12 Fascinating Things To See At The British Museum
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Enchanting Assyrian art, windows into Ancient Egypt, and Chinese treasures from the Shang to the Ming- if history's your thing it has to be the British Museum.
Last week (April 7th for those reading later in the year) myself and a friend had the good fortune of seeing film composer Hans Zimmer in concert during the London leg of his 2016 European tour. While hearing 'Time' and the Inception soundtrack live were obvious highlights of our short rendezvous with the capital, it was, as such visits often are, a great chance to fit in some obligatory sightseeing. It also just so happened that I'd recently become engrossed in a set of digital lectures on Ancient Egyptian history, so the itinerary of our second day in city was pretty much fleshed out before hotels and transport were even considered.
If you've never been to the British Museum before (as I hadn't) then you're in for a treat. Its 8 million strong collection takes you from around the middle of the Stone Age all the way through to the present day while covering virtually everything in between! Our browse through the exhibits lasted roughly 4-5 hours and was by no means exhaustive, but it was enough to tackle the 5 galleries we found most interesting. So if you're curious about what to prioritise during own trip then here's 12 ideas to get you started.
Must-Sees At The British Museum:
1, Rosetta Stone:
Discovered in 1799 by the French Army during Napoleon's Egyptian Campaign, this famous stela from the Ptolemaic dynasty was the crucial object that eventually led to the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs. Despite its broken appearance three blocks of text are clearly visible on the granodiorite surface, the top being Hieroglyphic, the middle Demotic, and the bottom Greek. It was the latter that initially allowed English physician Thomas Young to work out the basic sounds of various cartouche-enclosed hieroglyphs, one of which was the royal name Ptolemy V. Of equal importance was the realisation that all three texts spoke of the same decree.
Building on this earlier research the breakthrough came in 1822 when French scholar Jean-François Champollion, working on the realisation that the Demotic text was used to record an early form of the Coptic language (a descendant of Ancient Egyptian), used his extensive knowledge of the language to gradually transliterate (with reference to other ancient texts) the hieroglyphs.
The Rosetta Stone is a must-see at the British Museum for its sheer historical significance. You'll find it right at the entrance to the Egyptian Sculpture gallery, a location which I though was pretty strange as it invariably draws in large, obstructive crowds, but then again I'm not a museum curator. Given that you can't miss it either way I'd suggest working your way up to glass case just to savour that unobstructed view.
2, Monumental Statue of Ramesses II:
Right up from the Rosetta Stone you'll spot a gigantic bichrome granite bust of Ramesses the Great. Now, from the Great Pyramid of Giza to the Temple of Hatshepsut, the Ancient Egyptians are renowned for their monumental craftsmanship, and while the British Museum doesn't quite have the likes of a 100ft obelisk, this 8ft statue is still strikingly impressive in stature and composition. You'll notice that the head is primarily pink granite, while the lower half is a darker grey.
3, Neo-Assyrian Sculptures And Reliefs:
The Assyrian galleries house what are probably the most spectacular relief carvings in the entire British Museum. Once you've had a walk up and down the Egyptian sculpture room pass between the two imposing Lamassu and enter the Nimrud gallery. The decorative panels lining the walls of room 7 come from the Northwest Palace of King Ashurnasirpal II (883-859 BC). They depict scenes ranging from war and religious ritual to mythical guardian figures and everyday Neo-Assyrian life. You'll see on some that there's even lines of carved cuneiform script. The meaning of the writing is beyond me, but perhaps the audio guides could offer some context.
4, The Assyrian Lion Hunt Reliefs:
These astounding pieces of art dated between 645-635 BC are brutal and beautiful in equal measure. They depict a grand hunt conducted by King Ashurbanipal, and were created as decoration for his palace at Nineveh. What's immediately striking is the skill and naturalism employed in their carving. Fine details such as hair, muscle definition and expressions are evident even at a distance, and the entire series has a sense of movement that's extremely rare in such ancient works.
Another interesting relief from the same gallery illustrates the Siege of Lachish, in particular the parading and execution of prisoners before King Sennacherib. The face of the king appears to have been chipped away, an interesting piece of vandalism that the museum's information notices attribute to an enemy soldier during the fall of Nineveh in 612 BC. It's little human connections like that which, to me, breath even more life into a piece of art, sort of like a makers mark but in reverse.
5, Nereid Monument:
The most conspicuous feature of room 17 is the columnated Nereid Monument, a tomb constructed in the Ionic order for Erbinna, a ruler of Xanthos in the 4th century BC. Eye-catching features include the sea-nymph statues, whose elegantly posing figures grace the space between the columns, and the upper and lower friezes depicting scenes of battle.
6, The Elgin Marbles:
The 'marbles' in question refer to the architectural treasures of the Parthenon, which can still be seen in the British Museum's Room 18 despite controversies regarding ownership. The remarkable collection consists of friezes, metopes, sculptures and other beautiful architectural facets that once adorned the Athens Parthenon. Notable marbles include the artwork of the East Pediment, the much photographed chariot horse of the goddess Selene, and the metopes depicting the mythical battle of the Centaurs and Lapiths.
7, Codex Zouche-Nuttall:
My own interest in human history isn't limited to the Middle East, Egypt and Greece, and so a smaller yet just as fascinating area that I couldn't pass up was the Mexico Room. The space is filled with vibrant artefacts dating from the time of the ancient Olmecs all the way through to the 16th century Aztecs. The piece that drew my attention the most was the Codex Zouche-Nuttall, a 14th century Mixtec book concerning a dynastic succession. The narrative is illustrated by a series of polychrome pictographs, each one highly detailed and mesmerising to scan through.
Most of the books I've read about the conquest period talk all too often of the mass destruction that such documents faced at Spanish hands, so simply seeing such a precious piece of history was delightful.
8, Ancient Chinese Arts And Artefacts:
No visit to the British Museum is complete without a foray through the China, South Asia and Southeast Asia Gallery. Personal highlights for me were the ancient Chinese artefacts, that's the Xia through to the Eastern and Western Zhou periods. Ming ceramics are beautiful in their own right, but for a westerner like me there's just something extra profound about a time and place so far removed from my own. The Zhou period produced amazing bronze works, be they horse bits or gilded daggers. The smaller carved figurines also have wonderful lively qualities that not only hold religious significance, but cultural and social impact.
9, Cast Of The Narmer Palette:
The British Museum's Egyptian collection extents to the upper floor galleries, and it's in room 64 (Early Egypt) that you'll encounter a replica of the Narmer Palette (31st century BC). This early historical document/decorative piece gives an account of the unification of upper lower Egypt by the man regarded to be its first Pharaoh. While not the original it is a very convincing replica and worth a look out for its historical connotations.
10, Mummy Of Artemidorus:
Something almost everyone comes to the British museum to see is the mummy collection, though with greater popularity comes greater congestion, and our arrival in room 63 almost comically coincided with a sudden rush of three foreign tour groups. The torrent did pass, thankfully, and in the slightly quieter room 62 I spotted the decorative mummy case of Artemidorus. This young Greek male lived during Egypt's Roman period, something which is strongly evident from the gilded Romanesque designs towards the head of the mummy.
The rest of the stucco casing depicts more traditional funerary scenes, such as an Anubis-like figure preparing the deceased's body, images of Horus and Thoth, and what appears to be the body resurrecting.
11, Mummy of Cleopatra:
Not 'Queen' Cleopatra as I quickly came to realise, though that would've something indeed. Maybe that's why there were so many people congregating around it? The mummy apparently belongs to a 17 year old woman who also lived during the Roman period. Her bulky shroud and wrappings are intricately decorated with images of various Egyptian gods and goddesses, namely Nut, Isis, Nephthys and Anubis.
12, Japanese Galleries:
By far the quietest British Museum gallery we explored that day, the Mitsubishi sponsored Japanese exhibition was a welcome come-down from the hectic mummy rooms. Artefacts here date from about the middle of the Jōmon era up to and including the present day. You'll receive insights into the culture and daily life of each time period, from the funeral practices of the Kofun people through to modern manga and anime.