British Museum and Wiener Library

Part 1: British Museum 

The British Museum

Outside the British Museum

We began today with a visit to the one and only British Museum. Our class is so large that we split into two groups; since I was put in the later tour, I had the chance to re-explore the Museum itself. The British Museum was one of my favorite places from my previous London trip, so I was thrilled to have the chance to once again see some of its treasures. No trip to the Museum would be complete without a visit to the Rosetta Stone:
Rosetta Stone
I’ve seen the Stone in person twice now, and am not ashamed to say that both times I got goosebumps and a little teary. Fun Taylor Fact: I used to (let’s be honest, STILL) want to be an Egyptologist “when I grow up,” so seeing the hieroglyphics is always thrilling to say the least.
I have to say though that this trip to the Museum was not as much fun the second time around simply because it was so unbelievably crowded! The Museum is free, which helps draw a large crowd, but the number of people there was astronomical! It made it difficult to really look at the objects and items you wished to see because you were constantly bumping elbows with other inquisitive folks… and endless amounts of schoolchildren. Whew!
After seeing as much as I could, my group began our tour of the Central Archive of the Museum. Every department within the Museum has its own archive, but the Central Archive is the archive of the Museum itself. Thus, it contains administrative records, reports, staff records, committee minutes, office reports, excavation records, financial documents, photographs, deeds and contracts, reader applications, and court case documents (more on those last two in a moment…)
The earliest documents in the collection date back to June 1738, and this archive as a whole tells the fascinating history of the Museum, which dates back to the 1670’s and changed hands/buildings several times over the centuries. Now, back to reader applications and court case documents…
Many libraries and archives, especially those who house rare books and special collections, require anyone who desires to use their materials to register within their system. This idea has been around for centuries – the British Museum in fact used to require potential readers to fill out an application form as well as produce reference letters (some places still require this today). And, Bram Stoker's Signature lucky for us, we were able to see part of the reading application of Bram Stoker! (Author of Dracula). You can see his signature below – he’s the third one from the top.
Now, about court cases – the British Museum is obviously home to precious items that span the globe from over thousands of years. There is some controversy there, as many countries today feel as though the Museum is holding onto essentially “stolen” items (these are typically items which have been looted during times of war). This article, though several years old, details some of these controversies: British Museum Under Pressure to Give Up Leading Treasures.
Because of this, the Museum has gone to court multiple times over various ownership claims, and these documents are stored in the Central Archive. Francesca, the archivist, explained to us that the Museum now has strict rules on provenance (ownership), though this was not necessarily the case 50-100 years ago.
The tricky issue of ownership during war time has actually directly affected the British Museum itself. If you’ve ever heard of The Blitz, you know that London sustained heavy damage during World War II.

A piece of the bomb which hit the British Museum during WWII

A piece of the bomb which hit the British Museum during WWII

In fact, an incendiary bomb hit the Museum. Fun Fact: the Museum never closed during the war in order to essentially boost the morale of Londoners and allow them a chance to escape from the dreariness and heartbreak of war. However, many objects were taken out of the Museum and put into deep basement storage and also the Aldwych Station (which was also a hiding place for many people). A “suicide” exhibit was put on display in the Museum, meaning it was comprised of items that wouldn’t be devastating to the Museum’s collection if lost or damaged. Personally, I found this very fascinating, and ended up doing some research on the Museum during War on my own – within the catalog I found a letter that details the evacuation plans of the British Museum’s Collections during WWII.

Francesca has worked in the Museum for years, but has only recently (as in within the past few weeks) become the archivist of the Central Archive. She is passionate and enthusiastic about her job, and is keen on making sure the Museum continues to place a high value on the documents within the archive, and prioritizes cataloging records within the collection. Currently, the British Museum is the only National Museum within the UK that not has no internet links or online catalog to their archives – this was more than somewhat shocking to me, but I don’t doubt that Francesca will make this happen. I left her archive feeling very inspired and relieved to know that there are people like her who are so passionate about our field and their work.
 Part 2: Wiener Library
Our second library visit of the day was to the Wiener Library in Russell Square. Now, you may remember that I lived in Russell Square during my first Study Abroad trip to London, but the library was not moved there until late 2011, and I visited in early 2007. Yet perhaps it is because of my Religious Studies background, but I found myself absolutely enthralled with everything about this library. The library is the world’s oldest Holocaust collection and is named for Alfred Wiener, who was one of the first people to write critically about Mein Kampf. Wiener’s collection initially began with his newspaper clippings of the happenings of German right-wing parties, particularly the Nazi party. In the early 30’s, Wiener left Germany and traveled to Amsterdam, where he set up the Jewish Central Information Office. Over time, his collection began growing, and others began to use his resources. In 1939, the majority of the collection was sent to London before the Nazis invaded Amsterdam in 1940, accompanied by Wiener; tragically, some papers were left behind, Wiener’s Amsterdam colleagues were captured and/or murdered, and his own wife and daughters were sent to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
At the end of the war, Wiener’s papers helped to re-connect people with family members, but perhaps most importantly, used during the Nuremberg trials, in which Allied forces prosecuted leaders of the Nazi party. In short, Toby, the Learning EngagementStacks at the Wiener Library Manager and my group’s tour guide, emphasized that Wiener’s library was “born out of desperate and chaotic circumstances by a determined individual,” and has been “organically developed over time.” Today, the library is primarily a research library and heritage institution, and serves as Britain’s national Holocaust archive. It is in fact the third largest Holocaust collection in the world, after the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Yad Vasehm World Center for Holocaust Research in Israel. The collection is vast and exhaustive, covering a variety of material types, and the collection is growing even today – the library is still adding family papers and records, acquiring books, and adding materials about other genocides (Rwanda, Darfur). Besides books and papers, the library has 17,000 original photos, microfilm, press cuttings, and an interesting (and quite disturbing) collection of Nazi propaganda, particularly aimed towards German youths (children’s books, coloring books, etc.)

*Library Nerd Moment: Because of the uniqueness of the collection, no pre-existing library classification system (Dewey, Library of Congress) would adequately fulfill the Wiener Library’s needs. As such, the library has brilliantly created its own system! Using the alphabet (or A – Zed as the British say), examples include “N” for Nazi Ideology, S for “Refugees,” and “X” for Antisemitism. Sometimes I feel as though every other person who finds out I’m in school to become a librarian cracks some unnecessary joke about the Dewey Decimal System or card catalogues… so I am in awe of a place like the Wiener Library that has concocted its own classification system.

After awesome visits to two amazing places, Jade, Jessica and I decided to venture to the infamous Harrod’s department store… aka a place where I must simply window shop, as I probably cannot afford a single item in the entire building. Needless to say, the consumerism in that place is more than a little overwhelming, so we quickly ventured onwards and did our typical routine of walking around and exploring, which I love! For dinner we went back to our beloved South Bank and ate at the Gourmet Pizza Company on Gabriel’s Wharf at the recommendation of Dr. Welsh… it was delicious! I decided that since we’re leaving in just 3 days to journey to Edinburgh, tonight would be a good night to do laundry. What fun! We’re enjoying our quiet evening, and I hope everyone back home will enjoy theirs as well.

Miss you all!