Monday, May 14, 2012

Trainride Reflections on the British Museum

On the train to Berlin, my mind wanders back to the British Museum.  During the days spent there, I took several of the Augenblick tours (what were they called?) – 20 to 40 minute mini-tours with commentary. These were overviews of a particular topic, illustrated by selected artifacts in the collection.  The first was about the Gods and Goddesses of Roman Britain, very interesting.  Julius Caesar was the first of the Roman generals to land on the island of Britain (a little before 50 BCE),  and he apparently set up a camp/trading colony there.  Hadrian was the emperor/general who actually conquered Britain more than a century and a half later, but Roman coins and other artifacts were deposited (or left around) in the interim and later found by archeologists.  The two main gods of the time and place were Mars (not surprising, since most of the Romans garrisoned there were military men) and Minerva, who apparently shared many attributes with a Celtic goddess (Morrigan) with whom she became conflated.  Christian symbols (Constantine’s cross) began to show up in the 4th century. 
The second mini-tour I took at the British Museum was in the Enlightenment Gallery, a very long hall with shelves and cabinets on both sides, and display cases in the central area.  This contains much of the earliest, original collection of the museum, donated by wealthy benefactors (including George III) from personal collections of curiosities and treasures brought back to England after world explorations during the 18th and 19th centuries.  Viewing this eclectic plethora of mostly human artifacts, all collected together in one spot, seemed at once unifying (harmonious) and improbably diverse (dissonant).  Human attempts to understand and to produce esthetic treasures that have significance and that will endure defy any explanation that might be culturally comprehensive.  The mini-lecture was done by a woman (they were all volunteers and mostly women) who was originally East Indian, I believe.  She tried to focus on women’s contribution to the Enlightenment, including the story of Mary Anning, who excavated fossils near her home by the sea and sold them to collectors.  She apparently found the first ichthyosaurus fossil and sold it to the British Mseum (through an intermediary?).  According to our guide, she was the original subject of the “she sells seashells by the seashore” tongue-twister that all English-speaking children learn when they are young.
Another talk I attended was on the Assyrian friezes, a marvelous collection lining a couple of long hallways on the first floor of the museum flanked by beasts with human heads.  I had already walked through one of them (Ashurnasirpal’s) and read all the commentary, but I learned a lot from the mini-lecture, including the idea that wings on a form indicated a spiritual protector.  This is obviously where our ideas of angels come from.  I learned that Shamash, the sun god, was a disc with wings (a symbol that shows up with Apllo, also, I believe). Astarte was the planet Venus (symbol = star/flower), and Sin was god of the moon, symbolized by the crescent.  So the Muslims worship the moon, also, although they probably don’t realize it. In the friezes, one can identify kings by their “horned” hats (helmets, crowns) and eunuchs by their lack of beards.

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