An Amicable Parting

I believe I must be honest up front: I did not enjoy my visit to the British Museum.

Like the V&A (which you can read about here), the British Museum is enormous, with room upon room containing case after case filled with priceless treasures. It got to be a bit boring, to tell the truth.

Although the grand entrance is stunning.

The British Museum was founded in 1753 during the Age of Enlightenment, and the original first Museum guide reads in 1761, “Curiosity almost universally prevails . . . Nothing can conduce more to preserve the Learning which this latter Age abounds with, than having Repositories in every Nation to contain its Antiquities, such as is the Museum of Britain.”

By far the most interesting collection held are the Parthenon sculptures (or Elgin Marbles, after the guy who brought them from Athens to Britain). They are set up by themselves in a way that allows for isolation and contemplation, unlike the masses of other objects throughout the Museum.

Horsemen

A view into the room holding the friezes, one of the few areas where one could mercifully be somewhat free from the constant press of the crowds.

Contest between Athena and Poseidon for the patronage of Athens (Athena wins), west pediment

Women; you can tell because they are always depicted with their ankles covered.

Priest and child (probably a boy – note his ankles) folding Athena’s peplos.

Depicting the Centauromachy 

(Battle between the Lapiths – Greeks – and the centaurs at a wedding in which the latter had a bit too much to drink and started trying to rape everything in site, including the bride. They were not good wedding guests.)

The Birth of Athena, east pediment

The same

Same

And yet the same

You would not believe how long I had to wait to get those pictures so that there wouldn’t be a bunch of people in them.

And that sums up why I didn’t much care for this museum, and why there won’t be a lot that I write about it. Is that fair? Probably not. But I’m the one who has to write the words and that’s what I think.

The ancient – especially that of Greece and Rome – is what the British Museum really excels at, with the most interesting and engaging displays belonging to the areas on the ground floors and extending into the upper.

Greece

Same statue

Alexander’s Greece

Greece

Assyria, from the city of Nimrod

Egypt

This is basically what every room looked like. People everywhere.

I am interested in European and American history, so I sought those out.

They were rather disappointing, mostly knick-knacks and other curios that were hard to place or piece together in a cohesive story. The American display was confined to one room centering entirely on Native American pieces, like clothes and tools, and some art, but nothing really stood out and made me think “Oh I need to capture that on film.” So I didn’t.

The European exhibits were basically the same, although some things were interesting, like the Sutton Hoo burial treasure:

Probably Britain’s greatest archaeological find.

There was some really pretty jewelry too, which I always enjoy:

And a crazy fun room full of clocks that I absolutely adored, which just goes to show that you do indeed turn into your parents. (Those of you who know my father will understand this reference, and Lord help you if you’ve ever been in my parent’s house when all thirteen or so of his clocks go off.)

A very old clock

Another clock of advanced age

All sorts of clocks

Longcase clock

Longcase clock, detail

This ship is actually a clock. Sadly it no longer works.

Info about the above ship clock

Pocket watches! So tiny and cute!

Some are tinier and cuter than others.

Cuckoo and quail clock, about 1870

I like the large dial at the bottom. No idea what it’s for, but I liked it anyway.

I then accidentally wandered into the Enlightenment-themed rooms on my way to the Asian galleries:

It looks like a giant library. The cases are full of books and bric-a-brac from the ancient world to porcelain Asian figurines.

I liked the ceiling a lot.

One of the many bookcases.

I like Asian art, but I honestly don’t know much about it, so the endless rows of statues and cases full of pots and vases, figurines, wall hangings, and other things that I don’t know the purpose of, quickly became overwhelming.

Statues of Buddhas

A sampling of all the stuff I encountered.

Not sure what these little guys are but they were in the middle of the walkway and seemed important.

Indian art came after the Chinese

So much art

I’ve seen this style of statue before in the Cleveland Museum of Art.

I like the ones of men and women together. Call me a romantic . . . .

So that was the British Museum, and sadly I don’t have a particular stand-out item or items that I can pull from to really dig down into the depths of my experience.

Mostly all I can think of is people: packs of people, crowds of people, throngs of people, people everywhere, nothing but people people people.

Interestingly, there were a lot of people at the V&A, but I didn’t end up focusing on them. I think this is in part because the V&A has made an attempt to streamline their displays and provide some sort of focus and flow to them, making it easier for people to find themselves in the exhibits and know where to look. Granted, the V&A is a much greater hodge-podge of rooms and floors, but everything was infinitely more interesting in the way it was staged.

I might be rather harsh on the British Museum. It’s true it doesn’t cater to my particular interests, and I did have a nice time in the areas that I found interesting (the clocks, the Parthenon friezes). But it was very difficult to find my footing, to figure out where to begin looking and to find some sort of story line or common thread tying everything I was looking at together.

This is one of the advantages I think a smaller museum like the Museum of London has over the heavy hitters like the British Museum or even the V&A. Everything in the former tells the same story in a cohesive manner (in this case linear, which I find is the easiest way of going about it and provides a solid framework for people to follow), and it can all be seen in an hour or two, making everything less overwhelming.

The British Museum IS overwhelming, there’s so much to see, so many tiny objects stuffed into glass cases, all vying for attention with the result that none gets any. I felt myself wandering through its aisles, going from room to room, moving through the labyrinth, viewing everything and seeing nothing.

I would like to go back someday, if I could find a time when there would be little to no people packed into the place. When I’d be free to stroll, to meander, to quietly move from place to place, and gaze upon the little pieces that contain wholes of history, that were once important to people long gone, and still have much to offer.

Until then, the British Museum and I will part amicably, with no regrets on either side, perhaps to meet again, and no love lost between us.

I used the British Museum’s Souvenir Guide that I purchased in one of the museum’s gift shops in reference to some of the facts and locations written about.

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