Getting behind the scenes at the British Museum

Hidden deep inside the British Museum are staff with PhDs in history, archeology etc. They're the ones who put the things in the public display cases.

The professionals who know what they're talking about lurk within rooms behind locked doors. If you'd like to meet them, do what I did: walk up to the information desk at the front of the atrium and say something like, "Could you please direct me to everything you have from the Aegean island of Samos, dated 520 B.C. plus or minus ten years?" (Choose your own exotic question here, but mine worked.)

The nice lady at the information desk smiled and did her best with what for her probably amounted to Mission Impossible, though as she put it, my request was more interesting than telling people where to find the toilets. After ten minutes she gave up and said, "You need to talk to the Study Group." The capital S and G were clear in her tone. She picked up the phone and arranged an appointment for me to see the duty officer in Greek and Roman Antiquities.

She directed me to an obscure, anonymous, locked door at the end of a long wing. There isn't a secret knock, but it feels like there should be. Instead, I rang the bell, and after explaining the purpose of my existence was let inside.

I had some fun trying to explain why I was there. "I'm writing the second book in a series of historical mysteries, and my hero, who happens to be the elder brother of Socrates...yes, I know he had no known siblings, that's why it's called on a mission for Pericles when he discovers..." Eyes glaze over as I disclose the devious plot. I won't tell you what Nicolaos discovers, 'cause that would be spoiler city, but the nice man at the BM knows. " for historical accuracy I need to look at anything you might have from Samos circa 520 B.C. or thereabouts."

Here's how the system works. The BM holds an awful lot of stuff in storage. If you have a decent reason for wanting to see something, and if a responsible adult from a recognized university or museum is willing to write a note certifying you're not prone to dropping delicate 2,500 year old ceramics, then with a week's written notice they will (for free!) have someone pull what you want out of storage and send it to one of their three study rooms deep within the inner bowels. There you get to study whatever it is you requested, in person, without any glass cabinet in the way. Very cool, and a phenomenal service.

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