culture,  UK

The British Museum – part 1

Living in London has many advantages in comparison to living in any of the cities of the world. Of course, for some people those would be disadvantages and they would do anything just to move out to the countryside, I am not one of them, though. Once a capital of the empire on which the sun never sets, now still one of the capitals of the world – London, living here suits me well enough.

One of the things I love doing in my spare time is going to the museums. Ruling the huge piece of the Earth once, meant getting access to its treasures, of both natural and human origin. That is how Koh-i-Noor, once belonging to famous Shah Jahan who built Taj Mahal, became part of the British Crown Jewels, after being “confiscated” by the British East India Company from the Sikh rulers. That is how the Elgin Marbles were “obtained” and move to Britain from Parthenon in Athens. That is how the Rosetta Stone “came into British possession” after the capitulation of Alexandria. That is also how…

Of course, blaming the British for doing the same things everyone else did if they could, would be nonsense. That was the way of how the 19th century world was run. A few greedy world powers and the rest of the globe. And let’s face it, is it any different now? So, one thing you will not get from this post would be dipping in the ethical discourse. It is not that I approve any of these, but it is just not place for a discussion. This post is about the British Museum, definitely my most favourite.

It is one of the largest museums in the entire world, numbering about 8 million works documenting the story of human culture from the beginning to present in its permanent collection (of which not even 1% is shown, regrettably). What is great, that being a public body sponsored by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, it does not charge admission fee, except for loan exhibitions. That sounds like paying dues to the society and apparently it works. Have you ever been to the Louvre or the Vatican Museums, just to name the two? The price of a ticket is not insignificant, the museums are huge and you are not able to see anything for long enough. The line to Mona Lisa moves slowly but constantly, and if you would like to admire the painting, the best idea would be to look at its high-definition digital image instead.

Thanks to no charge policy, you can spend in the BM as much time and as often as you like. And you can focus on one room only so your visit would be even more beneficial. Isn’t it great? I’m there at least once a month and my every visit starts at the same place – in front of the Rosetta Stone. I am much more interested in the relationships between people and objects than in art. That is why I consider this masterpiece of knowledge, ancient science and everyday life as one of the most important man-made objects ever. I remember when I was a child and saw it for the first time in a history book. Not too clear picture of a stone (the communist time in Poland, where there were not too many goods available and there was always a shortage of everything from food to furniture or paper, therefore the quality of the image) which even not being really old (just the 2nd century BC), became a key to understanding the beginnings of a human race and its material culture.

the Rosetta Stone in all its glory

This Ancient Egyptian stele is not very impressive to look at without knowing the historical context. It’s rather small, basically something similar to a 50″ flat screen tv which I’m sure feels way too small for you. It was made of a granite-like stone during the reign of king Ptolemy V around 200 BC. and was rediscovered in 1799 during Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt. It was a crucial item in the process of deciphering the Egyptian writing systems, since it contains the same text written in 3 scripts – Ancient Egyptian in hieroglyphic and Demotic (something’s wrong? no, apparently the word is capitalised in order to distinguish it from demotic/modern Greek), as well as the Ancient Greek. The latter was well known and all texts are identical, even though incomplete, so the French started immediate works on decoding the language. After the stele was “repossessed” by the British in 1802, it was quickly copied onto plaster which has been sent out to scientists all over Europe to unravel the mysteries of the Egyptian scripts. Eventually both of those has been decrypted.

After paying my respects to the scholars of the bygone eras, I usually pass through the ancient Egyptian or Greek exhibitions quite quickly to look at the remnants of the Assyrian, Babylonian and Sumerian empires, those which started the written history of a mankind with its cuneiform scripts (and gave the name for my company), as well as invented one of the oldest board games ever (this piece is actually more than 4000 years old!), which we call the Royal Game of Ur – and I am a huge fan of board games, by the way. The game was so popular in ancient Mesopotamia, that you can find it carved with a dagger on the Lamassu (human headed winged bull) by bored soldiers guarding palace of Sargon II (also in the permanent collection, I wonder if you can spot it).

The Royal Game of Ur

As I mentioned before, I try to visit the British Museum as often as possible. I usually start a trip on my Saturday or Sunday morning by leaving early and taking the Northern Line straight to Tottenham Court Road Station. Then, just a 5-minutes walk and I’m already inside. There is always something new (though literally rather old) for me to discover. And museum volunteers often deliver 30-45 minutes talks on specific subjects. You can check the schedule on the Museum website, I can guarantee that you will not get bored. This is a fantastic journey through time. The talks are free of charge, always narrated by very passionate persons. Thanks to them I’ve learnt so many facts which I would simply omit when watching the objects on my own, for example the remnants of ancient paint on Assyrian carvings in Room 10. Can you imagine how amazing it was to visualise them looking the way they were created?! During some of the tours you may even be able to touch old artefacts!

I also highly recommend coming to the museum on one of the Friday evenings when it’s open until late. There’s something magical at that time and the vibes are so different to the ones you get when visiting during the day.

The last word of advice, during the popular seasons do not use the overcrowded main entrance, come by the Montague Place door, unless there will be an organised excursion, you will often be the only person there and it could easily save you half an hour of waiting in line.

Ps. if you are a fan of board games and/or Harry Potter, you definitely need to check the Lewis Chessmen, why? follow the link!

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