A Straight Line Walk Across London

by Paul K Lyons

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54 - British Museum preserves: Hamlyn's Reading Room and Elgin's Marbles

The British Museum was founded in 1753 to promote universal understanding through the arts, natural history and science in a public museum. Since then, three principles have guided its approach to the collections. They must: be held in perpetuity in their entirety; be widely available to all who seek to enjoy and learn from them; and be curated by full-time specialists. Initially, the collections were mostly books and manuscripts, and they were housed in a 17th-century mansion, Montagu House, in Bloomsbury on the site of today's building. In the early part of the 19th century, however, with the addition of many foreign antiquities, not least the Parthenon sculptures which were purchased from Lord Elgin in 1816, the museum outgrew Montagu House. In 1823, the gift by George IV of his father's library (the King's Library) provided the catalyst for the construction of today's quadrangular building designed by Sir Robert Smirke. The first phase was largely completed in 1852. This was followed by the famous round and domed Reading Room, designed by Robert's brother Sydney, erected in the central courtyard five years later. The museum celebrated its 250th anniversary in 2003.

I'm thrilled that I can, according to my own rules for walking the 300 easting, actually walk through any building at all, let alone one of the greatest museums in the world. But, there are dangers here, for every gallery, every exhibition case, every exhibit could lead me to stray - metaphorically speaking - too far from and wide of my purpose. I stop at one of the kiosks in the entrance hall to look at a diagram of the layout of the ground floor, and decide on my route. If I were to follow the same rules as I stick to in walking the streets, I would be obliged to walk through the Great Court, Gallery 24 and exit into Montague Place. But, I don't do this. I choose, instead, to imagine (very roughly) which galleries a direct 300 easting line would pass through - Galleries 18, 17, 22 and 21 - and to visit these. Also, as I must pass Gallery 24 to leave the building, I add it to my itinerary.

First, though, I must pass through the Queen Elizabeth II Great Court, opened by the Queen herself in December 2000. Until the British Library - administratively separated from the Museum in the 1970s - moved to a new building in St Pancras in 1998, the whole area around Sydney Smirke's Reading Room was filled with the Library's bookstacks, corridors and add-on study rooms. Now, after Lord Foster's imaginative re-invention of the space, it is, in effect, a covered public square - covered with a translucent triangle-patterned ceiling, providing near daylight conditions. In the centre, the Reading Room has been restored to its original decorative scheme. The Library's bookshelves still hold the Paul Hamlyn collection and the extensive and much-amended catalogue volumes that served readers before computer databases made research so much easier. Although once the preserve of intellectuals, many of whom near-worshipped the Library's atmosphere of study and silence, today tourists stream in, look up and around, take a photo, and stream out. Some of the old reading desks have been fitted with computer terminals allowing visitors to browse the Museum's collections on line, but the bulk of the vast room is empty, and it feels like some kind of grand heritage display.

Gallery 18 is also known as the Duveen gallery, after Lord Duveen who funded its construction. Although completed in 1939, the British Museum says, it did not open until 1962 because of war damage. It houses what are popularly known as the Elgin Marbles from the pediments of the temple of Athena Parthenos, also called the Parthenon. It's a light and airy place, along the west wall of the museum, decorated with amazing statues and sculptures and friezes that are nearly 2,500 years old (447-432 BC). A Select Committee of the House of Commons decided in 1816 that Elgin had acquired his collection legitimately as a private individual. Subsequently, MPs agreed to fund their purchase for the British Museum. Today, the Museum's trustees hold the collections under the terms of the British Museum Act 1963, which prohibits, with some exceptions, any permanent disposals.

Greek calls for the return of the Elgin Marbles began not long after they were taken. Nevertheless, they only began to carry serious political weight after the fall of the military dictatorship in 1974, when the sculptures became a potent symbol for the revived democracy. In 1982, a resolution in Unesco (UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) called for the return of the sculptures and their reincorporation on the building, but, the British Museum notes, there were many abstentions and many absentees to that vote. A formal bilateral request for the return of the sculptures followed. This was rejected by the British government in 1984. Since then, there have been regular demands for the return of the Elgin Marbles, and, consequently, they've rarely been out of the news for long.

There's another related scandal associated with the sculptures. In early 1939, it was revealed that unauthorised methods - copper chisels and carborundum in addition to the recommended water and soap - had been employed during their cleaning for display in the newly constructed Duveen Gallery. After an internal enquiry the Keeper, his assistant and all the craftsmen left the museum's employ. The cleaning controversy resurfaced when Greece formally insisted on the return of the Parthenon sculptures (i.e. suggesting Britain had not looked after them properly), and has remained of interest to scholars since then. The Museum itself organised a conference on the subject in 1999, to which Greek experts were invited.

 A Straight Line Walk Across London - along the 300 easting

by Paul K Lyons
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