Travels with Victoria: British Museum, Part Two

The King’s Library in the British Museum has a new function. The oldest room in the museum, it was built in 1827 to house the collection of books amassed by King George III. This collection of 60,000 volumes was moved to the new British Library, St. Pancras, in 1997.

In the British Library

George IV donated his father’s book collection to the British people in 1823, necessitating a new building on the site of the original British Museum in Montagu House, Bloomsbury, one of many expansions and re-modelings over the years. Since George III’s book collection was moved a few years ago, the King’s Library Gallery has been restored, conserved and adapted for a new purpose: a permanent exhibition devoted to The Enlightenment.

ancient statues in front of cases filled with books on loan from the House of Commons Library

From the introduction to the exhibition:  “The Enlightenment is the name given to the age of reason, discovery and learning that flourished from about 1680 to 1820 and changed the way that people viewed the world. Enlightened men and women believed that the key to unlocking the past and the mysteries of the universe lay in directly observing and studying the natural and the man-made world. Their passion for collecting objects, from fossils and flints to Greek vases and ancient scripts, was matched by their desire to impose order on them, to catalogue and to classify.”

Bust of Hercules: Roman copy of  original by Greek sculptor Lysippos,
said to have been found at the foot of Mount Vesuvius and
presented to the British Museum by Sir William Hamilton in 1776. 

Continuing with the introduction: “The objects displayed in this room were collected during the early years of the British Museum, which was founded in 1753. They help us explore the passions and ideas of collectors and scholars at this time. When the British Museum was founded, it was a place not only of learning but also of wonder. This gallery focuses on the Museum’s early collectors, recreating that first sense of amazement and exploring some of the ways that people in Britain viewed their world and its past.”

Sir Joseph Banks, 1743-1820, Botanist, Trustee and benefactor of the British Museum; bust by the Hon. Anne Seymour Damer, 1813.

After spending quite a bit of time wandering in this fascinating room — much larger than it appears in these pictures — I decided to take another quick look at some of the other British Museums earliest treasures. 

The Elgin Marbles were collected by the 7th Earl of Elgin from the ruins of the Parthenon in Athens between 1799 and 1812.  He had them shipped to London and after considerable Parliamentary controversy, the nation purchased them and placed them in the British Museum in 1816.  It’s a long, convoluted story, interesting on many levels from the personal travails of Lord and Lady Elgin to the continuing arguments over their ownership. I don’t  have the time or space to condense any of these stories at the moment.  I just enjoyed joining the hundreds of people studying the brilliant examples of ancient sculpture.

The Rosetta Stone was taken from its original location in Egypt by French troops in 1799; British troops defeated the French and took the stone in 1801. It was brought to London and has been in the British Museum since 1802.  On the surface of the stone, a government decree is inscribed in three languages: ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, demotic script and ancient Greek.  Thus it was possible to translate and read hieroglyphs for the first time.  Though almost all the above photographs are mine, I literally could not get close enough to the Rosetta Stone to take a photo on Sunday, June 12, 2011.  There were constant crowds around it, exclaiming in a multitude of languages about this great treasure of civilization — I thought that was a good thing!!

And now, another of those absurd wrenches from the sublime to the ridiculous.  Having had enough exploring in the British Museum, I started walking back to my hotel. When what should appear but another version of the world naked
bike ride. In June of 2010, Kristine and I were surprised to stand in the doorway of Apsley House in front of a street full of hundreds of nude riders. All we could do was wonder what the 1st Duke of  Wellington would have thought?

And here I was, almost a year to the day later, again confronted by the same spectacle. This time, however, I had my camera handy.  The most amusing part of it was to watch the reactions of drivers, bus riders and passers-by as the huge number of bikes (accompanied by a police escort) rode down Kingsway.  Believe me, dear readers, it was not easy to take a non-X-rated snapshot.  I assume that these riders — who can be found in similar events around the world — have a mission of some kind.  But for me, it was again such a peculiar juxtaposition of the enlightenment and “not a pretty sight” that the point of it all (so to speak) was lost on me.

But it is certainly another confirmation of the idea that in London, you can find a little of almost everything! And maybe even too much of some things?

The last stop on Travels with Victoria will be Windsor, where I had a lovely day’s visit with Hester Davenport, coming soon.

3 thoughts on “Travels with Victoria: British Museum, Part Two”

  1. ROFL !! Pat, you crack me up! Those photos of the Elgin Marbles bring back so many memories of my visits to the British Museum as a child. I still have my post cards of those marbles 40 years later.

    And I was one of those people who stood and stared at the Rosetta Stone years ago. To read about it in my history class and then to actually see it was and remains amazing to me.

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