We’ve been so incredibly fortunate this year to have travelled the world and seen wonders we never imagined we’d experience in person: the ancient library of Ephesus, the Parthenon and Acropolis Museum in Athens, Corinthian columns right in Corinth, Karnak’s Temple in Luxor and the tombs of the Valley of the Kings, the pyramids of Giza, the Necropolis in Saqqara, the Nile as it flows through Cairo, the temple of Ramesses II in Memphis, the ancient site of the games in Olympia, the colosseum in Rome, the preserved remains of Pompeii, Diocletian’s Palace in Split, the Alhambra in Granada, the mosques in Istanbul… the list goes on and on.
Having walked under the 100°F sun to visit the opened tombs of pharoahs and found them largely empty, wandered through the giant statues and columns in Luxor and noticed the gaps, and especially having visited the Acropolis Museum beside the Parthenon and seen how few pieces of the original frescoes and pediments are left to be displayed there, I felt very conflicted seeing so many “missing pieces” on display here. Episode 246 – Athens
Don’t get me wrong. The displays are magnificent. The artifacts are treasured and cared for. The fact that they are on display means that thousands of people can see them and learn about and from them every day, but it still made me sad.
The sarcophagi and mummies in the Egyptian rooms are the most beautiful I’ve ever seen, and that includes Tutankhamun’s ornate gold and blue sarcophagus. The multiple nested coffin designs, and the detailed interior and exterior decoration, with colours preserved for millenia by the dry desert air, were absolutely breathtaking.
I was awed by the exhibit, but how much more magnificent would it be to walk into a tomb in Egypt and find it full of preserved artifacts? How much more breathtaking would it have been to see the Nereids Temple in Turkey instead of in a museum, no matter how beautifully displayed?
The ancient mosaics in the British Museum are splendid, but seeing them today did not have quite the same effect as seeing them in the Lapidarium of Tergeste in Trieste, just a few km from the location of the villa in which they originally formed the flooring, or actually walking over the plexiglass-protected mosaic floors of the entrance to the recently discovered Roman theatre in Cartagena Spain.
And before you remind me that not everyone is privileged enough to travel the world, there are ways to “see” things in 2022 that did not exist in the 19th century when most of these items were brought to England: digital photographs and videos, and even holographic imaging. That said, even the expedition which collected the Parthenon marbles was originally tasked to “draw, document, and mold antiquities” to preserve on paper, canvas, and in plaster things that people could then see in museums. This wonderful (short) article is worth reading: Smithsonian magazine – the Elgin marbles debate.
There were also many, many exhibits of iron age Roman items found IN THE UNITED KINGDOM, from Roman settlements and military buildings dating to the Roman invasion of Britain. Those (in my opinion) properly belong in a British museum as evidence of millenia of history here.
We also took a quick glance into the Clocks and Watches exhibit. The workmanship, both scientific/mechanical and artistic, on these timepieces was unbelievably intricate. Unfortunately, the museum was closing some galleries as the evening approached, and we took in the clocks very quickly en route to the Parthenon marbles.
The Parthenon marbles (the “Elgin” marbles) were the most emotional exhibit for me. When we saw the sculptures from the east pediment, I wanted to cry, because I’d seen the empty spaces in the Acropolis Museum into which they would have fit – and at the same time the thrill of seeing them up close made the hairs on my arms stand on end. They are indescribably detailed and beautiful. Part of me is grateful that they were saved after a Venetian cannonball exploded in the Parthenon in 1687, and part of me is angry at the way many pieces were simply “hacked” off the walls (in order, presumably, to fall within the permission given to take any items that had been detached during the explosion) and thus damaged further.
About 50% of the Parthenon’s marbles are in the British Museum. Another 33% are in the glass display hall of the Acropolis Museum which is beside, and mirrors, the Parthenon. the remaining 17% are in undisclosed private collections or museums elsewhere.
There were actually several exhibits that were plaster casts made from marble left in situ, and were no less spectacular for being reproductions… and we were allowed to touch those!
I’ve been looking forward to visiting the British Museum since I was a child, reading about archeologists and tombs and temples, so today was a long-standing wish fulfilled. If we’d not had our world cruise experience, I might never have had a second thought about how the items on display got to where they are today. But we did, and I did.
Food note: after a full afternoon at the museum, and facing a one hour bus ride home, we opted to stay in the city centre for fish (plaice this time) and chips. Fish and chips in England really are the best!