My pandemic reading continues with this classic work about one of the worst diseases in European history: bubonic plague. Daniel Defoe wrote this account when the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction were looser. He freely mixes invention, hearsay, anecdote, and real statistics, in pursuit of a gripping yarn. Defoe himself was only a young boy when the Great Plague struck London, in 1664-6; but he writes the story in the person of a well-to-do, curious, if somewhat unimaginative burgher, with the initials “H.F.” The result is one of literature’s most enduring portraits of a city besieged by disease.
Though this account purports to be a “journal,” it is not written as a series of dated entries, but as one long scrawl. What is more, Defoe’s narrator is not the most orderly of writers, and frequently repeats himself or gets sidetracked. The book is, thus, rather slow and painful to read, since it lacks any conspicuous structure to grasp onto, but approaches a kind of bumbled stream-of-consciousness. Even so, there are so many memorable details and stories in this book that it is worth the time one spends with it.
The Great Plague carried off one fourth of London’s population—about 100,000 souls—and it was not even the worst outbreak of plague in the city. The original wave of the Black Death, in the middle ages, was undoubtedly worse. Still, losing a quarter of a city’s population is something that is difficult for most of us to even imagine. And when you consider that the Great Fire of London was quick on the plague’s heels, you come to the conclusion that this was not the best time to be a Londoner.
What is most striking about reading this book now is how familiar it is. The coronavirus is no bubonic plague, but it seems our reactions to disease have not come a long way. There are, of course, the scenes of desolation: empty streets and mass graves. The citizens anxiously read the statistics in the newspaper, to see if the numbers are trending upwards or downwards. And then there are the quacks and mountebanks, selling sham remedies and magical elixirs to the desperate. We also see the ways that disease affects the rich and the poor differently: the rich could afford to flee the city, while the poor faced disease and starvation. And the economic consequences were dreadful—shutting up business, leaving thousands unemployed, and halting commerce.
Medical science was entirely useless against the disease. Nowadays, we can effectively treat the plague with antibiotics (though the mortality rate is still 10%). But at the time, little could be done. Infection with the bacillus causes swollen lymph nodes—in the groin, armpits, and neck—called buboes, and it was believed that the swellings had to be punctured and drained. This likely did more harm than good, and in practice the plague doctors’ only useful purpose was to keep records of the dead.
Quite interesting to observe were the antique forms of social distancing (a term that of course did not exist) that the Londoners practiced. As now, people tried to avoid going out of their homes as much as possible, and if they did go out they tried to keep a distance from others and to avoid touching anything. Defoe describes people picking up their own meat at the butcher’s and dropping their money into a pan of vinegar to disinfect it. There was also state-mandated quarantining, as any house with an infection got “shut up”—meaning the inhabitants could not leave.
Ironically, though these measures would have been wise had the disease been viral, they made little sense for a disease communicated by rat fleas. (Defoe does mention, by the way, that the people put out rat poison—which probably helped more than all of the distancing.)
One more commonality is that the virus outlasted people’s patience and prudence. As soon as an abatement was observed in the weekly deaths, citizens rushed out to embrace each other and resume normal life, despite the warning of the town’s physicians. Not much has changed, after all.
So while not exactly pleasant to read, A Journal of the Plague Year is at least humbling for the contemporary reader, as it reminds us that perhaps we have not come so far as we thought. And it is also a timely reminder that, far from a novel and unpredictable event, the current crisis is one of many plagues that we have weathered in our time on this perilous globe.
I’ve fallen far behind in my travel posts, and now I find myself in the embarrassing position of writing about a trip I took over a year ago. It also seems that, no matter how hard I try to be brief, I end up writing more and more. Well, enough prefatory remarks; on to business.
For an American, there is something religious about visiting London for the first time. We have been hearing about the place all our lives. Dry humor, pints of beer, red phone booths, black taxis, fish and chips, bad teeth, good tea, bad weather, good tikka masala, the British Invasion, the British Parliament, the British Empire, Queen Elizabeth, Queen Victoria, Shakespeare, Dickens, the Beatles, Monty Python, Dr. Who, Harry Potter—London is the focal point of all our stereotypes, good and bad, of England and the English.
This is important for us Americans, since England is the only other country whose media we regularly consume. English media is so important for us because of our shared language. Unlike in Spain—where English-language songs often play on the radio (and people sing these songs without understanding the lyrics), and where American shows, overdubbed in Spanish, are extremely popular—in the United States we don’t listen to music in a foreign language if we can help it, and we only watch television that was originally made in English (overdubbing looks silly). This provincial preference for English media limits our options of foreign media mainly to England and Australia, and England has been the clear favorite.
A consequence of this popularity of English media is that Americans have internalized a highly partial picture of the English character. We associate the English with sophistication, elegance, wit, good manner, royalty, and the historical past.
This is almost the polar opposite of the English reputation in Spain. You see, Spain is an excellent travel destination for English holidaymakers—cheap, close, and sunny—and as a result, lots of English tourists come to Spain looking for a good time. A “good time” entails drinking, of course, and thus there are lots of drunken English people stumbling around city centers on any given night. As a result, Spaniards think of the English, not as genteel aristocrats, but as tipplers.
(Parenthetically, the English also have very different alcohol consumption habits than the Spanish. On a Friday or Saturday night, people in Spain begin drinking in earnest after dinner—which means 11 pm at the earliest. They often don’t even leave their apartment to go to bars and clubs until 2 in the morning, and don’t return home until dawn the next day. In London, on the other hand, drinking begins as soon as people leave work, at 5 pm. This is due, in part, to an old law in London that required pubs to close down at 11. So the English stop drinking when the Spanish barely start.
(This difference in schedule is supplemented by a difference in speed and volume. Spaniards are rarely visibly drunk. I have seen very few Spanish people stumbling from alcohol; instead, they focus on maintaining a level of comfortable tipsiness for a long period of time. Compared with Brits, Spaniards sip their drinks, and eat a lot while they drink. English people, by contrast, get properly drunk, and fast, much like many Americans do. As a consequence, Brits can be very loud drinkers—in my experience, at least. This is an especially interesting contrast, I think, since in every other circumstance Brits tend to be mucher more quiet than Spaniards.)
Of course, both the American and the Spanish stereotype is an over-generalization; they are based on very partial exposures to the English character. Partial and false as they may be, however, these stereotypes did succeed in endowing England with a certain contradictory mystique—a place full of witty drunkards, elegant and boisterous, cultured and slovenly? I needed to go see London for myself, to catch a glimpse of the reality behind the reputation.
My problem was that, at the time, I was particularly low on funds. And however distorted all the other stereotypes may be about London, this one is true: London is expensive. Well, it’s expensive if you enjoy eating, sleeping indoors, using transportation, and doing any activity besides walking and sitting outside. This was a few months before the Brexit referendum, and the pound was still strong.
As a result, my short trip to London—barely 48 hours—became a frantic exercise in traveling cheaply. I didn’t buy an oyster card, and I didn’t use the Tube or the buses. I ate “meal deals”—pre-packed sandwiches at Tesco supermarkets, not terribly delicious—instead of paying for dinner in a restaurant. And I focused on visiting museums, which are free in London, instead of other popular sites.
Arrival & First Impressions
As usual, I traveled with Ryanair. My plane arrived in Stansted, the smallest of London’s airports, where I had to fill out a form and wait in a long queue to enter the country. The English, it seems, are almost as paranoid about their borders as we are in the United States. From Stansted, I took the so-called Stansted Express to London’s central Liverpool Station. The ride took about an hour, and was not cheap. This is a typical Ryanair experience: the flight is inexpensive, but uncomfortable; and you land in an unpopular airport far outside the city. I am a loyal customer.
I sat in the train—dazed from lack of sleep, filled with nervous energy, physically miserable but mentally awake—and stared out the window in disbelief. Was I really here? Was this England, the land of dry humor and wet weather? I gazed out at fleeting patches of green countryside as the train sped by, and savored the delightful names of the train stations between Stansted and London. (Of course I can’t remember any of the names now; but as I look on Google maps, I find such gems as Matching Tye, Hartfield Heath, Hastingwood, Theydon Bois.)
English novels—from Austen, to Dickens, to Rowling—have powerfully shaped the American imagination of the past; and thus, by association, English place-names strike many Americans as irresistibly charming. Each name seems to be the title of another great novel, filled with irony and romance, and written with quaint wit. Likewise, the English countryside—a neatly trimmed park, whose rolling hills are covered in a grey mist—is featured in so many films that even the snatches of green I saw out the train window filled me with delight.
These feelings of romance and fantasy are, I suspect, nearly universal for Americans visiting England, and specifically London, for the first time. England is the only foreign country we regularly see in television and movies. This gives the experience of visiting England the effect of stepping into a movie set—everything is familiar, and yet unreal. The same thing happens, I believe, to many who visit New York for the first time. Many people have independently told me that it felt like they were in a movie, since so many landmarks and features were familiar to them from films.
The train arrived, and I got out to go find my Airbnb. I was on edge. The combination of sleep deprivation (the flight was terribly early) with the usual stress of navigating a foreign city (my phone didn’t have service), plus the feeling of unreality that comes from actually being in a place which I’d been hearing about all my life—all this combined to make me edgy and oversensitive. The double-decker red buses, the black taxis, the cars driving on the wrong side of the road, the eccentric road signs (including the delightfully existential “Change Priorities Ahead”), pubs with absurd names (“Ye Old Cheshire Cheese,” on Fleet Street), the red phone booths scattered seemingly at random (apparently, the city had once sold all these phone booths, only to regret the decision and then repurchase as many as they could)—my first impressions of London did contain many of ye quaint olde stereotypes that I expected.
But one thing that, as a New Yorker, always surprises me when I visit a new city is the lack of skyscrapers. Madrid has only four buildings which can reasonably be called skyscrapers, and they’re located in the north of the city, far outside the center. London has its own share of skyscrapers, to be sure. But walking around in London has nothing of that vertiginous feeling that New York produces, the feeling of being crushed by steel and glass, the feeling of constantly craning one’s neck. I had always thought of London as being a huge and imposing place, so this lack of skyscrapers did disconcert me somewhat.
In many other respects, however, London can be easily compared with New York: the bustling streets, the flashy billboards and ever-present advertisements, the endless shopping, the infinite variety of chain restaurants, the ethnic diversity, the smell and the grime. London even has the same phony Buddhist monks trying to scam tourists into giving them money. (You can find a great story about them here; and in case you’re wondering, if someone is aggressively asking you for money, you can safely assume that they’re not a Buddhist monk.)
As I discovered when I got to my Airbnb, one way that London is incompatibly different from both my country and Spain is the style of its outlets. I had to buy a power-adaptor there; and like everything in London, it wasn’t cheap. Be wise and buy one ahead of time.
These were my first impressions, hazy and distorted, as I walked from the station to my Airbnb. Already I was running short of time. It was midday Friday, and my flight home would leave early on Sunday. So I set out to the first place on my list, the National Gallery.
A Note on Cuisine and Language
I should preface my trip to the National Gallery with a mention of a small restaurant, the Breadline, which can be found nearby. I decided to eat there because it had fish and chips—I know it’s silly, but I couldn’t leave London without eating that iconic meal—and because its prices were eminently reasonable. The food was plain and basic, but nonetheless, for me, extremely satisfying. I even returned the next day to try an English breakfast, which I quite liked.
English food has a poor reputation, and I understand why; it is hardly a cuisine designed to have universal appeal. Nevertheless, if those two meals can be trusted to give a fair representation (an open question), I can say that I am a fan. There is something about greasy fried potatoes and fried fish, covered in white vinegar, that just feels right to me. And sausage and beans for breakfast is brilliant.
While I was eating, a young British man came in and said “A small white coffee to take away.” This is an excellent example of the differences between British and American English. This sentence, uttered in New York, would produce only bafflement. You would have to translate it to “A small coffee with milk to go,” if you wanted to be understood. I run into these differences constantly as I teach English. Before coming to Spain, I thought the differences between British and American English were minor and negligible, besides the accent; but I was wrong. Working with British textbooks and materials can be extremely frustrating, since often I don’t know what certain expressions or words mean—which is embarrassing when my students ask. Not only that, but there are a few subtle grammatical differences between the dialects, such as in the use of the perfect tense. But this is a digression of a digression; now to the museum.
The National Gallery
It is immensely satisfying to simply walk into a museum, without fees or lines, like it’s your own home. The experience is even better when the museum is one of the best in the world. The National Gallery is only behind the Louvre, the British Museum, and the Metropolitan in visitors per year; and this is especially impressive considering the museum’s collection is comparatively small, easily viewable in three hours or so. But for those with any sensitivity to art, these three hours will be among the most rewarding of your aesthetic life; for the National Gallery’s collection is remarkable both for its breadth and its excellence. The only museums I’ve visited that compare in the average quality of the paintings on display are the Prado in Madrid and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Every room in the gallery contains a masterpiece, often many.
Indeed, there are so many wonderful paintings—paintings I had seen and loved in art history books—that I cannot even hope to mention all of them in this post, much less describe the impression each one made on me. Nevertheless, I can’t resist the temptation to dwell on some of these exquisite works of the human imagination.
The first painting which attracted my attention was the portrait of Erasmus by Hans Holbein the Younger. This is an extraordinary demonstration of the portraitist’s art; instead of a photographic image, capturing the physical surface of the famous writer, we get a glimpse of the writer’s mind. As in any excellent portrait, the inner is made manifest in the outer without compromising the realism of the portrait. His sharply angular face bespeaks cleverness; his gaunt features reveals a life dedicated to the mind and not the body; his half-closed eyes and serene expression show calm intelligence and a wisdom that sees beyond earthly troubles. We also catch a hint of Erasmus’s self-complacent vanity: he looks a little too comfortable in his fine fur robe, and his hands rest a little too easily upon a volume of his own writings. Is there a more convincing portrait of the scholar?
Holbein has an even more famous work on display at the museum: The Ambassadors. This is a portrait of two aristocratic ambassadors (their identity was long debated), in a room which includes an exquisitely-rendered still-life of several objects—a lute, several globes, a psalm-book, and various instruments of navigation. But the most memorable, and bizarre, feature of this painting is the giant anamorphic skull in the center. Anamorphic means that it is purposefully distorted when viewed head-on, and must be seen from a specific perspective to be seen properly. When viewed from the front, the skull is just a strange grey diagonal shape; but when you walk to the painting’s left, the skull comes into focus. I can only imagine the technical virtuosity required of a painter to pull off this trick with such consummate perfection; when seen properly, the skull is finely detailed, beautifully shaded, and anatomically accurate. Holbein painted this tour de force in 1533.
The National Gallery also possesses what is probably the most famous papal portrait in history: Raphael’s portrait of Pope Julius II. Julius was the most important of the high renaissance popes; he is responsible for the beginning of the Vatican museum, Michelangelo’s commission to paint the Sistine Chapel, and Raphael’s commission to paint the Vatican Library. Not only that, Julius originated the idea of tearing down the original St. Peter’s and building a new one. Such a man must have had enormous energy and a deep sensitivity to art. And yet in Raphael’s portrait we see him weary, worn-out, and melancholic. He is gently gripping a handkerchief in one hand and his chair in the other; his eyes are hollow, and the wrinkled skin of his face droops loosely from his skull. He seems to be just feebly holding on to the last chords of life, staring at his own end with resignation. Such terrible realism was entirely new in papal portraiture.
Before going to the National Gallery, I didn’t look up any of the famous pictures that could be found there; so I was surprised and delighted when I found myself face to face with one of my favorite pictures, Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait. I remember first seeing this portrait in Ernst Gombrich’s Story of Art, and being stunned. In the context of its time, 1434, the portrait is startling for its realism and its domestic subject: a marriage contract taking place in a bedroom. To a modern eye, perhaps the portrait no longer seems terribly realistic; the husband, with his pale expressionless face and his oversized clothes, always looks like he belongs in a Tim Burton film to me; but this only adds to its charm. The little toy-sized dog in the foreground—as adorable as ever—and the mirror in the background—showing us the whole scene from reverse in a distorted perspective—add to the painting’s undeniable power.
There are dozens more paintings—of equal importance and beauty—that I could devote an unworthy paragraph to describing; but this would only swell this post to unartistic dimensions. Yet I cannot move on without mentioning the National Gallery’s collection of Italian Renaissance art. This includes Piero del Pollaiolo’s masterpiece, The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, a landmark in the realistic use of perspective, with the saint enricled by crossbowmen.
Even more important is one of the two versions of Leonardo da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks. The other one is in the Louvre, and is usually considered the original; but I think the Gallery’s version, with its deeper shades and more dramatic chiaroscuro, is lovelier. Apart from its beauty, this painting is notable for its setting. Leonardo, as is typical of him, creates a carefully naturalistic background for this traditional Biblical scene. In previous eras, the background of paintings was almost entirely neglected; monochrome gold foil set off the human figures. But in Leonardo’s masterpiece, the background—a cave, which was an unprecedented choice—swallows up its subject. Such careful attention to rendering nature was something new in history.
I also cannot move on without mention of Rembrandt. The National Gallery has several of Rembrandt’s most highly regarded works, including two of his self-portraits. Looking into the eyes of a famous artist, as he stares back at you from a self-portrait, is an unnerving experience; suddenly the gap in space and time that separates your lives vanishes; the artist has transcended death, and even transcended life; his focused gaze, dry pigment on a canvas, will outlast even your own living flesh. On a less dramatic note, the Gallery also has one of Velazquez’s most famous works: The Rockeby Venus, famous for being one of the few female nudes in Spanish art (one other being Goya’s La Maja Desnuda).
I will muster my self-control and mention only two more works.
By common consent, the greatest painter in English history is Joseph Mallord William Turner; and several of his finest works can be seen at the Gallery. Of these, my favorite is Rain, Steam, and Speed—The Great Western Railway. A locomotive emerges from a tempest, a black tube bursting through grey fog. Every line and color is blurred as if seen from an out-of-focus camera. All we can see in the background are hints of blue sky, a bridge, and a lake where some people are rowing in a little boat.
In this paintings, Turner seems to have both anticipated and surpassed the impressionists in rendering momentary flashes of life. The swirl of indistinct color is absolutely hypnotic; yet the painting is not merely pretty, as are many impressionistic paintings, but a convincing symbol of the relationship between human technology and natural power. The train punches through the mist, in a confident gesture of industrial might; and yet the stormy clouds that swirl all around menace the lonely black locomotive. Both the train and its surrounding are impressive, even sublime, but also inhumanly vast and cold; and the two slight figures in the rowboat below reveal our true vulnerability in the face of these forces.
The last painting I’ll mention before forcing myself away—even remembering the Gallery is a pleasure—is Bathers at Asnières, by Georges Seurat. This painting was completed in 1884; but it was not until many years after Seurat’s death that it was recognized as a masterpiece. It depicts several middle-class Parisians relaxing by the Seine on a hot summer day. The technique Seurat used is almost pointillistic in its precise use of strokes and colors, relying mainly on bright horizontal daubs. The combination of statuesque modeling and poses—the bathers’ heavy bodies and horizontal orientation remind me of an Egyptian frieze—with Seurat’s delicate treatment of brushstrokes, makes the painting look crystal-clear from a afar and blurred from up close. The treatment really captures the feeling of heat: how everything can seem perfectly clear in the summer sun, and yet distant objects are blurred.
Complementing this tension between form and vagueness, is an emotional tension between fun and desolation. At first glance the bathers are having a wonderful day. They are at leisure, enjoying the sunshine, the smooth grass, and the cool water. But then you notice how isolated is each one of the figures. They are all in their own world; many seem lost in thought. Their expressions are emotionless; their hunching posture bespeaks weariness. The factory spewing smoke in the background adds another hint of gloom.
To me, the painting is a devastating portrait of the isolation and meaninglessness of contemporary life. We imagine the figures working 9 to 5 jobs in offices during the week, performing mechanical tasks that mean nothing to them. Then they go to their usual restaurant for a bite to eat and then to their apartment to sleep. When with their friends, they drink and talk of trivialities. On a holiday, they come here, and stare into space, unable to articulate to themselves or anyone else the strange sense of emptiness that engulfs them whenever they have a free moment. It is a comfortable world that conceives of nothing beyond wealth and luxury; and its members, when released from their usual routine, can think of nothing to do. Convention dictates that they come here to ‘relax’. The painting is the perfect complement and illustration of Albert Camus’s The Stranger: it is a painting of a world of strangers, to one another and to themselves.
The next day, I headed to one of the other great museums in London: the British Museum. Originally I planned to include my account of that great institution in this post; but I ended up writing so much that I decided that the British Museum deserved its own separate essay, which you can find here.
Brief Snatches of London Life
When I wasn’t visiting museums, I had a few spare hours to wander around the city. This allowed me to glimpse, all too briefly, most of the major sights in London—the places that must be given a mention and a respectful nod in any post about that old city.
The first landmark I insisted on seeing was Big Ben. A trip to London without seeing that venerable clocktower would be like a trip to Pisa without its leaning campanile. I was so ignorant when I visited London (and remain, despite strenuous efforts) that I didn’t even know that Big Ben was attached to the British parliament building, the Palace of Westminster. It was a delightful surprise to find these two landmarks joined together.
Although it looks gothic, the palace is of fairly recent construction. The old Westminster palace burned down in 1834 (Turner witnesses the fire, and painted several pictures of it). The new building was designed by Charles Barry, who used a Gothic revival style in his plan. I doubt there is any parliament buildings in the world so elegant, so imposing, and so charming. Few experiences in London, if any, can do a better job of creating that Hollywood sensation of being in a movie than standing on the Westminster bridge, seeing that palace and the clocktower, and hearing the ringing bells of Big Ben chime out the hour.
From there I walked away from the bridge, pausing to examine the statue of Winston Churchill (covered in pigeon droppings) in the nearby plaza, and went to Westminster Abbey. In my very limited experience, this is easily the most beautiful church building in London. I can’t say much about it, because I didn’t go inside—it was closed by the time I arrived, and in any case I didn’t want to pay the steep entry fee—but I can say that its façade is exquisite, especially the north entrance. Funnily enough, Westminster Abbey is not an abbey—at least, not anymore. Originally it was an abbey of the Benedictine monks, but after the Protestant Reformation, and after a brief stint as a cathedral, the abbey was designated a church. For the last 1,000 years it has been the site of coronations and royal weddings.
The walk from Westminster Abbey to Buckingham Palace is about 15 minutes—slightly longer if, like me, you walk through St. James’s Park. I highly recommend this, since the park is absolutely lovely.
Architecturally, Buckingham Palace isn’t much to look at; it presents itself as a cheerless, square, grey block. The building was not originally designed as a royal residence; it only became the seat of the monarchy in 1837, during the reign of Queen Victoria. The palace takes its name from the Duke of Buckingham, who originally had it built. It sits at the end of the Mall—a major road often used for processions—in a roundabout in which stands the golden Victoria Memorial, which commemorates that famous queen.
Even so, neither the monument nor the palace would attract a great deal of attention, I suspect, were it not for the Queen’s Guard. Equipping guards with antique weapons and dressing them in bright red outfits with fluffy tall hats seems to be one of those conspicuously impractical things that wealthy and powerful people do to showcase their wealth and power. Your average rich entrepreneur or politician could not afford to keep a corps of totally inefficient guards performing ceremonial movements all day (which are, naturally, supplemented by other guards using modern weapons, keeping careful watch, and wearing less conspicuous clothes). Here is an incident that demonstrates the guards’ mainly ceremonial role: in 1982 a man managed to evade the palace guard and make his way to the Queen’s bedroom, where he was apprehended by the city police.
I spent some time watching the guards march back and forth, their limbs as stiff as a wooden nutcracker. Purely as athletic performers, the soldiers are undeniably impressive: the timing, the coordination, the posture, the endurance—it must require excellent physical condition and serious training to keep up the routine, especially considering that they wear those clothes even in hot weather. The guards now mainly function as a tourist attraction and an amusing symbol of British culture; but to be fair, the Queen’s Guard aren’t the only soldiers to wear funny clothes (think of the Swiss Guard in the Vatican) or to engage in elaborate ceremony purely for show (think of the tomb of the unknown soldier in Washington D.C.).
By the time I left the British Museum the next day, I only had about 6 hours left before I’d have to go to sleep and say goodbye to London. The best way to get the most out of this time, I figured, was a free walking tour. The guide was excellent, and the tour just what I wanted. Unfortunately I don’t remember the name of the company or of our guide; he introduced himself as the only American tour guide in London—so he shouldn’t be too hard to find. (But apparently this isn’t true; a Google search reveals an American woman named Amber who also gives tours.)
The tour focused on the City of London. You may not know—I certainly didn’t—that the “City of London” refers to the original part of the metropolis, founded by the Romans way back when. This original City of London is now only a tiny fraction of the greater metropolitan area; indeed, it is quite a small place, having an area of only one square mile. This city is far older than England; it has enjoyed special privileges (or, to use the phrase of the Magna Carta, “ancient liberties”) since the Norman Conquest; and even now it retains the privilege to create many of its own regulations, independent of the greater metropolitan area or of England herself. The city has laxer building codes, which explains why so many of London’s skyscrapers are found there, and also looser financial regulations, which explains why it remains the center of London’s economic life. The City of London is home to the Bank of London, the London Stock Exchange, and Lloyd’s of London (the insurance market).
The tour began at Temple Station. Our guide took us along the river and then down Fleet Street, giving us bits of details about London’s past and present. We walked by Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, one of the oldest and best known pubs in London, famous both for its silly name and its dark, windowless interior; and this prompted our guide to embark on a long, impassioned explanation of London pub culture. Though an American, he was clearly a convert to the pub way of life; he had strong opinions about what made a pub good or bad; and he had pub recommendations for nearly any area of the city. (I was so inspired that, after the tour, I went into a pub to get a drink; but the beer was so expensive and so mediocre that my disappointment was even more bitter than the beer.)
Soon we reached St. Paul’s Cathedral. The tour didn’t pause for us to go inside; and, in any case, the entrance fee is formidable enough to discourage penurious travelers like me. Among other things, St. Paul’s is famous for having one of the tallest domes in the world. But the present St. Paul’s replaced an older, even taller cathedral (well, it was taller before its spire was destroyed by lightning), which was badly damaged in the Great Fire of London in 1666. The present building was designed by Sir Christopher Wren, and completed in his lifetime. Wren was, if not the greatest, at least the most prolific architect in England’s history. He designed and oversaw the construction of no less than 52 churches after the Great Fire. The architect himself is buried in the crypt of the cathedral, in a modest grave that says “Reader, if you seek his monument—look around you.”
From there we moved on to the Monument to the Great Fire, also designed by, you guessed it, Sir Christopher Wren. As our guide pointed out, the monument—a tall doric column that originally rose far above its surroundings—is now hemmed in by neighboring buildings and dwarfed by modern architecture. The guide used this as an example of the tendency of Londoners to be more interested in the future than the past.
To emphasize this point, he directed our attention to the skyscraper at 20 Fenchurch Street, a bizarre, top-heavy construction, completed in 2014, whose shape quickly earned it the nickname ‘The Walkie Talkie’. This building won—and earned—an award for ugliness. (It was also discovered that the building’s concave shape focused the sun’s rays strongly enough to damage cars, ignite doormats, and fry eggs; a screen has since been installed to prevent this from happening.) But the Walkie Talkie is only one of the many skyscrapers that have sprung up in the City of London in recent memory, despite concerns that these tall monstrosities will dwarf and obstruct historic buildings.
From the cathedral, we went down towards the river and ended up under London Bridge. Many people, including me, assume from the nursery rhyme that London Bridge is a tourist attraction; indeed, the justly famous Tower Bridge, which spans the Thames nearby (see below), is often mistakenly called the London Bridge. Sad to say, the current London Bridge is a brutalist piece of concrete and steel, a minimalistic slab of stone that stretches across the Thames, without charm, beauty, or really any distinguishing quality.
The nursery rhyme dates from a time when a different London Bridge spanned the Thames. The ‘Old’ London Bridge, built in 1209 and demolished in 1831, rested on stone arches and was covered in wooden buildings (which proved to be a fire hazard). It was famous for being the site where the severed heads of those executed for treason, dipped in tar and impaled on pikes, were displayed for passersby to take heed. William Wallace’s head was the first to play this role.
In 1831, the ‘New’ London Bridge was built to replace the crumbling medieval construction; this bridge also rested on arches, but it was taller and so allowed bigger ships to pass underneath. In the 1960s it was discovered that London Bridge was falling down (sinking into the riverbed) and had to be replaced. In true English entrepreneurial spirit, the bridge was sold; an American oil tycoon, Robert McCulloch, bought the bridge, disassembled it, shipped it to the United States, and then reassembled it in Lake Havasu City, Arizona—a little piece of English history in the American south. The current behemoth was finished in 1972.
The tour came to an end front of the Tower of London. Once again, I didn’t go inside that old castle—I am really exposing myself as a pathetic traveler, I know—but contented myself with walking around the perimeter. From the outside, the Tower of London doesn’t seem to merit the name “tower”; the White Tower, the central citadel which sits at the center of the castle complex, is less than 100 feet tall—almost invisible in the context of London. The castle is quite venerable; it was first constructed by the Normans in the 11th century, and was expanded in the preceding two centuries. At present the Tower of London is a large complex with two concentric layers of stone walls surrounding the central keep, and some additional buildings such as a chapel and a barracks. The outer wall is surrounded by a moat, now left dry. Besides the castle itself, visitors can see several historical objects on display, such as Henry VIII’s armor and—most notably—the Crown Jewels of England.
The Tower of London has played an important and often a nefarious role in English history. For a long time it served as the British version of the Bastille, as a prison for traitors and other political pests. Anne Boleyn, unfortunate wife of Henry VIII, is the most famous prisoner ever to be held and executed in the tower; legend has it that her ghost still travels through the old castle, her severed head under her arm. But as I stood there looking at that stone pile, I thought only of Thomas More, the British intellectual who dreamed of a utopia with freedom of religion, and who was imprisoned in the tower and then executed for being true to his Catholic faith (also by Henry VIII). More’s head was eventually covered in tar and displayed on a pike on the old London Bridge.
The tour guide ended with a short speech, which I will try to reproduce here:
“In this tour, we’ve seen many different types of power. We have the political and military power of the Tower of London, the religious power of St. Paul’s cathedral and the Church of England, and the economic power of the London Stock Exchange. And this, ultimately, is what the City of London has always been about: the use of power to control its own destiny. It’s a place oriented towards the future, constantly striving to master whatever is the next form of social power in order to maintain its dominance in the world’s affairs.”
And this strikes me as perfectly true.
From the Tower of London I made a quick walk to the nearby Tower Bridge. This is the iconic bridge often mistakenly called the London Bridge. It’s a pretty sight, with two neo-Gothic towers supporting two platforms, one higher and one lower. Built in the 1890s, its design, by Sir Joseph Bazalgette, was innovative: a combined suspension bridge and drawbridge. The idea (according to the tour guide) was to allow pedestrians to keep using the bridge even when the drawbridge was drawn up to allow ships to pass.
Pedestrians soon learned, however, that walking up the stairs in one of the towers, crossing the upper platform, and then walking down the stairs in the other platform, took even more time than just waiting for the drawbridge to close again. Accordingly, pedestrians hardly ever used the upper platform, which came to be frequented mainly by criminals and prostitutes; it was closed in 1910. Nowadays, you need to pay an entrance fee to go up to the upper walkway. This is just another example of a brilliant idea that doesn’t take into account basic human realities: an innovative plan for a bridge that ignores the time and effort needed to climb several flights of stairs. It is certainly pretty, though.
As my last stop I made my way to Shoreditch, a neighborhood which had been recommended to me by a Londoner in my Spanish class. Shoreditch is London’s Williamsburg: a previously working class neighborhood that has been gentrified, and is now home to trendy restaurants and technology companies. The area even looks like Williamsburg, with narrower streets and older, shorter buildings, full of colorful shops and cafes. The population, too, is almost indistinguishable from its New York counterpart: men with large mustaches, plaid shirts, and suspenders; women with half their heads shaven, nose rings, and small, tasteful tattoos—in a word, hipsters. I felt right at home. The gentrification is so extreme as to be beyond parody; there is, for example, a cafe, the Cereal Killer Cafe, that serves only breakfast cereal.
To illustrate my own complicity in the world of hipsterdom, I went to a cafe famous for its rainbow-colored bagels, the Brick Lane Beigel Bake. This little cafe is open 24 hours a day, it is cheap, and it is excellent. I didn’t order a rainbow bagel, but instead a ‘hot salt beef’ on a roll. The beef comes with pickles and strong, superb mustard. I had two (for a very reasonable price) and I was stuffed. Another positive mark for English cuisine.
My time was up. My flight was leaving at seven the following morning, which meant I had to wake up at four to give myself enough time to walk to the train station and take the train to the airport.
All told, I spent less than 48 hours in London. I was constantly tired, hungry, and physically exhausted. I ate little, I slept less, and I walked almost constantly—more than 10 hours each day. I spent as little money as I could, and still the trip was expensive. I learned as much as I could, but left the vast majority of the city unseen and unknown. The trip was a physical ordeal and a financial hardship. But in return for all this trouble, I encountered, however briefly, one of the great cities of the world.
The British Museum is a project of the Enlightenment. It is one of the oldest—older than both the Louvre and the Prado—and the biggest museums in the world. Its collection began when Sir Hans Sloane, a doctor and naturalist, bequeathed his private collection of “curiosities” to the state. The collection grew from there, with the goal of encompassing all of human history under one roof. And because the British Empire soon came to dominate half the globe, this ambition was not so ludicrous as it may at first appear. Ironically, you can probably find finer artifacts in the British Museum than in the countries that the exhibits represent.
The museum’s massive collection is housed in an equally massive neoclassical building designed by Robert Smirke. Its collection is divided by era and area: Prehistory, the Ancient Near East, Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece, South Asia, East Asia, the Americas, Africa, and Oceania. Wandering around the museum is like getting lost in a copy of a World History textbook brought to life. The collection is so vast and detailed that the visitor is simply overwhelmed. There is far too much information to take in and process in one visit—even in a dozen visits. Each artifact on display deserves deep study; and when each room is full of hundreds of these artifacts, there is not much you can do except dumbly gape. Likewise, there is not much a writer can do except emulate Sir Hans Sloane and collect curiosities.
I began in the Ancient Near East: Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization. There is something sacred about the simple fact of age. Seeing ancient artifacts is the closest we get to time travel. The passing years corrode all material things, just as the gentle flowing of a stream eventually cuts through rock. The physical bodies of these ancients have long decayed; everything they knew and loved is gone. And yet, 5,000 years later, the messages they carved still preserve an echo of their voice.
Every time I look at a cuneiform tablet—its crisscrossing wedges and lines unintelligible to me, but visibly a language—I find myself profoundly moved. For all I know, the message is a record of a banal commercial exchange—so many goats for so many bushels of hay—but the simple fact of writing something down, of imprinting words indelibly, signals the beginning of that noble and doomed war against time—the war we call ‘civilization’.
Seeing these first scratches in stone is like catching a glimpse of the universe a few seconds after the big bang. It marks the commencement of something entirely new in history: the ability to transfer knowledge across generations; to develop literature, philosophy, mathematics, and science; to create unchanging codes of law to fairly govern societies; to make the shadows of thought external and permanent. Less fortunately, the beginning of writing also marks the origin of bureaucracy and accounting—indeed, this seems to have been its original purpose, as communities grew too big to be governed by word of mouth.
Perhaps the most impressive object in this section is the Standard of Ur. (This is one of the objects chosen in Neil MacGregor’s series, A History of the World in 100 Objects. You can listen to the segment here. I wish I had read the accompanying book, which looks excellent, before my visit to the museum; it’s on my list.)
It is called a ‘standard’, but nobody really knows what it was used for: a soundbox for a musical instrument or a box to store money for sacred projects—who can say? All we can really determine is that it almost definitely was not a standard, since the drawings are too detailed to be seen from far away. The object dates from 2,600 BCE and consists of a box whose sides depict scenes of war and peace, in three lines of images that look like a comic book. On the war side, we see an army marching off to battle, with armored footsoldiers and men in chariots; below, these charioteers trample enemies underfoot. On the reverse side, we see men seated at a banquet, drinking, while a harpist and a singer provide background music. Below, men are herding animals and carrying sacks of goods on their back, presumably to offer them in tribute to the king.
This standard was found in the site known as the Royal Cementary of Ur, along with objects seen on both the War and the Peace side. Judging from the numerous skeletons in the tomb, it seems that the Sumerians had a practice similar to the Egyptians: upon the death of kings and queens, the royal attendants were put to death to serve their master in the afterlife. I always shudder when I hear about these practices. Drinking poison to follow your king in death seems to be the height of unjust absurdity. I feel angry on behalf of the attendants who lived in oppression and who did not even find freedom in their master’s death. And yet, despite my anger, I can’t help feeling a sort of awe at the level of devotion displayed by this practice. To identify so strongly with a leader that you follow them in death seems hardly human; just as an ant or a bee colony dies with its queen, so these human groups voluntarily put themselves to death.
Violence and oppression thus form the subject-matter of this artifact and surround its discovery. On one side we see the king marching off the war and killing enemies; on the other side the king enjoys the tribute of his hard-working subjects. Nowadays it is impossible to see the society depicted on the Standard of Ur as anything but monstrous: a predatory upper-class stealing from the poor, and then sending the lower-class off to war to defend their bounty and to capture slaves.
But it is worth asking whether the beginning of civilization could have been any different. Humans had just begun farming and forming cities. For the first time in the history of our species, we were living in large, permanent settlements alongside strangers. For the first time, we had enough resources to allow some people in the community to specialize in tasks other than gathering food: priests, soldiers, musicians, administrators, rulers, and artisans. The accumulation of resources always invites raids from without and crimes from within; and fending off these attacks requires organization, leadership, and violence. A community simply couldn’t afford to be anything but authoritarian and militaristic if it hoped to survive. It is an unfortunate fact of human history that justice and security are often at odds—a fact we still confront in the question of surveillance and terrorism.
As a parting thought, I just want to note how remarkable it is that we can look at something like the Standard of Ur—a luxury product made 5,000 years ago, by people who spoke a different language, most of whom couldn’t write, who had a different religion, who lived in a different climate, a people whose experience of the world had so little in common with our own, a people who lived just at the beginning of history—we can look at this object and find it not only intelligible, but beautiful. We experience this same miracle when we read the Epic of Gilgamesh—a story still moving, 4,000 years after it was written down.
In my first anthropology class we learned that humans are cultural creatures, fundamentally shaped by their social environment. But if this were true—if our inborn nature were something negligible and our culture omnipotent—wouldn’t we expect a civilization which flourished in such different circumstances to give rise to art that we couldn’t even hope to understand? And yet, so universal is the human experience that, 5,000 years later, we can still recognize ourselves in the Standard of Ur.
This constancy of our nature is not only manifested in great works of art. For me, the most touching illustration of this are the little baubles and trinkets, the sundry domestic items that give us a taste of daily life in that faraway age. We see the universal human urge to beautify our bodies demonstrated by the jewels of Ancient Greece, Persia, and Egypt, the rings, earrings, pendants, necklaces, armlets, and bracelets which still glitter and charm today—indeed, designs inspired by ancient examples can be bought in the museum store. We see this also in one of the oldest board games ever discovered, the Royal Game of Ur, whose game-board and game-pieces are instantly recognizable by the modern visitor. A cuneiform tablet has also been found which explains the rules, allowing scholars to play the game 4,500 years after its creation (though I can’t find out whether they enjoyed it).
Yet if the continuities are striking, so are the divergences. I feel the gap that separates the present from the ancient past most poignantly whenever I look at a papyrus scroll covered in Egyptian hieroglyphics. Fewer human artifacts look more alien to me than these bits of ancient writing. Lines of simple images—eyes, storks, sparrows, hawks, snakes, scarabs, and many I can’t recognize—run up and down the papyrus, in a parade of symbolic forms. On the top and in the corner are larger drawings, depictions of mythological scenes, illustrations of dead gods and long-forgotten myths. What is most striking is how the writing is a kind of picture, and the pictures a sort of writing; the visual and the verbal are combined into a web of meaning, absolutely saturated with significance.
The thing that is so fascinating about the culture of ancient Egypt is that, for hundreds and thousands of years, through the rise and fall of dynasties and the passing away of dozens of generations, there is a unified, complete, and instantly recognizable aesthetic. It is immediately obvious to any visitor that they have entered the Egyptian section, whether in the first dynasty or the twentieth.
There is undoubtedly something terrifying about this continuity—terrifying that a society based on gross injustice persisted, with its culture nearly unchanged, for a span of time that dwarfs that of our own Western culture. But it is also easy for me to imagine the deep satisfaction enabled by such a complete mythology—a symbolic worldview that decorates every surface, imbues every hour of the day with importance, structures the year and explains the cosmos, penetrates into the depths of reality and even looks beyond the veil that separates life from death. I feel similar stirrings when I look at an illuminated manuscripts from our own Middle Ages, an artifact not so different from the Egyptian scrolls.
In any exhibition on ancient Egypt the mummies are always the stars—those shrunken, dried corpses carefully wrapped and sealed in stone sarcophagi to be sent down the eons. When I was there, a crowd was gathered around a mummy of a woman named Cleopatra, perhaps in the mistaken belief that she was Mark Antony’s famous paramour. Yet the most moving object in the Egypt section, for me, is the colossal bust of Ramesses II. (This was also featured on The History of the World in 100 Objects; you can listen to it here.)
Ramesses II was one of the most effective leaders in all of Egypt’s history. He was born about 1,300 years before the common era, and lived 90 long years, making his reign not only the most iconic, but the longest of ancient Egypt. An energetic general, statesman, and administrator, he was most of all a builder. He presided over the construction of dozens of colossal statues, temples, monuments, and palaces. It was this Ramesses who inaugurated the Abu Simbel complex, whose great temple includes four colossal statues (20 meters, or 66 feet high) of Ramesses himself, carved directly from the hillside. Ramesses was also responsible for the so-called Ramesseum, not a tomb, but a temple complex built for the worship of him, the deified Ramesses, during his reign and after his death.
The bust of Ramesses in the British Museum was taken from this Ramesseum. It is only a fragment: the base of the statue, in which the pharaoh is seated, is still in the Ramesseum. Napoleon’s troops first tried and failed to move the statue; then the British hired an Italian adventurer to do it, who used a combination of pulleys, hydraulics, and old-fashioned manpower. As Neil MacGregor notes, it is a testament to the power and ingenuity of the Egyptians that, 3,000 years later, their statues still require technical tours de forces to move. Imagine the discipline, organization, and sheer amount of sweat and backbreaking effort to move the original stone?
Cracked and battered as he is, the statue still has the effect that its creator intended: the impression of calm omnipotence. The pharaoh looks down serenely from a great height—imperturbable, immovable, eternal. Such a work is clearly the product of a culture in its prime, when artistic execution and social organization were raised to the pitch of perfection. As a mere display of technique, the statue is remarkable: the ability to transport such a massive block of stone, and then to chip away and polish the surface until all that remains is a perfect image of power. And you can imagine how effective these images were as propaganda, in a time before television or telescreens.
In life, Ramesses was as close as any human can get to complete power. In death, he was worshipped as a god. His name and his face have come down to us from over 3,000 years ago. This statue has outlasted whole kingdoms and countries; and there is a good chance it will keep persisting, even when (God forbid) the British Museum is no more. So you might say that, as propaganda, the statue has been an unmitigated success. And yet, Ramesses himself, his empire, and his entire culture—all of them have passed into memory, leaving only their stones and their bones. Impressive as the bust undeniably is, it is also undeniable that it now stands as a sample of Egyptian statuary, to be gawked at by visitors, impressed but certainly not worshipful.
All wood rots, all iron rusts, and everything human turns to dust. Shelley, upon hearing reports of this very bust of Ramesses II, put this sentiment into famous lines:
And on the pedestal these words appear: “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” Nothing beside remains: round the decay Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, The lone and level sands stretch far away.
The final irony is that those immortal lines, like Ramesses’s bust, have outlasted their makers and will likely last as long as there are humans who worry about the finitude of life.
If there is any hope of immortality, it is through the communication of our ideas—something demonstrated most poignantly by the Rosetta Stone. That ancient document—an administrative decree about taxes and tithes—now stands in the British Museum as a testament to the ability of different cultures in different places and times to understand one another. In the modern world it has become trendy to agonize about the impossibility of translation and the gulfs that separate different cultural worldviews. But humans have been translating since the beginning of history; and the very fact that we can decipher a long-dead language, written in an archaic script, using another translation of an ancient language written in another archaic script, shows that communication can transcend wide differences of perspective.
I have already spent far too much space describing the treasures of the British Museum. But I cannot leave off without a mention of the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon.
The Parthenon, as everyone knows, is the most important and iconic ruin from Ancient Greece. Built during Athens’ golden age as a temple to their patron goddess, Athena, it has been both a church and a mosque in its long life. The Ottomans even decided to use the temple to store ammunition—guessing that their enemies, the Venetians, would never dare to fire at such a hallowed edifice. This guess was incorrect; in 1687 a Venetian bomb detonated the ammunition inside, causing a massive explosion that left only the building’s husk intact. Then in 1800 an art-loving British aristocrat, the Earl of Elvin, in highly dubious circumstances, excavated sculptures and friezes from the ruined Parthenon to decorated his home. But a costly divorce forced him to sell his home and his collection to the British government. As a result, the parts of the Parthenon, in the next chapter of their long and battered history, found their way into the British Museum.
Unsurprisingly, this acquisition is controversial. Imagine if a museum in England had a part of Mount Rushmore. Americans wouldn’t be happy, and neither are the Greeks. The Greek government has been trying to repossess the collection since 1983. There are many arguments averred for sending the marbles back to Greece. The most compelling is the simplest: that the Parthenon is one of the most important cultural monuments in European history, and should be as complete as possible. In any case, the legality of the original transfer has always been questioned: it’s possible that Elvin didn’t have official permission from the Ottoman Empire. In England, public opinion was divided at the time—Lord Byron famously thought it was inexcusable vandalism—and seems to be in favor of returning the collection nowadays. The British Museum is (also unsurprisingly) in favor of keeping the marbles.
For my part, it seems unquestionably just to return the Elgin marbles to Athens. I do admit, however, that I was grateful for the opportunity to see the Parthenon friezes in the British Museum. The display is excellent, allowing the visitor to clearly see the friezes and the statues. If the marbles were inserted back into their original places in the Parthenon (if this is even possible), then they wouldn’t be as clearly visible. And if the marbles were merely displayed in a museum in Athens, then I’m not sure there would be any improvement of presentation. Nevertheless, it does seem that strict justice demands that the marbles be returned.
As for the Elgin marbles themselves—the friezes, metopes, and pediments that line the wall of one enormous exhibit in the British Museum—what is there to be said? The sculptures are likely the most studied and analyzed works of art in Western history; and not only that, they are perhaps the most influential. Almost from the start these works have defined and illustrated classical taste. Indeed, the Parthenon has served as such a ubiquitous model for later artists that it is nearly impossible to respond to them as genuine works of art. They are immediately familiar; you feel that you’ve seen it all before, even if this is your first time in the British Museum.
To the modern eye, the Parthenon sculptures can appear cold, austere, and timeless—perfect human forms carved from perfect white marble. It is scandalous to imagine that these frigid sculptures were once painted with gaudy colors; and inconceivable that, once upon a time, these paragons of artistic orthodoxy were once innovative and daring works that broke every convention.
A visitor to the British Museum can catch a glimpse of the originality of these works if they visit the Babylonian and Egyptian sections first. Moving on from those precursors to the Greeks, you can see obvious continuities—heros and gods, mythological beings and legends, religious processions and rituals—but the changes are even more striking. In the Parthenon, we see a new thing in history: a confident belief in the powers of human intelligence and creativity. Unlike the static and rigid bodies of Egyptian pharaohs, sitting straight up and look straight ahead, we see bodies twisting, turning, leaping, extending, straining—in other words, we see the human body in motion, propelled by its own force. This is not a society that believes in stable order, but in ceaseless striving.
The new perspective is illustrated most clearly by the metopes depicting the centauromachy: the battle between the human lapiths and the half-human half-animal centaurs. In Egyptian mythology, many of the gods were half-animal; and Sumerian palaces were often guarded by the sphinx-like lamassus. In both of these cultures, the natural world, the world of animal life, was seen as a source of power and cosmic order. Yet in the Parthenon the half-animal creatures, the centaurs, are agents of chaos and destruction—creatures who must be conquered and vanquished. For better or for worse, this urge to conquer our own animal nature has been with us ever since.
There are so many more—thousands and thousands more—works that deserve deep contemplation in the museum’s collection, but I will stop here. Yet as I take leave of the British Museum, I want to leave you with one parting thought.
No institution I have seen better illustrates both the enormous strengths and the limitations of the Enlightenment than the British Museum. And because the Enlightenment is very much still with us, it is vital that we understand these strengths and limitations.
Its strengths are undeniable, especially in the context of history. As compared with what came before it, the conception of humanity and history embodied in the museum is undoubtedly an advance. Europeans began to be interested in non-Europeans cultures. Their sense of ancient history began to extend far beyond Ancient Greece and the tribes of Israel. Instead of focusing on their own country or their own religion, Europeans could conceive of humanity as a whole, with a single origin and a common destiny. The museum also demonstrates the democratic spirit of the Enlightenment. The knowledge is put on display for all to see and learn, not sequestered in schools or guarded by jealous academics. Just as the friezes of the Parthenon illustrate the confidence in human intelligence, so does the British Museum exemplify the new, boundless confidence in human reason—the belief that the world is intelligible, that we can communicate our knowledge to anyone, and that our knowledge is not bounded by creed, language, or nation.
But the museum also demonstrates the limitation of this universalist aim. For the idea of a museum that encompasses all of human history relies on the idea that we can create a neutral context in which to understand that history. This underlying notion is clear at a glance: each room—plain, white, full of right-angles—is filled with objects wrenched from their original context. Some of this context is restored, but only as information on panels. My question is: can a modern visitor, looking at a bracelet from ancient Egypt, reading about that bracelet on its accompanying caption, really grasp what this bracelet was to the jewel-maker who created it or the aristocrat who wore it? For comparison, imagine walking into a museum filled with objects from your room, except each object is carefully labeled and sits on its own display. Could any visitor understand what life was like for you?
My point is that there is something inescapably artificial and sterile about the museum. In attempting to create a universal history, a neutral context for information, the museum transforms its objects and imposes a new context. The original meaning of each artifact, how they were used and understood by their creators, is abolished; and instead, each artifact becomes a piece of evidence in a specifically Enlightenment story about the growth of humankind.
To put this another way, the Enlightenment attitude fails to come to grips with how our attempts to understand the world transform what we’re trying to understand. When knowledge is seen as impersonal, existing in a neutral context, simply a matter of seeing and describing, then knowledge becomes blind to its own power. And the British Museum is, among many other things, a demonstration of British power: the financial, political, and military means to scour the world and collect its most valuable objects into one location. It is also a demonstration of British intellectual power: the power to understand all of human history, to see truly and to interpret correctly, to escape provincialism into neutral universality.
I need to pause here. I sound as if I am being harshly critical of the British Museum, and indeed I am. But the truth is that my brief visit was staggering. I saw and learned so much in such a short time that I cannot possibly deny that I think the museum is valuable. The reason I level these criticisms at the British Museum is not because I think this intellectual project it represents is bankrupt or futile, but because, with all its flaws and limitations, with all its political and economic underpinnings, it seems to be the best we have yet achieved in humanity’s understanding of itself. I see these challenges not as reasons to despair—any intellectual project will have its limitations—but as spurs to creative solutions.