May 31, 2006

Other: Hip Waders On!

Did I mention how much frikkin' history there is in London? Better make it full diving gear...

Day 27 - London
Up early enough to get to at least two museums, possibly four. The Significant Other and I are on our own again, so I made sure I had the spare keys before we hit our first target: the Geffrye (sounds just like it's spelled) Museum. The Geffrye sounds dead-dull, but is actually fascinating for fans of pop culture: it follows the history of the English living/sitting/family room through the last 300 years or so, give or take a couple decades.

No, really.

Unfortunately, the 18th and early 19th century rooms were closed for major refurbishment, so we could only tour from the Regency (1870s) onward. After that, every decade has its own room right up to the '90s, and yes, IKEA makes an appearance. Interestingly, the one I recognized best was the room representing the '50s. I'm assuming that this was because my grandparents had much of it, and also because A) we were piss-poor broke when I was growing up, so keeping up with the Joneses wasn't an option, and B) we lived in a log cabin for some of the time. Our furniture was mostly either old or homemade, so the individual styles of various decades left little mark on my memory. All the rooms were tastefully done, and the quality of the furniture and decorations was quite high, so I didn't feel the expected revulsion on viewing the rooms from the '70s or '80s.

We were about to make our way to the museum gardens when I discovered that not only did I have the spare keys to Kay's apartment, I had all the keys to Kay's apartment. We immediately rushed back to her place, called her work, then hopped the Underground to meet her under the 18' tall statue of Freddie Mercury (don't ask).

Next up was Sir John Soane's museum. Sir John was one of England's greatest architects, and he filled his house with with plaster casts of various Greek and Roman statuary, columns, cornices, cameos, gargoyles and any other carved decorations of antiquity so his students could study them. Some of the more authentic pieces were: two political satire series paintings of William Hogarth (The Rake's Progress and An Election), the sarcophagus of Seti the Great (Ramses II's father), and a series of brilliant architectural elevations done by a student of Soane's, Joseph Gandy. What could be brilliant about elevations? Gandy introduced dramatic light, depth, unique perspectives, and people into them to provide instant understanding of scale. It seems that Soane viewed Gandy as the son he always wanted (neither of his own followed him into architecture, much to his bitter disappointment), and two years after Soane's death, Gandy was thrown into a madhouse, where he died.

From this cheery place, we went to the British Museum. We knew with only four hours to look around, we'd have to pick and choose what exhibits to see. How loaded is the Brit? Here's a hint: when Soane offered his sarcophagus to them, it was turned down. Here's what we caught:

The Americas: The Royal BC has the best stuff of the West Coast tribes, of course, but the rest of the two continents narrowed into two rooms included some great choices. It ranged from the artistry of the jewled skulls of South America to the ingenious survival gear of the Innuit. You can readily see why there were two classes of explorer in the North: those who believed that even though the native peoples were illiterate, they had a lot to teach; and dead folks.

The Assyrians: I've often seen the classic winged bulls that is usually shown when Assyrians are discussed, but I never realized that the statues are absolutely covered in cuniform writing. The statues, obilisks, and even a set of gates never stood bare (at least, none of the ones in the museum did) but were coated in writing as well. The drive for humans to communicate beyond their voices is really felt when you see this for the first time.

A tiny bit of the Egypt display: Well, you have to, don't you? Ye gods, these statues were huge! It was an effort to make an impression on the vastness of the desert, I'd think: to overcome the brutal emptiness surrounding them. Ozymandias kept running through my head, and a comment by the S.O about the impressiveness of many of the buildings in England compared with those back home. She pointed out that if you brought any of those buildings, as impressive as any you wish, and plunked them down in Vancouver, they would always be dwarfed by the Cascades right behind them. Efforts by architects to inspire awe in viewers just don't work out here.

The Rosetta Stone: Arguably, the most popular game in the world right now is Sudoku, which appears in countless newspapers every day. This is one of the most revered artifacts in human history: it allowed us to understand hieroglyphs, opening the history of one of mankind's most ancient civilizations to exploration.

And finally the Parthenon (Elgin) Marbles: Brilliant carvings, designed for... what? These statues lined the Parthenon of Athens, forty feet in the air, and yet were complete in every detail, including the backs and tops, which would never be seen. The precision of form is all there, most impressively in the depictions of a massive battle between Lapiths (a neighbouring tribe) and centaurs, mythical creatures which could never have existed, yet here they are: wrestling, striking, falling with utterly realistic motion.

There is a lot of controversy involving the Marbles, and whether they should be returned to Greece. Here, for instance, is one view that they should; and here is another that they shouldn't. Bearing in mind that the faces being hacked off of many of the statues and panels and much of the other damage was the result of the Parthenon being converted into a Catholic Church, then a Muslim Mosque, then a gunpowder store which was blown up, it's amazing that even this much has even survived. Here's the British Museum's take.

At the end of the day, utterly exhausted from the mindfuck that looking at thousands of years of history can do, Kay took us down the street to the most wonderful furniture store: it was the gaudiest, weirdest furniture I've yet seen. Enameled bed frames; five foot tall gilt "Nubian slave" lamps (a matching pair, yet); chandeliers that hung at eye level; and best of all, a "sitting set" of two chairs and a glass table, all supported by gold-edged fake elephant tusks, with two more tusks thrusting up through the table with a huge gold clock suspended between them from brass rods shaped like thick silken cords. Only, you know, gold. All this for a mere thousands of dollars, plus the temporary blindness it would take to live with, one hopes.

It was like a lightly flavoured ice after a rich, heavy meal: the utterly tasteless frivolity of the store had us laughing until we cried. Equilibrium was, in our minds, restored.


posted by Thursday at 9:40 am


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