The world’s greatest repository of antiquities? Or a vainglorious testament to the arrogance and narcissism of empire? Either way, the British Museum has long engendered discussion and debate.
But as a child, all this flew largely over my head. As far as I was concerned, the British Museum was always just a bit.. well, dull.
Egyptian mummy? So what! Roman statue? Meh! The sheer scale of time and place just washed over my youthful mind without tingling any neurones of appreciation.
And so years passed, and it was not until my 30’s that I ventured back. This time, I felt a palpable thrill as I gazed round the entrance hall – all the more gripping for its unexpectedness.
Stepping tentatively into the cavernous glass-domed Great Court was like venturing into an oversized snowglobe. But rather than chintzy little reindeers or rickety Brighton piers, there were actual sphinxes and sarcophagi – millennia-old relics staring back at me, like they were alive and breathing.
Over time, it struck me just how many objects related to food and drink: not only cutlery, crockery, and utensils, but also in the glorified representations of feasts or hunting.
I had such a sense that, regardless of time and place, food has always been a central pillar of civilisation. It is more than a sustainer of life: it’s a gatherer of people, a connector of communities, and a shaper of identity.
Over time, I’ve been steadily making note of display items that have piqued my gastronomic interest, and I’m picking out five of them here – each originating from a different era and region, each with a culinary theme and a story to tell about the society of the time.
One of these stories is about the museum itself, and how the shadow of colonialism has shaped its collection… but more on that later. For now it’s time to buckle up – you’re about to go 5000 years back into the past…