In my mind, the British Museum was always dark. A bit musty perhaps with old, peeling wallpaper and ancient corridors where you get the feeling that if you leaned the wrong way against an Egyptian mural, you might find yourself sliding through a hidden doorway and come out somewhere near the Valley of the Kings.
The reality is slightly different:-
Who lives in a house like this?
I didn’t let it put me off though. I’ve wanted to mount a comprehensive investigation of the museum for years and the mere fact that the place was all bright and shiny wasn’t going to dim my ardour. So in I went, armed with nothing but an audio guide, floor plan, several notebooks, a-pen-plus-two-backups, a bottle of water and an iPhone which was showing its horror at being in the surroundings of so many antiquities by belching up its battery power by the second.
As luck would have it, the day I visited turned out to be during school holidays in London but the place wasn’t too bad. It was busy certainly, but pleasantly busy. That’s okay. There’s nothing worse than an empty museum to make your inner nerd feel that she’s still out of step with the universe.
First off was a giant exhibition looking at how various civilisations deal with illness and death. To be honest, this wasn’t quite what I had in mind – I usually expect to have to wait for the mummies to get into the death stuff – but hey, you don’t argue with the British Museum.
As far as that exhibition went, there were a lot of pills. All spread out in huge display trays that would make a good dent in a basketball court. I didn’t learn so much about pills as the fact that I might be a hypochondriac myself. This is down to the fact that I was so busy checking out the pills that I completely missed the EASTER ISLAND MAN SITTING IN THE SAME ROOM.
That’s right. Giant man with those weird features from a lost civilisation that is fascinating and horrific in equal measure, two feet away from me, and I’m busy comparing two pills that may or may not have been used as test drugs for diptheria in the mid 18th Century. As usual, I blame Dr. Phil.
(By the way, Easter Island Man was excellent, when I did find him. Angry, defiant, taciturn. As one would expect.)
The only Man who can talk down to Dr. Phil
It’s not really my fault that I missed Easter Island Man. That room came before the audio guides. Ah, audio guides! What did we do without you? I bet that’s the first thing Howard Carter said when he opened Tut’s tomb – “Quick, take some dictation! For more on the murals, press 1. For details on the King’s paranoia, press 2. For that worrying stuff written above the door, press 3.”
Actually, sometimes I think audio guides are a curse in themselves. First off, you have to leave your passport behind as security – not very safe in these days of high intrigue. If you ever read about me in the papers as part of some Bourne Identity type wipe-out, you’ll know what happened. I took an audio guide on a dodgy tour in the Guggenheim. But that’s not the real problem. Just wait till you’re stuck in the middle of some museum that seemed fascinating at first, and you’ve gone through so many tunnels of rooms that you feel like Hansel and Gretel without the breadcrumbs. You want out, but you just can’t stop pressing the button that promises you more and more and more information about sphinxes in the Mesopotamian period. I mean, it’s at times like this that you have to ask yourself – how much does one person need to know about that kind of thing? How often does it come up? And in what circumstances?!? And even though I know the answer, WHY CAN’T I EVER STOP PRESSING THE BUTTON?!?!??
“So…how ’bout those sphinxes?”
Okay. So I like audio guides. And Sphinxes. So sue me.
Sphinxes aren’t the big gig in the Brit Museum, Ramesses II is. And he is impressive. The grandeur of his visage is made all the more poignant by the addition of Shelley’s “Ozymandias” underneath:-
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
There are just a few spots in the entire museum that really capture the weirdness of the place, how old the world is and how every human that has ever lived has left their mark in some way, great or small. Pausing for a few moments to read that perfect poem provides just the right kind of reflection.
This boy is clearly despairing. Or he might just be on the phone.
And then we’re moving on, because there’s loads more to see.
The Rosetta Stone is exciting to see because I can hardly remember a time I didn’t know about it. But – and I know I’m old-fashioned here so it’s okay – I’d kinda like it to be in an older sort of room. Maybe something a bit more upmarket than the old section on the Crystal Maze, but just not so – glass. It’s just the way I’m made. I like a bit of clutter, and that doesn’t mean I want to have to sift through old stones to try and figure out which one is written in Egyptian, Greek and Latin while Japanese tourists film the life out of me so they can post it on YouTube on the Tube home, but I’d just like a smidgeon of authenticity. Yeah, and I know the Rosetta Stone is authentic enough but it’s all just a bit bright. I don’t know, maybe they could do something where you’d get a torch with your audio guide and a backpack with enough water for two hours and a few EasiSingles. Then you’d just be sent into a pretty primitive layout to figure out where you were going. That would sort the YouTubers from the genuine fans, let me tellsya.
You can learn a lot from Alexander the Great. Like the fact that he knew how to present himself. No statues showing him looking old, or worried. He always looks determined, staring into the distance like a visionary, as befits a man who inspired Napoleon to get out and about in Europe a few centuries later. If Alexander was around today, I think he’d be pretty nifty on Facebook. You wouldn’t catch him falling out of nightclubs or getting papped dressed in a Borat thong. His appearances would be rare and Gatsby-esque. When he would come out to play, he’d appear ever-young, with an enigmatic smile barely gracing his lips so everyone would wonder what he was thinking. It sounds like a plan to me, so this is the only photo I’m going to use in the future:
Don’t mind me, just planning an overthrow of the Government.
I paused for breath and some revisionist history in the Elgin marbles room. And boy, was I glad! Who knew those Greeks were so shoddy when it came to the care of their natural heritage? Luckily, the Brit M has devoted an entire room to it, with great big plaques along the walls and helpful pictures showing you EXACTLY what condition the Elgin marbles would be in – if they were in Greece. But it’s okay, because the next plaque reassures you that they’re in the next room. Safe and sound. Phew.
I was asked for directions by a lot of people in the Elgin marble room. I think it’s because this was the point when I decided to map out my floor plan and make sure I wasn’t missing anything (a common hazard if you lose the run of yourself and your damn iPhone has gone off in a sulk).
There’s a lot more I could talk about. The Lewis Chessmen, which are little chessmen from, well, Lewis. The Lindow Man, a neanderthal discovered in a bog and who now has the somewhat bizarre notoriety of being stared at by thousands as he protrudes from the turf in a most uncomfortable looking manner. The Assyrian Lion Hunt reliefs, which wind around the walls of several rooms, inspiring generations of Lion King wannabies. The poor old Portland Vase, smashed by a hooligan but lovingly repaired and now residing behind bulletproof glass – and the marvellous Sutton Hoo helmet, where you can gaze into the blank eyes and wonder what scenes the last wearer looked out on, back in the 7th Century AD….
In the end though my favourite items were always going to be the same. They’re not well-known, you’re not directed towards them from the second you step inside the front door, and you might even miss them if you didn’t slip into the room to escape the marauding hordes of tourists flocking around the guys dressed as vikings. But the clock room is still the best. Featuring clocks from all ages, in all shapes and sizes, this is the place to be for real creativity.
Who needs a Viking ship when you can have a clock ship??
The British Museum is great fun. You just have to remember not to take any notice of all those naysayers who tell you you’ll never get to see everything. Wear comfortable shoes, power on through the rooms and try to ignore the frantic feeling that starts to creep over you as the day progresses, telling you that if you just skim your eyes over an item for the barest of miliseconds, you can count yourself as much of an expert as someone who’s done a PhD. This is the internet generation after all – clap eyes and audio-guide-enhanced ears on it once and you can always look up the details on wikipedia back in your hotel room. Have fun!