One of our goals in our recent holiday trip to London was to see some of the many museums there. Wikipedia tells me there are 240 museums in London, including the Sigmund Freud Museum, Michael Faraday Museum, and the Type Museum. Seeing we only had 4 days to work with, I hope we’re forgiven that we only saw “the big three”, starting with The British Museum, The Victoria & Albert Museum and The Tower of London. Herewith follows my first whirlwind chronicle of these places.
But before I begin, a challenge: Try to identify where the picture above was taken, and put your guess in a comment, either on FB or on the blog. It is from one of the 3 visited museums, so extra credit if you can identify a specific exhibit. I’ll share the answer in my post after this.
The British Museum
The British Museum brings together artworks and cultural artifacts from civilizations past and present – but, mostly past. The three samples above are all from the ancient Egyptian hall, one of the first you will encounter when you enter. There are many colossal statues here, and their size and demeanor sets a dramatic tone as soon as you enter. Going from left to right, the first dates from 1850 BC and portrays Amenemhat III; at only 31 inches high, this is one of the smaller works. The remaining two both portray Amenhotep III (aka Amenhotep the Magnificent) and date from around 1370 BC. The middle statue is 60 inches high, the one on the right 114 inches – think about it, nearly 10 feet! – and weighs 3,600 kg. The expressiveness of these ancient works is striking, giving us a window into the character of these rulers from over 3,000 years ago.
Next stop was the ancient Greek collection: Incredible. Every other thing Kim and I saw we felt certain we had seen before – in pictures of course – in art history books, book covers, etc. Perhaps you have the same feeling looking at these examples:
Just to give you a sense of how much stuff there is here, the helmet shown above – dating from 650-570 BC – is one of 62 bronze helmets in the museum collection. It was acquired by the museum in 1904 from a Mrs. Hawkins, who also donated a bronze greave and a statuette of Mercury. Such factoids can easily be found using the museum’s search function, which let’s you look for, for example, “bronze helmet”. Pretty much, if you have a picture of something from the British Museum, and a basic sense of what it is, you can find out everything you could ever want about that specific piece.
We spent a long time looking over the museum’s most famous exhibit: the Elgin Marbles:
These amazing sculptures adorned the Parthenon, until they were removed by Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin in the early 1800s. There is controversy over whether these priceless artifacts ever should have been removed, or if they should be returned. All that aside, we should be glad these works have been preserved. 2,400 years old, these statutes show both a realism and intense energy that is instantly affecting. For example, the horse’s head, above, comes from a section where originally the gods witnessed the birth of Athena. This horse is one that drew the chariot of Selene, the moon goddess; I daresay not till Da Vinci was the horse so expressively rendered by western artists.
It is easy to spend an hour just looking at the marbles alone, which we did. They are arrayed along walls in their own very large hall. At either ends are some monumental free standing sculptures. The lounging figure of Dionysus, on the right below, would have been eight feet or more had the wine god been standing.
Alas, we only spent a bit over 4 hours in the British – we had to make an early dinner and then off to Henry V – and barely saw anything of the Asia, Medieval or Middle Eastern halls. Those will wait till our next London visit, though no way of knowing when that would be.
Next posts, The Victoria and Albert (I promise) and The Tower of London (I hope).