London: British Museum, British Library, Kensington Gardens
Today was the last day of this trip. I spent much of it at the British Museum, the British Library, Kensington Gardens and the walks between my hotel and those sights. My feet are tired, probably almost as tired as you’re getting of reading this blog.
The British Museum is popular. Very popular. When I arrived on a Tuesday morning there was a snaking line in the courtyard past the gate. That line extended out the gate and down a good portion of a block.
Seeing the line, I expected it would take me at least an hour to get in. Nevertheless, I persisted. I’m glad I did. The line moved quickly. I don’t think I waited more than 15 to 20 minutes.
The only chokepoint was the security checkpoint. Admission is free (although a £5 donation is discretely requested by small signs on donation containers at the entrance and elsewhere in the museum). Hence, there were no ticket lineups.
To say visible security (I obviously don’t know about any unseen security) was superficial would be an understatement. There were no security technologies that people or their belongings had to pass through. There were just checkpoints where guards looked into people’s purses and backpacks.
I didn’t have a bag of any kind, but I dutifully waited in line only to be waved right through when it came my turn. A woman ahead of me had a very large purse. She opened it for the guard. He looked at what was on top, but he didn’t poke very far into its depths. He then pointed to a sign with “no knives” iconography and asked her if she had any. She said “no.” He waved her in.
Seeing this, I immediately had an image of the guards asking people, “Are you a terrorist? No? OK. Go ahead.”
Part of me was glad security was light. Otherwise, it would have taken more than an hour to get in. But another part of me—the highly neurotic part, i.e., the overwhelming majority of me—thought, “Don’t these people read newspapers? Am I safe in these crowds?”
But enough about getting in. In was much more interesting.
Reflections on the Rosetta Stone.
I started in the Egyptian gallery. One of the first artifacts I saw was what is undoubtedly the most famous single object at the British Museum. The Rosetta Stone. The actual Rosetta Stone.
I knew it was there. In fact, it was one of the reasons I visited the British Museum. But still, there I was in front of the stone that unlocked many mysteries of ancient lives and stories that had been inadvertently encrypted for millennia.
True, it was behind thick, highly reflective glass. And there were crowds around it. So it wasn’t exactly an intimate encounter, but still, there it was.
For many years, I’ve heard “Rosetta Stone” used as an analogy for something that explains something else. And there’s a company called Rosetta Stone that sells online and DVD language courses. But here was the real thing.
In the picture to the right, the reflections of people and the doorway behind them are almost easier to see than the Rosetta Stone. Sorry about that. It’s the closest I’ll ever get to taking a selfie. By the way, the person holding up a smartphone with a light on it is not me. I’m not sure if it’s even possible to spot my reflection in that picture.
Mummies and More
The Egyptian galleries also contained the usual collection of artifacts, including half-man, half-lion statues; statues of Pharaohs and Pharaohs’ hangers-on; pottery; and more.
As is often the case in museums that have them, the most popular room contained mummies. The room was packed with live people looking at dead people.
Moving on to elsewhere in the Middle Eastern section of the museum, displays included crockery and other artifacts, some of which were more than 4,000 years old. (I saw other pieces of that age in the Greek galleries as well.) Think about that for a minute.
Here I was looking at objects used by people who died 4,000 or so years ago. Even Spam won’t last that long. (By Spam, I mean the allegedly meat product in a tin, not the email variety. The latter will last for the rest of eternity.)
The British Museum Branch of the Parthenon
I’ve haven’t been to Greece, so I’ve never seen the Parthenon in Athens. Now, I don’t have to. There’s a branch at the British Museum.
I joke. It’s not actually an authorized branch of the Parthenon. Many years ago the British made off with a lot of statues and friezes from the Parthenon. They’re now displayed in the British Museum. Greece wants them back. Britain says no. That’s where it stands.
When I say a lot of statues and friezes, I mean a lot. To give you an idea, I stood in the middle of the, by far, largest Parthenon gallery and did a 360-degree turn to take this video:
See what I mean by a lot? A lot. The other two Parthenon galleries were much smaller. And one contained mostly a Parthenon model and touchable casts of friezes, rather than original pieces. But still, did I mention there are a lot of Parthenon sculptures and friezes at the British Museum?
A leaflet available at the museum discussed the controversy surrounding the ownership of the Parthenon pieces. It said the majority of the stone artwork is currently split roughly equally between London and Athens. There are a few others in museums elsewhere in the world. So, in total, there are a mega, super lot of formerly Parthenon sculptures and friezes in the world.
Age of Enlightenment
Artifacts and representing various aspects of the Age of Enlightenment filled another gallery. Those aspects spanned trade and discovery, scripts, religion, art, archaeology, and the natural world. The artifacts included books, manuscripts, statues, engraved gems, vases, and more.
While we’re talking about The Enlightenment, reading the news these days and seeing reports of climate change deniers, anti-vaxxers, xenophobes, and people who believe windmills cause cancer, to name but a few of a great many ignorant beliefs, I worry that society is sliding, or possibly racing, backwards. The way things are going, we’ll crash back through The Enlightenment and not stop until we hit the Dark Ages.
Enough said about that. This is supposed to be a travel blog, not social commentary. However, I will add one request. If you’re American, please vote out Donald Trump in your election in 2020. Enlightenment is too valuable to let it slip away.
Other Rooms at the British Museum. Many Other Rooms
I visited many other galleries at the British Museum. One section included Medieval and Renaissance collections. Other rooms covered Romans in Britain, various periods in Europe, 7,000 years of Chinese jade, other Asian regions, and the Islamic World.
Undoubtedly, I visited other rooms that I’ve since forgot. And I didn’t go into some rooms at all; a few because I couldn’t find them; a few because I’d exceeded the limit on how much I can come anywhere close to appreciating in a single visit.
There was also a ticketed temporary Manga exhibit. I had already eaten Italian food a couple times on this trip so I didn’t go in. (I know the spelling is wrong, but I’m incapable of letting a pun, no matter how bad, go by unused.)
If I had to come come up with one word to describe the British Museum, that word would be overwhelming.
I think the trick is to make multiple shorter visits to avoid overload. Entry is free. There are signs asking for £5 donations, but it’s optional. Nobody was at the entrance trying to guilt people into dropping bills into the donation boxes. If you want to do two or three quicker hits over a few days, rather than one excruciatingly long visit, I don’t think anyone would object if you donated only once.
By the way, when I left it was mid-afternoon. The line of people waiting to get in was almost as long as it was in the morning.
Here are some other pictures from inside the British Museum for your viewing pleasure. Or to give you practice scrolling down. You decide.
In many ways, the British Library is like any other major library. It’s got reading rooms, shelves and shelves of books, and probably a lot of other items and areas that are standard in most libraries. I saw none of that. That’s not why I went there.
The British Library has something that few libraries have, two treasures rooms. The greats of the literature, music, and science worlds over the past few hundred years were represented there. There were also original documents of considerable historical value.
In the bigger of the rooms, the display cases held, for example, original scores and manuscripts of Beethoven, Mozart, Mahler, and others; original handwritten lyrics written by a couple of the Beatles; manuscripts from the biggest of the big names of British Literature; the first folio of the complete collection of Shakespeare’s works; an original Gutenberg Bible; other Bibles hundreds of years old; illustrated books from hundreds of years ago; scientific journals from a century or two ago; documents by Galileo, Isaac Newton, and others.
The room was not terribly big. Nevertheless, in addition to everything I mentioned above, I’ve probably forgotten even more.
The second room was much smaller. It was dedicated exclusively to the Magna Carta. It’s believed that scribes made only 13 copies of the original Magna Carta. Only four are known to exist today. The British Library has two of them. Despite all of the historical gems in the other room, the Magna Carta is probably the star of the library’s collection.
In addition to displaying the Magna Carta, the room also contained text and a couple of tablets (the electronic kind, not the biblical kind) offering videos explaining the document and its significance. The Magna Carta was written and first agreed to by the king in 1215, yet it still carries weight today, with its main dictate being that the sovereign power is not above the law.
Unfortunately, the British Library forbids photography in its treasures rooms. So, all I’ve got for you are a picture of the entrance to the right above and a picture of the lobby to the left.
Yesterday, I told you I’d try to get to Kensington Gardens, a park adjacent to Hyde Park, today. I succeeded.
The features of Kensington Gardens were much the same as those of Hyde Park. So, please save me some writing by going back and reading my post about the adjacent Hyde Park from yesterday and apply it to Kensington Gardens. However, subtract Speakers’ Corner and Henry Moore’s The Arch. There aren’t versions of them in Kensington Garden.
And add in these features that were in Kensington Gardens, but not Hyde Park:
- Sculptures of an equestrian, Queen Victoria, and Peter Pan.
- A towering monument to Albert.
- An almost round pond. My mapping app labeled it as “Round Pond.” Signage at the park named it “The Round Pond.” Definite article or not, the royals (it’s a royal park) aren’t very imaginative namers, are they?
- Kensington Palace. Commoners are allowed in during the day, but I arrived after the last entry time.
- A Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Playground. I didn’t go to that.
- A Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain. It’s located at the opposite end of Kensington Gardens from the playground.
I did go to the memorial fountain, but they don’t make it easy to find and get to. It’s on the other side of a busy road from the main part of the park.
The fountain is a narrow, generally circular channel. One point is higher than the rest. Water gushes down both sides from the high part. There are small rapids at some points in the channel.
What appears to be the thing to do if you’re anyone other than me is to walk in the fountain. Many people—children and adults, including at least one adult unaccompanied by a child—did so while I was there.
Here are the obligatory pictures.
Below are some pictures of streetscapes and parks I saw as I walked between sights.
This being the last day of this trip, I won’t be posting here for a while—not until my next trip. If you’ve enjoyed reading this, I’m open to cash bribes to get me to travel more frequently. Or if you’re a fellow Torontonian and you don’t particularly care about this blog, but you’re very eager to get me to leave town more often, I’m open to those bribes too.
Till next time.
Dishy gobs of fabulous things! I would definitely walk in the fountain. Nothing would stop me (unless it was a Bobby wielding a truncheon). The British Museum is definitely best savoured on multiple visits, but as usual, you have done the cultural equivalent of a triathlon in a day. Have a safe trip home.