Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The British Museum (with Bonus Olympic Preview!)

Our first visitors of 2012 are here! Josh's cousin Emily and her husband Curtis arrived Saturday morning from New York for a week-long visit.  We took advantage of the sunny (if not quite warm) weather to take them on a walking tour of Wimbledon in the afternoon so they could stay awake and adjust to London time after their overnight flight.

The weather was not so great on Sunday -- cold and rainy -- so after a leisurely breakfast of waffles with strawberries and cream (this is Wimbledon, after all), we made our way into central London to visit the British Museum.  It seemed like a good day to do something indoors.
Interior courtyard of British Museum
I had visited several years ago, but not since we moved to London.  Frankly, I find the museum a bit upsetting as it is full of items that were plundered from other countries, including Egyptian mummies and pieces of Greek, Roman, Middle Eastern, and Indian temples.  In fact, very few of the objects on display in the British Museum are actually British, unless you expand the definition to include all the former British colonies.  Some objects, such as the Rosetta Stone (from Egypt) and the Elgin Marbles (from the Parthenon in Greece), are still the subject of controversy as the museum has refused requests to return them to their countries of origin.  On the other hand, it is true that many the items in their collection would have become casualties of war, vandalism, pollution, or just the ravages of time and mother nature had they not been preserved in a museum.  Since Curtis is a classical scholar, he was very keen to see the British Museum, so it was as good an opportunity as any to pay another visit and cross it off my list.
Curtis & Emily pose with a pair of statues that once
guarded the throne room of an ancient Mesopotamian
palace, in modern-day Iraq  (ca 883-859 BC)


The Rosetta Stone is the Mona Lisa of the British Museum.  It's surrounded by a glass case and a crowd of people, making it nearly impossible to get a decent photo.  It's also a bit smaller than you might expect, and just as enigmatic.
The Rosetta Stone
Curtis was particularly interested in finding this statue, as it is believed to have been the inspiration for Percy Bysshe Shelley's poem Ozymandias.  You don't get a good sense of scale from the photo, but it may help to know that this "fragment" weighs over 7 tons.  The entire statue must have been massive!
Ramesses II
Moai statue from Rapa Nui (Easter Island)
I was intrigued by this modern folk art installation celebrating the Day of the Dead in Mexico, which seemed a bit out of place, but added a nice burst of color to an otherwise somewhat monochromatic collection of stone carvings.
The Atomic Apocalypse
Totem poles from the Pacific Northwest
You know something is a Very Important Artifact if it has a name beginning with 'The,' as in 'The Rosetta Stone' and 'The Elgin Marbles.'  There are quite a few such items in the British Museum, including The Portland Vase.  This deep blue and white carved-glass vessel is believed to be about 2000 years old (yes, two THOUSAND), and was likely made by a skilled glassblower and gem-cutter in Rome.  It was owned by the Duke of Portland in the late 1700's (hence the name) who lent it to Josiah Wedgwood -- who spent many years perfecting a copy for his pottery works.  Wedgwood still makes them today, so you can own your very own Portland Vase for only £5000 (about $7,800)
The Portland Vase
Dramatic masks.  What horrible facial expressions! 
We also came across The Lewis Chessmen, which were made out of walrus ivory and whale teeth in Scandinavia in the 12th century, but were discovered buried on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland in the early 19th century.  How?  Why?  No one really knows.
The Lewis Chessmen
We mostly let Curtis lead the way, but I asked if we could take a detour through the clock room, which did not disappoint.  There were some cool clocks and watches in there, ranging from a Medieval cathedral clock to a Swatch watch and a Sony clock radio that was a dead ringer for the one I left back in DC.  But by far the most fascinating item in the room (to me) was this:
Mechanical galleon clock
This 'clock' dates back to 16th century Germany, and would have likely been used as a centerpiece at a royal banquet.  It can move along the table while it plays music and the mechanical figures on the deck dance around.  For the grand finale, it fires its cannons.  Not sure I'd want to be a guest at that banquet!  Maybe it was meant to be a sort of Trojan Horse-type clock...  Oh, and it does also tell time.  There's a tiny dial on the deck of the ship: 
The clock part of the clock
If you've been enjoying my Olympic previews, here's another one for you: the 2012 Olympic medals!  They have a small display in the British Museum about the history of Olympic medals, including examples from the 1908 and 1948 games, which were also held in London, and the new medals for the 2012 games.
2012 Olympic medal designs and materials
2012 Olympic and Paralympic medal dies
2012 Olympic and Paralympic gold medals
This is probably the closest that most people will ever get to an Olympic gold medal, so they were almost as hard to photograph as the Rosetta Stone.  These were also some of the few objects in the British Museum that were designed and made in Britain.  It seems fitting, then, that most of them will end up in other countries...

1 comment:

  1. I think I need a Portland vase! :)

    ReplyDelete

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