Sunday, August 19, 2007

London--lost, found, and two museums

Trip from Tel Aviv to London went relatively smoothly, until the end, when they made me take off the lovely earphones that kept me from hearing the poor screaming boy behind me. He screamed for two hours, most of which I couldn’t hear. But the last forty minutes of the flight, part of which was spent in circling-the-airport hell—well the good part of me wanted to help his parents and the bad part of me just wanted to strangle the kid. (The kid was in pain, so really I’m not very nice. Oh, well.) As in Israel, landed and exited passport control and security without a hitch. And bought my tickets to and from the hotel. I had memorized and drawn the map from the train station to the hotel, so I exited the station in the drizzling rain and confidently marched off in the opposite direction, having turned myself around, as usual. I didn’t realize my mistake for several blocks, by which time the rain had turned from drizzle to downpour, my poncho had begun to leak, and I was wandering aimlessly, swearing like a drunk. By dint of containing myself enough to smile sweetly and ask every passerby where Norfolk Square was, I was directed down one street, overshot it, doubled back up the next street, and finally found Norfolk. Which is a divided street with a gated park down the center. Which was locked. Which I was on the wrong side of. Yes, folks. Turns out that my hotel is a block and a half from the hotel. I just walked it with my friend Monique. It took five minutes. Last night, I walked twelve blocks to find the same hotel. I suppose I could have made it take longer, but I’m not sure how. The hotel is pretty basic—a bed, a cupboard for clothes, and a washbasin. The bathroom and shower are down the hall. There isn’t supposed to be smoking, but there is a bit. Oh, and my room is on the third (American counting) floor—and, needless to say, no elevator. So last night, I was feeling more than a bit grumpy as I tried to figure out why I had been so excited about a day in London.

Well, today made up for it, starting with an ample breakfast, complete with lots of coffee. Then headed off to the British Museum. I got there ten minutes after it opened and it was already crowded. I had no desire to learn or see anything in particular, so I just wandered. Here’s a list of random impressions:

1) Dave has said how he was amazed at the sheer effrontery of a people who can just walk into another civilization and take stuff of the magnitude that the Brits took. I would emphatically concur (and add that the Germans were no better—as witness the amazing stuff in the Permagon Museum (uh, named after the temple that the museum is built around!)). It’s also interesting that rather than saying, “okay, we took it and we’re keeping it because we can,” the signs explain that the Brits have preserved it better than the countries of origin would have. This may well be true, but it’s kind of changing the subject. Yeah, the US can’t begin to match this crew when it comes to colonization. (Yeah, yeah, I know it’s not a contest. No, I’m not trying to justify US actions anytime, anywhere. Just saying that there are a lot of very black pots and kettles lying around.)
I was really impressed by the number of people who visited. Yes, it’s summer and it is the British Museum, but still—people really were interested in every part of the museum (okay, more interested in the mummies, but hey—dead people; what’s not to like?). People were clustered around the Rosetta Stone, around the Parthenon, around the various statues, through every room in the museum, and they were talking about history. How cool is that?
I don’t quite know what to make of what survives. Historians only have what’s left. What’s left is stuff that’s hard to destroy. So an ancient civilization that expresses itself through monuments of one kind or another will leave a record. Those that express themselves in other ways—maybe not. What remains thus determines what the past is to the present—but how does that relate to what the past was to those who lived it? This is hardly a new question; I think it shapes any beginning course in historiography. However, it was the question that kept coming back as I went through the museum.
The museum has free tours through the day. I was in the right place and time for one on Greece. The guide was absolutely excellent. He gave a brief summary of Grecian history, then led us through the development of Greek art, particularly the way the Greeks looked at natural forms. I asked about how different cultures use stylized forms versus trying to achieve a natural form—Egyptian versus classical Greek, for example. I can’t remember the precise answer he gave, but it was clear and concise. It led me to remember that the Greeks believed that this world was a microcosm of the world of the gods. If you believe that, then learning about the natural world is a form of connection to the gods themselves. This is also true in China, where meditation on a small piece of perfection—bonsai, or a piece of carved jade—encapsulates the whole world. By contrast, if you believe the world is best expressed through patterns or through emotion or some other way, then attempting to recreate the world precisely would have little meaning. There are real consequences to each choice in the way each kind of culture understands the world. Hmm, I think I’m just restating Weber. I can live with that…

About 1 PM, the museum became unbearably crowded and it was time to meet Monique, a friend from Ulpan, who is a rabbinic student at Leo Baeck Rabbinical College. We headed over to the British Library where there was an exhibit of the sacred—the texts and practices of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. I will say less about this exhibit, although in many ways, it meant more to me. I am reminded how much I am a person of words and stories—and how little we know of the stories behind the great monuments in the British Museum (oh, we know some, I know that, but still…). There were many first, many oldests. There were examples of how sacred text is further interpreted. How it was and is beautified. How the same text is interpreted in different or similar ways in the different traditions. I was pretty happy, I have to say. And it was a lot of fun to go through with someone who was as excited and engaged in the material as I was. (By the way, the exhibit was pretty well attended, though not mobbed, and there were very serious discussions all around.) About half an hour before closing, I wanted to see the rest of the Library. Yeah, that’s when I was reminded that one floor up was the Magna Carta. And a whole bunch of other AMAZING stuff. I had twenty minutes to look at a first folio, at Chaucer, at a whole display of the writings of British scientists. And the whole time I was saying, I have to remember that I saw...well, fact is, there was too much to remember. I could have spent an entire day looking at the range—through time and subject—contained in that place. It was a whole different kind of sacred—but no less sacred for all that—than the words below. And it was different also from the concrete stuff of the British Museum. An amazing contrast.

Monique and I finished the day at a pub with beer, excellent Thai food, and conversation. She’s heading off to spend the night with relatives. I’m going to post this and head for bed. What a day! And tomorrow—back home again.

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