This morning, as I look out the second story window of the little Ruskin Hotel onto Montague Street below, most people are sauntering easily in groups of two or three, going in either direction along the sunny sidewalk in front of the high, spear-pointed iron gratings of the fence surrounding the British Museum. This ambulatory pattern is quitge unlike yesterday or the day before, both workdays, when people passed quickly and with a determined gait, usually walking alone in the direction of a bus stop for downtown London.
The stay in London has been marvelous; it could hardly have been better. The weather was warm but not hot, the sun shone almost every day, all day long. Though I was inside the Museum most of the time, the sun shining through tinted glass into the covered courtyard was marvelous. The B&B I stayed in was minimal (shared bathroom & shower rooms in the hallway), but cheap, and right around the corner from the museum. I was lucky to be here Thursday, Friday and Saturday, because the museum stays open late (8:30 pm) on Thursdays and Fridays, so there was time to see essentially everything I really wanted to see, and I heard several enlightening mini-lectures. It all required nearly the three full days I had allotted for my stay in London.
What did I see and learn at the British Museum that I could not have experienced on my own, reading a book or watching a documentary video? I think the difference is in actually being there, being in the presence of the artifacts rather than simply seeing images of them. It’s true that they’re not in their original provenance, and that’s a bit off-putting at times. But somehow their mere presence makes me want to think back on the history, to understand those times better, to imagine the artisans, and, all-in-all, to savor the present reality of the past.
I have to say, though, that the Rosetta stone was not the thrill I’d hoped it might be. After all, it was the key to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs that brought to life the ancient civilization of Egypt, so long preserved in impenetrable mystery by dry desert. And it is a sacred symbol to all who love languages and translation. But the actual, original artifact, the thing itself, was surrounded by thick plates of Plexiglas. Around that swarmed a mob of tourists, jockying and jostling for a camera shot that first day. After their photos, they squeezed through the crowd to photograph other famous artifacts. On the second day, however, I went to see it again in the evening, just as I was ready to leave, and only one other woman was there. We both had a full view of it, and I took a couple of photos.
I had already seen a replica of the Rosetta stone in the Cairo Museum when I visited Egypt a few years ago, and there was also a replica in the British Museum's Enlightenment Hall. I knew something of its history – how it was discovered by French workmen, how Napoleon had ordered it transported back to France. But then the British defeated Napoleon’s navy (off Alexandria) and appropriated it, along with most of the other French loot. Then how Thomas Young, the British physicist (the wave theory of light), and Champollion (the brilliant French linguist) both contributed to deciphering the hieroglyphs by using both Greek and Coptic scripts that were fortunately preserved along with the hieroglyphs. But none of that drama, the intensity of those driven men – warriors, scientists, linguists – emanated from that solid, jagged block of black rock set on an angle on an artificial, gold-hued plinth, surrounded by thick Plexiglas reflecting the glaring lights bathing it, mobbed by curiosity seekers flitting from one tourist token to another in that long hall, in which salvaged and stolen artifacts from ancient sites sit or stand placidly next to small plaques engraved with labels and summaries that do little justice to the lives, passions and skills that were spent creating them.
The last full day (yesterday), I rode one of those double-decker tour busses, open in back on the top deck, and spent two and a half hours touring the city, during which time I saw all (and photographed most) of the “sights of London:” Trafalgar Square (where a noisy St. George’s Day concert was blaring over loudspeakers to the crowd jamming the square), Piccadilly Circus, Buckingham Palace, Westminster Cathedral, Covent Gardens (sort of), three bridges over the Thames (including the Tower Bridge), the London Tower itself (built by William the Conqueror?!), the Houses of Parliament (House of Commons and House of Lords) and… What did I miss? I don’t know.