Truth: I love the British Museum.
It was the first museum I visited when I first came to London as a teenager (and I remember being able to touch the real Rosetta stone then! Apparently, I’m so old, I could touch history when I was a kid.) The British Museum always had a kind of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler appeal for me. To get locked in there for a night? Oh, the adventures I would have! I would learn all the things!
I get that many of the objects at the museum, perhaps, shouldn’t be there at all or, at the very least, have tangled histories. The Australian bark shield (complete with spear hole and collected by Captain Cook) that I saw today comes to mind. I can’t deny, though, my fascination with the things collected in that building. There are endless surprises tucked away there if you’re just willing to look (REALLY LOOK and shut up and stop taking pictures and and stop reading didactics and just LOOK with your damn eyes.)
I see so many bored faces in the British Museum. I sometimes think that yawning and glassy eyes must be a kind of special exhibit there. I don’t get it. (One wonders if those faces will perk up for Shunga: Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art–coming soon!) To me, the British Museum is like a cup of first-tasted drinking chocolate to me. It’s a marvel.
Today, I spent time in the Enlightenment Gallery. (My secret for giant museums is to pick your focus–those exhausted tourists were almost certainly following “highlights tours,” cramming 100 objects in as many rooms in half the number of minutes, after having crossed town from the V&A where they did the same.)
The Enlightenment Gallery is really a hall full of objects and books. Not everything is exhaustively labeled with giant didactics that trick you into reading about an object instead of just looking, and that’s what I most love about the space. I took the gallery tour this afternoon, and our intrepid guide Janet, with her precise and fully supported speaking voice and her white ponytail and comfortable shoes, unpacked some of the hall’s treasures.
What a pleasure to meet Mary Delany, a brilliant late bloomer. (Though her life was a rich one, she started her serious work as an artist at 72.) Someone should write a play about her pronto.
What a surprise to find the skull of an ichthyosaur discovered by Mary Anning tucked in the shadows, underneath a cabinet. (If you haven’t read Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier, and you like this post, go read it now.)
Now that I’ve seen an orrery (a mechanical model of the solar system,) I very much want to see one in action. (And yes, this sounds like my dates, and YES, now you know what to get me for Christmas.)
Now if I could just have had a cuppa with Janet afterwards, I think it might have been a perfect couple of hours.
Good Lord, the world is big, and it sometimes feels like it’s all right here in London.
I love this city, and I so very much love the British Museum.
Tours of the Enlightenment Gallery are given daily at 12:30. Go here for more information.