Whenever I visit the British Museum, two things always happen: I find something that grabs my attention that didn’t before, and leave, disappointed that there wasn’t enough time. On Saturday, among the throng of Bank Holiday weekend visitors rushing through the galleries, tick-boxing exhibits and robotically snapping artefacts with their mobile phones, I was grabbed by the Assyrian stone bas-reliefs showing the military campaigns of King Ashurnasirpal and The Royal Hunt. The detail is astounding, and the story-telling compelling. Today, in an age of instant on-access HD surround-sound multimedia entertainment, tales recorded on stone nearly 3,000 years ago took me to a very human world. The bowed heads of families taken as war booty about to be sold into slavery, the last dying gasp of the hunted lion, driven to bleeding exhaustion.
Some stories are told in the monuments themselves, like the detail on Statue of Ramesses II, detail created by an artisan who knew that people looking up would never see it, at least until the statue was later toppled. The graffiti on a pediment from the corner of the Parthenon. And that’s part of the magic of the British Museum; this beautiful monument to knowledge is probably the world’s greatest pop-up storybook, biographies of long past peoples carefully assembled by untold thousands of professional and amateur academics.
Sadly though, some people ignore this work, and place the exhibits in their own context, in their own version of events. Sometimes I listen in on tour groups, surfing the expertise of the tour guides for free from the periphery of their tour group. My friend and I came across a museum tour group standing around a colossal Assyrian statue. The tour guide described the statue, when and where it was built, who was responsible for it. Then one of the tour group asked, “was this before or after the Flood?”. The guide responded, “this was a post-flood civilisation, but this civilisation was abandoned by Jehovah”. I looked at my friend, he smiled and shook his head. Even here, in these grand halls of the accumulated knowledge of the history of humanity, ignorance walked. I hope that at least just one of the group has been inspired by the British Museum, as I have been, and look beyond the ignorant scrawlings in a holy book for real truth, the real story of our world and our peoples.
One thing that the British Museum records is that of all the civilisations that walked this planet, nearly all of them had a god or gods to pray to, to sacrifice to. All of those gods are now just historical anthropological curiosities in books and on objects dug out of the soil. If just one of the people on the tour put their own god in the same historical context, then their visit to the British Museum will have been worthwhile, and not just another tick-box entry of places to see.