on April 22, 2008
If you were some millennial Rip Van Winkle, waking with a need to catch up after missing most of human history, where would you go for a crash course? Should I ever be asked to provide such a recommendation, there’s no doubt about the answer: The British Museum is your only real choice. An amazing byproduct of empire, this nearly overwhelming collection has something to offer on every great civilization our planet has known—in fact, it probably has more to offer on every culture than can be found anywhere else.It’s well known as home (at least so far) to the Elgin Marbles, the beautiful metopes and friezes removed from the exterior of the Parthenon by Lord Elgin in the first decade of the 19th century. This major exhibit on the Museum’s first floor is a highlight of any visit. It’s amazing to see the realism with which Greek sculptors captured human (and not so human) form, especially those in movement or tension. It’s also tantalizing to imagine the Parthenon with these treasures restored, and better yet, with this temple to Athena intact and in full splendor—which includes bright colors on the white marble. There’s no avoiding the question of whether the Greek nation is entitled to the return of pieces of such importance: the Museum tackles the question head-on with a pamphlet that rather unashamedly makes the case that the protection and exhibition offered in London is a superior choice. For the record, we weren’t convinced, although I do give Elgin some credit for ensuring their preservation. The 19th century was still discovering the importance and value of antiquity, and given that the Parthenon’s use as an Ottoman ammunition dump had nearly led to the temple’s destruction in 1687, I think his decision is a supportable one. Not everyone agreed: for example, I’d hate to have any of my decisions questioned in verse by Lord Byron. Plus, as the pamphlet points out, he brought them out of Athens with the agreement of the authorities. But the situation is a little different two centuries later.All these pieces are displayed in a space that’s the Parthenon turned inside out: the marbles face the interior of this room, while in their original locations, they were on the temple’s exterior. The metopes from the Parthenon’s four walls each tell the story of a different battle: on the north side, the Trojan War; on the other three sides, mythical battles that portray ‘civilized’ Athens’ (the Lapiths in the South Metopes) conflict with ’uncivilized’ Persia (the wild, half-animal Centaurs).On your way to this alternate Parthenon, you’ll probably pass by the Rosetta Stone. It’s breathtaking to turn a corner and see this iconic piece, which is as important as a symbol of archaeology and antiquity as it is for its role in deciphering hieroglyphics. It’s enclosed in a modest glass case, but that’s all: you can get within eight inches of it. It’s easy to see the three different languages—hieroglyphic, Demotic (a late Egyptian script from about 500 BC), and Greek—whose message is a mundane, self-promoting decree from one of the late Egyptian rulers around 200 BC. If you look carefully at the top section of hieroglyphics, you can see the sets of characters circled in a lasso-like enclosure: these are incidences of Ptolemy’s name, which required a phonetic ‘spelling’, since they were Greek words. They were Champollion’s first key to ultimately deciphering the stone and the hieroglyphs. (For a terrific account of his life and this major accomplishment, I recommend Daniel Meyerson’s The Linguist and the Emperor.)And then there’s Egypt, Babylon, Assyria, Rome, Africa, Asia, … the Museum’s collection from the middle East is awe-inspiring. Expeditions from the 19th and early 20th centuries uncovered long-buried cities such as Ur, Nimrod, Nineveh, and others, and brought the Epic of Gilgamesh back into the world after centuries of absence. The major results of that work are all here. If you have an interest in any of the world’s great civilizations—or are looking to discover one—you’ll find it hard to leave this place. I spent an unplanned 30 minutes learning about jade and its role in culture and trade, which I stumbled upon in a long hallway on the second floor.And since the millennial opening of the Great Court, the building itself is worth visiting, too. For years, the British Library was also housed here, finally given its own deserved building in 1998 (about a mile north near Euston Station). It’s the largest covered square in Europe, whose tessellated glass roof creates the neatest indoor site I know to experience a sunset. Unfortunately, the Museum has decided to solve a problem by taking over the famous Reading Room here in the central column of the Great Court: in 2001, when we visited, it was open to the public; now it’s been decided to use it for special (i.e., charging) exhibitions. The Terracotta army from the tomb of China’s first Qin Emperor were in residence during our trip, with £12 tickets sold out long in advance.Best of all, the rest of the British Museum is free. I can’t get over that. My biggest regret of both visits to London is that I haven’t left myself nearly enough time to explore this place.
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