British Museum review (Jul 2015)
This is an old review Read my most recent review here
A lot of people love the British Museum. A lot of people just pretend to like it, and a lot of people can't be bothered with it all (that's me). I think it's one of those places that people are supposed to appreciate, rather than enjoy, because if truth be told they'd much rather be sitting down the pub. There are only so many pots and rocks and bones and stones that you can look at before you start to fall asleep... and this place is full of them. They've got more stones in here than on Brighton beach. The last time I saw this many bones was at the London Fashion Show.
I like building though -- that is the highlight for me. The outside looks like something we stole from Rome. And when you step through the front door you'll be treated to the finest sight in the entire museum: the Great Hall. This place used to be a giant open courtyard until Norman Foster came along and stuck a diamond sheet of glass on top. Now it's one of the brightest and whitest rooms in London, with the famous Reading Room in the centre. That's the circular room where Karl Marx used to come every lunchtime to write his Communist Manifesto.
I've been to quite a lot of the temporary exhibitions at the museum, and I must say that they are quite hit and miss. The best ones are when they bring in objects from other museums around the world; but sometimes they will just collect together a lot of the British Museum's own items into a specific theme (like the afterlife, for example) -- then you are basically paying to see stuff that might be on show for free six months later. And not all of them take place in the Reading Room either -- so if that's your sole reason for going then remember to check which room it's in first.
The thing that always winds me up about the British Museum is the crowds. Let me make this plain straight away: this place gets extremely busy! And the Egyptian galleries are by far the worst because everybody steams straight in there as soon as they come through the front door, and it's a total nightmare. Try and imagine a space half the size of the nave at St. Paul's, but with twice the number of people milling around and flashing photos at the statues and sarcophagi. And of course they all go straight for the one thing that you want to see: the famous Rosetta Stone. It's only a little thing but it must have a hundred people crowding round it at the moment. (I'm actually going to take a photograph of the crowd so you can see how busy it is.)
But if you like Ancient Egypt then it's a must-see (forget Cairo, the British Museum is better -- we have nicked most of their treasures anyway). Some of the statues and monuments are colossal. They've got huge walls lifted straight out of tombs, and huge temple fronts and gateways. Don't forget to explore upstairs either, because there's plenty more up there. Some of the wall paintings and artwork are so sharp and colourful they look like they were painted yesterday.
I don't think the Assyrians will be too happy when they see how many of their city walls we demolished and shipped back to England... and then we come to the Greeks. Oh dear. I'm sorry if you're Greek because, yes, we did destroy half of your priceless Parthenon and cart it back to London -- but we had the permission of the Turks, you see, who defeated you in war. So basically that is tough !!@$%$%!
My own personal view is that I'm all for grabbing statues and little bits and pieces like that, but when you find yourself tearing down walls and wrecking a wonder of the ancient world then that is taking things a step too far. Our argument seems to be that we are protecting the stones from further damage (aren't we the ones you damaged them?); but most of them are already broken up and busted anyway. These things are not in pristine condition, and it's difficult to see how much worse they could possibly be -- we wrecked them ourselves!
But who cares... it's none of my business. The world is going to carry on spinning whoever has them. Maybe the best thing to do is just blow them to bits so nobody can have them. That's what you do when two toddlers are arguing, isn't it -- you take their toys away.
Did you know that the museum contains some sizeable remnants of the Mausoleum at Halikarnassos as well? They've got a lot of the friezes that went around the wall. I only found that out today when I wandered across them by chance. That place was one of the Seven Wonders of the World! (One of the actual seven wonders.) How come nobody is asking for those back? The world doesn't make sense, does it?
When you think of statues in antiquity you tend to think of Greece and Rome, but after walking around this place I think the Indians and Asians were better with a chisel. Have a look around the Asian galleries... we'd struggle to make that stuff today. The best that we could muster in Europe was a human with his togs off, whereas the Orient were busy carving out intricate little blocks that seem almost impossible to create. How come the Chinese have never ruled the world? Judging by this place they've got more patience and brains than us.
The European galleries have got a lot of Viking and Saxon stuff inside -- iron shields and swords, pots and boxes and farming tools; but the best bits are the treasure troves -- the silver plates from Mildenhall and the Sutton Hoo burial in a boat. They've got some interesting bodies of bones and leathery skin in there as well, still lying in their dying pose at the bottom of a bog. Sometimes I think that this is my best chance of becoming famous: by dropping dead in a quiet field someplace, holding tight to a silver cup and saucer from Habitats, and then waiting for an archaeologist to dig me up in a thousand years. All you have to do is wear a pair of leather boots and a necklace and he'll convince himself that you were a Saxon king, and you'll end up in a glass case at the British Museum like this bloke.
Museums are probably full of people like that... Stone Age losers whose bones happened to have lasted the longest because a big bully pushed them head-first into a tar pit. Nobody dies a good death in a tar pit, do they? If you were thinking of topping yourself, your first thought wouldn't be to drown yourself in a stinking hole of oil and sludge in the bottom of a swamp. So this guy clearly didn't have a good death. The village bullies were probably standing around pointing at him (like we are now), laughing at his predicament, as they watched him slowly sink beneath the putrid slime. And now we have immortalised his shame and compounded his embarrassment by nailing up a plaque beside his bones.
I know we are all supposed to love and support Africa these days, and yes Nelson Mandela is a saint and so was Mother Theresa and that Desmond Tutu fella, but I'm sorry... their historical artefacts are a load of pants. Mankind is supposed to have originated in Africa ten bazillion years ago and all they've got on show at the British Museum is a load of sticks and spears and scary Halloween masks. They've got a few wooden canoes too, and what looks like a beaded handbag.
The Americans are even worse. If it wasn't for the Red Indians they wouldn't have any history at all. I wonder why that is? America is such a huge continent and it seems a bit strange that it's ancient culture starts south of Mexico. You only have to walk around the piddly little exhibit at the museum to see how paltry it is -- it's all bone combs, beads and necklaces and whatever basket weaves they've managed to salvage from the desert. No huge stone statues. No armour or swords or decorated books -- just what they needed to live off the land, and that's it. The best bit was one of those magical crystal skulls that the Aztecs made (which turned out to be a fake made by the Spanish).
I’ve been here before…
Events at British Museum…
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