February 13, 2013
The granddaddy of museums, the size and scope of the British Museum can be a little overwhelming. The last time there I spent the full day trying to cover the entire museum. On paper I succeeded, though the marathon left me a stronger impression of the museum’s floor plan rather than its exhibits.
My plan this time was to focus on quality. With input from my wife we allocated four hours to leisurely wander in a few selected areas before boarding our afternoon flight to Amsterdam.
The Enlightenment Gallery (G/F)
We started off with my favorite room in the entire museum – the Enlightenment Gallery, the former library of King George III. A categorizing system behind the gallery’s considerable collection lays out seven different themes: Religion, Trade and discovery, Archaeology, Art History, Classification, Decipherment, and the Natural world.
Too many museums give the impression of art gallery’s where the mission to educate is nonexistent. Clearly, beyond being a showcase of rare artifacts the Enlightenment Gallery is aimed to make an accurate presentation of how the world was understood by scholars in England more than 250 years ago.
Assyrian Galleries (G/F)
The Egyptian Sculpture room is one of the museum’s main draws, but we had become a little jaded after seeing countless similar sculptures last year in Egypt. After paying the Rosetta Stone a necessary tribute, we advanced to the galleries of another ancient civilization – Assyria, the Motorola to Egypt’s Samsung in terms of popularity. The Assyrian galleries were completely empty while the Egyptian hall was bustling with people, a miscalculation by most given the rarity of the displayed Assyrian sculptures and carved stone panels.
While the imposing winged lion guardian statues naturally attract the most attention, the collection’s sculpted reliefs and stone panels should not be overlooked. For me the highlight was the lion hunts relief, a depiction of a series of events that leads to the killing of a lion by a king. The realistic facial expressions and the body movements of both the human figures and the lion are exemplary indicators of the advance level of craftsmanship achieved by the Assyrians.
The Parthenon Room (G/F)
Probably the most controversial of the British Museum’s vast collection, the Parthenon room contains sculptures and large pieces of temple fragment bought by the British back in 1816. The Greek government has been negotiating with the British Museum for the return of these sculptures but no settlement has yet been reached.
Many of the pieces are in poor condition, with much of the damage suffered from an explosion during a Venetian raid in 1687. The Ottoman Turks, who governed Athens at that time, also should shoulder much of the blame – the explosion was triggered because the Parthenon was absurdly being used as gunpowder storage.
The Parthenon might be the cream of Greek architecture, but the assembly of headless and limbless figures on display demands quite a bit of imagination to envision the temple’s former glory. These gods and goddesses, their perfect state a distant memory, are irrefutable proof of both Ancient Greece’s stature as the foundation of western civilization and its decline ever since.
China (1/F) and Chinese Ceramics (2/F)
At the two-hour mark we were back at the Great Court, crossing another highlight off our list as we crossed off the moai. Our goal-orientated approach allowed us to cover already many of the heavyweights on the ground floor, which bought us precious time to aimlessly linger around for awhile on the upper floors.
We began at the Chinese gallery, thinking we would breeze by what should be a very familiar collection. Turned out we were half-right. The highlights, like the stoneware luohan (Buddha’s disciple) and the Tang burial figures, indeed reminded us of pieces we had come across in the past. But like I have always emphasized, a good museum transcends the sum of its parts. Walking in the well-lit and spacious environment was an enjoyable experience on its own, which fed to my heightened sense of concentration to appreciate and relearn some of the finer aspects of the Chinese art tradition. None of the warehouse-like museums in mainland China has made me want to slow down to linger for even one minute.
The Chinese ceramics gallery on 2/F wasn’t too interesting and can be skipped.
So much for maintaining a leisurely pace; we had to play catch-up after unexpectedly spending almost an hour at the Chinese gallery. For our last stop there could be only one choice – Mesopotamia, a region that composes of modern-day Iraq and includes small area of Syria, Turkey and Iran. Between 6000 BC and 500 BC Mesopotamia was home to the Sumerian, Akkadian and Babylonian empires, as well as the aforementioned Assyria.
Again, I am not dissing the well-preserved Egyptian mummies displayed at the adjacent gallery, but objects from Iraq are relatively rare and it is unlikely I will ever travel there. Of particular interest to me were the Standard of Ur and the Royal Game of Ur, both shedding light on the way of life in one of the earliest human settlements.
I can’t decide if the British Museum is my favorite, but where else can I start off in 18th century England, move on to Assyria and Egypt, onward to ancient Greece, then all the way east to China, finally finishing in Babylon, and regrettably with much of post-Middle Age Europe left unseen?