One of the best gifts we've received since moving to England has been a membership to the British Museum. It doesn't take up any space, requires no dusting, and adds no calories to my diet. The British Museum is truly one of the outstanding museums of the world. Not just because the sun never set on the British Empire but because all that empire building was good for the art collection.
None of the larger museums in London charge an admission. But when you pay to become a member of The British Museum you receive free entry into the special exhibits, wine sipping in the Members Cafe and a glossy members magazine. But what alone is worth the membership price are the quarterly Member Evenings.
An evening at the British Museum is one of the only reasons I will wedge myself into the bone crushing intimacy of the London Underground at rush hour. I do all I can to get there from the moment the evening starts until the fascination I'm experiencing is overshadowed by the amount we're paying the babysitter.
The members evenings begin a half hour after the museum closes to the thousands of day visitors. The moment I enter the small side door through the shut iron gates and walk up the grand stone staircase I feel special. Then I walk on air past polished granite pillars as big around as California redwoods into the Great Court, an oversized atrium which was once an open air courtyard. I always feel awed standing beneath this 100 foot ceiling of glass and metal. Simple, expansive architecture can do that. So can the sight of painstakingly created art. Though I wouldn't have a clue what to do with a slab of marble and a chisel, I feel an odd pride that I'm of the species who did.
During daylight hours ambient light floods many of the rooms surrounding the Great Court. But at night the galleries glow with low wattage LED's giving the objects a feel of having just been discovered inside an ancient burial site. A lot of members show up to these evenings, but it's still easy to find yourself in an empty gallery. When you're alone like this it's tempting to climb atop a Minotaur or try out the comfort of a pharaoh's throne. But invariably one of the volunteer security people will appear in the doorway and you'll have to move on to another century.
Now when you think about it, some of the world's most venerable museums came by many of their acquisitions under murky circumstances. During a time of expansive exploration, the rules of possession were no doubt highly subjective. Acquiring the art of other cultures could be seen as the victor's due reward. Or, as others would claim, removing art from its native land is simply altruistic preservation.
Take for instance the Parthenon Marbles aka the Elgin Marbles. Lord Elgin, the English ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1799-1803 decided to remove them from the Greek Parthenon and ship them piecemeal back to England. He claimed that the statues were falling down anyway and the locals were burning the marble to obtain lye for building materials. He also claimed he had the Ottoman ruler's permission to take the marble panels though I doubt the Ottomans had any interest in protecting the art of their Greek advisaries. Even though some members of the British parliament were outraged with Lord Elgin's actions, the government purchased the collection from him and installed them in the British Museum. Greece has been trying to get these exquisitely detailed marble friezes back for almost as long as they've been gone, going so far as to build a special gallery to house them which continues to stand empty in Athens.
In a way art is like a cultural diaspora. The best and the brightest have been displaced by wars and upheaval and have come to settle in lands far from their birth. Like the Jews and Italians and Irish in New York, these works of art live in new lands now: integrated, thriving even. I'm not sure where I stand on the subject of who should have possession of these works of art. But no doubt if the Elgin Marbles were returned to Greece, the demands for the return of countless other objects to their original home would ensue. And there goes the British Museum.
I relish these nights standing before sphinxes, war horses, towering Buddhas, and El Dorado gold. I circle the globe and travel through twenty centuries all over the course of a few hours. I can be the only person standing in front of the Rosetta Stone, close enough and long enough to actually start seeing patterns in the three different languages chiseled there. So call them stolen or call them protected. As long as this art resides in London I will continue to love these nights in the museum.
Dad: "Wake up sleepyhead.... sleepysaurus.... Want to go to the Jurassic Coast and find a new dinosaur?"
"No! That's paleontologist work! "