I was up in London yesterday -- another sixtieth birthday -- and spent a couple of hours in the afternoon wandering around the British Museum with my daughter. She is very keen on all things Japanese, so that's where we headed, to gaze at the prints and giggle at the netsuke.
It's an odd place, the BM, these days. It feels like it's trailing behind museums such as the Ashmolean in its attempts to display the collections in interesting yet damage-proof ways. You get the impression that wherever possible space has been given priority over stuff. I suppose the sheer volume of visitor numbers makes this necessary: I've never seen so many twits trying to dangle from irreplaceable statuary in pursuit of an iPhone photo-opportunity.
Back in the late 1970s I used to have a reader's card for the old British Museum Library reading room. It was a very strange and unique place, with its circular, domed roof and rows of benches radiating out from the central enquiry desk, like a cross between a cathedral and a steam-punk vision of Mission Control. It had its own muffled acoustic, so that the paf! paf! paf-paf! of people shutting the huge guard-book volumes of the catalogue would echo round continuously in a whisper, which always seemed like eavesdropping on the thought processes of the assembled readers. If you've ever seen the Wim Wenders film Wings of Desire you'll know what I mean. It no longer functions as a library, but has been excavated from its accreted institutional matrix and preserved as the centrepiece of the new, spectacularly empty, glass-roofed Great Court, the ultimate manifestation of the new "space over stuff" philosophy.
Some parts of the museum's collection, however, are so massively immoveable that they will probably never be rearranged to make passage-way for parties of Far-Eastern tourists. The Egyptian hall still looks like something out of the imagination of Central Casting at Hammer Films, with an obstacle course of gigantic sarcophagi and improbably large statues, all carved out of granite and polished smooth. You can't help wanting to declaim, "My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings..." But what really grabbed my attention yesterday was the long relief mural of a royal lion-hunt from Nineveh (ca. 650 BC), beautifully displayed along its own inner corridor. I could have gazed at its intricate detail for hours. Wonderful.
Nineveh was located in what is now northern Iraq. There are good arguments on both sides over the controversial role of an institution like the BM as a repository of global culture -- the Elgin Marbles are the ongoing test case -- but it's hard to imagine anyone who is not parti pris regretting the quiet, safe, well-preserved presence of these mural fragments in Bloomsbury.
I know nothing about the Assyrians or any of those ancient Middle-Eastern civilizations, but the name "Nineveh" is extremely evocative to me, as described in this previous post about the re-configured Ashmolean. The words of Rossetti's poem are as almost-good and still as appropriate as ever:
In our Museum galleriesIt's strange to think that such ancient and apparently immoveable objects (and those Assyrian winged beasts are truly monstrous in size) once crossed continents -- and what crates, carts, horses, ramps, levers, ropes and ships must that have required? -- then figured as a temporary street spectacle of hoists, tackle, and shouting men, by chance witnessed and recorded by a visiting poet-painter, finally to find themselves settling their prodigious weight onto a marble floor in a voluminous hall in central London.
To-day I lingered o'er the prize
Dead Greece vouchsafes to living eyes, —
Her Art for ever in fresh wise
From hour to hour rejoicing me.
Sighing I turned at last to win
Once more the London dirt and din;
And as I made the swing-door spin
And issued, they were hoisting in
A wingèd beast from Nineveh
D.G. Rossetti, The Burden of Nineveh