The British Museum is home to the largest collection of ancient relics and bones, so it’s not surprising that staff and visitors have experienced thousands of eerie happenings. Historian Guy Walters investigates the things that go bump in the night – and day.
Something is stirring in the British Museum. Throughout the endless galleries, corridors and staircases, locked doors are swinging open, footsteps echo, strange figures are being picked up by security cameras and things are going bump in the night.
For the indomitable staff who patrol the vast site, a night shift can cause a gulp in the throat – or worse. Take the time a guard was trying to shut the massive doors of the gallery that houses the eerie Sutton Hoo helmet, thought to have been worn by a mighty seventh-century king of East Anglia called Raedwald. As he pulled the doors into place, he distinctly felt a wrist and a hand emerge between them before giving him a violent shove to his chest. The poor man flew backwards two yards and fell over, a bizarre scene witnessed by his supervisor.
A tall tale? Mere coincidence? Perhaps. But it has recently emerged that there are scores, if not hundreds, of such ghostly accounts at the British Museum.
According to Noah Angell, an author who has been investigating such sightings for several years, the building – which is home to some eight million items from all over the world, including more than 6,000 human remains – is awash with signs of the paranormal. Even the most level-headed sceptic would find it hard to explain away every single one of the episodes Angell has collected for his book, Ghost Stories of the British Museum.
Another story tells of a guard assigned to patrol the galleries in the small hours. He found himself drawn to a particularly enigmatic object – a wooden two-headed dog studded with iron nails from late 19th-century Congo (pictured over the page). For some reason, he became fascinated by the object, said by curators to be a symbol of mediation between the living and the dead, and felt some sort of power emanating from it.
The guard lifted his hand and directed it at the dog, at which point every alarm in the gallery went off. Understandably spooked, he told his brother. And when, two days later, the two men visited the gallery during normal opening hours and he again pointed at the object, the alarms sounded once more.
The story of the mechanical galleon is another tale with no simple earthly explanation. Made in the late 16th century in southern Germany, it is an extraordinary piece of craftsmanship – part automaton, part clock – that was featured in the BBC Radio 4 series and book A History of the World in 100 Objects, by the former director of the British Museum Neil MacGregor.
Angell recounts how one of the museum’s information desks was approached by Dutch tourists, who were perplexed by some photographs they had taken of the galleon.
‘They showed me the pictures in sequence,’ said the member of staff there at the time. ‘So there were all these clocks and watches and in a couple of the last pictures there was a face coming out.
‘It was very strange because it looked like it could have been a little girl or a dwarf. It was a funny face – kind of smiling – and it didn’t have much hair. The clothes were really strange. They weren’t modern.’
According to Angell, the clothes the girl or dwarf was wearing were consistent with the period when the galleon was made. ‘So who is to say that the energy of this being isn’t still around?’ he asks.
The north and east stairwells have seen some of the highest volumes of supernatural phenomena and perhaps it is no surprise to learn they are at either end of the upper floor Egyptian gallery. The room holds many human remains in the forms of mummies – which some might feel are not resting in peace.
In one disturbing episode, a photograph of a child taken by tourists in front of a large tableau of hieroglyphics appeared to reveal a large black mass rising out of the floor as if it were about to overwhelm the child. When the visitors showed the picture to the guard, he was said to be ‘tongue-tied’.
There really does seem to be something otherworldly about the room, as one former member of the visitor services team recounted in his own story to Angell. ‘I went up to the Egyptian mummy gallery in the middle of the night, just to check it out and see if things were all right,’ the supervisor said.
‘I opened up the gallery and it was absolutely freezing – and this was a summer’s evening. It was so cold that I could see the breath coming out of my mouth – it was like walking into a freezer. There was also a smell that I couldn’t describe.
‘There was an eerie feeling about it and my stomach turned over. It was scary. So I phoned up security and said, “Something’s gone wrong up here.”’ By the time his colleagues had arrived, the presence had vanished.
The Egyptian department also seems to attract people who want to divest themselves of objects they find creepy. According to Angell, museum-quality items have been left by visitors on three occasions in 12 years.
‘Once somebody left behind the hand of a mummy,’ he says. ‘There was a note attached to it saying that they had found it among their grandfather’s things after he had died, that it had brought them misfortune and that they wanted it properly disposed of.’
One of the strangest episodes at the museum concerned a special exhibition about Germany, mounted a few years ago. At 2.30am one morning, an alarm went off, triggered by the pull handle in a disabled toilet. when it was investigated, nothing was found. The guards were on the verge of giving up until their supervisor contacted them via radio.
‘The camera to the entrance of the special exhibition was showing these massive balls of light chasing each other around,’ says Angell. ‘They were like orbs, and they were hovering for a few seconds. But although the orbs could be seen on camera, they couldn’t be seen by the guards themselves.’
Apparently, this took place every morning between 2am and 4am, and it stopped as soon as the exhibition ended. As to the cause of the orbs, could they – as one of the warders suggested – have emanated from the gates of a concentration camp that had been part of the exhibition?
It is all the more interesting that very few of the people he has interviewed actually believe in ghosts. Most of the museum employees don’t, says Angell, but they can sense the exhibits have great power.
‘Pretty much everybody in the museum agrees that the objects all hold a lot of energy,’ he continues. ‘When weird things happen, they will tell you about it in detail, but they don’t feel confident about guessing why something happened, or what caused it.’
When the museum reopens, Angell will once again conduct walking tours around the site in which he relates the ghost stories to the public. ‘Some are experts on the occult,’ he says, ‘while others just love Harry Potter. I make sure I speak to all of them.’
Doubtless, some people are sceptical, but who among us would honestly wish to spend a night alone in such a building?
The lockdown, it seems, does not apply to the otherworldly occupants of the British Museum.