Friday, 10 January 2014

Nineveh Revisited

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 galleries
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 wing├Ęd beast from Nineveh

D.G. Rossetti, The Burden of Nineveh
It'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.


Bronislaus Janulis / Framewright said...

Happy birthday, if it were yourn. For myself it seemed a significant marker, 60.

Nice musings on museums.

Mike C. said...

No, mine is yet to come, but I will certainly accept Sterling banker's drafts or PayPal payments in advance!

Yes, I've never been big on "significant birthdays" but 60 has a certain doom-laden ring about it...


Andrew Sharp said...

We visited the Museum about 18 months ago. I was quite taken by the Great Court except that the concrete walls of the Reading Room had been marked out as though it was made of stone blocks.

This was done in a simple grid pattern without any pretend bonding. I found this quite disconcerting because nothing seemed to prevent the possibility that a vertical pile of blocks might just come tumbling down.

In the land of the Simpson's, where its well known that they use base 8 (given all the fuss made about the maths jokes in the Simpson's I'm slightly surprised that they haven't actually done this and I'm just making it up) you and I will soon be 74. Surely if particular birthdays were significant it would be independent of the base in which they were expressed.

Mike C. said...


I didn't notice that -- though the place was impossibly crowded, more like Trafalgar Square than a museum.

I wonder if one's life would feel any longer or shorter counting the years to a different base. In the end, it all really depends on when they hand out the ceremonial bus passes... I have no idea why they do that at 60 (base 10 60, that is).


Gavin McL said...


I'm not sure how the carvings from Nineveh made it here in the great empire culture grab but the tale of how Cleopatra's Needle made it to London is great one of global gift giving, engineering and heroic (and stupid) seamanship.

This site summarises the tale and provides a free card model of the barge!

Zouk Delors said...

Don't know about Hampshire, but here in Herts they no longer give out bus passes at age 60. I phoned the Council on my 60th to see about getting one and was told I'd have to wait till Spring 2019. Still, the clerk was kind enough to wish me a happy birthday, even though he didn't have the expected present for me.

Mike C. said...


Thanks for that, what an amazing story. I do love cardboard engineering -- sometime I must post a download of my "cut out and keep" Ring Hoard Flexagon from a few Xmases ago. In fact, if I can find it, I'll do it today.


Mike C. said...


Hmm, bad news indeed. Perhaps Herts is now working to base 12, or something. I need to check this out ASAP -- I feel another letter to my MP coming on (for a Tory, she's remarkably receptive to my purple-ink emails).


Dave Leeke said...

Interesting that you should be there just as they celebrate their 255th anniversary, Mike.

Mrs Dave and I were there in 2012 for the Hajj Exhibition and were totally blown away. Wonderful place and one of the reasons for going to London. Greater Anglia railways runs a system whereby you can get a two for one entrance into all sorts of interesting places. Just around the corner from the British Museum is the Cartoon Museum. Wonderful - thanks to the GA offer we were able to get into several such places we'd have probably ignored before.

London still holds a fascination, no matter what.