“When in a museum, walk slowly but keep walking” – Gertrude Stein
Since Mike isn’t generally fond of bigger cities in Europe and he’s seen most of the big things in London – I suggested we try visiting the British Museum. Usually when we’re traveling to new places we’re too busy and rushed to spend time in museums. On this trip we were looking for something new to do and I thought the museum would be a good option. Maybe not –considering it was Saturday, possibly Spring Break time in England, and the museum is free! Yes, it was quite crowded.
There are two things I’ve always wanted to see if I ever made it to the British Museum: 1. The Rosetta Stone and 2. The Elgin Marbles…or Parthenon Marbles as they now seem to be referred to as. Mike wanted to see mummies. We had to take the Tube from our base camp hotel to the museum –it took about 1 hour. We had a short walk from the station to the museum through a pretty park and then joined the fray.
We started out just wandering a bit without an agenda because we wanted to get a good idea of what is on display there. It turned out to be a bit overwhelming –because the British Museum has A LOT of things on display. I found the displays a bit confusing because these displays seemed to be more about grouping similar items together -like all jewelry or all textiles. It is beautifully done but the sheer quantity of items on display is quite overwhelming -at least to me.
After wandering through several galleries randomly, we decided to take a break to find a spot to sit down, get a cold drink, and regroup. We looked up where the Rosetta Stone and the Marbles were located in the museum and decided to focus on seeing those things next and then look for mummies.
We stumbled across the Rosetta Stone first. The crowd around it gave me flashbacks to seeing the Mona Lisa in Paris.
I patiently waited until I could get my picture (below), but it was tough because I’m not known for being patient!
The Rosetta Stone was acquired by the museum in 1802. It has been dated to 196 BC. The stone is actually a fragment of the original larger stele (a simple definition of stele is a stone or wooden slab, taller than it is wide, with writing on it). It weighs 1680 pounds. It was found in Egypt in 1799 by a Lieutenant in Napolean’s army. Likely it ended up where it was found because over time old stones from abandoned temples were often re-used in other ways. After the British defeated Napoleon in Egypt, they took control of all archeological finds as part of the surrender. It is possible that the stone wasn’t actually officially handed over, but perhaps spirited away by a British officer.
The excitement about the stone is that in the time of Ptolomy V in Egypt, a proclamation was made declaring the divine cult of the new ruler. The proclamation was written on the stele in 3 languages: hieroglyphics, Demotic (which was a form of Egyptian script of the time) and Greek. Having the Greek and Demotic versions to compare against the hieroglyphics provided scholars with a key for deciphering hieroglyphics in general. That’s the basics –there’s more about it on line if you Google.
Next we located what I’ve always thought were known as the Elgin Marbles (after the Earl of Elgin who brought them to England) but I noticed that the museum calls them the Parthenon Marbles. It is quite a display. There are about 135 sections that were originally part of the Parthenon in Athens, Greece.
The Parthenon was dedicated to Athena and was completed in 432 BC. It remained in use for about 1,000 years. Unfortunately, history happened and different groups gained control of Greece over time. In 1458 the temple was turned into a mosque. The real tragedy happened in 1687 when the Ottomans were storing gun powder in the temple, which they were using as a barracks. The powder stores were accidentally blown up by the Venetians who were fighting the Ottomans at the time. This explosion knocked the friezes off the building –and they were left lying on the grounds of the temple with varying degrees of damage. Over the years, some of the broken pieces were either used in building new structures or carted away by “tourists” (such as they were in those times). In 1799, Lord Elgin was named the English ambassador to Constantinople and was keenly interested in architecture. He obtained permission from the Ottomans to remove (for preservation) many of the friezes. For some reason he wasn’t allowed to take all of them. Plaster casts were made of the ones he left behind. At first he kept them in a private collection, but ended up turning them over to the British Museum in 1816. There is controversy over these friezes because Greece wants them back. So far, the British Museum has politely declined their requests. So you could say that this is how Greece lost it’s marbles? (I promise I’m not quitting my day job in favor of a comedy career.)
After seeing the Marbles, we went in search of mummies. We saw a nice display of Egyptian artifacts and one or two mummies.
By then we’d both had enough of the crowds, so we agreed it was time to go. I saw a factoid that the British Museum attracts 4.6 million visitors a year –and I’m convinced that they achieved a new record for 2019 in one day -today !
As we were heading back to the Underground station to start the trip back to our hotel, we spotted the Museum Bar right across the street from the Museum and decided that it might be nice to sit down and have some lunch. It was a quaint looking British pub and we enjoyed just taking some time to chill out and have a bite to eat.
After that –we headed back to our hotel to get some peace and quiet!
Categories: The British Museum