A Day of Firsts!

06 July 2004

I'm getting settled in here in our new home with my new wife. I've had a few chances to get out and explore the city. On Tuesday I ventured on down to the British Museum which is one of the world's greats. It brought back wonderful memories of the Natural History Museum in New York. I thought nothing could rival our old neighbor, but here I was struggling with that "my-head-is-going-to-explode" feeling of being completely overwhelmed by all that I was seeing. I was in this museum by a bit of a mistake. I left the house in the morning aiming for the British Library which used to be in the same building. My map is a few years old and still shows this old arrangement. I knew the Library had been refurbished, but I didn’t know that it’s now a ten minute walk away. Oh well, while I was there, I thought I’d make the most of it and at least scratch the surface.

I wondered through halls full of stone tools carved by our ancestors tens of thousands of years ago, past Viking swords and the loot form the Sutton Hoo ship burial. I came across the Lewis Chessmen - a set of chess pieces carved from walrus ivory in the 12th century and then lost for hundreds of years only to be found on a beach in Scotland in 1831. I stood before the Rosetta Stone, almost lost to the deserts of North Africa, that lead to the decipherment of the Egyptian hieroglyphics. And finally, the Elgin Marbles brought from the Pantheon in Greece.

This is one of those grand museums to get lost in for days. With over 2.5 miles of galleries, I knew I was barely getting my feet wet, but still enough to feel the sweep of time. I’m continually surprised not only at the rise and fall of vast empires, but at the almost complete erasing and forgetting of these civilizations. How is it that there was no one left who could read the hieroglyphics? Half the stuff in these museums seems to have been found by accident. A farmer ploughing his field stumbles over a Roman burial. A beach-comber finds Viking treasure. An invading army found the Rosetta Stone as just another rock in an old wall. And these finds drastically revise our view of the people who lived here before us. What more is out there remaining to be found? It makes you think that all history books should come with the disclaimer, “work in progress.”

At the heart of the British Museum is the Great Courtyard. A wonderful glass ceiling curves gracefully overhead, bending like a gravity well in towards the center where it joins the circular Reading Room. This round hall used to be the British Library and has been completely refurbished in recent years. Under a pale blue dome the walls are lined with leather bound volumes. By the front entrance is a lists of some of the famous writers who have spent many an hour engrossed in the world of words. The list is a virtual who’s who of Western literature. I’ve got to see about getting one of those precious reading cards and join the club.

I only hit a handful of the highlights in this museum because I wanted to continue on to the British Library that houses some of the world’s best in rare books and manuscripts. I left the museum, walked a few blocks and found myself inside the modern British Library. In one room alone I was surrounded by Shakespeare's first folio, pages from Leonardo's notebooks, Handle's Messiah, the Magna Carta, Captain Cook's journal, some of the earliest Biblical texts ever, writings by Galileo, and a letter written by Darwin just before he went public with his theory of natural selection. Then I turned around and they have the hand-written lyrics to half a dozen Beatles songs, some written on actual napkins! Unbelievable.

I had gone to the British Library to see an exhibit they currently have on the Silk Road. This is a wonderful collection of artifacts, scrolls, tapestries and everyday items found along the ancient trade routes from the 6-8th centuries AD. In one case there’s ancient Buddhist scrolls, and in another there’s an old worn out shoe. People trekked for hundreds of miles to trade goods and all sorts of things were discarded along the way, or lost to the desert sands or snows of the mountains. I saw a star chart that plots the night sky from 680AD. It's the oldest star chart ever found, and the constellations are clearly recognizable, though the dots are connected differently than what we’re used to. In another case is the earliest printed book in the world, the Diamond Sutra. It’s truly amazing to be standing before some of the earliest texts in the Buddhist cannon, seeing how the traditions of the various regions of Central Asia changed and were incorporated into Buddhism.

I had to leave when they kicked me out at closing time, my head full of the milestones of our culture. It was a day of being surprised at every turn and realizing that this city has amazing treasures for me to find. Of course, this is one benefit of being a former world empire, you end up with the loot of the countries of the world in your museums. The fall can be a bummer, though, and it sure puts things in perspective after a day like this.

I need to recover now. I think I’ll sit on the couch all day and watch the Tour de France. Go Lance!


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