My plan was to rise very early and take a long solo walk around London’s West End before Shannon was up, and do the same the following morning. Jet lag and a very thick set of curtains foiled day one of this plan. I gaped at the time on my cell phone when I woke up in a dark room — 9:26!
We hustled down to the hotel restaurant, the delightfully-named Scoff & Banter, where they laid on an excellent full English breakfast that came with the price of the room and that, sadly, I was unable to take full advantage of. My digestive system has a tendency to shut down on vacations. I am almost never hungry for some reason. I nibbled a banger (insert your own joke here), a few strips of “streaky” bacon (i.e., typical American bacon, rather than the leaner, more ham-like British bacon), some toast and honey, and guzzled breakfast’s most important element for an intrepid traveler: coffee, here served in individual French presses. (We all know that whole “breakfast is the most important meal of the day” nonsense is propaganda peddled by those snake oil salesmen over at Kellogg’s.)
The hotel’s breakfast buffet mastered the concept of guacamole, but not the name:
The British Museum is one of those places where everyone remarks that you never have enough time to see everything. “You need a whole day,” fellow tourists lament, but never themselves taking a whole day because there’s so much else to see and do in London. Well, we came to London ahead of the rest of the traveling party for the specific purpose of spending an entire day at the British Museum (plus going in for about ninety minutes the day before, working our way through the “Enlightenment” exhibition in the King’s Library.)
We walked across the spacious courtyard of the Museum and through its main entrance not longer after it opened at 10:00.
The location of the British Museum was originally that of Montagu House, a sprawling country estate typical of the English landed aristocracy, once considered the “grandest private residence constructed in London.” Built just outside the city to the specifications of the avaricious, unscrupulous 1st Duke of Montagu after an earlier home burned down in 1686, its south facade peered suspiciously over its wall at the new construction that pushed the boundaries of London ever closer. Its north face opened onto manicured gardens and rolling countryside.
The British Museum started with Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753), an Irish-born physician to the royals, naturalist, purported inventor of the original recipe for milk chocolate, and (luckily for us) obsessive collector. He was the thirteenth president, succeeding Sir Isaac Newton, of the Royal Society (this will come around again in a mildly interesting way in a later entry). Upon his death, he willed the 71,000 items in his collection to the people of Britain (in return for a substantial payment to his heirs). Sloane’s bequeathment included historical artifacts, natural history specimens, and a wide variety of books and manuscripts.
After its official creation by an Act of Parliament in 1753, the British Museum originally considered a location at Buckingham House, but it was deemed by the museum’s first trustees to be a trifle too costly. (The “house” was renamed a “palace” in the early 1800s, and now has a very different function.) They decided to go with Montagu House, happily offered for sale at a bargain price by the 2nd Duke of Montagu, who was horrified to discover that his inherited estate was being rapidly surrounded by the scourge of middle-class suburbs. (He had already moved out a few years prior, and the house was a run-down burden. Also, the 2nd Duke of Montagu was the son-in-law of the 1st Duke of Marlborough. This will come around again in a mildly interesting way in a later entry.)
The British Museum, housed within the walls of Montagu House, opened free of charge to “all studious and curious persons” in 1759. The Dog & Duck pub across the muddy road that would become Great Russell Street changed its name to the Museum Tavern three years later (see previous entry.)
It wasn’t long before the drafty old mansion proved inadequate to the Museum’s needs. Plans for new construction were approved as early as 1802, but it would be a lengthy process. The last vestiges of the old Montagu House were swept away by 1845, as a gigantic, Greek Revival-style “quadrangle” building (as seen in the photos above) was erected over the course of decades. The Museum as we see it today was largely complete and functional by 1857, filled to the brim with dozens of exhibition rooms known in museum-speak as “galleries.”
To make room for the collection that grows to this day, all the natural history stuff was removed to its own museum in 1881. (We taxied past the cathedral-like Natural History Museum out in South Kensington on our way into town the previous day.)
Upon entering the museum building, we were first confronted with the Great Hall, in the center of which is the domed Reading Room…which is no longer a reading room at all.
Back in the day, you had to make a special application to use the Reading Room and gain access to the Museum’s labyrinthine collection of books and manuscripts. In 1997, the Museum’s print material was moved to the new British Library building just up the road. After a three-year remodel, the Reading Room was opened to the general public as a short-lived, much-reduced “information centre.” From 2007 to 2013, it was used as a space for special Museum exhibitions. With the completion of a separate special exhibition space in 2013, the Reading Room went empty and dormant, and so it remains. No one seems to know what to do with it at this point.
Just off the Great Hall is the ground floor east wing known as the King’s Library, the oldest part of the currently-existing Museum building, completed in 1828. Now labeled less-romantically as “Room 1,” it was built to house the 60,000+ book collection of King George III, donated to the Museum after his death by his son, George IV. Over 40 feet high and 300 feet long, this hall was a repository for the late King’s books until all books were shipped out in ‘97. It now houses a permanent themed exhibition called “Enlightenment: Discovering the World in the 18th Century,” detailing a time in the 1700s when “people — including the collectors who created the British Museum — used reason and first-hand observation of the world around them to understand it in new ways.” In essence, it chronicled the rise of the museum mentality — the mad scramble to collect interesting artifacts and put them under glass.
Some of the items on display in the Enlightenment gallery include an ichthyosaur skull discovered by Mary Anning, the young girl who happened to be an expert paleontologist, case upon case of Greek red-figure pottery (more on that below), and a 17th-century medicine kit, containing various herbs and tinctures…and a few dried skinks.
Artifacts aside, I really just enjoyed being in the locale. The King’s Library was dim, quiet, mercifully cool (unlike the rest of the Museum’s galleries that day), with polished wood floors, busts on pedestals, old-fashioned glass-topped wooden display cases, and central columns of polished Aberdeen granite. It looked like the Platonic ideal of an “old-fashioned museum,” before they went all sleek and touch-screen. And there were still bookshelves lining the second-level walls to give the place a proper atmosphere, the books themselves on semi-permanent loan from the House of Commons library.
The rest of the Museum was fairly crowded. I heard so many American accents it felt like I was back in the Smithsonian in D.C. There were at least seven different school groups touring the facility, including two or three “public school” (i.e., private school) groups in ties and blazers, calling each other by their last names in time-honored public school tradition. (“Hurry up, Jenkins!”)
The three of us then acquired our audio guide headphones and went our separate ways, agreeing to meet for lunch in the surprisingly good Museum pizzeria, and splitting up again to finish out the afternoon. No one should go through a museum at someone else’s pace.
I was surprised at how relatively few artifacts in the British Museum had to do with Britain itself. (“Relatively few” meaning a mere half-dozen or so galleries.) It really was a reflection of how obsessed early antiquarians and collectors were with the “classical” civilizations of Greece and Rome, and to a lesser extent, Egypt and Mesopotamia. The “Greeks in Italy” room was bigger than the entire medieval England section.
The entrance to the ground floor Egyptian galleries was dominated by the Rosetta Stone, acquired by the Museum in 1802. Arguably the most important archaeological find ever, the Rosetta Stone is a large slab of granodiorite (similar to granite) engraved with the same passage in three different languages — Greek, Demotic (letter-based Egyptian), and Egyptian hieroglyphs. It is noteworthy for providing the key to deciphering the formerly mysterious hieroglyphs, opening vast new vistas in the study of ancient Egypt. Written around 196 B.C. (the text was a political decree from Egyptian king Ptolemy V) and discovered by Napoleon’s troops in the Nile Delta town of Rosetta (now known as Rasid) in 1799, the Stone was a part of a larger stele that had been broken up and used as foundation filler for a medieval-era fort. The British acquired it as a spoil of war after defeating Napoleon. They chalked in the inscription (like you would with D&D dice), and coated it with protective wax, giving it the appearance of black basalt.
The Rosetta is the British Museum’s rock star, constantly surrounded by hordes of humanity taking pictures.
Just to the right of the Rosetta Stone is one of the largest items in the whole Museum, a seven-ton statue of Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II (c. 1303-1213 B.C.). Ramesses II is who many Biblical scholars believe to be the basis for the unnamed pharaoh in the Old Testament’s Book of Exodus (and played by Yul Brynner in The Ten Commandments.)
The statue itself is incorrectly and now permanently known as the “Younger Memnon.” (Long story. Won’t go into it.) Originally located at Ramesses’ memorial temple in the ancient Egyptian city of Thebes, the mostly-buried statue was the inspiration for Percy Shelley’s 1818 poem “Ozymandias”:
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert… near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings;
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away
With typical can-do spirit, the Brits had it dug out and installed in the Museum in 1821.
The Museum’s enormous collection of Egyptian mummies is housed in their first floor (second floor to Americans, who eschew the term “ground floor”) Egyptian galleries. These galleries are always overcrowded because everyone loves mummies. I have no doubt that many people pop into the Museum (admission is free), gawk at the mummies, and leave to go ride the London Eye. The other problem with the first floor the day I visited was the oppressive heat. A few stand fans placed hopefully in the corner of each gallery didn’t help. Some rooms had those magical, ring-shaped “bladeless” fans, their “0” shape representing the amount of cooling they did.
Mesopotamia — the area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in what is now central Iraq — is often called the “Cradle of Civilization.” Pre-dating Rome, Greece, and even ancient Egypt, the first cities and the first writing originated there. The earliest writing, cuneiform, was developed by the early Mesopotamian people known as the Sumerians and consisted of hundreds of symbols painstakingly engraved by reed stylus into slabs of wet clay that later hardened into stone. When cuneiform was finally deciphered in 1857, no great works of ancient literature emerged from Sumeria — it was mostly business records and inventories. They were a practical people. (Except one line with which the Victorian translators were unable — or unwilling — to do any better than “He put a hot fish in her navel.”)
Later Mesopotamia (2000-600 B.C.) saw its share of mighty empires rise and fall, particularly Assyria and Babylonia. Ruthless and aggresively expansive, they took turns conquering each other and smaller kingdoms (such as the Israelites).
The heart of the British Museum is really its Greek and Roman collection. It includes the front facade of an entire temple, now known as the Nereid Monument. Discovered as ruins by British explorer Charles Fellows in what is now Turkey, the Nereid Monument is believed to be a tomb from the 300s B.C. built for a ruler of the city-state of Xanthos. It totally encapsulates the acquisitive mentality of British explorers of that era. I can imagine Fellows cresting a Turkish ridge, removing his pith helmet to mop his brow, and spotting the cumbled ruins. He turns to his assistants and bearers:
“Look at that, lads. A vestige of a once-great society. Fascinating. Majestic.”
“Crate ‘er up and ship ‘er home!!”
One gallery over from the Nereid Monument were the Parthenon sculptures, a series of statues and friezes accidentally knocked off the famous Greek temple at the top of the Acropolis. The Parthenon has stood for 2,500 years, serving a variety of purposes — Greek temple, Christian cathedral, Moslem mosque, and more. In 1687, it housed gunpowder. An accidental explosion that year turned it into the roofless ruin familiar today. Between 1801 and 1805, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire (which controlled Greece at that time) got permission to gather up the broken sculptures from the weeds, brush them off, and take them back to the British Museum.
Since the early 1980s, the Greek government has been asking for them back. A return doesn’t seem likely.
Another part of their Greek collection is black-figure pottery and the later-period red-figure pottery. These jugs, bowls, and pots depicting various scenes from mythology, warfare, and daily life in distinctive orange-red and black hues, were created in enormous quantities from around 700 to 200 B.C. Hundreds of thousands have been discovered, and any history museum worth its salt has some. Hell, even the Crocker Art Museum in my hometown of Sacramento has a few. What makes them notable is the combination of their sheer number and the level of detail in the artwork. From my time teaching ancient history, I can tell you tons of what we know about Ancient Greece comes from these pots.
Consider the example below — a young girl taunts a dog with a tortoise on a string. This single image gives an example of hairstyles, jewelry, dog breeds, clothing, decorative patterns on clothing (including the swastika, in Greco-Roman culture a symbol of perpetual motion), and the somewhat bizarre hobbies of young Greek girls.
Expand this by thousands of different images over thousands of pots, and you can understand how useful these were to historians and archaeologists.
Ancient Rome was also well-represented in the Museum…
…which brings us finally to Britain itself, once a Roman province from 43 to about 410.
One the things I was most excited to see were the artifacts from the early medieval ship burial at Sutton Hoo.
In 1939, a British widow named Edith Pretty, living on a piece of countryside in Sutton Hoo, Suffolk (in the east of England), grew curious about a large mound on her property. She was enough of an armchair historian to know it was likely an Anglo-Saxon burial site, similar to other mounds in the area. She brought in a local amateur archaeologist, Basil Brown, to excavate.
He uncovered what was once a 90-foot ship, dating from the 600s. It was the funeral ship of someone of great import, possibly even a king of the old realm of East Anglia. The wooden hull of the vessel itself was long rotted away, along with any human remains, but the clear imprint remained, right down to the individual planks, and phosphate traces indicated a body was once interred in the ship.
Also remaining was a vast amount of treasure of the highest quality, from all over Europe and the Mediterranean. Silverware, jewelry, weapons, and armor were heaped inside the burial chamber, along with the famous Sutton Hoo iron helmet (most likely ceremonial rather than functional), and are now displayed in Room 41 of the British Museum.
As I moved through galleries dealing with the Roman and early medieval periods of Britain, I noted that many people of that era felt the safest way to store their valuables was to bury them, then forgetting where they were or dying before reclaiming them, resulting in many “caches” and “hoards” being found by later archaeologists.
And silver was more valuable in bulk than as individual coins or articles of jewelry. A Viking cache on display near the Sutton Hoo artifacts was made up of random bits and pieces of silver — some coins, some necklace links, brooch clips, rings, bracelets, and more than a few misshapen, melted-down ingots with no inherent purpose. It’s why the term “pound” was adopted as the unit of British exchange. Past a certain point, currency was just weight.
Awesome as the British Museum is, if it isn’t classical or British, it gets a little shorted. Collections from China and India occupy a single gallery (Room 33) in the north wing. In its defense, the gallery is the largest in the building.
The Americas get two small galleries.
All of non-Egpytian Africa gets a single gallery in the basement.
The amount of exhibits (and admittedly, my interest in them) dwindles after the late medieval period, but there’s still enough worth seeing to kill off my final hour or so.
As the clock edged past four, I decided I had thoroughly done the British Museum. It does indeed take a full day. Shannon and Cam had headed back to the hotel about an hour earlier. I kept going back and lingering around the Sutton Hoo stuff. I finally took my leave.
One of my big regrets of the trip was neglecting to bring along my copy of The Beatles’ London, so I ended up missing a few locations associated with the band that I could have easily checked out. A couple of spots I memorized because they were so close to our hotel.
After wrapping the British Museum, sweaty and footsore, I took a twenty-minute stroll up Gower Street. Right behind the British Museum is a little street called Montague Place, where the Beatles, in one of their seemingly hundreds of photo sessions from their first year of national fame, 1963, were photographed by John Dove gathered around a parking meter on March 5 (the recording session for “From Me To You” was held later that day). The rear of the Museum is just out of focus in the background. John Lennon, very nearsighted since childhood, was rarely photographed with his glasses on before he adopted his trademark round-framed pair in late ‘66. Before that, he wore contacts or whipped his specs into a pocket as soon as he went onstage or a camera appeared. In this photo, Lennon’s glasses are perched on the parking meter.
I was sad to note the parking meters running down the middle of Montague Place are no more, the street now set aside for tourist bus parking.
Speaking of no more, a little further to north was the intersection of Gower Street and Euston Road. In yet another spring 1963 photo session, this time by Fiona Adams for the teen magazine known as Boyfriend, the group was pictured standing around, and jumping on top of, a pile of construction rubble that was the remains of a demolished pub. These pictures have been widely reprinted, and one of them ended up on the cover of their British EP Twist and Shout (July 12, 1963).
The boys’ legs must have been awfully sore by the end of ‘63, since literally every photographer they worked with that year had the awesomely original idea of having them leap in the air simultaneously.
A new building was soon put up, and that street corner is now pretty unrecognizable.
Nearby Russell Square park has also been completely re-landscaped, and looks nothing like the photos taken of the group there by Dezo Hoffman in July 1963. As I was now pressed for time to get ready for dinner, I passed it by.
We summoned an Uber to take us to our dinner reservation, celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal’s legendary Fat Duck restaurant (named “best in the world” by Restaurant magazine in 2005, and always in the running ever since) in the village of Bray, Berkshire, about thirty miles west of London. It was to be dinner for two, Cameron staying behind to explore the Bloomsbury nightlife on his own. (He ended up having a burger from the British chain Garfinkel’s — followed immediately by one from McDonald’s, for purposes of comparison.)
The Uber arrived at 5:15. Our reservation was at 7:15. I foolishly thought that was plenty of time, but even in the Bay Area, I have never seen traffic congestion as bad as London on a Friday evening. At 6:20, we were gridlocked in Chiswick, about eight miles from our starting point. We ended up using all of our two-hour cushion, plus ten minutes more, arriving at the three-Michelin-star eatery fashionably late at 7:25.
Bray was a typical quaint English village nestled along the Thames. (There would be more quaint English villages than we could shake a stick at once we entered the Cotswolds, but this was our first one.) The Fat Duck itself was located along the village’s high street, housed in a 16th-century cottage that was once home to a pub called The Bell. Fourteen tables accommodated 42 diners per sitting under low ceilings, experiencing the restaurant’s loose theme of “A Holiday Journey Through the English Countryside.” I won’t spoil all the menu’s remarkable surprises, except to say it was representative of Blumenthal’s experimentalism and imagination. There was some “flavor encapsulation” (what looked like a bowl of cold cereal tasted like a full English breakfast — the “milk” was actually tomato consomme, etc.), some nitrus freezing, some foams, tea that was both hot and cold at the same time, some jelly candies that each tasted like a different variety of Scotch whisky, and much more.
In keeping with the Lewis Carroll-ish atmosphere, nothing was quite what it seemed (except when one of our several waiters — excuse me, “storytellers” — gave us a plate of bread and promised “It’s really bread, no tricks”).
Every course was paired with wine, and our sommelier had such a thick French accent I thought it had to be a put-on. When I had to hit the men’s room partway through, and having no idea where it could be located, I decided to test out some of my British vernacular on the waitress. My outdated, circa-1985 guidebooks to Britain gave me a stern warning that the Brits wouldn’t be used to “Americanisms” like restroom or bathroom (outside of a room to bathe in), but instead American tourists should say w.c. (for water closet) or loo. Knowing full well “w.c.” was antiquated even in Britain, and unable to bring myself to utter the incredibly silly syllable “loo,” I settled on the safe “lavatory.”
The waitress looked at me blankly for just a second.
“Y’mean the gents?”
Dammit. Oh, well.
And of course, Britain in 2018 totally knows about “restrooms.”
After dessert, we given a quick tour of the capacious kitchen. There an almost perfect 1:1 ratio of chefs to diners. It was quite impressive.
The maitre’d arranged a car to take us home. It wasn’t a taxi and it wasn’t an Uber, but a private car service that we discovered upon our arrival back at the hotel, sleepy and half-drunk, did not accept credit cards. We only had American cash, which he grudgingly agreed to accept. We did the pounds-to-dollar conversion, and it came to $126 — which was exactly the amount of cash we had on us, not a penny more or less. He pointed out it would cost another 5% to convert it. We pointed out it was literally all we had. He took it, but we did not win any new fans among the ranks of private car service drivers that night. (I suppose one of us could have hopped across the street to the corner ATM, but it didn’t occur to us in our current state.)
Coming soon…Highgate Cemetery and the Imperial War Museum.