diamond geezer

 Sunday, January 15, 2006

  the definitive DG guide to London's sights-worth-seeing
  Part 4: The British Museum

Location: Great Russell Street, WC1B 3DG [map]
Open: 10am - 5:30pm (late opening Thur & Fri)
Admission: free
5-word summary: ancient booty plundered from abroad
Website: www.thebritishmuseum.ac.uk
Time to set aside: a couple of days

If ever a museum had an inappropriate name, this is it. You might expect this vast Bloomsbury treasure house to be given over to celebrating Britain's historic achievements, but no. Only one corner of the first floor presents a potted history of our nation from prehistoric times to the present day. Instead the great majority of the museum's gallery space is given over to artefacts from proper ancient civilisations, fashioned in the days when we Britons were still slapping woad on our faces and chasing wild boar round uncultivated forests. The only British thing about these exhibits is that they were shamelessly stolen, several generations later, by our bravest and most daring so-called explorers.

Take the Parthenon Marbles, for example. Lord Elgin did, back in 1802, and we've not thought fit to return them ever since. Instead the British Museum boasts a long gallery devoted solely to these classical Greek sculptures, their faces defaced, rescued from a crumbling frieze carved into the roof of one of the greatest temples in Athens. Then there's the Rosetta Stone, the chipped rock that unlocked hieroglyphics, which isn't really ours either. It was originally discovered in Egypt by the French in 1799, but was surrendered to the British shortly afterwards as part of some dodgy Napoleonic peace treaty, and we've still got it. Throw in several Sumerian murals, an Easter Island statue, an awful lot of Egyptian mummies and countless other priceless foreign artefacts, and what the British Museum contains is a unique selection of global goodies which really shouldn't be here. It's a bloody marvellous collection, of course, but I still feel a collective national guilt every time I walk round.

But there is one part of the museum that truly exhibits Britishness, and that's the Great Court. In the centre is the high circular Reading Room with its musty librarians and spiralling bookcases set beneath an striking azure dome, looking every inch the Harry Potter film set. At the rear is the Museum shop, peddling lavish exhibition catalogues, replica chess sets, hieroglyphic headscarves and Roman-style jade pendants. High above the courtyard is Norman Foster's stunning geometric glass roof, completed in 2000, whose thousands of tessellating triangles are all slightly different to one another. A door leads through to the Enlightenment gallery, where classical vases and cherubs are laid out like tacky concrete statuary in an Essex garden centre. And in the northern corners are two tasteful cafes dispensing hot drinks, posh sarnies and over-priced slices of cake to weary visitors. Harry Potter, shopping, headscarves, great architecture, gardening and tea - what greater celebration of British life could you wish to experience?
by tube: Holborn  by bus: 7

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