The British Museum Hosts Open House

The British Museum hosted a Tea Party for Open House coinciding with the project’s tenth anniversary. It was a special occasion for those of us met outside the building by Kyla Hyslop. Kyla led us into the Great Court where another guide, Sarah, waited to greet us also. After a few introductions, Sarah showed us the Enlightenment Gallery housing the origins of the Museum’s Collections.

Surrounded by glass-cased bookshelves reaching halfway to the ceiling, we drank in the ‘old world’ atmosphere of the Gallery. We viewed the ammonite fossil discovered by Mary Anning on a Lyme Regis beach in the 1840’s (a narrative commemorated by the 2020 historical-romantic film Ammonite); along with Wedgewood pottery and chocolate drinking cups.

Downstairs in the Clore Education Centre, where the walls are decorated by colourful paper fans, a table was set with place names for all. After a cup of tea, we moved to chairs at the far end of the room. Sarah unwrapped several of the objects waiting for us. These included:

  • A pot fashioned by Kono people from Sierra Leone
  • A leather jug
  • A white bone china teacup made by Royal Doulton

Everyone had a chance to handle the objects, noticing the qualities of each, without explanation. Afterwards Sarah led a discussion about what we’d observed, and perceived, when holding them. There was time to handle three more items –

  • A flask made from gourd that smells of ash used to clean out the milk it once held
  • A South African woven pouch used for drinking beer
  • An Inuit doll, stuffed with tea by its makers, detectable by sniffing when held closely. The doll wears tiny moccasins. Her face is made of the same material as her shoes, most likely seal hide, with features drawn across the skin.

Each of us had a chance to hold, smell, and talk about these objects before afternoon tea served on elegant cake stands. We filled up on cups of tea and coffee, chatted over savoury sandwiches; plain and fruit scones; tiny red-velvet cupcakes and toasted meringue; until ready to head upstairs again.

This time Sarah led the way to a display connected to Dowager Empress Cixi (1835 – 1908) a notable, and controversial, figure in Chinese history. Empress Cixi lived an aristocratic existence at the time of Queen Victoria’s reign in England. The display held a pair of lengthy, gold-filigreed, fingernail extensions together with a large, ivory fan with highly-detailed carving. We viewed cups, and bowls, first made in China that later migrated to Japan, and are still used for tea-drinking. The last display told the story of tea cultivation in India and we touched on the difficult history of the British East India Company.

It was a great pleasure to be special guests of the Museum with our own guides to the contexts, and histories, of its collection of artefacts. I speak for everyone when I say thank you for a celebratory afternoon that couldn’t have been better.

Tracey Mitchell

Last Updated on 2nd April 2024 by Dominique