I spent yesterday wandering about London downtown. I hopped the tube from Heathrow and headed the many (many, many) stops down into the centre of Swinging London. With the iPod of doom fully charged I plowed through a pizza at Pizza Hut, read Eastern Standard Tribe, and was then left wondering what to do with my time.
Being that this is my second time to London, I have hit all the requisite MUST DO tourist sights, so I was free to add to the rosters something that has often been praised to me but up to that point had been left unvisited: The British Museum.
Roaming room to room one sees all sorts of wonderful exhibits and displays. About halfway through my exploration I came to believe that there is something fundamentally different about the Brit. as opposed to the musea I visited in Spain recently. It was somehow bigger in execution and semiotic power. I shall devote the rest of this post to trying to figure out what the Brit has that others do not.
The large building crowns some prime real estate near Oxford High Street. It is surrounded by fairly twisty roads and has an open plaza for its main entrance. Students and curators on smoke-break litter the area and one enters the grand entrance.
From here you can essentially follow a path through the eastern wing or the western wing, if you go streaight ahead you run smack into the gigantic domed Reading Room (famous for being the site of the inking of das Kapital). The rooms are full of archeological artifacts, ancient mosaics, mummies, telescopes, and ancient Egyptian statues.
Now If you go to a Museum of Modern Art, you know that you’re going to see modern art. If you go to the Rijksmuseum or The Prado, you know you’re going to see priceless masterworks of a certain type.
If you said, what do all those Velazquez, Picasso, etc. works all add up to (in the case of the Prado ) you would simply say “a museum”.
But is there anything grander that they all add up to? No, those collections say “this is what the government of this country thinks is appropriate to have in a mueum bearing this nation’s name”.
In short, the collection of objects in these, I fully grant, fine and amazing musea, makes no meta-collection statement.
The British Museum is different, in aggregate all the rooms and everything that fills them becomes a tribute to knowledge and its dissemination.
In this the Brit is quite revolutionary, amazing even. It is a sharp departure from the rather pedestrian linearity of single-threaded musea like a “van Gogh” or a “Dali” or Prado.
On first contrary consideration there would seem to be counterexamples. One could ask, in response, “Are there not fine musea which collect scientific tools and implements: the "Naturalis” in Leiden, The Netherlands, certain wings of The Louvre, the Exploratorium in San Francisco? Are these not statements about knowledge?"
Indeed, but if one takes the case of the Naturalis or the Exploratorium, we return to the “single-threaded” model. Basically you say, instead of putting these paintings in a closet, we have put them in this well-lit building. In the case of “single-threaded” musea, you could use “van Goghs, Miros, scientific edutainment apparatus, ancient microscopes, etc.” It’s thematically singular.
The Brit differs because its theme is only perceived in consideration of the whole.
So we’re left with the Louvre and the Brit as being, very justifiably, multi-threaded musea. On one hand I’m tempted to rule out the Louvre on the grounds that it’s simply too big, they’ve basically jammed 3 single-threaded musea in one and thus defenders could say “Lo, The Louvre is multi-threaded”.
It was chocked full of interesting scientific apparatus, ill-gotten specimens from colonies / dominions. It’s really a very modern museum, thematically, and it communicates many, many modern social arcs: things about mass-communication (engravings on ancient Egyptian statues), literacy (gigantic freaking reading room and cuneiform imprints),
All of the rooms in the Brit say: This is how humans learn: reading, conquering, and cataloging artifacts. It is a pean to technology and mankind’s learning capability.