It's a Guy Thing

A Very British Day at the Museum

Sitting across the way, the iconic, the historic, and the very essence of time washed over me like a tsunami of temptation and awe.
I had first visited as a kid – a very British tradition. A rite of passage. After all, our country isn’t called Great for no reason at all, or so I thought at the tender age of eight. Nevertheless, as I advance in age the pull of the primeval becomes even more tangible as I seek to reflect upon my own legacy. The notion of what I will eventually leave behind was amplified on this day by the epic nature of this incredible building. A magnetism and marvel that only this place can radiate. In my humble opinion, the British Museum stands the tallest amongst its many peers.

At its very core lies humanity. The cultural history of homo sapiens, where at the time of their existence each generation was at the forefront of evolution, experimentation, and exploration. As was I at that precise moment ─ in Starbucks! I didn’t feel that pioneering or significant; however, I comforted myself with the thought that maybe one day the very notepad that I scribble upon will be on display for others to observe. Who knows? Or was I simply extolling the very human trait of arrogance? My wandering mind was brought into focus when my host for the day, Steve Forrest, called me on my mobile.

I met Steve, a member of the museum team who had walked every inch of this monument to the magnificent and mysterious, by the lions at the Montague Place entrance. He began by simply asking, “Where do you want to start?” I just wanted to follow in his footsteps since I was intrigued to know what he still found fascinating and alluring after nearly a decade of discovery. It seemed wise to assume that whatever Steve deemed interesting had to be worth a look since this type of prolonged wonderment never fails to impress me. However, I did make one request – could we please visit the mummies?! Passing the imposing statue of the Amitābha Buddha as I climbed the marble steps, I felt small ─ insignificant and inferior ─ and perhaps that is the allure of this place; an opportunity to put into perspective our own existence ─ we are a dot on the continuum of time, and within the context of humankind, whatever problems we presently face, they are nothing to get hung up about.
Our first avenue of anthropology was the continent of Asia, the largest landmass in the world covering a terrain of 17,212,000 square miles, some of which belong to Russia who at this precise moment was at war with its neighbor Ukraine. Human ingenuity, ideologies, and infrastructure change, and often the trigger point is war where masses of people die and become displaced on the often-deranged narrative of one person, supposedly chosen to protect them. As I meandered around the China and South Asia room its walls resplendent in gold leaf rumored to be worth around one hundred million pounds, I pondered the futility of global conflict and the cultural symbols that represent the repression of the many by the few. Typical of this perception is the assistant to the judge of hell statue which, according to Chinese belief, carries the names of those who committed bad deeds in their lives. Steve recounted how during a moment of solitary surveillance he saw the eyes of the administrator of hell move! Such was the haunting face I chose not to scoff at this lurid tale. As I looked into the judge’s mysterious, menacing eyes, I was certain that had I been a believer my name would have been recorded on his epic scroll. Steve broke my silent stare by recounting a time when intelligence had been gained to suggest that a burglary was planned, with many of the Chinese artifacts under threat.

Walking into the Enlightenment Gallery, I was conscious of the feel of a vast library and, to be perfectly frank, left to my own devices I would simply have waltzed through with the odd nod at the statute without a cock (of which there are many examples around the various galleries) – evidence of ancient falls and apparent yesteryear vandalism. Steve slowed down as he pointed out the rows of registers from the parliamentary library. A lexicon of laws that spans the evolution of the core tenet of the United Kingdom’s constitution – the rule of law that the current prime minister has broken, yet still he remains in office. If he ever became immortalized in stone, other than integrity, I wondered what else would be missing? Pointing out the scriptures that chronicled “The Age of Enlightenment,” a seismic cultural and intellectual eighteenth-century movement that challenged superstition and blind faith with scientific reason, Steve summed it up practically by saying, “This is when it all kicked off – discovering that the Earth goes around the sun.” Before we left this section Steve pointed out a secret passage and one of his favorite oddities forming part of the eight million-plus exhibit list. “In 1933 only six pennies were minted, and we have two of them here.” To discover why, I suggest you pay this part of London a visit, along with the other twenty-odd thousand people who visit daily.

Entering the stunning Great Court, with the dome constructed of individually crafted pieces of glass, Steve pointed skyward. Littered across the concave canopy were motionless birds ─ dead seagulls, thought to have divebombed the structure in the belief that it was an inviting source of open water. A team regularly ascends to the top and removes them, only for other unfortunate kin to meet the same peril.
The round reading room ─ situated in the middle of this incredible expanse – isn’t open to the general public but I was afforded a glimpse on the strict understanding that I didn’t take any photographs. Echoing the Pantheon in Rome this library of libraries was simply breath-taking, with a quietness and solitude that reflected the reverence of human intellectual enterprise.

As we crossed the expanse, opened in 2000, en route to Ancient Egypt, Steve rattled off several showbiz events that had graced this palatial precinct, including the James Bond Skyfall bash. At circa £100,000 for one night’s hire the only way I would have champagne in my clutch here would be if I were serving it.
The density of visitors in the land of the papyrus was palpable. Everything Egypt was still box-office, with the Rosetta Stone incarcerated in a glass tomb. I was in touching distance of the ancient language, wisdom, and philosophy of a society that still continues to fascinate every successive generation. The encoded enigmas were solved by Jean-François Champollion in 1822, leading to the understanding of the hieroglyphic records of these extraordinary people.

As I stood transfixed to the remaining Egyptian exhibits, many of which towered above me, I was struck by the dilemma of duality ─ a contradiction of the centuries where these goliaths of a once powerful population had ended up in the West End of London. I was privileged to have these symbols of civilization around me, yet I wondered if their present resting place was an obvious reminder of the not-so-great history of Britain, when my place of birth had a habit of embezzling artifacts, and not just from Egypt. Entering the arena of the Elgin Marbles did nothing to shift my suspicion since these sculptures were, according to the Greek people, stolen during the country’s occupation by the Turks in the mid-fifteenth century.
Steve’s pragmatism interrupted my mental anguish, “During World War II they were stored at the now abandoned Aldwych tube station after the museum was bombed.” I doubted if the ancient Greek stonemasons ever imagined that their beautiful works of art would one day be hidden for a time, nearly two thousand miles away within the deep recesses of central London. The magic and mystery of this majestical museum were at times mesmerizing.
The subdued lighting, birdsong, and regular brutality of life showcases the stone age. The latter descriptor was vividly captured within the exhibit “Death in the valley,” containing the remains of souls lost during battle in north-west Germany. The full excavation exhumed around twenty-thousand mutilated body parts, cumulatively over one-hundred-and-forty people. Although the vast majority were young adult men, evidence of healed injuries suggested that they were nonetheless seasoned fighters. Europe was often lucky to enjoy prolonged periods of peace but the terrible tensions had subsequently returned eons later. The divinity of the dead was nonetheless never far away, with careful and respectful burials.

Finally, we reached my personal pinnacle – the mystical mummies! Cheating death still puzzles me to this day and the elaborate Egyptian engineering always seems so utterly useless whilst astonishingly captivating. Yet I guess this was the pull of rabid religious belief, the very behavior that I suspect the scholars of the enlightenment would have dismissed wholeheartedly with logic. The juxtaposition of the genius of generations with the flaws of arrogance, especially of those mortals endowed with God-like standing and venerated by the rest of the population. Or had I got it wrong, and had they actually achieved immortality? The fact that this exhibition drew the heaviest footfall probably gave some credibility to this claim as their existence was still exercising a power over the living who looked on in wonderment ─ me included. But alongside that wonderment, there still exists a grisly spectacle ─ staring graphically at the intimacy of death. I don’t think I will ever tire of trying to make sense of this celestial conundrum. Steve only added to this sense of uncertainty by signposting me to several unexplained phenomena that had plagued the resting Pharaohs. The veracity or otherwise of these claims which litter cyberspace only add to the afterlife that these remarkable relics radiate.


through the ceramics, not a section I would normally make a beeline for, I was drawn to the Ming dynasty piece that seemed so familiar – the humble teapot. Those I had used domestically before the over-reliance on teabags, and the ones I had employed when taking refuge in more upmarket cafés, were no comparison in terms of elegance, but the art of the brew had spanned centuries leading me to the question ─ when is something classed as ancient? And are there certain rituals that connect us to antiquity? Passing a facsimile of a sarangbang ─ a Korean male space ─ I was immediately reminded of a very modern, or so I thought, a descriptor of masculinity – the mancave. Whilst we delight at modernity do we not occasionally just reinvent what our ancestors enjoyed? Drinking tea in my modern-day equivalent, surrounded by football and speedway memorabilia, isn’t just escapism, but my homage to my long departed mystical eastern brethren.

Until this visit, I hadn’t realized that the museum, originally the site of Montagu House and home to the Duke of Montagu, had a vast set of drawings and prints, and according to Steve, one of the largest collections of erotic literature in the world. On reflection perhaps I should have started my journey here. Alas, they were stored away from public gaze along with other classic scripts, including a Michelangelo illustration once located by Steve on an ordinary filing shelf. I didn’t ask if he had been trying to locate any other works on this particular occasion. Erotica seemed to literally protrude into my ensuing trek as Steve pointed out the oldest known sculpture of a couple making love. I had to look at it from various angles – like a typical voyeur ─ and had to read the accompanying text to appreciate that they were facing each other, with the legs of one partner wrapped around the other in a “tender sexual embrace.” I have undertaken that position on many occasions and there is, in my opinion, nothing delicate about it.

The Warren Cup sounds like the type of prize you might win at the Henley Regatta, yet it is an incredible example of changing attitudes to sex, and perhaps underscores a prudishness that has enveloped the British for centuries. Indeed, this particular act was at one time the subject of draconian legislation; the age of consent continues to be set by the State. The cup depicts two images of Roman male same-sex acts.
There were several examples of skeletons dotted around, each with a consistency and individuality. A uniformity of bone structure, which at one time had a brain and was cloaked in a veneer of skin that made each individual unique. Often this exclusive human being would struggle with values, perceptions, and prejudices that, at the worst extremes, regularly led to conflict. Take a look at this skull and tell me what colour this person was. Good or bad? Gay or straight? Why do we get so hung up on appearance when underneath we are all the same? Museums may contain relics of the past but their connotations, if you care to be curious, are contemporary.

The human construct of money is illustrated from its conception to early examples of credit cards. The biblical warning, “For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows” (and variations of the same) swirled around my consciousness (admittedly I had to Google the precise narrative) and I wondered how this invention had been instrumental in connecting small groups of humans to collaborate within vast civilizations but had also made us divisive and dishonorable. Humans can be utterly brilliant but bad at the same time. Again, there was ample evidence that modern-day scams were just as common in ancient times, with the Romans leading the way on counterfeit currency.
As we weaved towards the end of this fascinating foray Steve pointed out the Lewis Chessmen – an amazing ensemble of carved walrus ivory pieces discovered on the Isle of Lewis in the Western Isles of Scotland in 1831. He maintained that he had once seen a piece move. Was this as a direct result of a bored wandering Pharaoh spirit, or the vibrations often caused by water rushing deep underground in the entombed River Fleet, a tributary of the Thames, below our feet?

As a visitor from the future once quipped, “I’ll be back.” And I will. If you are wondering who uttered these infamous words then a trip may be necessary to The National Film & Sci-Fi Museum in Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire (look up the 1984 science fiction classic “The Terminator”). In the meantime, I will cite Israeli-born American illustrator and writer Maira Kalman who once beautifully observed, “A visit to a museum is a search for beauty, truth, and meaning in our lives. Go to museums as often as you can.”
And I will conclude by simply saying, thank you Steve!

© Ian Kirke 2022 / Twitter @ianjkirke