Tuesday, 8 June 2010

The Omphalos

The British Museum might be my favorite place on the planet. It's certainly my favorite museum. How can you beat a place with so many iconic pieces of human civilization? Want to see a Neanderthal hand axe? A 1.8 million year old pebble tool? How about a winged bull from the Assyrian Palace of Nimrod? Or do you fancy the stunning garnet inlay on a belt buckle from the Sutton Hoo ship burial? It doesn't really matter which you choose, because they are all at the British Museum.

Walking around the BM, as the Brits call it, is like visiting a cross between an exclusive gentlemen's club, a 17th century curio cabinet and an archaeological site. Perhaps because the collection morphed from Sir Hans Sloane's unwieldy 18th century private collection, even the modern bits have an eclectic, Renaissance Man feel to them. This is enhanced by the BM's new, "Hands On" program, where staff members bring out authentic relics which you can handle under their supervision.

Today, I was allowed to hold an 800 year old Viking ivory comb from York. I felt like a guest in Sir Han's house being given one of his latest artifacts. It was smooth and surprisingly heavy. The tines had been set into the frame in sets and then filed individually. I imagined a woman from the Danelaw running it through her thick, blond hair. There were also bone skates and a bit of twisted, silver bracelet with a tiny, dragon finial. It was fascinating to hold such personal history in my hands.

Strolling through the overwhelmng Egyptian sections, I looked on the enormous red, stone head of Amenophis III, once pharoah, and realized that I had first seen it 39 years ago when I was 21 on my first visit to England. It was time travel in every sense of the word.

If the Smithsonian is American's attic, then the British Museum is the Omphalos, the navel of the world where we can speak to the gods and come to understand at least a part of the cosmos.

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