Day 12: Medieval Dude in a Helmet: The British Museum
Ancient, and yet so modern! (Dude, where’s my motorcycle?)
So today I go to the British Museum. Generally it makes me uncomfortable to go there, given that huge chunks of its most prestigious collections were stolen from other countries.
For example, the title of this gallery should not be “Egyptian funerary and archaeology“, it should be “shit we stole when that was still cool.“
I actually laughed out loud the first time I saw the placard for the Elgin Marbles. Elgin explains he removed about half the marble frieze from the front of the Parthenon to protect it from “looters and vandals“ and preserve it for posterity. (I ask, looters and vandals such as Lord Elgin?) The Wikipedia entry notes that he claimed he had gotten written permission from the Greek government, but despite the government’s having excellent records at that time, a copy of the so-called permission has never been found there. The British Museum promptly built a separate wing for it and displays it proudly. Sadly, the Greeks have had to make do with displaying a mock-up of the stolen sections of the frieze in their own museum on the Parthenon.
Shame, Lord Elgin!
He did not confine his international crime spree to the Parthenon:
(And thus spake Lord Elgin: I like it, I want it, put it on my Visa and ship it!)
It must’ve been fun to be a British lord in the 1800s!
But I digress. What is undeniably British is Stonehenge. The British Museum is having an exhibition, and since you can’t actually walk among the stones at Stonehenge anymore (thanks to tourists wanting to take “a little souvenir home” with their chisel (“It’s so big, who would miss a piece?”), and can only circle around at a distance on a tour bus) I figure this is better than even going there. I look forward eagerly to bathing in the otherworldly time-traveling vibe of this iconic location.
So I get my timed ticket and pay my £20 (the museum is free but the special exhibitions you pay for) with the other 10 hubillion people who imagine that coming as early as possible is your best bet, Covid-wise. We all press in together, cheek to jowl, to receive enlightenment.
What I learn is that the folks who built Stonehenge were hunter-gatherers who used stone axes.
And then they used more stone axes. And then a little bit later they used decorated stone axes.
And then they used metal stone axes. (No, obviously not, but at this point I have spent half an hour in the exhibit waddling along with the masses, and have seen nothing but axes of various kinds.)
Where is my enlightenment?
They do have a little bit on the development of the site as a gathering place, and possibly a worship place. First it was in wood.
Then they realized that would get worn down and have to be replaced, and the moved to stone, using all those axes! They talk about how Stonehenge may have been used as an exciting lure to immigration, that people wanted to move to Britain after seeing such a groovy thing in this up-and-coming city-state! OK, maybe so — it’s no gift shop, but given the options for entertainment and inspiration in the 2500 BCs, why not? Let’s move to Britain and see the standing stones!
So at this point Britain get some folks coming in from other places, is more cosmopolitan, and starts to develop some bling. My interest perks up.
Now we’re talking!
Also somewhere in there a more explicitly religious purpose arises and they aligned the stones to frame the sun on the winter solstice, which I think is where most of its current spiritual significance comes from.
And there they leave you.
So that’s the history of Stonehenge. I was vaguely dissatisfied, and didn’t see anything else that I really wanted to look at. I was interested in seeing the Kehinde Wiley exhibition I had read about, but after consulting the information desk, they let me know it is at the Portrait Gallery, which is closed for renovations, so I am again SOL on that.
My secondary purpose in going to the museum is to take pictures of the Sutton Hoo ship burial. My sister had seen a special on it and curious, so I thought she would be pleased to see photos. In 1939, a British woman had someone dig up one of the burial mounds on her estate (such as we all have I’m sure) and found the remains of an entire 90-foot long ship from the 600s buried intact with multiple artifacts from the time, surprisingly well preserved. The discovery was hailed as significant because it demonstrated that Britain had a robust trade with international commerce at that time, presumably inferred from the objects found on the ship. (I.e. that Britain was a playa on the world stage even back then, not just some little backwoods hamlet named “Londonium.”) I think it should be hailed as significant that someone was able to bury an entire ship in someone’s backyard!
The objects are beautiful, and make you think about what their lives might have been like at that time:
(what, no axes? 😂 I guess they had outgrown them by then)
Done with that exhibit, I head for the exit. along the way, I do admire the architecture. The building itself is stunning!
Most importantly, just outside the museum is a stop for mid morning coffee.
I head for Russell Square, which is one of the prettiest parks I’ve seen yet in London — just the right size, neither too big nor too small, with a variety of paths so you can wander around or push a stroller, and the daffodils just starting to bloom. Spring is here!
As is London’s official mascot:
The bird and I share a delightful lunch, and I head for home.
This is Day 12 of my trip to London — read the other days in this series here on my page!