I am rather diffident about putting any name on this chapter, for no one would ever think of calling the British Museum an unnoticed place. It has what the newspapers call a worldwide reputation. Its very name smacks of solid worth with nothing unexpected about it. It is an institution looming large and august, its massive masonry dominating Bloomsbury as its reputation does the universe, and absorbing an unending queue of earnest-minded people intent on storing their minds with knowledge.
And yet, every time my frivolous feet have strayed through that solemn portico, I have longed to tell the thousands of people who never dream of coming so far north as Great Russell Street, W.C. i, of unexpected things they could find there if they would. I remember as a small person being made to recite the names of the seven wonders of the world, and I used to repeat solemnly, ” The Temple of Mausolaus at Halicarnassus – the Pyramid of Cheops the Lighthouse of Alexandria-the Colossus of Rhodes-the Hanging Gardens of Semiramis -the Statue of Jupiter at Olympus, and the Temple of Diana at Ephesus,-with a considerable amount of annoyance that I could never hope to see these ancient splendours. When I found the remains of two of them in the British Museum, I felt, like the Queen of Sheba, that the half had not been told to me, and since that first moment of delighted surprise how many unexpected things I have found there which make me long to say to all the unwitting London visitors, ” Don’t be put off by the solemnity of its name and the distance from Bond Street, but go, only go, and you will be rewarded.”
The proper way to make friends with a museum, as with people, is to get to know it slowly, or its very excellences will give you a surfeited memory. I once avoided the beautiful old Cluny Museum in Paris for many years, because I had been oppressed by the fact that it contained 11.000 objects of interest. No one had shown me how to ignore their number and get to love the very walls of Cardinal Jacques d’Amboise’s stately house, by never crossing the sunny courtyard to see more than one sort of exhibit at a time.
I think this plan is even more applicable to the British Museum, that great collection, partly bequeathed by Sir Hans Sloane and opened to the public in 1759. There are two things the hurried visitor can do so as to carry away the possession of a definite memory of one phase of the treasures contained in the vast building in Great Russell Street. He may choose to go there at the hours of 12 or 3 P.M. and follow one of the two expert lecturers who conduct people each day to see a different group of exhibits and listen to their story. (Lists of these lectures are given at the door.) Or he may choose for himself the sort of thing he finds most interesting and sternly traverse the other rooms intent only on the objects of his choice. In either case he is luckier than the visitors in the early days of the museum’s existence, who were herded in companies of only fifteen for a two hours’ visit.
Today one is diffident about directing any choice; as the old guardian said, ” Most people ‘as their fancies! ” They may lie in the direction of the mummy rooms, where the prehistoric man, so startlingly like a modern, crouches in his grave, with his stone flints within reach, or in the room of gold ornaments and gems, where lie the necklaces that rose and fell on breasts dead these thousand years, necklaces that differ nowise from the amethyst and jade trinkets to be seen in Bond Street today.
Or you may like best to stroll in that pleasant place the King’s Library-a long, gracious apartment where the sunlight gilds the warm brown of the lovely tooled bindings of George IIL’s books.
Into this spacious room come all sorts of people-small boys in knickerbockers anxious to consult the postage stamp collections, artists to pore over delicately illuminated pages of fifteenth-century manuscripts, students to worship at the shrine of first editions of Shakespeare and Spenser, and people who are touched with the human interest of poignant letters like that of Mary Queen of Scots to ” ma bonne soeur et cousine Elizabeth.”
But when I am fancy-free, and come to the British Museum, perhaps with only an hour to spare and no very definite idea about what I want to see, I choose one of two courses. Either I spend the entire hour in walking briskly through the galleries and taking a sort of bird’seye view of the different kinds of treasures that the museum guards, without making an attempt at intimacy with any one of them-or I turn to the left of the big entrance hall, pass through the Roman and Greco-Roman rooms and spend the whole time in the western wing, because there I can see the art of three great nations of the ancient world and the greatest of all the museum’s treasures-the Elgin Marbles. In the galleries surrounding them are the stupendous sculptures of Egypt and Assyria; statues of the Egyptian kings who lived 3000 years ago; colossal bulls, human-headed, that once guarded the gate of the palace that belonged to the father of one Sennacherib, King of Assyria, who ” came up against all the defenced cities of Judah and took them,” and fragments from his own great palace of Nineveh.
Theophile Gautier’s words:
Tout passe.-L’art robuste Seul a 1’eternite: Le buste Survit a la cite,
come into one’s mind, for the bas-reliefs show the effect of the fire of the Babylonians and Medes when they destroyed ” Nineveh that great city ” in 609 B.C., yet they survived and the city is as dust! What a people they must have been, the folk who built the Lycian tombs, you can see best when you are half-way down the steps into the Mausoleum room, where lie the tremendous fragments of one of the seven wonders of the ancient world-the tomb that his wife and sister built for Mausolos, Prince of Caria, in a little town in Asia Minor some 2275 years ago.
Traces of another of the seven wonders are in the Ephesus room, where remains of the vast Temple of Artemis, ” Diana of the Ephesians,” are gathered, and this room leads to the greatest wonder of them all, the pediment groups of statues from the Parthenon at Athens, that most of us call tout court the Elgin Marbles.
I believe that a great many people have a vague idea that Thomas Bruce, seventh Earl of Elgin, did a little ” scrounging ” when he was British ambassador to the Porte in 1801, and that our possession of these sculptures is due to a mixture of luck and audacity.
It is really due to the common sense, artistic perception and generosity of a statesman who at great inconvenience and a cost to himself of £70,000, only half of which sum he later received from the English Government, removed the treasures that were daily being destroyed by the Turkish bombardment and that, but for his action, would have been irretrievably lost to the world.
One does not need to be an artist nor learned in artistic lore to feel the peculiar charm of the Elgin Marbles. I have seen quite ignorant people approach them with unseeing eyes and some flippancy about their mutilation on the lips, but after a few minutes’ contemplation, something of the calm beauty of the pose, the benignant sweep of the drapery, damp with the sea-spray, the mystery of those nostalgic figures, penetrates the onlooker and the work of Pheidias and his craftsmen has wrought its spell.
Now and then the official lecturer tells the story of what they had in their minds when they carved those noble statues, carved every inch of them, even the parts they thought would never again be seen by any human eye once they were placed on the pediment of the Great Temple, and you come away feeling that your eyes have been opened to a great beauty and the truth of it sinks into the soul.
It is not possible in these brief notes to mention more than a very few of the unnoticed treasures in the British Museum. As the old porter said, there is something to interest everyone.
If you search you may come across the manuscript of Rupert Brooke’s immortal sonnet, the toys small children played with 2000 years ago, Mrs. Delany’s curious paper flowers in the students’ room of the print collection and many, many other things to draw you there.