Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Sun Never Sets on the British Empire

Or; if you claim to own it, then takin' it ain't stealin'.

We visited the British Museum today. A stunning collection of goods pilfered from other nations. No wonder the American settlers robbed the American Indians of their land. They had learned this style of vanquishing from their British ancestors.

In spite of any misgivings one might have about the methods by which these treasures were acquired, the museum was beyond impressive. Standing in the center of a huge room, surveying the Elgin marbles (innocently ganked from the Parthenon in Athens) I thought about John Keats looking at these ruins and writing his "Ode to a Grecian Urn."

We joined the throngs of tourists clamouring (do you like my British spelling?) for a look at the Rosetta Stone. It made me remember a gift I got from my g-parents Vance when I was a kid -- a hieroglyphic stamp set that I thought was very awesome.

Hey, guy. Nice sarcaphagus.

We knew that we didn't have time to see everything in the museum so we decided to focus on the Egyptians, Assyrians, and Greeks, and then go upstairs to check out the Romans. I did not expect to find the mummies as fascinating as they were. As much as I've read or heard about mummies (not in specific studies, more like in the episode of Scooby-Doo where they are being chased by a mummy) I just felt sort of nonchalant about them going in. But seeing the actual freaking Cleopatra was pretty cool. They had her out of her sarcophagus but of course she was all wrapped up in the yards and yards of linen. However, they had an x-ray on display so you could see how her mouth was open (so her soul could enjoy food in the after life) and all of the trinkets wrapped up and buried with her. There were also mummified cats and bulls.

Welcome to my tomb. Here is a door that doesn't open so graverobbers can't get in but my soul can conveniently come and go and look for statues of me in which it can take a nap. Seriously this is my understanding of how these things worked for the Egyptians.

There was a preserved body of an Egyptian body older than Cleopatra who was buried in the sand without a casket of any sort and the dry desert sand preserved him so well he still had some of his reddish hair and basically his skin looked like cooked chicken skin stretched over human bones and it was actually really gross. He was next to a skeleton that had rotted away in a coffin (to demonstrate the loss of preservation) and I realized that no matter how many episodes of CSI I might have seen, I'd never really seen actual dead bodies like that before and it was kind of fascinating but also seriously creepy. I didn't take a picture because it grossed me out.

The Assyrians were impressive in the way a violent and brutal civilization depicts itself doing brutal acts in beautiful art. I have to say that based on the art work we saw today, I felt sorrier for the lions they slaughtered than for the Assyrian race that sort of imploded.

Ancient Greece's art was a life-like shift from the straight and narrow Eyptian and Assyrians, and it was David's favorite part and probably mine too. I had to laugh at the diplomatically worded sign that indicated that the taking of these friezes from the Parthenon was "a subject of discussion" but that Lord Elgin had "certainly saved the sculptures from further damage due to weathering, graffiti," etc.

Too bad Lord Elgin didn't get to Aphrodite before her head fell off. But it really says something when your sculpture is so impressive, it's amazing even without its head.

From Greece we ventured up to Ancient Rome and caught a tour group let by a museum docent who told us all about the early Roman rulers and showed us a beautiful blown-glass vase (the Portland Vase, called after the family who owned it and gave it to the museum) that is one of the most valuable pieces in the museum. She explained that it was made by first blowing cobalt glass and dipping it in white glass to then blow both of them and fuse the white on top of the cobalt. Then one would use special tools to chip away at the white glass so as to create figures and forms in white that stand out against the cobalt background underneath -- the same process as making a cameo.
I was most impressed when she explained that although this idea might seem pretty straightforward, after the fall of the Roman Empire it took 1800 years before people were able to replicate this technique. And in 1845 the museum had it on display (sitting out but not in a protective glass case as it is today) and a man (our guide called him "a total maniac") ran through the museum trying to destroy things and smashed it to pieces. It took a whole year for the museum experts to piece it back together and now you can barely tell it was broken.

I am going out of order today, because before we even went to the British Museum, we strolled around our little part of town. We're sort of on the edge of Bloomsbury, near Covent Garden, in a part of town sometimes unofficially called "Fitzrovia" after Fitzroy's Tavern where we had dinner a few nights ago. Anyway, we walked up around Russell Square and London College and past the British Museum and came upon the Dickens Museum in a house where he had once lived.

So in we went, even though it was a bit overpriced, and beginning in the basement we walked through four floors of Dickens's previous residence and stood in the very room where his sister-in-law Mary Hogarth died in his arms. She was 17; Dickens was devastated and purportedly uses her as an idealized basis for many of his unrealistic female characters including Little Nell of The Old Curiosity Shop. They had a pretty big Tale of Two Cities display which was kind of nice since we are heading to Paris tomorrow!

It being another sunny day, we picnicked again in Russell Square. I've been reading The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield which is positively addictive but we left the park early due to an unwelcome close encounter with London wildlife.

I was sitting and reading when this squirrel started approaching our blanket. I sat up and sort of waved my arm at him, thinking he would startle and run away.

No. He kept on coming, evidently wanting some of my oatmeal cookie. He got so close that I jumped up to my feet but that didn't scare him. He just kept hopping toward me. I started freaking out but was trying not to shout so I just kept sort of squeaking "David! Make him go away! Ew! Ew!" and then I ran around and crouched behind David so that he was between me and the squirrel but the squirrel kept coming closer! I do not like squirrels, mostly because of that scene in Christmas Vacation where the squirrel comes in with the tree and ends up attached to Chevy Chase's back. I'm always afraid that those skittish things will panic and run up my leg and I'll end up with a crazed and diseased squirrel attached to my shirt while I run around screaming in panic.

So that was going through my head when I jumped up and moved away from the squirrel and I couldn't believe that he was coming so close to us. I'd left my shoes behind so I made David hand them to me and then I ran several yards away and left David to gather up the picnic while the incorrigible squirrel kept inching closer. He acted like he wanted to settle down on the blanket with David and share my freaking cookie. He looks much less scary in this photo than he did in person.

Cheeky little bugger, isn't he?


  1. Brooke, Iam enjoying your vacation so far more than I have a couple of my own! You are a good writer. Roger says I am reading you too much because my new fav word is "freakin'". Seriously, our day begins with seeing what you and David are up to! Love, Pam

  2. Grandma Vance did not like squirrels at all - said they were rats with fluffy tails. I think you inherited her dislike of those rodents!