For years I have kept reminding myself to go back to visit the British Museum so, finally, last week while visiting part of my family in London, I set out one morning with Leonardo, my 9year old grandson, towards this destination. On entering, to my dismay, practically nothing was as I remembered it and suddenly the 25 years since I had last been there seemed so very far in the past! The Great Court at the heart of the Museum was, in my days, an open courtyard but is now the largest covered public square in Europe, a Norman Foster project enclosed under a most spectacular steel roof that supports 1656 glass panels all different in shape and size. (My grandson’s impression was that we were entering a giant spaceship!) Surrounding the centre, where the famous Reading Room used to be, the court contains 12 sculptures from the Museum’s collection. These sculptures on display introduce the cultures represented in the galleries beyond, and finding ourselves amongst hoards of busy, scruffy, very British schoolchildren in their classical uniforms I was amazed and surprised by their enthusiasm and interest.
Our first long pause was in front of an imposing stone bust of the great pharoah Ramesses II that presides over the room, while the world-famous Rosetta Stone, enclosed in it’s huge transparent perspex display case, with its inscribed scripts that relate how Egypt’s ancient form of pictographic writing was deciphered for the first time. Large stone Assyrian sculptures and reliefs were a striking feature of the palaces and temples of ancient Assyria (today northern Iraq). There are two colossal winged human-headed bulls from the entrance to the royal palace in Nimrud and a gigantic standing lion that stood at the entrance to the nearby Temple of Ishtar, the goddess of war. They introduce one to a long series of reliefs that decorated the throne-room and the royal apartments of Nineveh which depict the king and his subjects engaged in a variety of activities in great detail and illustrate very actually everyday life of the era. King Ashurnasirpal is shown leading military campaigns against his enemies, engaging in ritual scenes with protective demons, hunting (which was a very popular royal sport in ancient Mesopotamia). The hunting scenes, full of high tension and realism, illustrate the release of the lions, the ensuing chase and then the subsequent killing. Further down through the galleries we encounter the lavish use of the white marble statues that decorated the outside of Athena’s temple in Athens… the Parthenon. The pediments and metopes illustrate episodes from Greek mythology. One gift of astonishing, surprising art after another… Finally we came across the marble statue of a greek youth on horseback which was in the last gallery that we had the energy to visit. (Unfortunately, the photographer, during his previous private shoot session, had already run out of energy and therefore no photo follows, but http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=459813&partId=1&museumno=1864,1021.2&page=1). Memories of having already admired him a quarter of a century ago suddenly came back to me.The statue dates back to the first half of the first century AD and the youth is shown heroically naked except for his paludamentum cloak. Equestrian statues such as this one were not common in antiquity and this one probably represents a very handsome Julio-Claudian prince. I will have to go back and see him again soon.
Both of us were emotionally drained after all these beauties, and Leonardo made me faithfully promise that we will come back to see more the next time I am in London. I promised… and a promise is a promise. So, after a long day of admiration we left Great Russell St. behind us, still enthralled in the era of the Pharaohs and Greek Mythology, we started our journey across London back home. For any of our Barnum readers that are planning a trip to London in the future, a visit to this place is a MUST.