London: Stolen treasures & Rare books

This morning was a lazy start with the British Museum not opening until 10am. We meandered out the door, grabbed coffee, then took the tube to the Museum. The grand imposing building is purpose built to hold the Elgin Marbles, nicked from Greece and Turkey in 1816. The Museum doesn’t go as far as stating that the treasures from the Pantheon were stolen by Lord Elgin, preferring to use words such as rescued. They do note that the Greek government would like them returned, to the extent that they have instigated legal proceedings. This is explained to visitors in a small pamphlet with one short paragraph for ‘the Greek perspective’ and two pages dedicated to why the British Museum should retain their treasures. The argument boils down to ‘we’ve had them for 201 years, and more people visit them here.’

The presence of these, and many other stolen goods, in the Museum led to an interesting discussion in our family. I refuse to go to the Tate galleries because of their association with sugar, and the slave trade. The Tate galleries make a huge point of saying that their business started in 1869, approximately twenty years after the slave trade was abolished in English law, however the connection is still there as the only real change was to call sugar plantation workers ‘indentured’ workers, rather than slaves. But is that morally different to visiting stolen treasures at the British Museum, or looking at the Kohinoor at the Tower of London?

With regards to the British Museum – it is an imposing, impressive building, purpose built between 1823 and 1853 to house Elgin’s Marbles. No wonder so many regency romance heroines visit them. No book I’ve read has given the impressive of space that the Museum conveys, and this must be because regency romance heroines (technically 1811-1820) wouldn’t have visited the current building, but a temporary building outside the old British Museum. There is a long history to the Marbles, in particular the payment surrounding them. This can be googled.

On seeing Elgin’s marbles, it is easy to understand why all of London went crazy over them. They are huge, a grandiose statement of England’s ability to conquer and acquire worldly treasures. Along with Egyptian treasures, such as the Rosetta Stone, the British Museum collections are incredible. I left the Museum with a mixture of awe and cynical displeasure. Awe at the scale of their collections, much of the architectural and art history of the world in one place; and cynical displeasure because without the history of forced acquisition, the Museum would be a large empty building.

With regards to the Bluestocking series, the next book that I need to write is The Honorary Bluestocking and will be set in the British Museum, so I wanted to spend some time in the building to get a sense of place. This building was in existence in 1888, and not much has changed since then, although many of the collections were shifted to the (newly built) Natural History Museum around that time. I wanted to get a better sense of the curation process at the time, but this information wasn’t readily available. However, I do have a contact I can ask now, so the visit had some value.

From here we walked to King’s Cross station to visit Platform 9 ¾, an outstanding example of fandom with a huge line of people waiting to take a photo with the statue at the station. We weren’t willing to wait for a photo, but did enter the shop with all things Harry Potter, a staggering amount of merchandise of all types. A discovery that might delight fans is the statue of the King’s Cross engineer – sir who?

Across the road from the St Pancreas/King’s Cross station is a cute pub named the Euston Flyer, where we dined for lunch. From there, we dropped into the British library. They have a copy of a rare book I want to read for another writing project, and I was hoping to get a print on demand copy of it as I have purchased one of these previously (although not directly from the library). Unfortunately, this task grew to epic proportions, and after speaking to several staff members (perhaps with some of the conversations lost in translation between British English and Australian English?), it was determined that I could read their copy of the book if I went to their Yorkshire hub. Given that this is for a project that is currently quite far down my to-do list, I think this one can wait for a while longer.

The day left us all with a sense of pointless meanderings, so we decided to do something achievable to finish up. Diagon Alley – also known as Leadenhall Markets – is near the Library, so we walked there, dragging the children through the quaint marketplace as they complained that their feet were falling off from “too much walking”. We bribed them with icecream, and went to the pub for a beer (and icecream with a chocolate brownie too!) This particular pub was found after we’d followed an alleyway, walked through a different pub with no spare seats, along another winding alleyway, and finally through the backdoor of the pub. Refueled, we were able to take ourselves to the tube and back to our little apartment.

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