British Museum review
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I always feel like a school kid walking round here, looking at all the broken bones and stones and pretending to be keen. "Yes, Miss... a piece of pottery from 1,000 BC. Amazing." Don't forget to tick them off on your sheet, she says. "When can we can we go home, Miss?" Not for another three hours, she says. "Oh Jesus Christ, are you serious? I can't take another three minutes of this!" Three hours of broken bones, busted rocks and blocks of concrete, smashed slates and plates, old bowls with their rims missing, statues with their heads snapped off, piles of tiles and chipped bits of flint... Welcome to the British Museum.
Every tourist has to have something educational on their itinerary and it's usually the British Museum. If you're going to spend a morning walking round one then you may as well make it the biggest and the best. This is the London Louvre; the Smithsonian, Rijksmuseum and Guggenheim all rolled into one, and it begins with an architectural highlight: the Great Court in the middle. There's always a lovely light inside here. It used to be an open-air courtyard until Norman Foster laid a pane of glass across the top, and now it always feels like it's raining with the background pitter patter of chatter and dappled shadows falling from the roof.
You'll want to head to the Egyptian and Assyrian galleries first because all of the best stuff we plundered can be found down there. It seems that our Victorian adventurers snapped up every statue on the market and bought every stone going -- some of them are ginormous. There's a Pharaoh's foot that's bigger than a boat. A forearm that's thicker than a tree trunk. They've got tomb stelae and tomb doors that look like the front face of a cathedral. Huge obelisks and columns that could hold up the moon. Cavernous stone sarcophagi that could swallow a skip.
Good luck trying to photograph any of it, though. The crowds at the British Museum are the kind you find on the platforms at Waterloo. Sometimes you'll be standing there for two minutes waiting for a small space to open up only to get a photo of someone's blurred head as it flits across your field of view. The famous Rosetta Stone is the worst because its small display case is permanently wrapped around with school parties and tour guides, and a lightning storm of camera flashes are forever bouncing off the glass and drowning it out.
They've got a very extensive collection of mummies in coffins, boxes and beautifully painted sarcophagi. But why don't they don't unwrap them? If I found a mummy then that's the first thing I'd do: I'd get all the bandages off. Unwind them. Cut them off, burn them off so I can see what's hiding inside -- there might be some treasure in there. There might be some gold! But they leave them tied up tighter than a surgical sock.
Onto the Elgin Marbles now... I have to be careful what I say here in case there are any Greeks reading, because I know how defensive they can get about these stones. They are like long lost kids to them, snatched kids who were forced to grow up overseas. They insist we stole them, and we say we bought them. They want them back, and we want to keep them. I think they've got a strong case because the idea that we did the Greeks a favour by saving them from destruction is just plain daft. These things weren't just lying around on the floor -- we ripped them from the Parthenon's walls. We ripped the inner ring down to its stone bones, and when you look at the damage on the panels you can easily imagine the violence it took. But I also find it difficult to get worked up about it because we dismantled the Palace of Sargon and Palace at Ninevah as well, and nobody is clamouring for those back. And those panels are much more extensive and impressive than the Elgin Marbles with carvings of armies, archers, battle scenes, troop transports and winged bulls on the walls. That's just how it was in those days: antiquities got lifted and shifted overseas. The Greeks lost a roomful of statues, but we lost half of London when the Germans firebombed it. Whole swathes of our city disappeared in a rubble of dust and you don't hear us moaning about that (much).
One of the most amazing exhibits at the British Museum is the Mausoleum at Halikarnassos. Not many people bother to look at this because it's tucked away in a little side room which is very easy to miss, but the statues and friezes in here came from one of the wonders of the world -- one of the actual Seven Wonders! When you look at the architectural plans it doesn't seem all that impressive, to be honest -- not like the Pyramids, Colossus of Rhodes or Hanging Gardens of Babylon. It's just a big box with statues round the side. But hey-ho, it's still one of the original wonders.
The Roman section is worth a visit simply for the stuff they dug up in Britain. The Egyptians didn't build any pyramids in London, but the Romans conveniently crossed over the Channel and built us some temples of our own. They've got huge mosaics on display, roof tiles and hypocausts from a Roman bathhouse, statues of Nero and Hadrian's hollow head, and battered swords and dented shields and helmets from the Roman legionnaires.
The European galleries are my favourite because that's where you'll find most of the British stuff. They've got a lot of decorated medieval floor tiles, bejewelled crucifixes, chalices, golden goblets and wax seals. (I know, I know... it sounds boring, but if you're into the history of London then it's worth a look.) Then it's onto the Celts and Saxons and lots more swords and shields, and the famous burial hoard at Sutton Hoo.
Here's a tip: some of the loveliest treasures are also the smallest. You'll find them in the Waddesdon Bequest (quite a hard room to find). Check out the 'prayer nuts' and the intricate little carvings in wood. They're so incredibly tiny and precise that it's difficult to believe they're man-made.
The American and African sections are rather disappointing because there's hardly anything in them. It's mainly beaded necklaces and wicker baskets, canoes and leather shoes, bits of bark and masks and casks of beer. A lot of the African exhibits arent even old, they're just modern art pieces that have no history attached to them whatsoever: a chair made out of guns, articulated puppets from a carnival float, and a display case full of 21st-century textiles.
After that comes a small section on Central America with some Inca, Aztec and Mayan stuff. The highlight is probably one of those mystical crystal skulls which later turned out to be fake.
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I’ve been here more than once…