The British Museum in Bloomsbury, just north of London’s West End, has received about five million visitors this year. The bulk of them must have showed up at the same time as I did one Saturday lunchtime this summer. The queues were as biblical as any of the ancient masterpieces on display.
Lesson learned. Unless you go at an ungodly early hour, the best time to visit at the weekend is at about 3.45pm. Queuing time is minimal and once you have a clear idea of what you want to see and stay laser-focused, you will still get an hour in relative peace before staff begin ushering you out.
Last Sunday at 3.45pm we sailed through the security check and joined the human river flowing through the front door. The biggest individual stream usually peels off immediately upstairs to rooms 62 and 63. That’s where you find the mummies – the Egyptian kind, not the London ones in Lululemon yoga gear and pushing Bugaboo prams at high speed.
On Sunday, however, a large portion of people entering for the final hour swung left inside the museum’s main foyer and headed for room 18, the gallery that houses the Parthenon Sculptures.
Known to many in Britain as the Elgin Marbles, they are the collection of friezes originally from the ancient temple on the Acropolis in Athens that the Greek government is demanding be returned. The then British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire Lord Elgin, took the artworks out of Greece in shady circumstances over 200 years ago.
Talk of the issue inevitably dredges up imperial Britain’s reputation for foreign plunder. It may be the British Museum, but it is the rest of the world’s clobber.
The Parthenon Sculptures were at the centre of a big political row last week after Britain’s prime minister Rishi Sunak, intemperately cancelled a meeting in London with his Greek counterpart Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who had complained on the BBC about the friezes being in the UK.
The publicity may have spurred the interest of some of Sunday’s crowd, as it had mine. My greek is limited to how to order a beer, which I learned on Kefalonia in July, but the unmistakable sound of the language could also be heard among the chatter. Probably a mixture of patriotic expatriates and Greek tourists.
The marbles are housed in a huge, windowless gallery that was funded by a controversial art dealer, Lord Duveen of Millbank. His name is carved in huge letters high on the wall, like the imprint of a Greek god. The sculptures themselves are remarkable, but the atmosphere in the room is strained by the sheer volume of people bumping and side-winding around.
Its artefacts include a clatter of items that were sent across the Irish Sea and down to London during British rule
The British Museum, chaired by former chancellor George Osborne, has in public taken a more diplomatic attitude to the dispute than Sunak. Yet there was little information on display in Duveen’s great hall on Sunday about the row with the Greeks.
For an even better case of post-Brexit Britain’s reckoning with itself over its plundering imperial past, you’re better off leaving the crowds of room 18 behind. Instead, head downstairs to room 25, the Africa Gallery. This far quieter space houses the Benin Bronzes, a collection of 16th-century metal sculptures from an ancient kingdom that is now in Nigeria.
The museum doesn’t flinch in its British-bashing appraisal of how it came to be in possession of these intricate pieces from a land so far away. The storyboard on the wall in room 25 attributes it to “colonial conquest and military looting” by British forces in Africa at the end of the 19th century. It recalls how Benin city suffered a “violent and devastating occupation” by British forces, who “plundered” its palaces and brought the bronzes to Britain as “spoils of war”.
The Nigerian government has in recent years been making noises about their potential return. Many other museums around Europe and the US also have Benin Bronzes that were looted by the British, before being sold abroad. Germany has a huge collection. The British Museum and others are in talks with the royal palace of the Oba of Benin, which still exists inside modern-day Nigeria, to scope out where the bronzes may be kept in the future.
Meanwhile, patriotic Irish people should stay out of the British Museum’s room 41. Its artefacts include a clatter of items that were sent across the Irish Sea and down to London during British rule. They include the 1,500-year-old St Cuilean’s Bell from Tipperary and the 1,000-year-old Kells Crozier, which mysteriously appeared in a London solicitor’s office in the 1850s.