The British Museum

London Travel Blog

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For the very final leg of my trip I had to spend a day in London.  I was researching for my thesis, which was about the Elgin Marbles Debate - and I had to go see them in person so that I could write about them more accurately.  I took the train from Paris to London early in the morning, and then found the tube, and took it to the BM stop.  I got totally lost, and found London to be more confusing than Rome or Paris, I even had to ask directions!  It felt strange that I was in an English speaking country for the first time in months, but I had thhe hardest time navagating.  I finally found the British Museum and spent my day there, scoping the art and the people.  Then I headed back to Paris that evening!  It was quite a nice little day trip.  I will include an excerpt from my thesis here:

 

After spending the summer in sunny Greece, I feel that I need to see the Elgin Marbles.  I arrive in Paris on a hot August day, after visiting my father in Switzerland.  I have three days left in Europe and a balance of zero in my bank account, but I make an executive decision:  I am going to the British Museum.  I buy a train ticket, and early the next morning I cross the English Channel to see what I missed in Greece - the rest of the Parthenon.

Delighted to be in an English speaking country for the first time in months, I still find London difficult to navigate.  I wander around in the rain completely lost until finally I stumble across the museum.  I catch a glimpse of it from my obstructed street view, but I know immediately that it must be the museum.  I pass through an enormous metal gate that separates the museum space from the street, the gate that designates a space devoted to the sacred, away from the mundane. 

The front of the museum references the Propylaia on the Akropolis so clearly that I am not at all surprised that it houses a piece of the Parthenon.  Two wings flank either side of the entrance to the museum, which has eight Ionic columns on a pseudo-dipteral porch.  The Greek orders are comforting and familiar to me, and I’m suddenly nostalgic for Athens.  The building seems somewhat out of place in this rainy city.  Without the sunlight to warm up and reflect off the stone, the museum appears daunting, dreary and cold.  I try to remember the awe-inspiring feeling of standing in the shadow of the Parthenon.  The British Museum evokes similar emotions, but in a more serious, unfamiliar way. (See Image 6)

I don’t hesitate.  I enter the building and weave through throngs of visitors trying to decipher the floor plan map.  I quickly figure out where the ancient Greek section is and hurry there.  The anticipation of seeing the marbles is almost making me breathless.  I hadn’t realized until I arrived at the museum how significant this experience would be. 

I pass through the Egyptian section on my way, not even stopping for a closer look at the Rosetta Stone.  I pass the Assyrian section, the relief sculptures preparing me for what I’m about to see.  When I see the Crouching Venus, I know that I am close.  Then, behind her, on the back wall, a room away, I see it: the Parthenon Frieze –possibly the greatest masterpiece of the ancient world.  I enter into the room, and am caught off guard.  Nothing reminds me of sunny Greece or the countless archeological sites and museums I’d visited this summer.  The long room has a different feel, more sacred and holy.  The sculpture is displayed as artwork, not as architecture or archeological findings, or anthropological artifacts.  The frieze is hung high on the wall, similar to how masterful paintings are displayed.  The pedimental sculptures are raised on high pedestals to separate the viewer and designate the space as sacred.

            I wonder what Phidias would think of the worn condition of his masterpieces today.  Would he be happy that his work is being displayed as sacred objects, that are ‘worshipped’ by countless international visitors daily?  Or would he be upset that the sculpture no longer rests on the building and is shown in a foreign context?  I walk around the inside of the room, following the Panathenaic Procession on the frieze.  I recall one hot day in Athens in the Agora, standing on the remnants of that ancient road, looking up at the Akropolis and imagining the procession.  Can a viewer really appreciate the meaning of the sculptures without that context?

            The marbles are clearly damaged.  Part of this is a testament to their age.  Nothing survives for 2500 years in perfect condition.  It is unclear, however, how much of their damage is a result of their forceful removal from their original home.  Even with the damage, they are still spectacular, beautiful for their art and their age. 

            The pedimental sculpture is displayed at both ends of the hall of the gallery, in their own smaller rooms.  They are displayed as if they were sitting in the tympanum, only lower so the viewer can really appreciate the deep, sensual drill work on the drapery and the finely chiseled musculature.  These details may have been lost from a distance.  These small side galleries also house some of the metopes.  The gallery shows the sculpture as if it has been inverted.  We see the Parthenon from the outside in, but in the British Museum, we see it from the inside out, with the sculptures looking in on us. 
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photo by: ulysses