Hopped on the Train for a Visit to London’s British Museum

Following on from my article last week about my trip to London, I promised to dedicate this week’s article to the afternoon I spent that day at the British Museum in Holborn.  It’s the world’s oldest national public museum, founded in 1753.  That makes it older than America (taken from the Declaration of Independence)!

The building itself is imposing and impressive, designed by architect Sir Robert Smirke in 1823 in a Greek Revival style.  Visitors enter between the columns and most appear to ignore the pediment, but don’t.  The sculptures therein were some of the last works of Sir Richard Westmacott RA, and depict The Progress of Civilisation taken left to right from primitive life to civilised man.

The Egyptian galleries are eternally popular and although I’ve visited them previously, and seen the real things in situ during visits to Egypt, I couldn’t resist a walk through the gallery, especially to see the gigantic bust of Ramesses II.  Just this section of what would have been a much larger complete statue weighs in at 7.5 tonnes.

Usually on display nearby is the Rosetta Stone.  It’s the most visited exhibit in the Museum because it is the object that gave us our ability to translate the Egyptian language of hieroglyphics, thus opening up the Ancient Egyptian world to our understanding.  On this day, the original stone had been taken off to form part of an exhibition, but the Museum had kindly placed a replica in its usual spot.

The Museum regularly offers different themed exhibitions which you must pay to see.  I guess this is one way they raise money since they don’t charge the public for entry to the regular galleries.  There are plenty of “Please Donate” boxes around the building.  Before your visit, I suggest you check out the Museum’s website and see what’s on as these exhibitions are very well curated and worth attending if there is one on a subject of interest to you.

There are also talks and tours you can book onto and the website is particularly good at suggesting how best to spend your time if you’re limited to, say, only an hour or two or three.

I stopped for a hot chocolate in the Great Hall located in the central courtyard.  This space was adapted to indoor usable space in 2000 by the addition of its roof, covered with over 3,000 glass panels – each one unique.  Apparently, a full clean takes two weeks.  This part of my visit was one of only two disappointments of the afternoon.  The hot chocolate, served in a cardboard cup, was both expensive and tasteless and the surroundings felt grubby.  Such a shame. To avoid seeing the abandoned cups and coffee-stained surfaces, I diverted my gaze upward to that incredible roof and watched planes flying high above, leaving their chem-trails in the clear blue sky.

Shortly after this I was to experience my second disappointment when I attempted to view the Reliquary, a gold, enamelled container set with pearls, rubies and sapphires.  It dates from around the 1400s and is said to house an actual thorn from the Crown of Thorns borne by Jesus Christ before the crucifixion.  Surely it’s genuine, otherwise it’s a lot of expense and bother to go to just to display a regular bit of twig!

Fortunately for me, the main gallery I planned to see was open – the one housing the Benin Bronzes.  Both stunning and controversial, I found them beautifully displayed and the gallery empty enough for me to spend some time viewing them from every angle before sitting a while on the viewing bench in front.

As art, they are gorgeously rendered and highly detailed plaques.  As historical objects, they give an insight into life in Benin in the 16th and 17th Centuries.  But the most incredible thing about them is the skill involved in their making, using the “lost wax” method.  In the late 19 Century, Benin was considered a backward Kingdom of barbarians, uncultured, ruled by superstition and steeped in violence.  Yet the skill inherent in the art and method of creation of these bronzes challenged Western opinions of Africa.

These bronzes represent the spoils of war, having been taken following what can only be described as a massacre of the people of Benin (in modern-day Nigeria) by British military forces in 1897.  As a result, much debate on the subject of restitution and return surrounds the artworks.  Even my use of the word “artworks” is tricky.  Although undoubtedly beautiful objects, these bronzes meant far more to the natives of Benin.  They were a part of their history and culture and many believe they should be returned from whence they came since they were, in effect, stolen.

 

 

Of course, they’re not the only objects in the British Museum that are subject to this debate.  One of the most obvious are the Pantheon Sculptures from Athens.  These are marble statues dating from as far back as the 5th Century BC, so they’re getting on a bit.  They come from the site of the Acropolis, many of them formed part of the pediment above the Parthenon.

The Museum has them sympathetically displayed in a recreation of their original setting, as far as possible since many of the sculptures have, understandably, been lost, with half of those that remain being housed here in the British Museum and the rest in the Acropolis Museum in Athens.

I ducked through the gift shop, genuinely hoping to find something I’d really like to buy in order to support the Museum, but I found everything rather pricey.  There was a replica of a horse’s head from the Parthenon but it was retailing for £1,650.  For that price, I’d want the original!  I noticed for sale chess sets based on The Lewis Chessmen and was reminded that I should definitely see them before the place closed.

Billed as “the world’s most famous chess pieces,” a reputation fortified by their depiction in the film Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the Lewis Chessmen were discovered on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides on the west coast of Scotland.  It’s a beautiful, unspoilt part of the world.  I’m proud to say I have been there on more than one occasion as my best friend of more years than I care to tell you actually hails from there.

It’s something of a mystery as to how the chess sets – there are enough pieces to make up four complete sets and they are unused – found their way to the island.  There’s a theory that they may have been trade goods being taken from Norway to Ireland for sale.  They were found and first put on display in Edinburgh in 1831.  They really are the most beautifully detailed objects, carved from whale tooth and walrus ivory.  I was pleased to read that they can tell the animals were long dead prior to the use of their body parts.

One of the wonderful things about a place like the British Museum is that no matter how carefully you plan your visit, the place is so large and there are so many fascinating pieces that you’re bound to happen upon additional exhibits you hadn’t planned to see, as was the case for me today.

I stumbled upon the Sutton Hoo exhibit and I’m so glad I did.  I had totally forgotten it was here.  I’d watched the film The Dig starring Ralph Fiennes, that told the story of the discovery and excavation of this 7thCentury ship burial in Suffolk in 1939.  The film focussed on the events rather than the objects so it was satisfying to be able to add what they found to my knowledge of how they were found.

Oh my goodness, there are some striking pieces.  The central object is a highly decorated helmet, but there are many other masterpieces that demonstrate the intricate work and incredible skills of their creators. There’s a gold belt buckle, drinking vessels, gold coins in a decorated purse, a wooden shield and a sword.  Just as interesting as the objects themselves, is the understanding they offer of what we call the ‘dark ages.’  It’s worth taking the time to read the information sheets around all the exhibits as the insights will increase your sense of awe and appreciation.

On any given day, exhibits can be unavailable to view, sometimes because they’re out on loan or part of a travelling exhibition, or simply because there aren’t enough staff to man all the rooms.  Try not to be disappointed if something you really want to see isn’t open.  Focus on the fabulous exhibits you can see.

Attracting 6.5 million visitors every year, the Museum is the UK’s most visited attraction.  Go see it and you’ll understand why.

British Museum website:  www.britishmuseum.org

Author

  • Maria Bligh

    Maria Bligh is a journalist, published author, professional speaker, singer and artist now settled in Sussex, UK, having previously travelled extensively throughout the UK and overseas, including a period living in Geneva. Married to a successful musician and with a background that encompasses working in the music industry, finance, sales and presentations training, she maintains a diverse existence. Her interests encompass travel, nature, animals and the arts: music, theatre, painting, writing and philosophy. Maria now writes for online and print magazines. Having once maintained a regular full page in “A Place In The Sun” magazine, travel is an obvious interest, but her articles also cover a wide variety of subjects. She bills herself as “an observer of the human condition and all that sail in her.” Maria has frequently appeared on radio & TV as well as in print. Her humorous style has seen her travel the world addressing audiences throughout Europe, Asia and Australasia and as a cruise-ship speaker with P&O and Fred Olsen.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *