Frequently Asked Questions about the British Museum

Working in that Big National Museum on Great Russell Street, the one that had a record 6.7 million visitors in 2013 alone, there are certain questions that we get asked regularly. By ‘we’ I mean the people working in my team in education, but I imagine that the same questions are asked by visitors to any member of staff that’s visible – from cleaners to curators. By ‘regularly’ I mean ‘asked on a daily basis.’

The British Museum
The British Museum

I thought I’d not just share these questions, but even go as far as to provide you with an answer. The point of this post is not to point out the silly and preposterous, but to share some secret insider knowledge with the hope that *fingers crossed* people stop asking the same questions over and over (and over again)!

Are you sitting comfortably? Good, let us begin.

Q: Where are the dinosaurs?

A: You’re in the wrong museum; you need to go to the Natural History Museum in South Kensington.

At first this seems like a silly question. Dinosaurs are what the Natural History Museum is known for! However, in its first incarnation, the British Museum had an excellent natural history collection but in 1860, the head curator of the Natural History Collection (Sir Richard Owen) had persuaded the government of the time that a new museum was needed for this bit of the collection. In 1881 the Natural History Museum opened.

Despite the Natural History Museum being around for 133 years people still think that the British Museum has dinosaurs. It doesn’t. You need to go to South Ken.

Fun Fact: I checked with some friends who work at the Natural History Museum whether they are ever asked “Where are the mummies?” One reply went as follows: “At least three or four times a day!”

This brings me on to the next F.A.Q.

Q: Where is King Tut?

Queen Elizabeth II meets Egyptian officials at the opening of the Tutankhamun exhibition (c) The British Museum
Queen Elizabeth II meets Egyptian officials at the opening of the Tutankhamun exhibition (c) The British Museum

A: Let’s assume you mean Tutankhamen. You’re in the wrong country. He’s in Egypt – you can find him in Cairo in the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities.

Yes, the British Museum has a fantastic Egyptology section but we don’t have any dead pharaohs on display (we have a mummy called Cleopatra, but she isn’t the Cleopatra). However, for there is always one of those, Tutankhamen was on display waaay back in the 1970s. 1972 to be precise, for an exhibition called Treasures of Tutankhamen.

It was so popular that the museum extended the extravaganza until the end of the year as well as opening later. It was pretty much the first massive museum blockbuster exhibition, but it still doesn’t change that King Tut isn’t there anymore.

Q: Why haven’t you given back X,Y, or Z?

A: This always feels like a personal question – why do people insist on using ‘you’ when they mean the museum? Or, to be more specific, they mean the people who have the power to make that decision. Do they think I have the last say on where something like the Parthenon Marbles should end up? How flattering!

The easy answer is: that’s not my decision to make; only Neil MacGreggor and the Trustees can answer that.

The more complicated answer is: it’s complicated.

This question is invariably asked as aggressively as possible.

Fun variant question: Did you steal the Parthenon? Fun variant answer: Not really, it’s complicated…

Q: Where is the Magna Carta?

A: It’s at the British Library, which is just down the road. No, it really isn’t here. Yes, I’m sure.

This question is another one that is more complicated than you first realise, for several different reasons:

  • There are LOADS (at least 4) copies of the Magna Carta floating around (which will be reunited for a special exhibition soon)
  • The British Museum has a couple of libraries in it.
  • People really do seem to have trouble differentiating the British Museum and the British Library.
  • The British Library is essentially an off-shoot from the British Museum anyway.

I took to twitter to ask if the Magna Carta had ever been on display in the BM (because extensive searching and surfing was not yielding *anything*). This is as close as we could get to any definitive answer:

In short, not it’s not here, sorry.

Q: Can I go in the Reading Room?

The Reading Room being constructed (c)The British Museum
The Reading Room being constructed (c)The British Museum

A: Well, *technically* yes, but at the moment it’s an exhibition space – [insert current major exhibition] is in there, so you won’t be able to see any books/see the Reading Room as a Reading Room. It has been this way since 2007 – that’s seven years now- and yet barely a shift goes by without someone pointing to a very out of date guide book saying they can go in.

However, for there will always be one of these, things might change soon with the opening of the new World Conservation and Exhibition Centre in March 2014.

But will people be able to go into the Reading Room after that? At the moment, we have no idea.

The Great Court at the British Museum with the Reading Room and Senate House in the background
The Great Court at the British Museum with the Reading Room and Senate House in the background

Extra fun bonus question: Do things come alive at night?

Oh Ben Stiller. You have many things to answer for; Night at the Museum and its sequel being amongst them.

There are two answers to this question depending on who asked it.

If a child asks it full of wide-eyed wonder then the answer is invariably: YES.

If a grown-up person asks, then, I refer you to this response from the fine, upstanding people from When You Work At A Museum. 

I really hope that this clears a few things up! Do you work in a museum? What kind of questions do you get asked?

8 Comments Add yours

  1. Sophie says:

    I worked at the BM a few years ago and can concur that I was regularly asked the same questions! I also had “Where is the Mona Lisa?”, “Where are the paintings?” and on one or two occasions “Where are the pyramids?” (perhaps the most worrying). As a variant to “Why haven’t you given back X, Y or Z?” I was also told that if I didn’t return the Rosetta Stone (and yes, somehow I personally!) I was obliged to let the visitor have a free guidebook instead! I can honestly say that I haven’t experienced this in any other museum I’ve since worked in.

    1. The returns question is always personal, isn’t it? How strange! We still get the paintings questions from time to time, but I haven’t heard the Mona Lisa one before! Cheers for sharing Sophie 🙂

  2. samantha says:

    Very interesting – thanks for sharing. While studying abroad I made it a point to check out the British Museum. Fantastic experience. : )

  3. Always get asked Where is the library? Even though they moved out 3 years ago. People come in and ask if they can buy food waste recycle bags! We should stock them we would make a fortune 🙂

  4. This reminds me of my time working at Edinburgh Castle. Highlights of which included:

    “isn’t it handy they built it so close to the shops,” “is it here all year round or do they just put it up for the festival?” and the old classic, “what time does the one o’clock gun go off?”

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