London, The British Museum, 29.9.05
Posted by Lisa Hill on November 29, 2005
Since the British Museum was only round the corner from the Montague on the Park, even I couldn’t get lost. So when Tim decided to have a rest back at the hotel, I couldn’t resist venturing out on my own…
First (of course) I went back to see the antiquities: The Elgin Marbles, the Assyrians, the Romans and so on. I met some lovely people, including a friendly Greek gent who caught me admiring the Nereid Monument and wanted to know if I thought it should be repatriated to Greece. I said not, (not as emphatically as I might have otherwise) but we chatted amiably because I’m from Melbourne and Greeks are fond of Melbourne. (It’s the third largest Greek city in the world.)
Outside British prehistory there was a curator with a tray of items for visitors to touch and hold. She let me handle a small pick and a hammer head, but (as I couldn’t resist telling her) these were hardly ancient compared to Aboriginal culture, which goes back 40,000 years. I was a bit surprised to find that she didn’t know much about the technologies used by our Aborigines in prehistory, and she was very impressed when I told her I’d seen small ‘wells’ carved by hand in Wave Rock, Western Australia. These wells were filled with sand to stop precious water from evaporating during the drought. I think Aussies should do much more bragging about the unique culture and history of our Aborigines…
Later on I again felt like an excited little kid when I was allowed to hold coins from the reign of Cleopatra (20BC) and Ptolomy (240BC), a little ewer of oil used by an athlete on his skin before a race and an Athenian pottery dish for olives. I do so love to see these household objects from long ago.
I met up with Tim again in the Enlightenment Gallery, which is new since our last visit. When George III’s library was moved to its impressive new home in the new British Library there were empty bookshelves left behind, so they borrowed some books from the parliamentary library to make it look respectable and filled the gallery with an eclectic (but systematically organised) collection of memorabilia from the Great Men of the Enlightenment. I felt quite a pang when I saw the fossil collection of William Smith – the father of British geology, according to Simon Winchester. He was a canal engineer, who created the first geological map of Britain, but he got into financial bother and had to break up his precious fossil collection to sell it to a not very grateful public.
There were all sorts of natural history specimens there too, including Joseph Banks’ shells and a stuffed koala, bits of Samian (Aretine) ware, some tiles from 8th century Iran (when it was Persia), pieces of Wedgewood, a miscellany of Hindu deities and even a miniature gamelan. Amazing!
After that, we went to the special exhibition ‘Forgotten Empire’ and it was brilliant. Some of the pieces were only British Museum casts, made in the 19th century but now the only surviving examples for study. They show the magnificence of the carvings on the Persian palaces, but what I liked best was the jewellery – superb little golden chariots, so delicate and fine, and a magnificent drinking vessel with a carved base. Beautiful gold armlets and tiny little seals carved with miniature scenes of Persian life. There was also a special column with what was ‘almost’ an early Bill of Rights exhorting tolerance – used these days by the Iranians for propaganda purposes…
Tired out, we dined in, on squab risotto at the Blue Door Restaurant, which is the evening incarnation of the breakfast room at the Montague. The meal was nice, and the service very good, but the South African wine was woeful!