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Publishers of award-winning illustrated books on art, history, archaeology, world cultures and more.

Edinburgh Festival Fever

People all over the country have been gripped by Festival fever this month and we at the BM Press are no exception! Not one but two of our authors were invited to speak at the Edinburgh International Book Festival: Irving Finkel, the curator in charge of the British Museum’s collection of cuneiform tablets – the largest in the world – and Henrietta Lidchi, Keeper of the Department of World Cultures at National Museums Scotland.

Charlotte Square looking beautiful in the sunshine

Charlotte Square looking beautiful in the sunshine

In his sell-out event, Irving took his audience on a roller-coaster tour of the 3,500 year history of the world’s oldest writing system – cuneiform. With his trademark enthusiasm, he explained that the strange, wedge-shaped markings invented in Mesopotamia represent syllables and so can be used to record any language, from Sumerian to Spanish. He then pointed out that we can find a surprising parallel in modern text-speak, in which symbols have  once again come to stand in for syllables or even whole words – just look at ‘c u l8r’. The audience were left full of questions and many stayed behind to talk to Irving, have their books signed and admire the real cuneiform tablet that he had brought along with him.

Irving addresses a huge crowd in the tent

Irving addresses a huge crowd in the tent

Irving was similarly well-received at the National Museums Scotland, where he taught a group of 90 local schoolchildren how to write their own cuneiform inscriptions. They used plasticine and lollipop sticks rather than clay and reeds, but the results still looked as if they could have come from the museum archives!

An impressive effort from the Edinburgh schoolchildren!

An impressive effort from the Edinburgh schoolchildren!

The weekend also saw Henrietta Lidchi launch her wonderful book Surviving Desires: Making and Selling Native Jewellery in the American Southwest – the product of twenty years of research. She captivated the audience with her talk about the iconic turquoise and silver jewellery and the transformations it has undergone in response the competing desires of traders, tourists, curators and government agencies. The audience were fascinated and at the end many came forward with their own pieces of Native jewellery, which Henrietta was able to put into context for them.

Henrietta signing books after her event

Henrietta signing books after her event

Many thanks to Henrietta and Irving for taking part in the Festival and to the National Museums Scotland for hosting the schools event. We hope to be back next year!

If you would like to find out more about either of the books, just follow the links below:

Cuneiform

Surviving Desires

Anniversary of the British Museum

Today is the anniversary of the British Museum! The British Museum opened to the public on 15 January 1759. It was first housed in a seventeenth-century mansion, Montagu House, in Bloomsbury on the site of today’s building. Entry was free and given to ‘all studious and curious Persons’.

With the exception of two World Wars, the Museum has remained open ever since, gradually increasing its opening hours and moving from an attendance of 5,000 per year to today’s 6 million.

In celebration of the Museum’s 254th year, we’ve published below an extract from the Treasures of the British Museum, by Marjorie Caygill.

The Trustees' Mace

The Trustees’ Mace, which lay on the table at Board meetings and was reputed to have been carried before the Trustees during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries on their visitations to Museum departments. Made of silver hallmarked 1758/59 and inscribed ‘The Trustees of the British Museum 1759’, the year that the Museum opened to the public. L. 2.4 m. The mace rests on a copy of the Act of Parliament ‘for the purchase of the Museum or Collection or Sir Hans Sloane, and of the Harleian Collection’, 1753.

A visitor to the British Museum a few years after its foundation in 1753 would have had to negotiate a massive entrance gate on Great Russell Street. On crossing a cobbled courtyard he, or she, would have entered Montagu House, a hastily although lavishly converted mansion, built on the previous century on the edge of London. Inside, after admission tickets had been collected, a small group of about ten people would have been conducted on a guided tour, lasting about two or three hours, past natural history specimens – both attractive and disgusting, but always interesting – and a miscellaneous collection of antiquities, ethnography and what could only be termed curiosities. Before leaving, the visitor would be able to inspect the outside of the books on the library shelves and might perhaps be shown some fine paintings of flowers. There were at that time in the Museum’s collections around 88,000 books and volumes of manuscripts, 24,000 coins and medals, 43,000 natural history specimens and perhaps 5,000 antiquities and ‘modern’ curiosities. This vast collection was curated, protected against the influx of the London mob, and kept clean, by twelve staff. Today the British Museum houses 6 – 12 million objects (if sherds and other small items are counted separately), and has a staff of over 1,000. Its offshoot the Natural History Museum has 70 million specimens and the more recently separated British Library holds 150 million items.

The origins of the British Museum lie in the will of the eminent physician Sir Hans Sloane (1660 – 1753), the greatest collector of his age, particularly noted for his assemblage of natural history specimens, who bequeathed his vast omnium gatherum to King George II for the nation in return for £20,000 for his two heirs. The king was somewhat indifferent but Parliament had the foresight to accept the offer. The British Museum Act received the royal assent on 7 June 1753. Funds to buy a repository and to run the Museum were raised by a state lottery, noticeably corrupt even for the eighteenth century. Parliament seized the opportunity to add to Sloane’s miscellany the historical and literary manuscript collections of the Cotton and Harley families. In 1757 George II donated the Old Royal Library of the sovereigns of England and with it the privilege of copyright deposit. A body of powerful Trustees with perpetual succession, was appointed to govern the Museum on behalf of the nation.

The Museum and its small reading room opened to the public on 15 January 1759.

Text and image © Trustees of the British Museum

You can read more about Treasures of the British Museum by Marjorie Caygill on the British Museum shop website.