Research Can Add Rich Detail: The British Museum

Left to Right: Montagu House, Townley Gallery and Sir Robert Smirke‘s west wing under construction (July 1828)

My main character works at the British Museum in present day, but finds herself in 1834 London. I thought it would be fun for her to visit the museum while she’s in 1834 to see her reaction.

When I wrote my first draft, I knew I needed to do research on the museum, but waited until I was polishing my third draft. I wondered if the current building was even around in 1834, and sure enough, it wasn’t. But, it was right during the time it was being built. It took some digging to find out which wing was built when, and which was yet open for the public, but I discovered that in 1834, she would be visiting the previous museum’s lodgings, Montagu House. The British Museum’s website has some very helpful history posted. This initial led me to many more on their history, with photos and drawings, and even a history of each wing.

However, I wanted to find what artifacts she’d be seeing. I thought I’d need to write the British Museum and see if they’d be so helpful as to do something like this for a newbie writer. Thankfully, on the off-chance that Google would pull through, I searched online. Would you believe that the British Museum published guides to their artifacts room by room at various times in the 1800s? And they’re posted online? Talk about a writer’s wet dream! They’re available on Google Books. Here’s the one from 1814 and the one from 1838. Using these and other online sources, I was able to form a picture of what she might have seen. I had to draw a map on paper, to figure out some of this, as the photos got confusing.
 
Anyway, here’s a before and after of the hero and heroine approaching the museum. Notice the lack of detail in the first version. I had no idea what she was “seeing.” (There’s other things lacking, too!). The hero doesn’t know she’s from the future.
 
 
Second Draft:

They rode in silence until they pulled up at the marbled façade a few blocks later.

Once inside, however, Miss Rochon seemed so completely absorbed with just the interior of the building, with the displays off the main room, that Phineas felt he would be intruding if he interrupted her to redirect them to a person knowledgeable about Colonial artifacts. If she was enjoyably engaged, that was all that mattered. He smiled, looking at her as she flitted from one object to another.

“Wow, the way they’re displayed! This is just so weird!”

“Weird?” Phineas looked around, trying to comprehend how any of what he saw could be construed as ‘weird’. Some of the items, to be sure, but how they were displayed?

“It’s just so old-fashioned! I saw a museum once outside of Atlanta, a little local one, that had display tables with the artifacts set up like this, with little cards all lined up, one next to another, but…”

“Old-fashioned? Atlanta?” Phineas felt a surge of patriotic fervor rise in his chest. How insulting could she be?

Miss Rochon whipped her head around and stared at him, color draining from her face. She almost appeared as if she had forgotten his presence. Phineas felt even more insulted.

“Oh my gosh, I keep forgetting…”

“Forgetting what, Miss Rochon?”

“Nothing, sorry, I sometimes ramble. I just love museums and can get carried away.” She turned her back to him, attempting to be engrossed with something she observed there, but Phineas could not suffer the statement to pass without comment.

“What is this business about old-fashioned? And what, pray tell, is Atlanta?”

“Oh, um, sorry, I didn’t mean to be offensive, though I know that’s how it appears. Did I say old-fashioned? I just meant, how, well, old everything was, the items, you know. And, uh, Atlanta is a place I used to live.”

“In America?”

“Yes.”

“Never heard of it.”

“I know.”

“You know?” Realizing he was marching toward her, he deliberately slowed his pace and stopped a foot from her. “What the devil does that mean? You expect me to be ignorant of your country’s history and places? I find myself more and more insulted.”

“Oh God, I keep making it worse. I assure you I didn’t mean that. I can’t explain… I, uh, oh wow, look at that [insert some cool artifact]. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one in such good condition. This is so amazing.”

Third Draft:

He turned the horses onto Russell Street. “Up ahead are the entrance gates to the museum.” He felt her stiffen beside him and heard a sharp intake of breath. He frowned, but continued with his tour. “Behind this building, the old gardens are now a construction site for the new museum Smirke is building.

The wheels of their carriage clattered over the stones of the courtyard. He threw the reins to a servant and assisted Miss Rochon out of the carriage.

“So, you said they’re building a new museum behind here?”

“Yes, I have heard the current building will be torn down soon for the South Wing of the new museum.”

She seemed just as interested with the outside of the building as he’d expected her to be for the inside. She lingered and surveyed the whole façade.

Once inside, a guide conducted them through the ground floor library and up the main staircase, the specimens of unusual animals of the world looming above them. Phineas wanted to ask the guide about their collection. However, Miss Rochon seemed so completely absorbed with the interior of the building, the paintings by La Fosse on the ceilings, and the displays themselves, that Phineas felt he would be intruding if he interrupted. If she was enjoyably engaged, that was all that mattered. He dismissed the guide and smiled, looking at her as she flitted from one object to another. He stood nearby and tracked her movement with his eyes.

“Wow, the way they’re displayed. This is just so weird.”

“Weird?” Phineas looked around. How could any of what he saw be construed as ‘weird’? Some of the items, to be sure, but how they were displayed?

“It’s just so old-fashioned. I saw a museum once outside of Atlanta, a little local one, that had display tables and cases with the artifacts set up like this, with little cards all lined up, one next to another, but…”

A surge of patriotic fervor rose in his chest. How insulting could she be? “Old-fashioned? Atlanta?”

Miss Rochon whipped her head around and stared at him, color draining from her face. She almost appeared as if she had forgotten his presence. Why did he feel like he was back at Harrow except this time he was being ignored and taunted simultaneously?

“Oh my gosh, I keep forgetting…”

“Forgetting what, Miss Rochon?”

“Nothing, sorry, I sometimes ramble. I just love museums and can get carried away.” She turned her back to him, engrossed with something she observed there. However, Phineas could not suffer the statement to pass without comment.

“What is this business about old-fashioned? And what, pray tell, is Atlanta?”

“Oh, um, sorry, I didn’t mean to be offensive, though I know that’s how it appears. Did I say old-fashioned? I just meant, how, well, old everything was, the items, you know. And, uh, Atlanta is a place I used to live.”

“In America?”

“Yes.”

“Never heard of it.”

“I know.”

“You know?” Realizing he marched toward her, he slowed his pace and stopped a foot from her. “What the devil does that mean? You expect me to be ignorant of your country’s history and places? I find myself more and more insulted.”

“Oh God, I keep making it worse. I assure you I didn’t mean that. I can’t explain… I, uh, oh wow, look at these Eskimo artifacts. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a whalebone net in such good condition. This is so amazing.”

Thanks to the booklet, as the scene progressed I was able to insert other items she saw. I took a little liberty by using the 1838 guide as that was the closest to 1834. Because of the guidebook I was also able to have some unexpected fun and inserted this little snippet (background: she’d asked him if they had any artifacts from America):
 

Phineas crossed his arms and cast his eyes upward. He wanted to continue questioning her, and glared at her, awaiting an opportunity. Mumbling to herself, she ran from that case to another, pulling out a small notebook and scratching notes. As he watched her activity, Phineas uncrossed his arms and stepped closer, his eyes consuming her every move: so unlike the regular crop of ladies of fashion who cultivated the air of ennui. They would never dare admit to, much less evince, enthusiasm of any kind.

“Look, they even have a steersman’s cap from the western part of Georgia. Looks like we might have found the right room.”

Phineas smiled. He hoped she had not seen the plaque at the entrance to the room which said, “Artificial Curiosities from Less Civilized Parts.” He walked over to the center of the room and chuckled. Within a glass frame sat one of the original copies of the Magna Carta.

How about you? When you read historical romances, do you like getting this kind of detail? Writers, have you had times when research has paid off or given you unexpected boons?
 
If, by any stroke of luck, someone reads this from the British Museum, I would love to hear from you! Did I get it right? Would there have been other details that would be different from present day?
 
 
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