British Museum

As an epilogue to my Egyptian trip, spent a few hours at the British Museum today. This was motivated by every second description of an antiquity in Egypt being followed by ‘but you can’t see it, because it’s in the British Museum collection’. Yes, for God, Queen and country, we crated up everything that wasn’t nailed down (and many bits that were) and shipped it back to Merrie Englande. Aside from the Egyptian artefacts (which are spectacular) there’s Graeco-Roman items, similarly, uh, ‘acquired’ from Athens, Crete, Asia Minor and the rest. Many of the description cards use slightly convenient language to dodge around the methods by which the treasures of the ancient world ended up in London, such as being handed over by the French after one of their inevitable defeats, swapped with the locals for trinkets, or purchased from dubious characters.

At one particular site we apparently got even more enthusiastic that usual, and carted away an entire temple, which has been reconstructed.

Upstairs there’s a good British & European section, which is humbling when you compare the chronology; when the Egyptians were building huge temples, we were still making axes from flint. It’s also interesting to compare the artefacts; everything from Assyria and Egypt is stone or pottery, whereas even through to the middle ages, the European items are mostly metal. Especially impressive is the Celtic and Roman jewellery, and the various finds from Sutton Hoo. In general there’s decent interpretation on many exhibits which helps greatly – the replica helmet from Sutton Hoo is stunning, and showing (replica) grave goods arranged in-situ is much more effective than lined up in glass cabinets.

I guess I saw about ten percent of what’s on display – the free admission is a huge benefit, it really takes the pressure off trying to see everything in a day or half-day. And there’s enough space that it didn’t feel packed, despite being busy.

As an aside, the great court is breath-taking. I’d forgotten about it until I walked in, and the sense of light and space is dramatic. The contrast between the geometric lines of the museum buildings and the curves of the roof is pleasing, producing the sensation of the roof almost hanging freely above the square. I hate to think how complex the construction must have been, apparently each piece of glass is unique, and there’s no obvious ribs or supporting members – presumably the entire strength comes from the lattice.

Posted Monday, May 12th, 2008 under history, travel.

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