British Museum, Sunday 26.9.10
Posted by Lisa Hill on September 27, 2010
The plan for today was a literary walk through Mayfair, but we thought we’d start with a quick visit to our favourite museum instead. Four hours later we jettisoned the walk because we were footsore but happy and in need of a rest back at the Montague.
Is it ever possible to do a ‘quick visit’ to the BM? I don’t think so. We’ve included visits on both our previous trips and still we find new things to take our interest. First up we headed for ancient civilisations that Tim learned about in his current Monash course, and then we just meandered about to wherever serendipity took us. Tim discovered a Roman padlock and shards of ancient glass, while I marvelled at the mosaic pavements from Roman villas here in Britain.
I especially enjoyed reading about the discovery of the various ‘hoards’ found by kids and farmers who stumbled onto treasures buried long ago. All over the galleries there are cabinets full of weapons and helmets, coins and jewellery found in fields and under buildings here in the British Isles. There is the Staffordshire Hoard, the Vale of York Hoard, the Cuerdale Hoard and others whose names I’ve forgotten. I’m not sure who ‘owns’ these things when first they are found but one way or another they’ve ended up here in at the British Museum. The Sutton Hoo Hoard is my favourite because it shows that the so-called Dark Ages were not a wasteland of empty thought and complacent ideas. The sophistication of this unknown English king’s burial and the artefacts laid to rest with his body proves that.
It was good fun trying to guess what this ancient gizmo was. (It’s an adze). We knew it was bronze age because there were shreds of copper oxide on it, and I guessed it was a digging tool because it was a bit like Aboriginal ones I’ve seen. Tim figured out that the top part was where the handle joined on, and it wasn’t hard to guess what they used to tie it together with: animal intestines! I think kids of all ages enjoy this kind of game…
My favourite gallery is still The Enlightenment Gallery. This gallery features the collections of those 18th and 19th century men (and women??) who had the time and the means to collect things from all over the world, but didn’t just collect for the sake of it. They also had the brains to try to make sense of their collections in a scientific way. George III features in this gallery too: unlike the present crop of royals he was an intellectual and his library forms the backdrop in the gallery – his books are everywhere. Not just in stacks on the walls, but also underneath the cabinets. These ones you can see at left are massive atlases, part of a set of over a hundred.
The thing about George was that he was forward thinking about science in a way that his fellow-collector of scientific instruments and founder of the British Museum, Sir Hans Sloane, was not. Sloane was a clever fellow, but he collected instruments long past their use-by date just because they were exotic or interesting while George’s were the latest and most useful he could get his hands on. (I think he commissioned some too.)
There’s a cast of the famous Rosetta Stone which serves to introduce a fascinating series of cabinets showing how these ancient inscriptions were deciphered. I’ve read about this achievement many times and it still amazes me that they were able to decode the inscriptions. The chart that shows the correspondences between what’s on the stone and what the symbols mean looks deceptively simple, it’s one of the great achievements of the Enlightenment period…
I look much happier in my picture because we walked back past the London Review Bookshop where I found some Moleskine notebooks (I forgot to bring some with me, for journalling) and a delightful book called The Shell Country Alphabet, The Classic Guide to the British Countryside by Geoffrey Grigson. It will be a perfect companion as we set off for the Cotswolds tomorrow.
We finished off a perfect day by meeting up with Kim from Reading Matters at Bea’s of Bloomsbury, which has to be the best tea shop in London. How nice it is to meet up with a fellow booklover like this, thanks to the wonders of the internet!