Living Like a Tourist: The British Museum

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.

BM Enlightenment Tour
British Museum Guide Janet Solomons

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.


5 thoughts on “Living Like a Tourist: The British Museum

  1. I was going to say — but then you kind of came to the same conclusion — that the yawns might be from tiredness/oversaturation rather than boredom. I know when I go to a museum like the British Museum, I want to see ALL THE THINGS! *and* I want to learn about all of them so I read the didactics *and* stop and look and then read some more. And so after a few galleries, I’m exhausted, but oh! look! what’s that?! Hence the yawns. But like you, when I’m in a city for a time, I’ve learned to do a gallery or two at a time, or maybe a special exhibit and a favorite gallery.

    I have to say, I love the labels and other didactic stuff in a well-curated special exhibit, because then it gives such wonderful context and shape to everything you’re looking at. But yeah, in the permanent galleries, it’s sometimes way too much to take in all at once.

    (Also, hi!)

  2. I think you’re right about the source of the exhaustion and boredom. Museums do indeed bring out some mad desire to put your face in front of all the things.

    As for didactics, I think the problem here is that they often stand in for personal experience, in that visitors go to an object and read the didactic first, which undermines a direct, immediate experience with the art or object. The artist or the object maker didn’t make the didactic, and I’m not sure a mediated experience (before you have the experience the didactic is trying to mediate!) helps art be more accessible at the end of the day.

    1. Oh, yeah, I agree that they get in the way and can even stand in for the experience in an unproductive way, especially with art, especially for someone who takes them as all too authoritative. (Wait, doesn’t Pierre Bourdieu have a whole piece about this? Hazy memories of grad school theory reading wafting through my mind now…) I always look at the object or work of art *first* — but I realize that people don’t always do that. Especially in places like the British Museum, with a lot of archeological material, sometimes my first, personal reaction is “What *is* that?!” In that case, the labels are helpful!

      1. I agree, but you’re talking about looking first and then having the question. In my opinion, that’s the best experience, but this weird thing has happened where the order of things is reversed.

      2. Oh, yes, totally agree that there are tourist who *just* read. You know what museums should do? They should make you have to lift up something to read the info labels. Betcha most people wouldn’t bother! 🙂

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