LONDONERS LOVE THEIR INFREQUENT SUNSHINE, as I learned the other day on the way to the British Museum. From my top-deck bus seat, I saw them out in force, basking in any available square of green, like Gray’s Inn Fields, above.
I had been to the British Museum only once before, decades ago, always daunted by its reputation and enormity. In practice, I found it much more manageable than New York’s Metropolitan Museum, which it even bests for a world-class collection of ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman material.
Since a thoroughgoing renovation around 2000, which produced the spectacular skylit entrance court by Britain’s chief starchitect, Sir Norman Foster, and re-organized the interior spaces, it’s actually far less chaotic than the Met.
With the aid of an audio guide, customizable and comprehensive, I was able not to aimlessly wander, but to zero in on the things that most interested me, and spend a pleasant 2–3 hours without feeling overwhelmed or harried.
My first thought on entering the museum was: Wow. My second was, look at all this plunder! Here the former might of the British Empire is on display, the spoils of centuries of imperialism arrayed in central London for the world to see and appreciate.
The argument has always been: we saved all this for you. Otherwise it might have been destroyed by barbarians – and indeed the recent demolition by Isis of ancient sites in the Middle East gives a tad more credence to the view.
It’s still evident in the 19th c. photograph, above, of the removal of a millennia-old Assyrian stone lion, now greeting visitors in the museum’s entrance hall, by a team of British engineers, and in the defensive labels and explanation in the audio guide of how the sculptures that once graced the pediment of Athens’ Parthenon, known as the Elgin Marbles, came to repose for the past 200 years in Bloomsbury — to this day, an ongoing controversy with the Greeks.
Still, it would be churlish to complain about this glorious institution, filled with visitors from around the world and their children, taking in whatever it is possible to take in of the planet’s history and culture in a single gulp.
I am in Edinburgh, Scotland, as I write this, so it’s fitting to end this post with the above image of two whimsical 800-year-old Lewis chessmen, borrowed from the National Museum of Scotland (discovered there but carved of walrus tusk by Vikings, most likely). They’re part of a complete chess set on display, and another example of how the all-powerful British Museum secures “permanent loans” of that which it cannot outright own.
This is the first time I’ve written a casaCARA post on my iPhone, a tricky business, and the last time I will ever travel without my laptop. When I get back to London, I’ll be posting about my one-day visit to York, which satisfied my interest in architecture much older than that we have in the United States, followed by two fascinating days in Edinburgh, dramatically sited and historically unspoiled.