Brick from the Tower of Babel


The top image ("Fig. 1") depicts a brick, believed to be taken from the Tower of Babel. "Fig. 2" and "Fig. 3" each depict a canopic jar, or  "canopus"; these were vases used by the ancient Egyptians to store the entrails of enbalmed bodies. "Fig. 4," the image between the symmetrically placed jars, depicts an Egyptian ring.

Accession Number: 

Thordarson T 4136
The British Museum

The doors to the British Museum opened to the public in 1759. Although officially founded by an Act of Parliament passed on June 7, 1753, the collections which formed the original content of the museum belonged to three men: Sir Robert Cotton (1570-1631), Robert Harley, Earl of Oxford (1661-1724), and Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753) (Crook 44). Both Sloane, dubbed “the foremost toyman of his time” by the poet Edward Young, and his collection were already famous by the time George II purchased them for the museum in 1753 (Young 97). The new museum, which prominently displayed Sloane’s natural and man-made curiosities, was a success. A review published in the July 1788 issue of The New London Magazine praises the particular merits of the Sloaniana, “which excite in the contemplative mind the most exalted ideas of divine wisdom in the creation of nature, and prove at the same time a striking monument of human industry” (“An Account of the British Museum” 378).

Visitors to the British Museum had to apply in writing for tickets, but, as a public institution maintained by government funds, admission was free. As a reviewer wrote in 1839, “The cheapest by far of our public exhibitions as well as in other respects the best, is the British Museum, for that costs nothing” (“Synopsis” 299). Museum policies limited both the number of visitors and the amount of time they were given to look at the exhibits; in 1762, R. Dodsley recorded the rules as follows: “fifteen Persons are allowed to view it in one Company; the Time allotted is two Hours” (xxii-xxiii). In spite of these limitations, the exhibit rooms were frequently over-crowded and the museum-going experience was often harried:
Among the Numbers whom Curiosity prompted to get a Sight of this Collection, I was of Course one; but the Time allowed to view it was so short, and the Rooms so numerous, that it was impossible, without some Kind of Directory, to form a proper Idea / of the Particulars. (Dodsley xiv)
Eric Gidal notes that the British Museum was unique in this unprecedented degree of access granted to the public: "As an institution founded ‘not only for the inspection and entertainment of the learned and curious, but for the general use and benefit of the public,’ the British Museum marked a union of legitimization and freedom both aesthetic and social" (21). With free admission came crowds, and with those crowds came anxiety regarding who ought to see the collections as well as how they ought to be seen. Over the course of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, the museum continued to gain popularity. By 1805, 12,000 people visited annually. By 1817 that number grew to 40,000, and by 1833 over 210,00 people came each year to see the collections (Goldgar 229-30). As many reviewers noted, large and often raucous crowds were now an inescapable part of the museum-going experience:
[T]he bustling crowds which thrice-a-week are to be seen in the British Museum, swarming with aimless curiosity from room to room, loudly expressing their wonder and disapprobation of the very things most worthy of admiration, or passing with a vacant gaze those precious relics of antiquity, of which it is impossible that they can understand the value as they are, for the most part, insensible to the hallowing associations, which render these objects the links of connexion between distant ages and our own. (“A Visit to the British Museum” 42)
The behavior of these crowds generated considerable anxiety in the press, with one 1839 reviewer even going so far as to publish three “cautions” for visitors to the British Museum and other public exhibitions: “Touch nothing,” “Don’t talk loud,” and “Be not obtrusive” (“Synopsis” 302-3).
The long title of the Museum Britannicum, a guidebook to the British Museum, is as follows:

Museum Britannicum: Or, a Display in Thirty Two Plates, in Antiquities and Natural Curiosities, in that Noble and Magnificent Cabinet, the BRITISH MUSEUM, After the Original Designs from Nature, by John and Andrew Van Rymsdyk, Pictors. The Second Edition, Revised and Corrected by P. Boyle. Dedicated (by Permission) to His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales. London: Printed for the Editor, by J. Moore, No. 134, Drury-Lane. And Sold by T. Hookham, Bond-Street, M,DCC,XCI.
“Table XIII, Brick from the Tower of Babel. Figure 1 shows an unburnt brick of about twelve and a half inches square and five inches thick, which was taken from the foundations of the supposed Tower of Babylon. Figure 2, Vas Ægyptium, a canopus with a head of Osiris or hawk, in white alabaster with hieroglyphics painted in black. Figure 3, Canopus, the cover a dog’s head. Figure 4, Egyptian ring” (Thornton 70).
What is perhaps most remarkable about this illustration from the Rymsdyks’ Museum Britannicum is how unremarkable the most prominent drawing actually is: Figure 1, the square brick which dominates the upper half of the plate, is drawn with the same meticulous attention to detail that Rymsdyk devotes to the most complex of forms, yet it hardly seems to warrant this degree of particularization. However, the footnote to the accompanying page of text reveals Rymsdyk’s eagerness to “embellish the history of this unburnt brick,” and it seems that the biblical and political history surrounding the artifact may have dictated Rymsdyk’s interest more than any particular attribute of the object itself (Rymsdyk 34). Moreover, a number of reference works, including Ephraim Chambers’s 1728 Cyclopaediashow that bricks were frequently defined—or their definitions embellished—by references to Babel: "Brick, a fat reddish Earth, fom’d into long Squares, 4 Inches in Breadth, and 8 or 9 in Length, by means of a wooden Mould; and then bak’d or burnt in a Kiln, to serve for the Uses of Building. Bricks appear to be of very antient standing; the Tower of Babel being built thereof" (1.126).

Stephen Asma argues that the “Museum Britannicum is an empiricist celebration of the idiosyncratic truth of visual reality” (251). Rymsdyk’s attentiveness to the subtleties of the humble brick, then, confirms our understanding of him as the “quintessential visual communicator” (Asma 254). It seems that Rymsdyk sees—and wants us to see—the long and fascinating history of Babel in every carefully shaded crevice of the brick.
“An Account of the British Museum” New London Magazine 4.40 (1788): 377-78. Print.

Asma, Stephen T. Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads. New York: Oxford UP, 2003. Print.

Cyclopædia, or, An Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences. Comp. Ephraim Chambers. Vol. 1. London: Knapton, 1728. University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents. Web. 10 May 2009.

Crook, J. Mordaunt. The British Museum. London: Penguin, 1972. Print.

Daston, Lorraine and Katherine Park. Wonders and the Order of Nature. New York: Zone, 1998. Print.

Dodsley, R. The General Contents of the British Museum: with Remarks. Serving as a Directory in Viewing that Noble Cabinet. London, 1762. Print.

Goldgar, Anne. “The British Museum and the Visual Representation of Culture in the Eighteenth Century.” Albion 32.2 (2000): 195-231. Print.

Rymsdyk, Jan van and Andreas van Rymsdyk. Museum Britannicum, Or, A Display In Thirty Two Plates, In Antiquities and Natural Curiosities, In That Noble and Magnificent Cabinet, the British Museum: After the Original Designs From Nature. 2nd ed. London, 1791. Print.

“Synopsis of the Contents of the British Museum” Eclectic Review 6 (1839): 281-306. Print.

Thornton, John L. John Van Rymsdyk: Medical Artist of the Eighteenth Century. New York: Oleander, 1982. Print.

Young, Edward. The Poetical Works of Edward Young. Cambridge, 1859. Print.