Now, believe it or not, but this place used to make me feel really indignant. Like, ‘this is so wrong’ type of indignant.
You see, I have this really sharp sense of justice which didn’t make things for me easy as a child. All through my playground and school years I was forever the one employing that worn out phrase ‘But, it’s not fair!’ which doesn’t get you anywhere and certainly doesn’t make you any friends. Especially if you question an authority figure like a teacher or a popular girl, as no-one likes to be put on the spot.
Nowadays, I have toned it down a bit, as I understand that what is not fair for one may be perfectly acceptable for another, so the most civilised way to go about things is to agree to disagree. We are all different after all. However, there are moments and occasions in my life when, no matter how much I try to suppress it, the ‘It’s not fair!’ beast rears its head. Just like the first time I visited the British Museum in London about 15 years ago.
I was roaming the huge expanse of its many rooms, passing from Egyptian to Babylonian to Ancient Greek to you-name-it world civilisation as easily as it is walking down the street when a strong feeling got hold of me and I really wanted to shout ‘It’s not fair! All of this should be back where it belongs!’.
I sat in the Ancient Greece hall looking at what seemed to be a huge chunk of the Parthenon and thought of my own visit to the actual place in Athens some years before.
I passed through the Babylonian and Assyrian rooms and thought of my parents’ visits to Iraq in the early 70’s and the stories they used to tell me of their travels through those ancient lands.
I felt unsettled that the huge statues, wall decorations and chunky stones had been plucked from their rightful places and carried half a way across the world so that I could see them all under the same roof. I questioned the righteousness of collecting treasures instead of leaving them be where they originally belonged.
It is an interesting thing how as time passes and our interactions with the world grow increasingly multifaceted, things change not just around us, but inside us, too.
Thoughts which we used to entertain stop provoking the same ardent primal response. Things we thought we couldn’t live without end up on the bottom of a tatty bag destined for the nearest charity shop. Convictions get their rough edges smoothed and we start to see the world as a much more complex place rather than the strictly black and white continuum where what we think and how we feel is the ultimate truth.
I have been back to the British Museum many times since that first emotional visit. And every time I saw it in a different light. I started asking myself hard questions like:
- Whose responsibility is to preserve humanity’s cultural heritage?
- What do you do when a nation is hell-bent on destroying itself pulverising along the way its historical artifacts?
- What do you do when the locals appreciate an ancient culture which has flourished on their current lands only in terms of the amount of money they can get for it?
I don’t have the answers. Certainly not a universal, all-fitting and all-befitting answer to any of these questions. I just came to see that life has many moral dilemmas and how we approach them depends on circumstances and other such things. Often it is a fine balancing act. You think this is simplistic?! Perhaps. But it gave me a peace of mind and made me a bit more understanding of how the world works.
What I appreciate now more than anything else is the chance for history and the lessons it has bequeathed to us to be preserved. The study of the past and how people lived, created and died is one of the things which keep us human and make us aware of our limitations and abilities.
Forgetting the past, neglecting its importance over what we are today and over what will become of us is not a chance we can lightly take.
So, I keep visiting museums – small and big ones – in search of yet more understanding of how things were decades, centuries and millennia ago. I keep going back to the British Museum any chance I get and either re-visit my favourite rooms and artifacts or delve even deeper in its huge collection and discover new things showing me how people used to live and what they created with their mind and hands.
My last visit there was right on the penultimate day of 2015. I was spending a day in London
reconnecting with the city I used to call home for 12 years and the British Museum was high on my list of things to see yet again.
It was a grey and drizzly day, so typical of the British capital
, with the moist air frizzing my hair, with the wind cutting through the large crowds and the red double-decker buses towering over the passers-by.
I left Chinatown
behind and walked up Charing Cross Road. All around me people were walking purposefully clutching large take-away coffees in their hands. The crowd got denser as I approached Tottenham Court Road where huge constructions works have been ongoing for the past few years.
A few more minutes of fast walk and the fine Georgian buildings of Bloomsbury loomed above me – so quintessentially English, so exquisitely posh with their red and black doors and floor to ceiling windows that just like every other time that I had passed by I caught myself wondering what it would be like living in one of them.
I crossed at the intersection of Great Russel Street and Bloomsbury Street and caught a glimpse of the huge body of the British Museum on my left hand side. Hidden behind an ornate wrought iron fence and densely surrounded by the other impressive buildings in the area, it is quite understandable that at first I always find it hard to appreciate how immense and overpowering the museum’s architecture is.
Even after I entered its front yard and looked up at its grey and weighty facade it was still difficult to grasp the immense scale of it all. You only realise how enormous the British Museum is once you are inside its exhibition rooms and, eager to see it all, you traipse round from hall to hall, from floor to floor, taking in ancient civilisations one after another until, within a couple of hours or three, it all becomes an exhausting blur and your brain just can’t take it anymore.
This is why I always pace myself when I visit the British Museum. I rarely spend there more than two hours at a time and I either see a temporary exhibition or explore a particular corner of its vast permanent collection. This approach makes a visit much more manageable and my short-term memory is then able to process all the information, all the visual stimuli into long-term recollections. So, there are always unexplored corners for me to discover, always something new to pique my curiosity.
This time, as it was cold and drizzly, I didn’t linger in the front yard of the museum. I joined the thick throng of people squishing through its large doors. Security guards performing spot bag checks ushered me in. It was very crowded, but as the museum is free of charge, there were no delays and no queues and people moved smoothly through the foyer and then continued straight ahead attracted by the bright light of the covered inner courtyard.
Yes, one of the biggest and best museums in the whole wide world doesn’t charge you an entrance fee. This, actually, is true for all top museums in London, the permanent collections of all of which are free to visit and explore. It was an incredibly clever decision to abolish these museums’ entrance fees about (if I remember correctly) 15 years ago and since then they have become true hubs of human activity attracting a huge stream of visitors, young and old, eager to learn more about history, science and art via regular visits, workshops, talks, and a whole range of other educational events.
Before stepping into the bright inner courtyard, I made a short detour to the right. There a small (for the standards of the British Museum) room is used to hold temporary exhibitions. On the day of my visit ‘Scanning Sobek’ was on. A crocodile mummy, nearly four meters long, lay in a glass exhibit in the middle of the room. Informational displays, photographs and additional artifacts were arranged on the four walls of the room. They all explored the Ancient Egyptian beliefs in Sobek – the Crocodile God.
People crowded around the enormous mummy and,perhaps, felt a bit sorry for the 25 tiny mummified crocodile hatchlings which had been attached to it. I read the information provided and found out that the crocodile in front of us had been considered to be divine. During its life it had been kept in Sobek’s temple at Kom Ombo (around 50 km north of Aswan in Egypt). For this exhibition the mummy was scanned at the Royal Veterinary College in England revealing mundane and amazing facts about it – from the crocodile’s last meal to how it was mummified.
Suitably impressed, I was ready to delve into the museums’ permanent exposition. I walked onto the covered inner courtyard – an area of two acres under a stunning glass roof – and as usual the flowing bright light stopped me in my tracks.
No matter how dark and rainy the day might have been outside, here, in the heart of the British Museum, the tall glass roof and the surrounding white walls created an illusion of lightness and calm. The place was so big that the large crowds dispersed quickly through it. People headed to the many doors leading to the different sections of the museum, to the shops selling an amazing variety of books and souvenirs in the middle of the courtyard or, tired from all that sightseeing, sat down to enjoy a drink and a bite to eat at the long tables of the museum’s cafes.
It was a lively place, yet it all felt very calm and organised. Families pushing buggies passed by, groups of schoolchildren consulted the floor map, retirees queued to pay for their brownies and coffees, tourists stocked on souvenirs and postcards with the Rosetta Stone. It was just like being in a public square, which, in fact, this place was. One of the largest covered public squares in Europe, to be precise.
I headed to the Ancient Egypt section and once inside slowly walked along the huge hall where large statues stood tall and proud. Royal faces, magnificent poses, the only indication of the implacable passage of time were a missing limb here, a scratched or a fully smashed surface there, and wall panels with almost fully faded colouration.
The famous Rosetta Stone was besieged by a huge crowd. People craned their necks and pressed their faces against the glass display, so eager they were to see for themselves the key which helped Champollion break the Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs’ code. It is one of the most famous exhibits in the British Museum, an object which thanks to the role it played for the enrichment of our current human knowledge has become much more valuable than it must have ever been when it was originally created, unlike many of the other exhibits in the museum the original importance of which may never be fully grasped by us.
One by one I visited Assyria and Babylon, then Ancient Greece and Mexico of the Mayas and the Aztecs. In the Minoan Crete gallery I spent a long time looking at the long displays with pottery silently wondering about the randomness of things which survive through the millennia to give us an indication as to how people used to live before us.
I wondered if any of my possessions would make it through the next couple or ten of centuries so as to end up in the hands of a curious archaeologist trying to piece together the past which we call the present. Or would he be able to glimpse it all from preserved hard drives?!
Preserved Ancient Greek jewellery pieces made me stop for a while. I admired necklaces and crowns made with simple hand-held tools which were so intricate that they rivaled modern day jewellery masterpieces. A wreath made of gold oak leaves was beautiful to look at. A tiny gold bee and two gold cicadas hid between the leaves. Each one of them had been hammered and shaped by hand and little gold acorns sprung in between them – a perfect representation of the real thing.
As I walked through the different rooms I noticed young artists learning from the artistic achievements of the past. Sketchbooks in hands, they would stop in front of a statue or an artifact and sketched its ancient outlines into their book, learning to see the world in the proportions set by an artist or a craftsman who was long gone.
In several of the rooms I noticed how belligerent the art was. How it served a purpose to immortalise military victories, animal hunts and wars fought many centuries ago.
And then I paid a visit to one of my most favourite artifacts – the turquoise masks from Mexico in room 27. They used to be worn by bloodthirsty Aztec priests during dark rituals. The walls of the room were adorned with ‘lintels’ – carved limestone slabs representing some of these rituals like bloodletting, pulling a thorny rope through a pierced tongue and contacting the souls of the deceased. It was interesting to see how different cultures had taken different routes – from developing the arts and the human knowledge to succumbing to cruelty and punishing the flesh – all in order to search for the answers that we all want to know, namely what is our purpose here on earth, what happens once we are gone and how to make this transition we call ‘life’ a worthy one.
From there I walked into the huge Room of the Enlightenment. It was a real room of wonders with enormous cabinets stuffed with books and curiosities. The artifacts found here would be enough to build ten small to medium museums anywhere in the world. The exhibits were meticulously organised in seven sections exploring seven new disciplines of the Age of Enlightenment – in other words the 18th century period when Europe birthed the science of archaeology and started to study and classify the ancient world, the natural world and the art and culture of the civilisations populating Earth.
From there I walked into a brand new corner of the British Museum – the gallery of the Waddesdon Bequest. This was an amazing collection of medieval and Renaissance treasures put together by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild which he gave to the British Museum in 1898. The items on display were simply superb. I don’t think I have seen so many objects of such fine artistry and craftsmanship under the same roof. Just the jewels on display could make me cry with rapture and delight. And I was particularly taken with the nautilus cups – finely engraved with fighting dragons nautilus shells which had then been encased in silver mounts shaped like a sea dragon with gaping jaws, fierce teeth and a claw foot. The walls and the displays in the gallery were black, which made it all a bit creepy, but the darkness engulfing us all emphasised the amazing treasures we were looking at.
For my final stop on this particular day I chose the Africa gallery where I was really taken with the Benin plaques. Dating back to the 16th century they had originally been used to adorn the old royal palace in Benin City and mostly showed scenes of palace life and ritual.
Exhaused from all the treasures seen and the dense crowds I had to circumnavigate it was time for me to leave. I cast one last glance at the installation ‘Cradle to Grave: Pharmacopoeia’ which was made of two lengths of fabric representing the medical stories of a man and a woman. Each piece contained over 14 thousand drugs – the estimated average prescribed to every person in Britain in their lifetime.
I bade good-bye to the British Museum and walked out into the wet early London evening.
I had enjoyed my visit. Above all, it was good to know that what could have been lost has been saved and was under the museum’s roof. It made human history just a little bit easier to read and understand. And we need to preserve history and learn from it as much as we can.