Today we made our first visit ever to The British Museum. It’s less than a two mile walk from our apartment.
Museums such as this give me very mixed feelings. I remember as a child spending days roaming the halls of the Field Museum in Chicago looking at the detritus of fallen civilizations. Then I had the child’s fascination with dead bodies (mummies), oddities from foreign cultures, and the desire to understand time as referenced by these things that seemed too old for comprehension. Visiting such museums now I am struck by a collection that appears to pay tribute to one society conquering another, destroying or stripping it of its cultural and religious icons, and creating a new society in the ashes. Will human beings ever overcome the desire to have more…land, wealth, resources…and learn to live in harmony with neighbors who are different? A special exhibit about the rise and fall of Napoleon Bonaparte as shown in the French and British political art of the time had one piece that summarizes my feelings about the history represented in the British Museum.
Napoleon wanted to slice Europe off the world roast and was forestalled in that effort by Britain and Russia. At the same time William Pitt wanted at least half of the rest of the world for Britain. Neither was satisfied with what they had.
Seeing the artifacts of Greek, Turkish, and other middle eastern cultures piled on top of one another demonstrated beyond a doubt that the Taliban are following a very long tradition when they destroy ancient monuments in Afghanistan. Perhaps one culture replacing another is a natural phenomenon. The Elgin Marbles are said to be an example of trying to salvage artifacts before they were destroyed by the following culture. (Most of the grand sculptures from the Elgin Marbles weren’t on display at this time.) Were they worth the effort to incur the enmity of the Greeks who have wanted them back since they were taken? Neither Elgin nor the Greeks thought to save the artifacts of the Turks, Persians and others who had built upon and used the Parthenon in intervening centuries. Those cultural icons were destroyed without a thought.
Here are few images of other things seen in the museum.
Dinner at one of our favorite London eateries: Bella Italia and then a walk home.
From my perspective as a historian, we will never have peace. Even our Judeo-Christian traditions say so: Cain slew Abel out of jealousy, and we’ve been killing each other ever since. Not a cheery thought, but something I came to think about a long time ago.
Meanwhile, my favorite artifact at the British Museum the first time I was there was Karl Marx’s library card! Who knew that little piece of paper could change the world as he knew it!
I have a huge resistance to the “ownership” of relics of conquered countries being housed in the museums of the “victors”. England, of course, being a prime example of making off with relics. But she is only one of the countries who have absconded with historic remnants. Purchased is one thing (Rodin’s Hands in MOMA) but Taken is so often the method.
Thanks for letting me sound off.
You can sound off whenever you like. 🙂
Nice job taking photos in crappy museum light; I have to delete more than half of all images snapped in such places. I agree with your mature, wise attitudes towards imperialism in all its guises.