London, England: The Hidden Gems

I was set to leave London on Saturday and take the train to Manchester where I would meet Phil. On that Friday, my last day in London, Rebecca had the day off from work, so we went on a small cultural tour of the city.

My traveling philosophy is based around doing things that the majority of other travelers wouldn’t do. I don’t like group tours, sightseeing buses, or going to museums for the sake of going to museums. I like visiting quaint neighbourhoods (and their bakeries), neglected galleries and museums, or maybe just spending an afternoon eating lunch in a park.

I met Rebecca in a neighbourhood near the British Museum, and we went to a small used bookstore where Rebecca was searching for a Christmas present for her boyfriend. She told me it was arguably one of the best secondhand bookstores in the city. We found a beautiful print of The Jungle Book as well as one of Jane Eyre, a favorite of Nick’s. We browsed around the store for a while before walking towards the museum. I had no intention of spending any amount of time in the British Museum, but there was one thing I wanted to see. Fortunately, the museum is free, so I had the freedom to spend as much or as little time there as I wanted.

The Rosetta Stone. Just like the Code of Hammurabi, it was another one of those vestiges of my elementary schooling that always stuck in mind. The ancient key that unlocked a forgotten language. I had to see it.

So did, apparently, several large groups of school children and Asian tourists. I managed to get close to its glass housing and took a nice long look before moving on. They allowed photography in the museum, which I don’t really believe in when it comes to historic artifacts, so while I took the high road hoardes of Japanese amateur photographers took turns taking pictures of each other.

One large hall of the museum was dedicated to the famous Parthenon sculptures, better known as the Elgin Marbles. The story of these artifacts is actually quite interesting: The sculptures, inscriptions and architectural pieces that make up the set were originally part of the Parthenon and other Acropolis buildings. At the beginning of the 19th century, Lord Elgin, then Ambassador to the Ottoman court in Istanbul, convinced the Sultan to let him take these pieces back to London for his own collection. Labelled a theif, vandal and looter by many, the removal of such precious antiquities sparked serious debate in and out of the the British Parliament, until they eventually exonerated him of his actions. But the government then purchased the pieces from Lord Elgin and donated them to the Museum.

Having Rebecca around to explain all this to me, as well as point out interesting features of certain sculptures, and describe how they would’ve appeared on the actual buildings was invaluable. The passion and excitement that she conveyed was infectious; I can only strive to speak so fervently about what I love.

Although I said I wanted to high-tail it out of there after seeing the Rosetta Stone, there were a couple temporary exhibits that deserved a look. I spotted them while surveying the floor map of the Museum. The first was a — and this might sound like a joke, but it really isn’t — a 50kg, £1.5 million, gold statue of British model Kate Moss doing an ankles-behind-the-ears pose. Seriously. It kinda freaked us out.

I can almost see where the artist, Marc Quinn, was going with it. It’s the largest gold statue created in modern times, and it was placed in an area of the Museum dominated by works of Ancient Egypt and other decadent cultures. Old world artists created similar statues of their gods and idols, can you say Marc Quinn did anything different? If so, you’re not watching enough E! and MTV.

The second temporary exhibit was a piece by hyper-realist Ron Mueck. I can’t remember where I first read about his work, but I knew I wanted to see it in person. His specialty are mixed-media sculptures of things that look incredibly real, but are out-of-scale. Like a human foot the size of a sedan, or in this case, a very large head of a sleeping man (supposedly a recreation of Mueck’s own face).

It’s hard to show scale with the photograph, but the width of the face was probably 4 feet, the length around 7 feet. It was simply incredible.

Rebecca and I had a nice lunch at a small sandwich shop and took a break from the cold wind. By the time we finished eating, the skies had clouded over and it looked like it might drizzle. We were in the area of a museum Rebecca really wanted to see, a place she had been to as a child, but wanted to revisit with fresh perspective: Sir John Soane’s Museum.

This is another interesting story: John Soane was an architect who’s buildings often shaped the landscape of late 18th/early 19th century London. Towards the end of the 18th century, he purchased a house near Lincoln Fields which he used as an office, library and home. He was an avid collector and over the years amassed a treasure trove of artifacts, artwork and sculptures that rivalled the quality of those found in the British Museum. Many of the paintings were ones he did himself, of his own buildings. Towards the end of his life, he bought the building next door to his house to expand his collection. Finally, four years before his death, he succeeded in having the house and collection bequeathed to the country.

It was a cold, windy and wet day — not unheard of in London — and as we approached the museum we were greeted by a very friendly doorman … or gateman, he was standing at the end of a short walk away from the building. As I would soon find out, the museum is so cramped they have to meter the flow of people coming in and out. When Rebecca and I were finally let in, I had to check my bag at the door … not because I had anything scandalous  in it, or they were afraid I would steal something, but because the house was so small and the hallways so narrow that there was a danger of knocking something over.

It’s hard to describe the experience of the Soane Museum. It’s unlike any other museum you will ever see. I won’t go too much into it, but it’s 3 floors of narrow halls, and hidden walkways and stairs, every inch of which is covered with artwork, or a tribal mask, or a scarcophagus. One room had hinged panels built into the walls that could be opened and closed, which uncovered many of Soane’s paintings. The upper floors had been meticulously recreated to mirror the original decor.

Later that night I took Rebecca and Nick out to dinner in Chinatown. It was a busy restaurant, and after some terrible service from the maitre’d, we finally found a waitress who gave us the scoop on what to order that night.

It had been a whirlwind visit to London, but as I would soon discover, the small twister was evolving into a typhoon. I was headed to Manchester the next day to meet Phil, and he and I were going to do an impromptu road trip of the UK in less than a week.

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2 comments

  1. The Soane museum reminds me of the Salar Jung museum in Hyderabad. Salar Jung was the prime minister in the Nizam’s government and loved to collect stuff. But he was afraid that the Nizam would appropriate them. So he would keep his stuff in various houses he owned and rented around town! These were collections of carpets, walking sticks, clocks, etc. Finally, after independence, these were all pulled together into one building!

  2. reading your blog is like going to school all over again. i’m not sure this is a good thing or bad thing…

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