on February 28, 2009
One of the greatest things about London is that it houses the treasure trove that is the British Museum. It’s somewhat hidden away in Bloomsbury. It’s a five-minute walk from Goodge Street, Russell Square, Tottenham Court Rd or Holborn Tube stations. It certainly looks the part – a huge Palladian arcaded building, aping the Parthenon. It truly is a museum, a temple to the muses.Inside there are over 90 rooms, and you can easily spend an entire day here, as I did on my first visit. I am writing this after my second. This meant that I could home in on my favourite areas. Even so, skimming over the chief exhibits as I had a train to catch, I spent three-and-a-half hours here, and missed out lots.There are a good selection of displays relating to the early history of the British Isles, as you might expect. These keep being added to year on year. For instance the stunning twisted gold-and-silver torcs of the Snettisham Hoard were only discovered in 2002. Located on the first floor in the south east of the complex the highlights here include treasures from the Anglo-Saxon ship burial at Sutton Hoo. The star exhibit here would be the ‘Noggin-The-Nog’-style helmet, complete with eyebrows and a rather neat toothbrush moustache. Additionally there is a mosaic from a church in Hinton St Mary in Dorset – it is believed to be the oldest known representation of the face of Christ in the world. Heading north if you are lucky you will find the Lindow Man, a 2000-year-old human body found preserved in a bog. I found him rather hidden away in a corner on my first visit; currently he is on loan to his ‘home-town’ museum in Manchester, where he is displayed just as poorly in my opinion! Further north again, and we find the Vindolanda Tablets, writing tablets from a Roman fort on Hadrian’s Wall. Shopping lists, party invites, leave requests and intelligence reports on the activities of the ‘Britanculi’ (a disparaging diminutive name for the ancient Britons) give an intriguing picture of a town on the very northern edge of the Empire. Sadly Room 41 was undergoing renovation on this visit which meant that the remarkable Lewis Chessmen were not available for view. These are quite spectaular 12th-century walrus-ivory chess pieces found out at the very limits of the British Isles in the Outer Hebrides. Having travelled to Egypt since my last visit here I found the Egyptian galleries like old friends – a rose granite statue of Amenhotep III, like that in the Luxor Museum, a statue of Menkaure, one of the great Giza pyramid builders (the pyramids being the only remaining standing Wonder of the World of course), another bombastically-sized colossus of the vainglorious Ramses II. Even a bronze cat donated by a certain Major Gayer-Anderson. The prime exhibit is the Rosetta Stone. This provided the first means of translating the history of the pharoahs. Upstairs there is more on domestic life in Egypt. Children will be fascinated by the mummies. In particular there are wall paintings from the Tomb of Nebamun, a priest buried near the Valley of the Kings opposite Thebes.Back on the ground floor I was lucky enough to note that there would be a free ‘EyeOpener’ tour of the Greek collection. There are several free tours touching on one particular aspect of the collection or other through the day. If I’d been more clever I would have looked out for these advertised at the entrance. Anyway, for the next 50 minutes I listened as we were introduced to the myths of the Greek gods, showed the evolution of sculpture and design, and ended with the three-dimensional horsemen and Olympians of the Parthenon Sculptures (better known as the ‘Elgin Marbles’). Other Greek highlights are the Nereid Monument a spectacular reconstruction of a tomb from Xanthos in Turkey. You have to crane your neck to look up at it. Another tomb to feature are statues and friezes from the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, one of the original Wonders of the World. A third Wonder would be the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, and again the museum displays a carved column from said temple. Once more, Greek exhibits continue upstairs. Here too you find the Roman galleries. Maybe Greek, Egyptians and Romans pall because of their familiarity. I think my favourite exhibits would have to be those of other Near-Eastern cultures. You mustn’t miss Room 6 which is the doorway to the Assyrian exhibits. Literally – flanking the Balawat Gates are gigantic bearded and winged bull gate guardians. Legendary names from the 8th-century BC like Nimrud and Ninevah, Ashurbanipal and Sargon are bandied about here, and I’m ashamed to admit I know little of their history. Though having had my appetite whetted I have resolved to learn more! I want to put these fabulous exhibits in context. Upstairs once more to find other Near-Eastern cultures – Babylon, Sumeria, Persia. In particular one case holds the Royal Standard of Ur – the first known depiction of wheeled transport – and the frankly gorgeous ‘Ram in the Thicket’. Fashioned of lapis lazuli and gold leaf it depicts a goat climbing into a tree, much as you still see in parched Mediterranean lands today. This beauty dates from around 2600BC!The exhibits from Babylon and Persia may be missing if you visit soon. The major exhibit upon my visit was ‘Babylon: Myth and Reality’ (£8.00), which shows until 15th March 2009. It will then be replaced by ‘Shah ‘Abbas: the Remaking of Iran’ (£12.00) from 19th February to 14th June 2009. To put on the latter there is a ground breaking exchange of exhibits between the Museum and the Iranian cultural authorities.Paying £8.00 I ascended the curving staircases to the exhibition. You start by entering into a room framed by the glossy glazed-blue brick reliefs of the main processional way of Nebuchadnezzar II’s Babylon. Snarling lions and sinuous mushhushshu dragons are depicted thereon. Here stood a further Wonder of the World – the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. This is the only Wonder where we do not know precisely what form it took, or where it was located. And it is thought that the great central temple with its towering tiers of stone reaching up some 80 metres was mythologised into the Tower of Babel. This is where myth and reality become blurred. It turned out that I knew more about Babylon than I thought I did and that the Bible is a pretty good guide to the history of Babylon; the exhibition relates the truth behind stories such as the Tower of Babel, the sack of Jerusalem, the ‘Babylonian Captivity’ of the Jews (apparently by the rivers of Babylon they did sit down and weep when they remembered Zion!), Daniel, and the ‘writing on the wall’ at Belshazzar’s feast. Finally, the Cyrus Cylinder is the Persian laying down of the law to the conquered city. In promising religious tolerance it is possibly the very first statement of ‘human rights’ in the world. I think the most interesting aspect of the exhibition was the relation of the myths of Babylon to contemporary culture – whether it is medieval paintings of the fall of Babylon, the beliefs of Rastafarians, or the state’s reappearance in music from Bob Marley, The Ruts, Boney M, or David Grey. Basically ‘Babylon’ is shorthand for two things – depravity and licentiousness, and oppressive authoritarianism. This latter thread stretches from the captivity of the Jews to the beliefs of the Rastafarians, into reggae, thence into punk. And this is why the word ‘babylon’ is street slang for the police! Glancing at my watch, my time was almost up as I had a train to catch. There was one room in particular I did not want to miss as it had been a huge favourite on my first visit. Room 27 is devoted to the heritage of the Mayans and Aztecs. The best exhibits here (in fact, some of the best in the entire museum) are the glittering turquoise mosaic mask of Tezcatlipoca and a double-headed snake. This is but a very small overview of a massive and constantly changing collection. The best thing to do is to free a day and wander at leisure and find your own favourites. Or even just pop in for an hour or so whenever you are in the area –entrance is free, so there is no penalty for breaking the collection down into manageable chunks like this!The galleries are open 10.00 to 17.30 daily, though some are kept open on a rotating basis until 20.30 on Thursday and Friday evenings – see www.britishmuseum.org for further details.
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