February 26th, 2015

Around London For...

A day about the British Museum
James Mansfield

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I remember visiting the British Museum as a child, when I must have been around five or six, with my father. I say this, but actually can remember nothing from the visit apart from my insistence that we make the return journey by taxi, as I was bored of not seeing anything on the underground. I have since then been to the Museum countless times, and now having founded my own Museum of Imaginative Knowledge, had a strong desire to try and spend some time there for the purpose of what I call pure research, or simply just hanging out. What would it be like to spend an entire day in the British Museum?


Room 13 (Greece)
I sat down and looked at a large sculpture of a seated figure. The wall text told me there were more of these figures in the Museum, somewhere, but I didn’t feel the need to see them. I was more interested in the book I brought with me, an account of the antediluvian civilization of Atlantis. I looked at the gallery attendant, who was writing a note in a small book. I walked over to three visitors, each with a map in their jacket pockets. I told them that the statue used to line a route between a Greek city and a nearby shrine, but both these places are now destroyed.


Room 14 (Greece)
As I wandered into the next room, I thought about the appeal of Atlantis and lost civilizations in general. I visited the Nazca lines in 2000 and remembered going to see a scale-model reproduction of the lines down a backstreet in the town. There aren’t many artefacts from Peru in the British Museum, which probably explains why as a child I was so keen to visit the country. Greek things are perhaps too embedded into our culture, I mentioned to the gallery attendant, who smiled. And then quickly added, but they keep people coming here. I chuckled and left the room quietly.


Room 72 (Cyprus)
This was a rather depressing place. There were rows and rows of pots and other ceramic items on shelves behind glass. The British Museum has a huge archive, and if this selection of items is worthy of display, I wondered what other things are not. It was on a previous visit, in this room that I found a Snickers wrapper on the floor. I have kept it, and on this visit I hoped to find another piece of litter. This provided me with a little bit more structure to the expedition, which I desperately needed as I sat down and read a bit of the book about Atlantis. I tried to concentrate but found the typeface of the text annoying. It was old fashioned, a reprint from the 19th century.


Room 51 (Belgium)
I wondered how many artefacts there are from Belgium in the Museum, for there is no specific collection or room dedicated to the country. I quickly read the Wikipedia entry for Belgium and started thinking about Flanders and the wool trade and if there were any good museums to be found there. Gazing at a row of small hairpins, it was difficult to concentrate on absorbing any new information and I walked out of the room, down the stairs and went to stand by the Torrington Street entrance for a few minutes. There were two people smoking, not saying much to each other. I tried to see if they had Museum passes (these have different colour codes depending on the permanency of their respective employment) but as they were both wearing coats, it was hard to see. I asked one of them for a light and then realised I had no cigarettes either. The man laughed and passed me a cigarette, and asked which department I worked in. This was for me, the ultimate aim, to spend so much time in a place that someone thought I was part of it. I was not prepared however, and mumbled that I am just a visitor. This admission continued to plague me for the rest of the day. I had blown my only chance of being the chief curator of Greek ceramics.


Room 33b (Jade)
As I came back into the Museum, I remembered I had left my sandwiches in my coat in the cloak room. I took a wrong turning and ended up in the Jade room, a long corridor full of small green things. Ignoring them (and wondering how could I ever be interested in them) I retrieved my sandwiches and headed back outside. Earlier this morning I took a while to decide whether to bring any reading material at all to the Museum. I knew I would need some kind of distraction and almost brought along The Old Patagonian Express by Paul Theroux. At the last moment, I instead took Atlantis: the Antediluvian World by Ignatius Donnelly. Now eating my lunch on the steps I regretted my choice and hampered for Theroux’s account of his trip by train through North and South America. I always think I’d like to go on a long railway journey somewhere, but on second thought prefer that someone else is doing the hard work—the endless waiting around, the carrying of bags, the buying of tickets. One can then relax and enjoy the small details and people which Theroux excavates along the way.


Room 49 (Roman Britain)
This year on my birthday I went to Hadrian’s Wall with two friends. It was August and raining as we tramped through a few fields and came to Milecastle 42. At this point, in the middle of the Wall, I openly considered how much of it had been rebuilt, most likely by the Victorians. It looked too neat in many places. I looked at a fresco which has been restored with some very brighly-coloured flowers. This room is one of my favourites, and halfway through the content changes to Persia, with a number of plaster casts from Persepolis. I considered what would happen if every object in the Museum was in fact a copy? Sunk in perhaps too many ideas, I began to question if this expedition was really a good idea. I felt the need for a different kind of museum and headed down into the Enlightenment.


Room 1 (Enlightenment)
There was far more variety in this room than anywhere else in the Museum. It also made me think that I prefer furnished rooms with things in them, bookcases, display cabinets which are more like tables than wardrobes. I wondered if anyone has ever read many of the books here, and started thinking about all the books that I have failed to read. They can be categorised in several ways; ones that I had copies of and never read; ones that I have never even held; and ones which I have tried to read several times but failed. The more books I read, the fussier I get. This reached a point of ridiculousness two years ago when I went to Hay-on-Wye and could not find a single book I actually wanted to read. I ended up buying a autobiography of the cricketer David Gower which I then didn’t finish and gave to a friend as a birthday present.


The Reading Room
After looking at a variety of coins, medals and large rocks, I wandered across to the Great Court, and the remnant of the reading room from the old British Library. I recalled going inside about ten years ago, when you could still just read a book quietly or pretend to be scholarly and take lots of notes. I find libraries frustrating places, especially when you have to request books rather than just browse from the shelves. It’s for this reason that I will perhaps never visit the British Library. I like browsing, getting interested in something that seems entirely coincidental but can in fact take you to a far different place than that which you originally had in mind.


Room 62 (Egypt)
I have never been to the Pyramids but when I headed into this room, my interest in ancient Egypt suddenly vanishes. There are too many names, too many dynasties, too many pharaohs, too many people in here and I darted out and thought about visiting the bookshop. It was now late afternoon and there were fewer clumps of people in the Great Court and the main entrance, but perhaps exhausted by the prospect of more words, I changed course and headed back to Greece. On my way, I realised that I had been to a ziggurat in Western Iran, which was a type of pyramid.


Room 77 (Greece)
In this basement room, I felt more relaxed as there were less people and less small objects to look at. You have to make a decision to go downstairs, to not just wander between rooms and groups of tourists. This room was full of large bits of columns from various Greek buildings. The floor had quite a lot of dents in it and the wall labels looked different to the rest of the Museum. It was as if all the columns had been dumped here, as a final resting place for them. Despite a keen interest in the past, I have never been to a Greek ruin. I found a bench and opened up Atlantis again. I flicked through and found some entertaining diagrams such as ‘Outlines of Skulls of Different Races’. The book was not particularly interesting with regard to Atlantis, but more the series of civilizations which the author claims it spawned, and the similarities which he kept on drawing upon.


Room 90 (Japan)
I took the lift up to the fifth floor and the atmosphere was quiet, the lighting subdued, and the visitors non-existent, apart from two Japanese businessmen who were closely examining the recreation of a traditional tea-house. I didn’t know what to make of this, but remembered finding great solace in visiting branches of Starbucks in Tokyo when I visited several years ago. I looked at some artefacts and then took the stairs down one level where a large gallery is screened off. I gazed behind this and saw a small building scene, two men moving a large trolley, the whole area festooned with the apparatus of seemingly useful work; high-vis vests, wooden crates, a dustpan and brush, and several long planks of wood.


Room 47 (Europe)
Having been excited by the prospect of not only a free glass of water, but a slice of lemon to accompany it, from the buffet restaurant in the Great Court, I felt strangely energised. Usually at this time in the afternoon I would feel tired and prone to procrastination, yet instead I turned right at the main exit and walked up the stairs. My spirit faded a little in this room, which seemed to be yet another collection of porcelain. It was as if one of the main aims of the Museum was to provide a detailed history of tableware, interspersed with huge chunks of ancient temples.


[James Mansfield is director and co-founder of The Museum of Imaginative Knowledge, which recently toured the UK. For more about him go here.]