This may seem like a completely innocuous piece of railing and yet on encountering it recently it stirred a flood of memories from almost 35 years ago. Here I stood for hours on a hot summer’s day, while parents and other relatives operated in shifts to keep me company and supply me with food and drink as those hours passed by.
The railings are in Bloomsbury, a part of central London that is known for the greenery of its garden squares, its cultural and educational establishments, and of course the literati of the Bloomsbury Group. No surprise to find me here today then, but what was the draw for a young schoolboy?
The clues are still there in the buildings that surround my objective; The British Museum. On the day of my 13th birthday they opened an exhibition that produced an overwhelming demand from the public, so much so that even though the Museum opened extended its opening hours into the evenings the closing date was put back by three months. Nearly 1.7 million visitors came to see Tutankhamen, or more accurately his burial treasures.
Whether it was the impact of that visit or not, I went on to study Latin and Ancient History, so the British Museum was an essential element of any trip to the capital during my teenage years. Naturally I was interested in the Greek and Roman artefacts as well as those of the tribes who inhabited these isles before and after the Romans, but of course I revisited the Egyptian displays too. What schoolboy could resist the macabre draw of ancient corpses and canopic jars designed to hold human viscera.
Since I last visited a more modern piece of culture has added to the appeal. Norman Foster’s reworking of the Great Courtyard creates an absolutely stunning interior where people can get their bearings before delving into the collection of their choice or simply relax with some refreshments before doing battle with the Assyrians.
Having satisfied my architectural objective I did a quick tour of the greatest hits, but with one notable exception. I gave the Elgin Marbles a miss. Not because I don’t rate the quality of the sculpture, or because I am politically opposed to their presence here, but simply down to a perverse desire to avoid the obvious. There will be many who walk past these masterpieces from the Sutton Hoo burial simply because they’re small or dismiss them as the work of barbarians. They should remember that we refer to this period as the dark ages because we’re in the dark about them, not because the people were not enlightened
However I must return to the Elgin Marbles. There are many who describe Britain’s possession of the marbles as theft; the sculptures were part of the Parthenon and should be returned to Greece, but for me if you pursue that argument to its logical conclusion we all become poorer for it. If every item in a museum around the world were returned to its homeland we become focused on only ourselves and have no understanding of other views of the world, views that may be alien to us but worthy of our understanding. Furthermore, the dissemination of this art and the knowledge that it embodies, is a form of protection. The eggs in one basket argument may have seemed far-fetched a few years ago, but what if all the treasures of the middle eastern cultures were returned home? How much greater would have been the destruction wrought by Islamic State? Dissemination of historical artefacts is spread betting for the priceless and irreplaceable.
When I was a teenager the British Museum shop signified the end of a visit; almost invariably to buy a scarab beetle for handful of change. The products on sale now are more commercially sourced and aimed at the higher end of the market; expensive jewellery and other luxury items prevail. Amongst them I spotted a scarf designed by Grayson Perry retailing for just £80. The graphic represented a map of the museum, labelled in Perry’s irreverent yet perceptive style. The entrance is therefore marked thus
Where the world meets the world.
I’m glad they do.