Unidentified Museum Objects: curiosities from The British Museum

12 Dec 2001 – 28 Feb 2002

Exhibition in Gallery 4

Unidentified Museum Objects sets out to bring together, for the first time, intriguing items from across the collections of The British Museum which are only partly understood.

Within every museum collection there are curious objects that cannot be classified with any great certainty. We have categorised these items as ‘Unidentified Museum Objects’ (‘UMOs’ for short), a deliberately cheeky neologism coined in the spirit of museum convention.

Doubt surrounds the original function of all the items that have been selected. In many cases, a use has been identified but later challenged, whilst other UMOs continue to confound all attempts at categorisation. The objects include a lenticular crystal that may have been used decoratively or as an attempt to correct myopia in 750 BC, an African ‘hand axe’ over a million years old (too large to fit in the hand and too fragile to be an axe), a Roman coin appended to a bronze pig’s trotter and one of the famous Rock Crystal Skulls that continue to fascinate and inspire speculation.

As a group, the UMOs we have chosen reflect the breadth of the rich collections held at The British Museum. The display will give visitors the chance to compare objects from diverse cultures and periods, in different materials and techniques. The items are all three-dimensional and most have been carved in some way. They have been chosen for a visual appeal which is probably only enhanced by their mysterious status. Even the oldest pieces in the exhibition show a concern for the aesthetic. However, whilst it is possible for us to appreciate the form of these UMOs, we can only guess at their former function - which is exactly what makes them so engaging.

The third in our series of collaborations with The British Museum, this display raises significant questions about the relationship between objects and museums, between knowledge and looking. To what extent does knowing influence the way we look; to what extent does uncertainty whet our visual appetite?

Venue details

Venue address

Henry Moore Institute
The Headrow
United Kingdom
T: 0113 246 7467

Opening times

Galleries: Tuesday to Sunday, 10am - 5pm

Research Library: Monday to Friday, 10am - 5pm
Archive of Sculptors' Papers: Tuesday to Friday, by prior appointment

Comments (1)

Amanda Grego

21 August 2019 18:05

Good evening I have recently bought a wooden mask whilst on my travels to Germany. I bought it with no understanding of its origin and understand that it may have no historical value...but there is something that feels slightly more than the others i have. Just wondered if there was someone that I could forward the pictures to that could provide any information (if any!)? Kindest regards Amanda Grego Sent from my iPhone Sent from my iPhone

David Cotton

David Cotton | Web Editor, Henry Moore Institute

21 August 2019 18:44

Hi Amanda, unfortunately we don't have any mask experts here at the Institute. All the objects in this exhibition were loaned to us by the British Museum, so you could try contacting them. Unidentified museum objects are fascinating in their own right but very hard to trace their history!

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