreasonable price’!). The statue is a Roman copy of a Greek original in bronze. Just think for a second about how much the Romans learnt from the Greeks… After conquering their lands, they brought back home all their most beautiful artworks and took inspiration from them. Clearly, they couldn’t forget the Daidoumenos, a sculpture by one of the most famous artists of Classical Greece, Polykleitos.

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This post is also available in Italian!

In ancient Greek society people carefully followed the social rules of good behaviour. Women had to be good mothers. Kids and youths went to school, to the gym and were trained to be brave warriors. The elder ones inspired the new generations with their wise advice. And everyone prayed to the gods during the religious festivities. There was a time though, when almost everything was allowed and when social rules of good behaviour could be forgotten: the symposium. Museums are filled with vases showing symposiasts having fun and playing, precisely because the Greeks, like the Egyptians, the Mesopotamians, the Chinese and the Anglo-Saxons, often buried their dead with games (or scenes of games), in order to allow them to have fun during their afterlife.

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Just a heads up: things in bold might be answers to bonus questions on your Fun & Games hunt!
The First ever Version in Italian will be on Friday April 3rd at 5.30 pm.  
You can also read this blog in Italian here!

From sculptures to pottery, from paintings to temples, mythology is a broad topic in ancient Greek art and architecture. The Parthenon architecture, one of the most famous ancient complexes of all times, is a striking example of how the ancient Greeks took inspiration from their classical mythology to make sense of the real world.  

Greek Art and Mythology: one of the earliest representations of the Trojan Horse, 750-650 BC 
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Our final Love Hunt Blog before Valentine’s Day is all about its chubby little mascot: Cupid. Check out the whole series here, here and here! However our little cherub has a much more storied past, before he was reduced to selling cards and chocolates. Originally Eros in Greek, the God of Love, in some versions he is one of the oldest forces in the universe, predated only by Chaos and Gaia (Earth).
Most commonly though the Romans knew little Cupid as the son of Venus, Goddess of beauty. Her husband was Vulcan, but Cupid’s father is Mars, God of War, naughty! (This might be useful on your hunt!)

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Thetis and Peleus – Wedding of the Ages 

Welcome to our second Love Hunt blog (see the first here). Read up on the sauciest stories from antiquity and get yourselves some bonus points!

Welcome to the tale of the grandest wedding of the Greek world. Maybe not the loveliest wedding but definitely the most eventful. Full of drama, scandal and family feuds, like all good weddings!

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Love Hunt: Priapus

Welcome to our new blog series, highlighting the great treasures in our British Museum Love Hunt. Discover some of the most famous lovers in history: Thetis and Peleus, The Ain Sakhri Lovers and Cupid and Psyche. This upright fellow has become a bit of a mascot for our Love Hunt at the British Museum. This…ahem, impressive piece has a hilarious and surprisingly stories history behind it. 

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SEKHMET THE DESTROYER  

black statue of lion headed Egyptian goddess sekhmet at the Louvre
Sekhmet at the Louvre

Sekhmet was a fierce warrior goddess, protector of the pharaohs and daughter of the sun god Ra. She was the goddess of destruction and purging, and was worshipped in Memphis as ‘the destroyer’. Her name means, “the (one who is) powerful or mighty” but her nicknames include “(One) Before Whom Evil Trembles”, “Mistress of Dread”, “Lady of Slaughter” and “She Who Mauls”–sounds like a friendly lady. Pretty awesome nicknames, huh? Might be a good source of inspiration for coming up with your next THATMuse team name, right?  

She’s often depicted as half woman/half lioness (Incidentally, can you think of any other gods and goddesses who also have animal features, perhaps featured on the THATMuse blog? Hint: his name begins with an H and he has the head of a hawk).  Sekhmet was closely associated with the desert, and therefore often shown with a sun disk on her head.  

four statues of sekhmet in room 4 British Museum wearing sun disk headdress.
Statues of Sekhmet in Room 4, British Museum

In one myth, she was sent to earth to destroy her dad’s, Ra, enemies but she grew so bloodthirsty she almost killed off everyone—to stop her, Ra poured out a mass amount of beer stained red (with pomegranate juice) tricking Sekhmet into thinking it was blood. She drank so much of the red beer and became so drunk that she gave up killing people and went back sleepily and peacefully to Ra. When she awoke from her drunken stupor, the first thing she saw was Ptah—the god of creation, and fell instantly in love with him.  

Egyptian papyrus with hieroglyphs and images of gods
Can you spot Sekhmet with her Sun disk headdress? How many other gods can you name?

Every year there was a festival to honor Sekhmet, where Egyptians would get completely black-out drunk to imitate her. (Is it just me, or does this festival sound like a good excuse to throw a party?) Mankind also had to constantly appease her with offerings to abate her wrath. Egyptologists think that Amenhotep III built a temple with over 700 statues to her so that people could honor her every day of the year with a different statue. Hence part of the reason why statues of her abound: say hello to this bloodthirsty babe at the Louvre and the British Museum, and also at the Met and the Vatican (Don’t THATMet or THATVat have a ring to them?!)  

OR; HOW TO DEFINITELY LOSE A BOAT RACE

See Part 1 of our Egyptian Gods series here!
Just a heads up: some of the things in bold might be the answers to bonus questions on your hunt!  

Isis gave birth to a baby boy with the head of a hawk (must have been a freaky experience), called Horus. When Horus was all grown up, he decided to fight his evil uncle Seth for the throne. (Since his parents were siblings, Seth was his uncle on both sides—freaky, right?)  

Sculpture from British Museum of falcon headed egyptian god horus on one knee with one fist raised and one to his chest

Seth challenged Horus to a series of contests to see who would become king of Egypt. In one battle, Seth gouged out one of Horus’s eyes, but it was restored by the goddess Hathor (the mother of the sun god Ra). The ‘Eye of Horus’ became a symbol of healing and protection in Egyptian art. Keep an eye out for it next time you’re scouting out Egyptian treasure!  

blue yellow and red eye of horus amulet from the British Museum
An Eye of Horus amulet from the British Museum Collection

The contest that Seth and Horus had was a boat race. But this boat race had a twist: Seth and Horus would be racing boats of stone. Horus was a bit of a trickster, and built a boat that was actually wood, but covered with plaster to look like stone. Seth’s boat sank right away, of course, and all the gods laughed at him. Seth was angry at his failure and transformed himself into a huge hippopotamus and attacked his Horus’s boat. They fought, but just as Horus was about to kill Seth once and for all, the other gods intervened.  

In the end, all of these contests proved pointless. Instead, the gods decided on a more sensible course of action: to write a letter to Osiris who was God of the Dead, and ask his advice. Osiris said that Horus was a better candidate for king as he had not killed anyone (this seems like a pretty solid criterion for most job descriptions, to be honest).  Finally, Horus became King of Egypt.  

Going back to Seth and Horus’s boat race, boats were an incredibly important symbol in Egyptian mythology. The solar god Ra, was thought to ride on his magical boat through the sky providing light to the world, and travelling to the underworld at night. Egyptian pharaohs were also thought to travel through the underworld on a boat after their deaths—have a look at Queen Mutemwia’s funeral barge at the British Museum pictured below.  

Black sculpture of Queen Mutemwia’s funeral barge; British Museum Room 4
Queen Mutemwia’s funeral barge; British Museum Room 4 

Keep an eye out for depictions of Seth, Isis, Osiris and Horus in many of our British Museum themes, such as Fun + GamesLove Hunt, and of course the chilling Skull Scouting. Keep an eye out the same cast of characters while scouting out the Zodiac of Dendera and the Sarcophagus of Ramesses III at the Louvre in our Skull Scouting and Beauty and the Bestiary hunts there. 

Or, How Not to Treat your Siblings!

Just a heads up: some of the things in bold might be a handy hint for your next treasure hunt!  

Geb, the sky god and Nut, the earth goddess had four children: Osiris, Isis, Seth and Nepthys. Osiris was the eldest son, so he became king of Egypt. He married his sister Isis, who became his queen. His younger brother Seth, was jealous of him, as he was loved and respected by everyone. 

Sandstone Egyptian tablet showing Seth and a worshipper with traces of paint and hieroglyphs
Seth (left) and one of his worshippers

One day Seth transformed himself into a gigantic, frightening monster and killed Osiris. Then, Seth cut Osiris’s dead body into itty-bitty pieces and scattered it all across Egypt. Seth was now king of all Egypt, ruling alongside Nepthys his wife and sister.  

Statue of Goddess Isis protecting a figure of Osiris with wings extending from her arms on either side of him, British Museum collection.
Isis protecting a figure of Osiris with her wings.

Isis cried and cried over her lost husband. She had magical powers, and decided to try and bring her husband back to life, at least long enough that they could have a child. Her sister Nepthys (Seth’s wife) felt sorry for her and helped her roam all of Egypt, looking for the itty-bitty pieces of Osiris’s body (sort of like a really, really gross treasure hunt actually).  She managed to find everything, except his penis, which she was forced to reconstruct with magic.  

Once they’d reassembled *most* of his body, Isis used her magic to bring him back to life. Soon after, she got pregnant with a baby boy (more about him in another blog post!) and Osiris descended to the underworld, where he became the God of the Dead. Unsurprisingly, he pops up a lot in the Egyptian Book of the dead, which was basically a book of spells, allowing you to pass safely to the underworld.  

Papyrus from the Book of the Dead showing judgment of the heart before Osiris Isis Horus Thoth and Anubis

Chapter 125 of the Book of the Dead at the British Museum—can you spot Osiris? It’s written on papyrus which is a reed that grows on the banks of the Nile river. 

This gory myth features again and again in Egyptian art, and also in our treasure hunts! Keep an eye out for depictions of Seth, Isis, Osiris and Horus in many of our British Museum themes, such as Fun + GamesLove Hunt, and of course the chilling Skull Scouting. Keep an eye out the same cast of characters while scouting out the Zodiac of Dendera and the Sarcophagus of Ramesses III at the Louvre in our Skull Scouting and Beauty and the Bestiary hunts there. No doubt, when we expand to NYC’s Met, our fine friends here will reappear (Temple of Dendur, anyone? Which only costs 50K to rent out!). 

Terracotta bust of Sir Hans Sloane, Founder of the British Museum
Hans Sloane

Dubbed the first national public museum in the world, the British Museum didn’t start off as a grand, Greek-style building full of Egyptian mummies, Roman statues and Aztec turquoise. The museum has changed quite a bit in its almost 300-year history, but began with the donation of Hans Sloane (above), a high-society Irish physician – who also invented hot chocolate. What claims to fame!

Upon his death in 1753, Sloane bequeathed his collection of fantastic antiquities, books, and natural specimens to the nation. King George II and Parliament wanted Sloane’s collection to be seen by the people, not sit in a basement somewhere collecting dust. So later that year, Parliament passed the The British Museum Act, which formally established the British Museum at Montagu House – which stood on the spot of the current British Museum. To add some variety to Sloane’s science-heavy collection, Parliament included the Cottonian Library and Harleian manuscripts in the new museum for a taste of literature and art.  

FUN FACT: The board of trustees almost bought a place called Buckingham House, which some of you might know better as its current incarnation – Buckingham Palace.

As the collection grew, so did the museum. In the 1880s, the natural history collection had grown enough to become a museum in its own right. The collection moved to a building in South Kensington, in what we know now as the Natural History Museum.   

FUN FACT: Entry to the Natural History Museum is free. It has a fantastic collection of dinosaur skeletons too, including a famous 26-meter-long diplodocus. Check it out – and when you’re done, maybe go on a THATMuse treasure hunt at the V&A next door!

One of the most prominent additions to the British Museum was the introduction of the Elgin Marbles of the Parthenon, brought to the museum in 1812 by Lord Elgin. In 1931 funds were given by the controversial Sir Joseph Duveen to construct a new gallery for the Elgin Marbles. However, WWII got in the way and the gallery wasn’t opened until 1962. It was American architect, John Russell Pope, who designed the new gallery that you can now see today. Pope also designed the National Gallery in DC!

On the note of design, Robert Smirke is the man responsible for most of the recognizable parts of the British Museum you see today. The Quadrangle, the main section of the British Museum, was completed in 1852. You can still see it in the basic structure of the museum today, with wings in the north, south, east, and west. The first room to be competed was the Kings Library, finished in 1827. The library was one of main reasons the new building was built in the first place. King George the IV donated books belonging to his father, King George III, and the British Museum just didn’t have room for all of them! You can still see the restored Kings Library, though it is now called “The Enlightenment Room.”  

FUN FACT: The original design for the British Museum included dorms for museum staff, as the museum workers lived on site– which was common practice in those days!

Panorama of the British Museum Great court, staircases and central reading room, shadowed by norman foster's famous glass ceiling
Great Court in the British Museum

While the majority of the current British Museum was designed by Robert Smirke, one of the British Museum’s most distinctive features, the central court and dramatic glass ceiling (above), was designed by Norman Foster’s company (who also designed the famous Millenium – AKA “Wobbly” – Bridge!) The Queen Elizabeth II Great Court transformed the museum’s inner courtyard into the largest covered public square in Europe. The Great Court was a massive undertaking and was completed in 2000 to celebrate the new millennium. This beautiful and impressive space greets visitors as they first enter the museum – and what a vast number of visitors that is! For the past eight years, the British Museum has remained the U. K’s no.1 visitor attraction. Last year over 6.6 million people visited the British Museum to see the amazing history that it contains.