In the late evening, after the last members of the public have been ushered out of the building and the outer gates have been bolted shut, a swift and palpable change comes over the British Museum.

The museum is the most popular tourist attraction in Britain, ahead of Tate Modern and the National Gallery: more than 6.2m people visited in 2019, over 17,000 every day. Without these visitors, the relentless thrum of activity beneath the glass-and-steel lattice roof of the Great Court fades to a whisper. A thick silence fills the cavernous galleries that surround it, each one loaded with artefacts that encompass the arc of human history.

By the time the night shift begins, most of the lights in the museum have been extinguished. The security staff, who patrol the length and breadth of the 14-acre complex until early morning, carry out many of their duties by torchlight. Scouring the premises for anomalies – water leaks, the smell of gas, an employee trapped in a remote corridor – they cast their beams into dark corners, the shadows melting back to reveal a war-like Roman bust or an Aztec mask with shining eyes and teeth. They may even confront a real human being, like the body of an Ancient Egyptian, 5,500 years dead, huddled inside a reconstruction of his sandy grave.

Even without visitors, the museum is never completely silent. The main building, which dates back to the 1820s and has been expanded and reconfigured ever since, is alive with creaks, as old buildings are prone to be. The air-conditioning hums. Doors clank. Sudden breezes whistle around corners and up lift shafts. As security guards move through the 94 rooms open to the public, along the rabbit warren of back-of-house offices and passageways, and into the rambling network of storage facilities below ground, they are privy to the building’s most intimate sounds: scrapes and groans, drowned out during opening hours, can grow disconcertingly loud at night.

The guards are accustomed to such disturbances. But every so often a patrol encounters a noise, a flash of movement, or simply a sudden lurch in the pit of the stomach, that stops even hardened veterans in their tracks.

The Sutton Hoo helmet, c.600AD

Sometimes it’s the doors. To complete a full circuit of the museum more than 3,000 doors need to be opened and closed. Some of these, particularly ones that seal off the major galleries, are cumbersome to shut. But when bolted, they won’t open again without a tussle. Except when they do. Take the Sutton Hoo gallery, which houses treasures from an Anglo-Saxon ship, among them a ferocious-looking helmet believed to have been worn by Raedwald, king of the East Angles, in the seventh century. On one occasion a guard bolted the double doors and moved on to the next room, only to be informed by a CCTV operator that the doors stood wide open again. Video footage of the gallery showed them moving spontaneously.

Sometimes it’s a sudden drop in temperature, like the unnerving patches of cold air that linger next to the winged, human-headed bull of Nimrud at the entrance to the Assyrian galleries. Sometimes it’s the sound of footsteps, or music, or crying, where no obvious source can be found.

And sometimes it might be the objects themselves. One night a security guard was passing through the African galleries in the basement and paused for a moment before the figure of a two-headed dog. The guard believed that this 19th-century wooden Congolese fetish, bristling with rough iron nails, possessed some mysterious power. On this particular night he felt an irresistible compulsion to point his finger at it. As he did so, the fire alarms in the gallery went off. A few days later the guard returned to the gallery with his brother, who also pointed at the two-headed dog. Again the alarms sounded.

These stories were all told, directly or indirectly, to Noah Angell, an American artist and storyteller who has been researching hauntings at the British Museum since 2016. There are many other tales too – of spectral figures cropping up in visitors’ photographs, of a séance held by departmental staff in a haunted brick store.

Angell first learned of the stories in a London pub. He was at birthday drinks for a friend who had once worked at the museum, when her former colleagues started trading eerie anecdotes from their old workplace. Angell, a 39-year-old from North Carolina, often makes use of folklore and oral history in his writing and artistic projects. He sensed an opportunity to get under the skin of one of Britain’s grandest institutions. “I thought that there would be a half dozen or so stories which everyone knows, and they circulate around the museum, and little variations and mutations are created,” he told me. He assumed that documenting them would be straightforward. Four years on the tales are still pouring in: more than 50 visitors and staff have spoken to him so far, and there’s no sign of the supply running dry.

These days Angell gives unofficial walking tours of the museum, spending two hours retelling the stories in their exact locations (the coronavirus outbreak has put a stop to these for the moment). Compactly built, with dark-brown hair, a high forehead and the stubbly remnants of a once-mighty beard, Angell steers clear of the arch theatrics of a typical ghost-tour host. He begins by warning that any­one who mocks the museum’s spirits risks getting hurt. On the first stop, in the Clocks and Watches gallery, he recounts how a Dutch couple took a photograph of the mechanical galleon, a model ship of gilded copper and iron from 16th-century Germany, only to find, reflected in the glass case, the apparition of a female dwarf with missing clumps of hair smiling back at them. A woman on the information desk who dealt with the couple’s bewildered query ended up directing them to the Spiritualist Association of Great Britain. She noted that the ghost was dressed in 16th-century costume.

Winged human-headed creatures, Nimrud, 865-850BC

Angell is alert to how British Museum staff experience the building differently according to their place in the hierarchy. He notes that it’s often the lower-level workers, not curators or senior management, who have stories. (A former museum worker himself, Angell says that one of his goals for the project is to give a voice to gallery attendants, cleaners and other overlooked staff, who have built up intimate knowledge of the collection through years of observation and proximity.)

It was the orbs that drew in the overnight security team. Around 3am an alarm went off in a disabled toilet and a pair of guards rushed over to check what was going on. Nothing seemed amiss until a guard received a call from a CCTV operator, who said that large balls of white light were hovering above a staircase in the Great Court and chasing each other through the air. “We can’t see anything,” the security guard responded. “They’re all around you,” the CCTV operator replied.

The appearance of the orbs coincided with an exhibition called “Germany: Memories of a Nation”, which ran from October 2014 to January 2015. The guard who stood among the balls of light wondered if they might be connected to one of the exhibits: a white, wrought-iron gate from the concentration camp at Buchenwald that bore the motto “Jedem das Seine” (“To each what he deserves”). “You get objects that hold energy,” the guard explained. “Nothing [else] in that exhibition was anything that will have caused something like that…I’m really not surprised if someone attached to that object was to come with it. You couldn’t blame them, to be quite honest. I’m happy to have them here.” The orbs appeared at the same time each night until the exhibition ended. “When Germany went,” the security guard said, “they went.”

Angell says many museum staff share this attitude. “Most of the people that I’ve gathered these stories from…don’t self-identify as believing in ghosts,” he tells me. “For the most part, these visitor-services and security people are working-class blokes and they don’t make a fuss unless something really serious is going on…But what they all seem to agree on, as the sort of folk belief of the museum worker, is that objects hold energy. This is a formulation that everyone is comfortable with.”

Angell, who is planning to publish a book on the subject, is not immediately forthcoming about what he believes himself. On the tour he lets his audience make up their own minds. “This project is agnostic,” he tells me at one point, adding mischievously: “I may not be agnostic, but that’s neither here nor there.”

As we talk it becomes clearer that he is open to supernatural explanations and considers himself to be, as he puts it, “somewhat psychic”. He’s happy to let a few provocative ideas slip out in conversation. One of these puts a distinctive spin on the debate around restitution, which has been growing in volume in recent years.

In 2017 France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, declared the return of African heritage to Africa a “top priority” (though by the end of 2019 only one object had been returned). A report published the following year, commissioned by him, recommended that all objects obtained during the colonial era be restored to their country of origin unless there was proof they had been acquired legitimately. Stéphane Martin, president of the Musée de Quai Branly, an anthropological museum in Paris, decried the report in an interview with Le Monde as an act of “self-flagellation”. But the French inquiry stirred the waters. The British Museum has since received multiple requests, from Ethiopia, Nigeria and Chile among others, to hand back disputed items.

Here’s looking at caryatid One of the Elgin Marbles, a caryatid that was said to weep as it was transported to Britain, Athens, c.410BC

The question of restitution is as old as conquest and plunder. According to Pliny the Elder, the Roman emperor Augustus was embarrassed enough to return pieces of looted art to Greece. Discussion has intensified in recent years as the West has been forced to confront the legacy of colonialism. Many former colonies have asserted their claim to treasures, and indigenous communities have amplified their demands through social media. Nigeria is planning a new museum to house the Benin bronzes, the largest number of which are held at the British Museum.

Some institutions in Britain have returned objects. The Manchester Museum said last year it would send back 43 items to four of Australia’s First Nations. The British Museum, by contrast, has avoided making any commitments. It loans items around the world, but the museum cites a variety of reasons – including government legislation blocking the removal of objects – for keeping its collection intact.

Over the course of his research, Angell has arrived at a strikingly different perspective on restitution. “In the conventional discourse around repatriation,” he says, “contested objects are like pawns. They may be fantastic and big and old, but essentially they are being employed as a symbolic wedge, which two countries with grievances against each other can use to get what they want.” The testimonies he has been gathering amount to an argument that the pawns may have their own agency. As Angell puts it: “These stories seem to suggest that the objects themselves are restless.”

The British Museum has about 8m items in its collection, and new acquisitions are being made all the time. The artefacts include sacred objects from all over the world – tomb guardians, reliquaries, statues of deities and demons – and more than 6,000 human remains. By rights the British Museum ought to be one of the most haunted institutions on the planet.

Irving Finkel, a curator in the museum’s Middle East department, reckons it is a fruitful place to look for ghosts “for lots of reasons”. Finkel is interested in magic and demonology: with his long, white beard and circular glasses, he’s the epitome of a scholar who spends his time deciphering cuneiform inscriptions in Sumerian and Babylonian. His views on the supernatural are more surprising. Throughout history, he says, many cultures have considered ghosts a fact of life. He argues that the belief in some form of spiritual lingering after death is deep-seated in the human psyche. Our current relative scepticism – only about half of the British population professes to believe in ghosts – is “an anomaly”, he says.

To his great annoyance, Finkel has never actually seen a ghost himself. He puts that down to a lack of sensitivity on his part. But he reckons the museum offers plenty of opportunities. “One, there are lots of dead bodies here,” he says. “Then there’s lots of curators who’ve spent their entire lives here and some of them died on the premises.”

A statue of Buddha overlooks the haunted staircase

The British Museum, which opened its doors on Great Russell Street in 1759, has been accumulating voraciously from the beginning. The original collection was bequeathed by Hans Sloane, an Ulsterman whose lucrative career as a physician and income from his wife’s slave plantations in Jamaica allowed him to amass some 71,000 items – manuscripts, medals, preserved animals, shells – through a vast network of contacts across the British Empire. After he died in 1753, Sloane’s vision for a free public museum dedicated to the ideal of universal knowledge began to take shape.

It was not an entirely new concept. The museum is a legacy of the ancient world, though the Musæum at Alexandria, home of the famous library, brought together great scholars rather than artefacts. During the Renaissance, collectors assembled Wunderkammern, cabinets of curiosities. But Sloane, according to his biographer James Delbourgo, was “original in calling for a universal museum in both senses: a gathering of all the things of the world open to all the citizens of the world.” His project was driven by the Enlightenment compulsion to classify the world by pinning it down, bagging it and putting it behind glass.

By the turn of the 19th century antiquities were flooding into the museum from overseas at an extraordinary rate. Few people seemed to mind or notice the oddity of calling a museum “British” when it contained objects that were anything but. By 1801, when the British army seized the Rosetta Stone from the French in Egypt, Lord Elgin had already begun stripping marble statues and panels from the Parthenon. Much of the current debate around restitution has its roots in that period. European powers roamed the globe, divided it between them and sent the treasures home. Not everything was acquired illegally. Some items were bought, exchanged or received as gifts – though there’s a question as to how freely a gift is given, if it’s handed over to a man at the head of a platoon of bayonets.

Many museums in the West argue that communities sometimes don’t want artefacts back because they lack the resources to care for them. As borders have shifted and kingdoms been succeeded by modern states, it’s not always clear to whom, exactly, a centuries-old item should be returned. Better to keep the objects where they are, goes the argument: accessible to visitors, and preserved for future generations to study and admire. Publicly, the British Museum has barely reckoned with its colonial past. When Ahdaf Soueif, an Egyptian author, resigned from the museum’s board of trustees in July 2019, she expressed disappointment at its inaction on restitution, as well as its association with BP. The British Museum, which discourages employees from commenting on the subject, has a standard response to enquiries about restitution: “The integrity of the collection should be maintained.” (Hartwig Fischer, the British Museum’s director, declined to comment for this article.) Yet it’s not clear exactly what kind of integrity an assemblage of items so broad and diffuse really has.

When confronted with the plethora of ghost stories from the museum, an obvious interpretation is that they are manifestations of disquiet about the institution’s heritage. Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock, an American scholar who writes about the supernatural in the arts, reckons that hauntings are often observed when official narratives repress “an untold story that calls into question the veracity of the authorised version of events”. Yet Angell hasn’t noticed any guilt or anger among the employees he’s interviewed: most of them seem comfortable with the objects under their watch. He’s heard a few stories that deal directly with illicitly acquired objects, such as the caryatid in Room 19 that Lord Elgin tore from the Parthenon (according to legend, the graceful marble statue could be heard weeping inside her crate as she was shipped to England). But these tales came to Angell from outside the institution.

Ghost stories at the British Museum are nothing new. In the 1910s and 1920s the Egyptian department received stacks of letters calling for the return of artefacts that were believed to be cursed, according to Roger Luckhurst, a professor of literature at Birkbeck College in London, who has written a book on Western culture’s dark fascination with mummies.

Certain members of the museum hierarchy are conscious of heightened friction around particular items. When I asked Jim Peters, a collections manager in the Britain, Europe and Prehistory department, what he makes of Angell’s idea about restless objects, he tiptoed around the question. “I would agree with him to a certain extent,” he said. “It’s very important the pieces are here. But having said that, there are pieces that I think are out of sync being here.” He went on: “There are certain objects that, if they were in the correct context, would still have a purpose.” These, he says, declining to give specific examples, “are the restless objects”.

Bewitched Statues of Sekhmet, Thebes, 18th dynasty

Personally, I found the idea difficult to get my head around. How could inanimate lumps of wood, rock or metal open doors or set off alarms? Surely this was just a case of humans imbuing them with powers in the absence of obvious explanations of the phenomena. But when I put Angell’s theory to Fiona Candlin, a colleague of Luckhurst’s at Birkbeck, she seemed more amenable. Candlin, a professor of museology, had shadowed overnight security staff earlier in her career. She heard them bid “goodnight” to dead bodies on display and picked up a couple of ghost stories along the way.

Before that, Candlin had spent time in the British Museum investigating why many people feel compelled to touch objects in galleries, especially when expressly forbidden from doing so. Some people feel an item to understand how it’s made, but for others, the instinct is more primal. “They had a sense that if they touched it, it gave them a conduit to the past and put them in actual connection with people who had lived,” she said: “So this block had been carried by an Egyptian slave, and if you touched it, it was like touching him.”

Many of us share a similar attachment to our own most emotionally valuable possessions, says Candlin. Your grandfather’s glasses are not just lens and frame, “they are like a bit of your granddad, and you can’t bloody throw them away, because it would be like throwing away a bit of your granddad.” Candlin reckons that many visitors to the British Museum believe that particular objects have inherent power. Gallery staff told her that they’d often see devotees attempting to commune with four black stone statues of Sekhmet, a mighty lion-headed goddess known as “she who mauls”, which dominate a corner of the Egyptian sculpture gallery. Candlin also heard about Christian visitors holding up wooden crosses or glass vials next to the relics of saints in order to channel their energies. “That’s a really clear situation where someone thinks that the object does have power and that power can be conveyed,” Candlin says.

Lissant Bolton, keeper of the Africa, Oceania and the Americas department at the British Museum, tells me of visitors who treat objects in the collection “as living identities”. Some regard them as ancestors. One potent example looms over the entrance to the Living and Dying gallery, directly behind the Great Court. Hoa Hakananai’a is a four-tonne statue of a human figure hewn from brownish lava rock, with deep-set eyes, pursed lips and a gentle pot belly. The Rapa Nui, the indigenous people of Easter Island – whose governor visited the British Museum in 2018 to campaign for the figure’s return – consider it to be an actual living entity. “This is no rock,” the president of the Rapa Nui Council of Elders said last year. “It embodies the spirit of an ancestor, almost like a grandfather. This is what we want returned to our island – not just a statue.”

The restitution of the dead is particularly sensitive. Many religions and cultures have a tradition of burying human remains, so it can be offensive to find bodies ending up in a museum instead. Several people told Angell during interviews that they felt uneasy about the presence of dead bodies in the building. Phil Heary, who worked at the museum for 29 years, recalled unsettling experiences in a long row of rooms where 19 mummies from Ancient Egypt are on display. On one occasion, alone in the galleries amid the wizened faces and desiccated corpses, he felt the temperature plummet for no apparent reason. “It was like walking into a freezer,” said Heary, a burly north Londoner who now works in a supermarket bakery not far from the museum. “My stomach turned over. The feel of the gallery was – you wanted to get out. It was scary…I’m a great believer that, wherever you’re buried, you should stay there. A lot of the mummies there should be back in their graves.”

Head of Amenhotep III, Thebes, 18th dynasty

Emily Taylor, who worked as an assistant in the Egypt department for ten years until 2015 and regularly handled human remains, takes a different view. She got used to the leathery skin and still-intact hair of millennia-old corpses, as well as the sweetish smell of decay that was released when showcases were opened after long periods. “When we worked on exhibitions, the mummies would be referred to by name,” Taylor tells me. “In Ancient Egyptian culture, that’s part of their death rite: they wanted people to be spoken about – that’s how you kept them alive. Even though this person is not in their proper resting place, they are being kept alive by being written about, being spoken about, by being shown in the museum.”

As I’ve wandered through the museum’s galleries over the past year, I’ve often thought about the power of these artefacts. If the objects are in some sense alive, or if ghostly entities accompanied them to their current resting place in central London, are they furious about being amid the bright spotlights and thronging crowds? Or are they glad to be the centre of attention – enlivened, even, by the public’s gaze? One day, weeks before the outbreak of coronavirus, when visitors still brushed past each other with scant regard for social distancing and pressed their faces against the glass to get a look at the mummies, I attempted to tap in to the energies of the collection.

In the Enlightenment gallery, the grandest in the museum, I stared for a long time at John Dee’s black obsidian mirror, which the Elizabethan polymath reportedly used to commune with angels. I climbed up and down the North and East Stairs, which are said to be haunted by shadows and disembodied voices. I even toured the museum with a medium called Patsy Sorenti, whom Angell had invited along. She said she picked up several presences around the building, including the sound of ghostly feet running across the Sutton Hoo gallery.

Despite all this, I witnessed no supernatural activity myself. The sceptical part of me, which I hoped would be cracked open by some paranormal epiphany, remained stubbornly intact. But, over months pondering Angell’s ghost stories and haunting the galleries myself, I experienced a gradual shift in my understanding of what a museum is. “All museums are strange places,” Candlin told me. “You put loads of things together that otherwise wouldn’t exist together and that have been utterly disassociated from where they come from – it’s quite a strange thing to do. Not all cultures do that, but we’ve got used to walking around spaces looking at objects that have been removed from use and meaning.”

At the British Museum you can bridge chasms of space and time simply by walking from one room to the next. You breeze past objects that speak of lives lived and loved; religion, dominion and death jostle with one another for space. Whatever you think about the possibility of ghostly activity, that is inherently uncanny. Nowhere else are so many objects which were once dear to their creators and owners so profoundly, almost comically, out of place.

Unwrapped mummy of an unknown woman

On my last visit, after spending a morning watching couples take selfies next to the mummies, I began to imagine how the British Museum might appear to the objects themselves. In the Great Court, I considered two giant quartzite heads of Pharaoh Amenhotep III, over 3,000 years old. Then I turned around to see what they were looking at with such infinite composure: a display of popular-history books and mini umbrellas for sale outside the museum gift shop.

In the Assyrian gallery, I marvelled at the stone reliefs of Ashurnasirpal II, king of Assyria from 883BC to 859BC. His “standard inscription”, which he had carved across each wall panel in his palace, makes Shelley’s Ozymandias seem self-effacing. He refers to himself as “the king who acts with the support of the great gods, and whose hand has conquered all lands, who has subjugated all the mountains and received their tribute, taking hostages and establishing his power over all countries.” Today, his inscription hangs in a poky room more than 2,300 miles away from where it was carved in stone. But at least the Assyrian king’s 2,900-year-old declaration still receives widespread attention. The overwhelming majority of the museum’s collection – around 99% of it, though much of this comprises stones, flints and other fragments – lies in storage, hidden from the curiosity, admiration or perplexity of the general public.

Angell would love to take a closer look, but securing access is tricky (he’s working on it). For now, millions of objects remain in the dark, save for an occasional glance from a departmental assistant or the nightly ministrations of security guards, who switch the lights on for a brief moment to make sure nothing is out of place, before closing the door and continuing their rounds. “Down there”, says Angell, “things just stew in their own juices, indefinitely, for ever.”

photographs ZED NELSON

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