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A busy day at the British Museum

There are a couple of exhibitions on at the British Museum at the moment, which I particularly wanted to see. I don’t get down to London very often, so I decided to take advantage of staying at my parents’ on my return from Germany, and do both exhibitions in one day.

Both “Ice Age Art, Arrival of the Modern Mind” and “Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum” are quite popular, the latter extremely so – it looks like it could well be one of the BM’s “Blockbuster” exhibitions. So, unless you’re a Member (which I’m not), it’s necessary to pre-book a ticket for a timed slot for each of the exhibitions.  The Pompeii exhibition is currently fully-booked until half-way through May! I originally tried to book the tickets on-line several weeks ago, as soon as my Germany trip was confirmed. But there’s clearly a bug in the British Museum’s on-line ticket-office software. I could pick a date and time-slot, and put the tickets in my virtual “shopping-cart”. But when I came to pay, it threw a major wobbly. Several years ago, I’d booked tickets on-line for Christopher and me to go to the exhibition on the Emperor Hadrian, and used a discount code that I’d got from somewhere – probably English Heritage. But that discount code was still associated on the BM’s database with my account and email address, and it clearly isn’t valid any more, but there was no way for me to delete it from the shopping cart. I tried several times, and got absolutely nowhere – talk about a poor user interface! So in the end I phoned up the ticket-office and ordered and paid for the tickets the old-fashioned way.

On Friday morning I got to the British Museum as it opened, and went straight to the Ice Age exhibition for my 10am timed entry slot. I found it absolutely fascinating, with beautiful and stunning carvings of animals and people – the latter mostly female fertility figures. It was very interesting indeed, though I found some of the parallels the curators were trying to draw between palaeolithic figurines and paintings/sculptures by Matisse and Henry Moore to be rather far-fetched.

Christopher's photo of an Ice-Age carving of a bison

Christopher was particularly interested in the palaeolithic period, and at his urging we went on several holidays looking at cave art, in both the Dordogne and the Pyrenees. He would have absolutely loved this exhibition, and would have been very keen to compare the artefacts with ones we’d seen, particularly at the French National Prehistoric Museum at Les Eyzies in the Dordogne.  The photo above is one that he took on holiday there in 2006 – it’s an ivory carving of a bison. There was a very similar carving in the exhibition at the British Museum – it may even have been the same one on loan – and it gave me a bit of a shiver when I saw it.

That was nothing though to the shivers I got in the museum café  – I had lunch there and it was the first time I’d been back since Chris died. We always used to eat there if we were going to an exhibition at the British Museum, and it felt very odd indeed being there on my own. Next time, I might take a packed lunch!

After lunch, I went back to the main court of the museum for my timed entry to the Pompeii exhibition. Even though I, and indeed every one else, had a pre-booked ticket, it was so busy that you had to queue for 10 minutes before your time-slot in order to get in. It was heaving – too busy in my opinion. There were so many people there that it was difficult to see some of the exhibits.

Christopher and I went to both Pompeii and Herculaenum, and thoroughly “did” the Archaeological Museum in Naples from which most of the artefacts came (including a good look around the semi-pornographic “Cabinet of Secrets” where many of the more eye-popping Roman statues are kept so that they don’t sully the minds of the innocent!) So I’d actually seen most of it before, and certainly knew the basic story of the destruction of both towns. The exhibition seemed to me to be rather dumbed-down, but then I suppose that this is a subject I’m particularly interested in and am fairly knowledgeable about. Certainly the large numbers of children going round the exhibition with their parents seemed to be learning a lot (thankfully it was still the school holidays, so there were no school parties!)

However, even though I didn’t learn anything much, it was very interesting seeing so many beautiful wall-paintings, mosaics, jewellery and statues in one place, without having to go to Naples to see it. I got the feeling that the Naples Museum had been largely stripped of many of its treasures – it is certainly very generous of them to send such precious items out on loan. And I found the plaster casts of some of the inhabitants, frozen in time in their final death throws as the pyroclastic surge overcame them, to be very moving.

Wall painting of the baker Terentius Neo and his wife. From the House of Terentius Neo, Pompeii. AD 50–79

I also particularly liked the wall painting of the baker and his wife in the photo above (taken from the exhibition web-site). I like the way that the woman is holding a stylus and writing tablet, so is clearly literate, and is depicted as  an equal partner in the bakery business. Me, a feminist? Where did you get that idea? I also think that Terentius Neo has a very modern face – you could just imagine bumping into someone called Terry in the local supermarket who looked just like him!

{ 2 } Comments

  1. Catharine | 9 April 2013 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

    The Pompeii exhibit may be based on (or the same as) the one that I saw at the Boston Museum of Science a year or so ago. I too was thoroughly impressed by the paintings, mosaics, and casts – it was really impressive. I’m a little envious that you’ve gotten to go see the actual places!

  2. Gillian | 9 April 2013 at 9:15 pm | Permalink

    It’s a whole lot easier to visit the Roman sites when you live in Europe. I can consider just going to some of the sites (Trier, say?) on a quick city-break, whereas it’s a significant trip from the States. Which is why it’s so good that the major museums loan out some of their key exhibits for international tours.