24 August 2013

Resplendent humanity

The British Museum is one of the greats. The weather was good and the entry is free so the tourists were numerous, but even so this was no disappointment. It’s big. It’s always busy, but keep away from the Egyptian wing and it’s perfectly OK, even in the height of tourist season. After several visits of the years, I’m starting to feel acquainted with it. I remember key pieces and vistas and I can bypass the obvious stars and make personal discoveries. And I can touch. I remember, perhaps 10 years back, a table in the foyer where you could handle items. Just five items, with an explainer to oversee and describe. I found four tables this time. I handled Roman statues and Neanderthal stone tools and cuneiform clay tablets and guessed at the composition of glass beads and the purpose of T-shaped metal purse holders and investigated dolphin tooth necklaces and bronze Ganeshes. This is a museum of peoples. Being a great museum of a great period of scientific discovery, the objects are great. Lots of oldest known this, or revelatory item that and important enough that items have names. One unvisited corner had the oldest object in the Museum, 1.8m year old stone tool from the Olduvai Gorge, with the oldest known statue of love making, a small carved stone piece only 11K years old from Judea. I mostly bypassed the Rosetta stone and Egyptian galleries. They are stunning but it’s like Bourke Street in there and I found the Assyrian panels too warlike for my pleasure on the day. I delighted over a key cuneiform cylinder of King Cyrus and the little glowing gold Oxus charioteer. There’s gold aplenty with undimmed brilliance as well as silver, iron, stone and softer things like fabrics and bone. There’s humour: old men or soldiers arm in arm. There’s women’s work and experience and voluptuousness and jewellery (excuse the sense of the other, but this is history). There are patterns through history, like the Roman cameo vase that influenced Wedgewood. There are failures, like the 7 fused Roman oil lamps. This is resplendent culture and humanity. A place like this needs a stay of months for frequent revisits. Perhaps some time. The British Museum is just a must.

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