So Much History...So Little Time / British Museum

Trip Start Jan 01, 2009
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Flag of United Kingdom  , England,
Friday, February 13, 2009

While planning this trip, I wanted to visit the British Museum but knew that Jim would not have the same interest.  Fortunately, Jim and some of his new co-workers went out to a local pub, Thursday nite, and he will not be arriving into London until 6 pm, so I had the entire afternoon to explore the British Museum.  The entrance along Russell provided a glimpse of what to expect for the rest of the day.  The entrance was built in the style of Greek temples with a triangular pediment on top of colonnade.  Walking into the Great Court, you get an idea of how eminence the entire museum is.  The Great Court is the largest covered square in Europe and throughout the courtyard there are sample items from some of the permanent exhibits.  On display at the temporary gallery was the Chinese Jade exhibit.  Since my visit to China last year included a visit to the Shanghai museum, I decided to leave this gallery for the end.  Armed with an audio guide, I began my tour through history.

The layout of the first floor consists of over twenty rooms on the west side of the building dedicated to the ancient civilizations.  The star attraction can be found in Ancient Egypt, the Rosetta Stone.  Greeting the visitors to the Egyptian gallery is a colossal bust of Ramesses the Great, supposedly he was the Pharaoh during the Exodus.  Some of the more interesting items in the gallery are the four statues of the Goddess Sekhmet, which is the origin of the Egyptian worship of cats...a practice that their feline ancestors still think is being practice.  Also, you can find a statue of Nenkheftka.  This figurine placed in front of the tomb mustaba, false door, is meant to represent the soul of Nenkheftka to allow his family to present offerings and to allow his soul to freely enter/exit the tomb.  Next to this statue, is an example of a mustaba.  It was removed from the tomb for Ptahshepses.  The items in this exhibit showed the importance the Egyptians placed on the after-life...little did I know there was more to come.

The entrance to the next section was guarded by two human-headed winged lions...welcome to Assyria.  Interesting note about these lions, from the front you can see it two forelegs and from the side you can see all four legs for a total of five legs.  They were created this way in order for the mythical creature to guard both directions.  The main section of this gallery contained the relief panels originally found in the throne room of King Ashurnasirpal II's palace in Nimrud.  Near the throne, another entrance is guarded this time by five-legged winged bulls originally used to guard  the Khorsabad Palace of Sargon II.  Also, on display was one of the wooden gate doors along with the brass decoration depicting some kind of procession.  Inside the room, you can find wall relief depicting a favorite pastime of Assyrian kings, lion hunting.  The Assyrians believed the lions are the most powerful creatures in the wild and that killing a lion requires supreme strength; therefore you can see in the relief that servants do the dirty work of wounding the lion while the Assyrian king gets the honor of the killing blow.  Sucks for the workers and sucks for the lions; as a matter of fact the lions were hunted to extinction in Mesopotamia.

The next section was my favorite and where I spent most of my time, the ancient Greece section.  Geographically, ancient Greece includes what is now modern day Turkey.  Part of the Greek artifacts gathered from Turkey were statues and columns from the Mausoleum at Halikarnassos.  The Mausoleum was included in the original bucket list, the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World; now you must use your imagination to see these wonders because the only structure left standing are the pyramids.  Included in the artifacts is a figure of (what the experts believe) Mausoleus, who build this tomb for his wife.  Also part of the Greek display is the Nereid Monument found in Xanthos, Turkey.  The monument provided an almost intact example of classical Greek temple architecture.  In another room, you could find examples of Greek pottery.  Two pieces particularly grabbed my eye; first, a vase with a depiction of a wedding procession.  The other vase shows Achilles killing the Queen of the Amazons, Penthesileia.  The story is that Achilles fell in love with Penthesileia at the moment he plunged the spear through her neck...gives you a new meaning to love hurts.

I spent an hour in the next section which contained the Elgin marbles, the marble sculptures which once graced the Parthenon in Athens.  According to the audio recordings, the British ambassador, Elgin, "rescued" these sculptures from ruin.  I am sure the Greeks have a different version on how these sculptures ended up in England, but hey if you once ruled most of the world why not enjoy the spoils.  At the two ends of the room, the marbles originally on the pediment, triangular gables, were on display.  The East pediment was more interesting and complete.  The sculptures depicted the birth of Athena...well actually it depicted the reactions of the other gods to the birth of Athena.  I guess the Greeks did manage to hang on to some of the Parthenon sculptures because the Athena figure was missing.  Near the pediment sculptures are relief scenes of a battle between centaurs and humans, which were displayed on the metopes, structure below the pediment and on top the columns.  Along the walls are the Pathenon frieze, reliefs originally found atop the inside columns, depicting the procession of horseman, sacrificial livestock, servants and priests celebrating the founding of the city, Athens.  At the center are the gods enjoying a good dinner.  One notable difference between the Egyptian sculptures and Assyrian reliefs to the Greek sculptures and reliefs are the realistic depictions of the human figure in the Greek art.  For example it was rumored that Greek sculptors would first create a model of the human body and drape clothes over the stone body to see how the loose robes flow over the human body.  The amazing thing is that in their original setting on top of the Parthenon, people would not have been able to appreciate the realism, but those artist still put a lot of effort into these incredible sculptures.

Looking at my watch after leaving the Parthenon section, I knew I was in trouble of not seeing all the exhibits in this museum.  The audio guide contain recording for 53 highlighted museum items and I have only seen 10!  Of course this did not include the 19 recordings dedicated to the Parthenon sculptures, which I gladly paid an extra 2 pounds to include in my audio tour.  The next two hours was a blur as I frantically tried to see all the highlighted items.  My next stop was a gallery dedicated to how different cultures approached living and dying.  Things of interest include a crystal skull believed to be created in the 19th century in Germany and a hanging Mexican display used for celebrations of the Day of the Dead.  Not to be left out, also on display are the pictures portraying the life of an average British man and woman.  This exhibit included all the pills and medication that would have been administered in the course of their life...the shear number of pills were eye opening and hard to swallow.

On the second floor are the Asian exhibits with example artifacts representing the major religions of the area including Hinduism and Buddhism.  On the third level, the rooms form a ring around the museum.  The major attraction are the rooms focusing on the Egyptian practice of mummification.  I did not know that the ritual and methods changed throughout the different Egyptian dynasties.  Included in the gallery was the remains of a predynastic man, who was mummified naturally in the desert environment.  Also along this wing, are the artifacts from the Roman empire and several European cultures.  One fascinating display were the relics retrieved from a Saxon ship burial, Sutton Hoo.  Another gallery of interest is the clock room...to the Medieval Europeans clocks were the epitome of high technology.  As an engineer and a former naval officer, I was disappointed that they did not have the Harrison maritime clock.  This was the first clock to accurately keep time on the seas...this is very important in the determination of longitude before we had GPS.  

As the museum closed and the dust settled, I realized I missed several rooms and exhibits, which I would have liked to see.  For example, there is a rotating gallery of Western prints and drawings, which currently contained the etchings of Michelangelo.  Also, some how I missed the rooms containing the artifacts from Africa and the Americas.  In case you were wondering I never worked back to see the Chinese jade exhibit.  My advice to anyone who loves to explore museums...dedicate an entire day to tour the British Museum.
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