Class by Morning, British Museum by Afternoon

Posted Jul 14th, 2009 at 7:28 am in Photography, Science, Traveling About

My next installment of photos are up in the gallery, consisting largely of Amy and I’s short trip to the British museum on July 9th. In addition, I wanted to share a writeup about what the day was like. One of the requirements of the course is that we keep a journal each day. While I can’t promise to share this information every time (due to the time constraints), I wanted to give a picture of what a typical day is like.

Class in the Morning

In class this morning, Dr. Maxwell covered many of the most important naturalists of the 18th and 19th centuries. I especially found the French naturalists and the events surrounding the French Revolution fascinating as I know so much less about them than I do the same period in England. For example, I found it fascinating that the French scientists changed the name of the Kings Garden to Plant Garden (Jardin de Roi to Jardin de Plantes) in order to try and survive the French Revolution and the anger directed towards the king and the nobility. Dr. Dowler talked more about museums, how they acquire specimens, set goals and policies, and the role and responsibility of a curator.

Getting Too Smart For Our Own Good

After lunch Amy and I took the subway to the British Museum, getting off at Russell Street. It was here that I learned a valuable lesson about being a visitor in other people’s country. If you see a bunch of British people doing something a certain way and think to yourself that you have a better solution, you are, quite simply, wrong.

Here’s what happened. After getting off the tube, we followed a herd of people and found ourselves at a lift (elevator) that was absolutely packed with even more people trying to squeeze on. “Let’s take the stairs,” we said. The fact that not a single person had opted to do the same should have been our first clue. Perhaps 11 stories later after taking one enormous, never ending, twirling staircase (that lacked even a single flat section) we understood why.

The British Museum

The British Museum itself was incredible, if just a touch overwhelming. (You can steal some really nice stuff given a few hundred years.) We didn’t really have enough time, but I actually think that was a good thing. Everyone knows my attention span isn’t always the greatest, and I actually think having a shorter amount of time helps me take in a lot of things without going a little stir crazy.

Amy at the British Museum
Amy at the British Museum.

We spent most of our time looking at fairly early cultures in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Assyrian, and some Greek and Roman artifacts. There were many stunning objects, either for their significance in what they said about the culture that produced them or the quality of the artwork. For example, there were some Roman Egyptian paintings around the turn of the common era (0 A.D.) that showed a level of sophistication in their shading and use of light that were seen again until the Renaissance. You look at these things and could literally imagine the real flesh and blood of these people walking around in the room with you.

Another exhibit that struck me was some of the religious practices of the Egyptians. One contained mummified cats, which were held in cat-shaped containers and elaborately adorned, not unlike sarcophagi of the Egyptian pharaohs. In some cases, the cat had its neck broken before being entombed. The Egyptians apparently believed that animals (not just cats but lots of different animals) acted as intermediaries for certain gods. Another practice included small human figurines placed inside people’s tombs to assist with work in the afterlife. Initially, tombs contained only one or two of these figurines, but over time the number increased. At the height of this practice, 401 figurines were buried with a person — one for each day of the year plus 36 overseers to manage all the workers.

The Rosetta Stone

Of course the main thing that we went to see was the Rosetta Stone. Not that it’s that impressive to behold or that we can understand any of the languages on it. Rather the significance is really impressive.

The Rosetta Stone

I also got a handful of really cool pictures of random people looking at the Rosetta Stone. This first is of the crowds that never stop trying to press in and get a closer view.

Crowds around the Rosetta Stone

Looking at the Rosetta Stone

The Enlightenment Room

The last thing that Amy and I looked at was a collection of items in the Enlightenment Room that were in the first holdings of the British Museum when the Crown purchased the collection of Sir Hans Sloan in 1753. This exhibit included many natural history objects (most in fairlypoor shape, small, or fossilized). Also included were other items and books from 18th and 19th century England, placed in shelves along the entire perimeter of the room. Maroon velvet paneling adorned the room’s walls, which was made with wooden floors, a yellow and white ornate ceiling, and gold brass trimmings. The entire atmosphere was of a “cabinet of curiosity” as one might have seen just before the dawn of the modern museum era.

I found myself enthralled by the experience and decided that this was easily my favorite room in the museum. The reason is that it contained two histories. That of the objects themselves — Roman soldier helmets, Egyptian artwork — and that of the people and the entity that had cared to collect these objects in the first place. And as I reflected, it became apparent that every object had a story of how it came to be at the British Museum (or indeed any other museum). I imagine that some of these stories are quite mundane. Others however are not, like the Rosetta Stone itself which was apparently recovered by Napoleon in 1799 in Egypt and captured two years later by British soldiers. I felt that so many of the other rooms and exhibits in the British Museum completely lacked this context. They felt sterile.

Amy and I walked back to our rooms stopping at a cheap place for a dinner of fish and chips.

2 Responses to “Class by Morning, British Museum by Afternoon”

  1. Wow! What a marathon of museum! I’m sure I’d be hollering ‘enough’ before the day was done. Got a question: On your second picture the lines on the street are rather jagged and haphazard looking but I remember it means something. Can you enlighten me?

  2. I wish I could. We’ve noticed that too but don’t know what it is. I’ll ask a few other folks, and if they still don’t know, I’m sure we can find out when we go birding with our British friends this weekend.

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