Thursday, 13 April 2017

Making sense of some experiences at the British Museum

I’m writing this in the British Museum, ahead of a meeting with a colleague near Russell Square later this afternoon, sitting in the Members’ Room at a window table in the café overlooking the Great Court. It was a funny experience coming here, from Euston Square station down Gower Street then Malet Street. I’d decided not to make my regular visit to Jeremy Bentham at UCL because otherwise doing this might turn into a pilgrimage, but I couldn’t have in any case as access was being controlled to the University forecourt. Then I got to Senate House to hear the fire alarm and see the building evacuated. I queued to get into the BM and then headed for the Greek and Roman Architecture room which was open today – it sometimes isn’t. And as I’ve found previously it’s had to put the experience of visiting the room into words. It’s neglected – most bibliography on the explanatory cards is from the late 19th century, when the text was written
I suppose. The most up-to-date reading item that I saw was from 1970. The captions are faded, the artefacts are assembled as educational pieces – though if someone went in now wanting to learn about architectural styles they wouldn’t be able to read the general information board on the Ionic type as this has entirely faded away. This is all in contrast to the bright white of the Great Court I’m looking down over.  But down in the Architecture gallery, it’s possible to encounter ancient religious sites close at hand though the artefacts feel sanitised by being lumped together. But I think it would be possible to do what one could not at an ancient site, or in the Parthenon Gallery, namely to have a direct encounter with the Erechtheion or the temple of Athena Nike, say, by reaching out and touching one of its stones.

I spent some time looking at a coffer, originally part of the ceiling of the north porch of the Erechtheion. Then I looked particularly at a pedestal, probably for a bronze statue in the precinct of the Athena Polias temple at Priene, especially at its palmettes. It’s been at the Museum at least since 1870 because that date appears in the accession number (1870.3.30.111). The pedestal was probably for a bronze statue according to the information label. I wonder who the statue was of.

I think that I shall bring students here next term in a session for my Athena module. We could start here with the Priene temple and the various bits of the Erechtheion and Nike temples. We could then walk upstairs, through Halikarnassos, past the Athena amphora in one of the cases, past the Caraytid, to end up in the Parthenon Gallery – this seems a more suitable, quieter and reflective route to the Parthenon than what might be a more usual, more well-travelled one which takes the visitor through the Great Court,then Assyria and Egypt. If this session comes off, I'll blog on it.

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