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. Continue reading