Margaret (pling) wrote,

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Trip to the British Museum and the Soane Museum

J had some days of leave to use up by the end of March & the British Museum had a Members' Open Evening on Monday, so we took advantage of these two facts & spent 2 days in London. The journey into London was mostly uneventful, tho the driving bit was full of other cars most of which seemed to be driven by morons, and loads of freight which is always a trifle tedious. We did make it to Cockfosters by noon, tho, and managed to find a car-park space so that was the one source of stress for the trip over & done with ;) The cafe at the tube station does toasted sandwiches, so that was our lunch (bacon & cheese for me) which we ate on the way into central London. Pretty much the entire plan for the 2 days revolved around either museums or refreshments :)

We'd packed light coz most of the time we'd have our stuff with us not leave it in the hotel, so we went straight to the British Museum, and once there straight to the Egyptian Galleries. Which shouldn't be entirely surprising, given the level of J's obsession with Egypt ;) J wanted to look at the rooms with the coffins in, and started with the cabinet with the Book of the Dead papyrii in. And I think he looked round most of one room while I managed to look at all of both the rooms and some bits twice ;) I was particularly looking at all the fine carving and painting on the artifacts, the level of detail and the crispness & sharpness of the decoration even after several thousand years is extremely impressive. Particular highlights on that front were the pieces from a wall in Seti I's tomb (and part of his sarcophagus lid - the actual sarcophagus is elsewhere, see below) and one of the shabti. I also spent a bit of time looking at the mummified animals and their cases - the ibis shaped case for an ibis mummy was most impressive, but possibly the most striking was the falcon-headed fish-shaped case for a mummified fish. And one of the school groups in the room with us provided me with amusement as one of the little girls went round every case asking "Is this Tutankhamun?" and her more clued-up friend kept saying "No it's not" getting more and more exasperated as they went round, until eventually she announced at the top of her voice "Nothing in here's Tutankhamun! None of it!" and marched off after the teacher in huff ;)

After a couple of hours in there we went back downstairs (past the Sekhmet statues and bits of Roman mosaics - one of which was "November dressed as Isis with a sistrum", even an Egypt connection there) to the cafe and had coffee and a snack to tide us over until dinnertime. Then after a quick look through the bookshop to see if there was anything to get in the evening (a bigger discount for members at the open evening) we headed off to check into our hotel. If we're staying in London we generally go for cheap rooms in Travelodges, they're a bit basic, but are clean & safe & you can get good deals if you book far enough in advance. I'd not managed to get my act together in time to find a really good deal, but I'd still managed to get us a discounted room in the hotel at Tower Hill. Had to pause as we got out of the tube station to have a look at the castle - a really nice view to walk out to. Then walked to the (easily found) hotel and checked in and dumped one of our bags, before heading straight back out.

The original plan was to see if we could get back to the Museum in time to see something else before it shut then go for a drink while we waited for it to re-open for the Members' Evening. But it was a little after 5 when we got back to Holborn so we decided there wasn't time, so went for a leisurely beer at the Princess Louise instead. And then walked round the block that the Museum is in, arriving back at the main gates just as they re-opened.

We just had time between the two parts of signing in for the talk we'd booked to attend (a somewhat inefficient process, really) to pick up the book we'd spotted earlier "Masterpieces of Ancient Egypt" - which is a catalogue of 200 things the British Museum has from Ancient Egypt, each with a nice glossy picture and a description. Then it was time for the gallery talk we'd booked on. Again we hadn't got things sorted out enough in advance (that's a lesson for next time) to get on the talks we'd thought looked most interesting as clearly everyone else agreed with us. But there were when we booked still spaces on the one titled "500 nations, one gallery: the British Museum's Native North American collection on display". So we signed up for that, as something that we knew nothing about in advance. Good thing we didn't leave it even later as it was also over-subscribed by the evening with a waiting list.

The talk was given by the curator of the gallery, Devorah Romanek, who had been in the job for 6 months. She came across as very enthusiastic about her subject, but possibly a little disorganised - I liked her (she was a nut in the best possible way) & found the talk interesting, but it might've been improved by having a bit more structure particularly as it didn't really have a conclusion it more stopped as we ran out of time ;) One of the points she was keen to impress on us was the sheer diversity of the cultures across North America and that although it's possible to make some great sweeping statements it's also true that even neighbouring peoples can have big differences. The gallery itself is divided up into fairly large geographical areas and presents to some degree the big over-arching story, but behind that there are lots of cultures in each area, each unique. Another key factor in how the gallery presents the objects they display is that it is done in an anthropological sense - the department is primarily an anthropological one - and so it links the cultures and objects back to living peoples. Generally with a photograph plus some description of people who are in that culture. This extends then to having groups from various tribes come to the Museum to collaborate with the Museum staff on what objects are and what their significance is, and also to advise on appropriate ways of displaying them (several pipes, for instance, weren't displayed intact because putting the bowl and stem together had spiritual significance and thus would be inappropriate for a museum exhibit).

Another thing that I probably should've realised but hadn't was that some objects collected from the post "contact" era (ie after Europeans got to the Americas) were made for the tourist trade (not modern stuff, I mean historical artifacts here), and other things include symbols that originally came from the Europeans but were then re-purposed to fit into the cultural context they were now in. To illustrate this she showed us a "squash blossom" necklace, which had a crescent symbol - which wasn't originally symbolising a squash blossom, but was derived from the crescent symbols on Spanish objects (which in turn are remnants of the Moorish conquest and influence in Spain). I'm not sure I learnt much detail from the talk, but my interest was definitely piqued and I think I'd like to go and have a proper look round the gallery looking at all the explanations etc on a future visit. Which is the point of such things, I suspect, if you don't already know something about the subject area.

After the talk we sat in the Great Court for a little, as there was live music provided by someone playing the kora (a west African instrument we'd first heard in the Michael Palin programme about the Sahara that we've been watching). We could've sat there quite some time, we were definitely enjoying the music, but there wasn't time to do everything!

We'd thought about going to another talk, but decided in the end to go to the current special exhibition instead, as I'd wanted to see it. This was about the sculptures from the Kingdom of Ife, another subject about which I knew pretty much nothing in advance. Ife was a flourishing city state in West Africa between 1100 & 1400 AD, it had links with Benin (the kings of Benin say that they are descended from the kings of Ife). Benin I had heard of as it had been the focus of one episode of the Lost Kingdoms of Africa that we watched a few weeks ago. The people of Ife also made sculptures in brass and copper, but unlike the Benin plaques they are mostly just of heads. Quite eerily beautiful heads, and the lighting in the exhibition brought this out perfectly. There were also some stone statues, including a small statue of a chameleon (it was a chameleon that tested the firmness of the earth in one of the Ife creation myths) that I was particularly taken with.

Looking at the exhibition took us pretty much up to end of the time for the open evening, so we headed off out of the Museum in search of dinner. An initial thought had been to look for somewhere adventurous, but in the end we were tired from a whole day of museuming so went to Pizza Express then back to the hotel for some much needed sleep :)

Up fairly bright and early - but not much point being too early as we didn't want to travel during peak tube times. So we wandered about a bit in search of breakfast, which we eventually found in an Eat from which we could see both an old church and the Gherkin (a shiny modern building) in the skyline. And then off to start museuming again! We weren't starting with the British Museum though, our first trip was to Sir John Soane's Museum as J had read that they had the sarcophagus of Seti I. We got there not long after the museum opened, which turned out to be a good thing as when we came out there was a queue of people waiting to get in. Access is restricted to only a relative few people at a time because of the nature of the museum - it's in two townhouses on Lincoln's Inn Fields and it is absolutely crammed full of stuff. The corridors between rooms are narrow because they are lined with busts and other bits of statuary or stonework. Everywhere you look there is more stuff, and yet more stuff once you look past the first things you see. You go round a corner and are suddenly presented with a window out into a wee grotto with yet more statuary. The man was clearly a nut of the nuttiest degree. A collector extraordinaire. And got himself an Act of Parliament in the early 1800s to keep the museum as he would leave it on death (not quite followed, more modern requirements (like space for staff, lavatories added in Victorian times) have mean that some stuff has been moved but they have a plan to buy up another house in the block and restore the original two to their proper glory). We spent most time looking at the sarcophagus, but I couldn't not look round all the rest just to goggle at the sheer nuttiness of it all.

The sarcophagus is stunning. It's made of Egyptian alabaster (semi-translucent limestone), hollowed out and carved from a single block. Then smoothed down and all the intricately detailed scenes & spells from the Book of Gates carved onto the inside and outside. When it was first discovered it was pure white and the hieroglyphs and pictures had blue colouring inlaid. Unfortunately the London air has made it turn yellow and all but a few traces of the blue is gone. Which is a great shame - it lasted for thousands of years looking good (even if it was never intended to be seen), then the last couple of hundred have spoilt it rather. A pity it was found that long ago as a more modern time would have kept it in Egypt where the humidity is the same or at the very least kept it somewhere climate controlled.

This had taken us longer than we expected, so instead of wandering far afield we grabbed a quick sandwich from a Pret on the way to the British Museum. Our first stop once we were there was not at all Egyptian related! We'd felt for a bit that we really ought to see the Parthenon sculptures - that's one of the things that the British Museum is known for having and something that should be seen at least once. Obviously there was an undercurrent in all the gallery information of the British Museum putting forward its position on why it should keep the marbles, with great emphasis placed on their position that they were legally purchased and saved from further damage by this removal (having previously been defaced by conversion of the Parthenon into a Christian church, and by an explosion of a gunpowder store in the late 1600s).

I found the frieze less impressive than the statues from the triangular end pieces of the temple, partly coz the frieze was more repetitive being mostly horsemen in parade. And I'm sure if I'd been studying them in detail that would've been rewarded with lots of little distinguishing and defining elements. But looking at the great sweep was less interesting. The metopes showing the centaurs and humans fighting (the story seems to've been about a mythical drunken brawl - metaphorically showing how much better the Greeks were than their Persian rivals) were more instantly interesting. And the great statues of the gods were, as I already said, very impressive. There was a short film in one of the rooms that mentioned how all the statues were probably painted. Which is something I know but tend to forget when presented with the actual artifacts - it wasn't this world of gleaming white marble that was once thought, everything was painted and probably looked quite garish to modern eyes.

After a brief break for coffee & cake it was off to the Medieval York exhibit - stuff on loan from York museum whilst that museum is refurbished. I'd somehow expected from the posters for there to be more of this than there was. But there were some interesting and nifty things to look at, including a horned statue of Moses (from a mistranslation of the bit where he comes down from Mount Sinai - apparently the word can mean horned or glowing with light (paraphrasing here, I forget the exact wording) but they picked the wrong meaning). There were also a couple of swords and a Saxon helmet, which were rather cool. One of the swords even had a Blue Peter badge, which seems a very odd thing for Blue Peter to do, but there it was, solemnly exhibited with the sword.

By the time we'd done this it was mid-afternoon and I was pretty close to done with museums. But the timing wouldn't work out well for the drive back (we'd be on the A12 in rush hour, not gonna be fun) so we decided to stay on for a bit. And after an hour where I mostly sat on benches while J looked at stuff I started to revive a bit, so that worked out OK :) I was wearing the wrong shoes really - my purple shoes died on Sunday (another dead pair, it's a design flaw, methinks) so I was wearing my boots which are nice but it's impossible to surreptitiously take your feet out of knee high boots to wiggle them around when they're feeling sore ;)

We basically spent a couple of hours looking very quickly through several galleries we haven't normally looked at, just to see what was what. The clocks and watches gallery had several goggle-worthy clocks, as well as a model ship automaton which apparently would've finished its performance by firing all its cannons (sadly not in working order). The early modern European galleries were shut for refurbishment (a shame, that's my main period of interest in English history). J then had a proper look at the Greek and Roman galleries while I sat down and mostly people watched ;) Then on to the Japanese gallery, which I think I want to come back to when not at the end of a two day museum trip.

We finished up the museum trip with a last look at the Egyptian sculpture gallery and headed off for an early dinner at Wagamamas (which we've now found two trips in a row, I think that means we know where it is now!) before heading home via crowded tube train and less crowded roads. A fine adventure - very much enjoyed our trip :)
Tags: africa, britain, british museum, egypt, greece, history, japan, museums, north america, rome, sculpture, soane museum, trips
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