August 28, 2015

A Visit to the British Museum

It's our third day in London and I'm pretty cranky. Still not much sleep and we're both exhausted and can't wait to leave for France. Our interest level in doing much of anything in the drizzly weather while sleepwalking is pretty low.

But we must power on . . . so off to the British Museum we went. I've visited the museum in the past, but of course this would be Sean's first visit. Since the museum contains over 8 million works of "human interest" I thought it wise to partake in the "highlights tour" with a museum docent. I always enjoy these tours as I typically learn more about the objects in which I am staring at instead of just reading the little placard. Add sleep deprivation into the mix and I'm sure I would have just wandered aimlessly through the rooms and not read a single thing.

I won't lie and say I "loved" the museum. I will just blame my disinterest in the current state of affairs (lack of sleep). We've been to a lot of museums and it's hard to be interested in the 100th Egyptian artifact I've seen. To be honest, I could visit the Louvre over and over and still be fascinated with its collections, but the British Museum was very "meh" for me. I am sure I didn't give it a fair shake, but let's just say I don't need to visit it again. Don't hate.

I will share with you some of the more interesting exhibits we saw. A pharmaceutical company has an exhibit in the "life and death" room called from "Cradle to Grave" and explores the approach to health in Britain today. The piece incorporates a lifetime supply of prescribed drugs knitted into two lengths of fabric, illustrating the medical stories of one woman and one man.

Each length contains over 14,000 drugs, the estimated average prescribed to every person in Britain in their lifetime. This does not include pills we might buy over the counter, which would require about 40,000 pills each. The "pill" fabric was about 12 feet long by about 4 feet wide.

Some of the treatments are common to both: each starts at birth with an injection of vitamin K and immunizations, and both take antibiotics and painkillers at various times. Other treatments are more specific. The woman takes contraceptive pills, and hormone replacement therapy in middle age. The man has asthma and hay fever when young, but enjoys good health until his fifties. He finally stops smoking after a bad chest infection when he is seventy. He is treated for high blood pressure for the last ten years of his life and has a heart attack and dies of a stroke in his seventies. He takes as many pills in the last ten years of his life as in the first sixty-six. Just wow. 14,000 drugs? That's a lot of pills.

Another interesting exhibit was a collection of artifacts found in a burial mound dating to the early AD 600s located on a residential property in Sutton Hoo, Suffolk in 1939. The landowner was curious to learn more about the many mounds location on her property so she hired an archeologist to excavate the mounds. Most of the mounds revealed little or nothing at all. But they struck treasure when they discovered beneath a large mound the remains of a 27-metre-long ship. At its center was a burial chamber packed with treasures: Byzantine silverware, sumptuous gold jewelry, a lavish feasting set, and an ornate iron helmet.

Tiny fragments showed that rich textiles once adorned the walls and floor, along with piles of clothes ranging from fine linen shirts to shaggy wool cloaks and caps trimmed with fur. The workmanship on this gold belt buckle is pretty amazing.

The dead man’s body had dissolved in the acidic soil, but he was clearly a person of great standing in the kingdom of East Anglia, the local Anglo-Saxon kingdom. He may even have been a king. I thought it interesting that he was buried inside his ship. That must have been a really large mound. No wonder the landowner was curious!

We also viewed one of the iconic statues from Easter Island in Polynesia dating to around AD 1000.

Easter Island is famous for its stone statues of human figures, known as moai. The moai were probably carved to commemorate important ancestors and were made from around AD 1000 until the second half of the seventeenth century, when the birdman cult became more central to the Easter Islanders.

When Captain Cook's crew visited Easter Island in 1774, William Hodges, Cook's artist, produced an oil painting of the island showing a number of statues, some of them with hat-shaped stone 'topknots'. Hodges depicted most of the statues standing upright on stone platforms. With the adoption of Christianity in the 1860s, the remaining standing statues were toppled.

The statue in the museum was collected by the crew of the English ship HMS Topaze on their visit to Easter Island in 1868 to carry out surveying work. Islanders helped the crew to move the statue, which has been estimated to weigh around four tons. It was moved to the beach and then taken to the Topaze by raft. You have to wonder how they transferred something this heavy onto the ship.

As an interesting side note, I recently watched an episode of House Hunters International where a couple were looking to buy a home on Easter Island (the wife was a native). Only native islanders are allowed to own property. Some of the statues are still standing on the island.

That pretty much wraps up my view of the highlights of the museum. After about 3 hours in the museum, we were pretty saturated with information so we called it a day.

Originally we had planned to partake in a "Jack the Ripper" walking tour that evening but the rain kind of put a wrench into our plans. Instead, we had a really delicious meal of Indian food. I had wanted to return to "Balti House" on Brick Lane, which I had visited in 1999 on my first visit to London. As a reality check, I looked up reviews and after discovering many bad reviews, I surmised that what seemingly was "absolutely the best Indian food ever" in 1999 was just my inexperience, or maybe the place had really gone downhill in the last 15 years. Both definite possibilities. I thought we deserved better than 2-1/2 stars, so we found a place in our neighborhood that had excellent reviews. And it was really good! This was our best meal the entire time in London and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to others. The restaurant is called Haandi and it's right around the corner from Harrods.

So that wraps up our last full day in London.

Cheerio mates!

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