British Museum – a perennial favorite

The British Museum is one of my all-time favorites – a place I visit every time I go to London. Each time there is something different that catches my eye or interest. I suppose this reflects my changing interests over time. But really this place has something for everyone.

British Museum

There is of course the wonderful classical lines of the building itself. Then, once you enter there is the amazing enclosed courtyard which contains the bookshop and cafe, and forms the jumping-off point to take your interests to different times, different parts of the world.

British Museum

The Egyptian section is wonderful, but this time it was the medieval material that caught our attention – at least initially. The Lewis Chess pieces are fascinating – possibly of Norse heritage, they were found on the Isle of Lewis – I have a replica Lewis chess set at home, and love the very human expressions on the pieces.

Lewis Chessmen

From the Viking period there is a fascinating mask/helmet that is said to amplify sound – so perhaps it meant that someone in command could shout orders, or perhaps it was so that the wearer would seem to have super-human capacity and would subdue enemies with a blood-curdling war cry (perhaps learned from Australian cockatoos(!) ).

Mask

This goblet is made from glass infused with cobalt so it appears green in shadow, but glows red when exposed to light. An amazing piece for its age.

Goblet

From the period of Roman Britain, there is a hoard of letters sent back by Roman guards on or near Hadrian’s Wall. But of particular note is what appears to be an intelligence report on the British – perhaps assessing their capacity to be integrated into the Roman Army. It reads in part:

“The Britons are unprotected by armour. There are very many cavalry. The cavalry do not use swords, nor do the wretched Britons mount in order to throw javelins.”

The fragment is a remarkable survival from the period of Roman occupation of Britain, and provides some insight into the Roman’s use of intelligence, both to assess their adversary, but also to assess their strengths as potential allies.

Roman intelligence message

Another remarkable survival is this library of Ashurburnipal king of Assyria. – and with it a 5th century BC account of a massive flood that engulfed the whole land, but one man was pre-warned by the gods to build an ark in which to save the animals.

Ashaburnipal's library

This lends weight to the view that a near global tsunami occurred in ancient times, and that the memory was carried by a range of people’s around the Arabian peninsula.

Ashaburnipal flood text

This is part of a new display – a reminder that even if you have visited before, the British Museum is constantly refreshing its displays and is worth re-visiting whenever you visit the UK.



Britain’s wartime legacy

The Old War Office in Whitehall, London was built in 1906 – surprisingly recent given its architectural roots, and stands today, much as it would have looked in the days when T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia) would have Parked his Brough Superior motorcycle out the front during and immediately following WWI.

It is said by Wikipedia to house around 1000 rooms across seven floors, linked by 2.5 miles of corridors. It belonged to the Ministry of Defence – including the period following the disestablishment of the War Office as a Government Department in 1964 – until it’s sale on 1 March 2016 to the  Hinduja Group and UHL Developments for conversion into a hotel and luxury apartments. It is estimated to have been sold for around £350m. One can only hope that the refurbishment will be sensitive to the heritage values of this impressive building.

Old War Office, London

On this visit, I also took the opportunity to take in Churchill’s War Rooms – an underground bunker built between the Treasury and Foreign and Commonwealth Office buildings opposite St James’ Park. Churchill used this as his wartime office from which he oversaw the conduct of British Forces in WWII. When advised to leave London he responded emphatically that to do so would lower the morale of those who were left in the City.

Hastily constructed, the War Rooms were initially only covered with a layer of soil, until the upper rooms were sealed, reinforced with steel girders and filled with concrete. Even with this reinforcement it would not have withstood a direct hit from a large bomb, but luckily it was never directly bombed.

Map Room - Churchill's war rooms

The War Rooms are formed from quite an extensive network of tunnels with rooms leading off on either side. These include the map room, communications room, Churchill’s bedroom and dining room, a full kitchen and rooms for the staff supporting the planning and management of operations.

Communications Room - Churchill's War Rooms

The museum provides an extensive history of Churchill’s life suitably peppered with his quotes – including recordings of his speeches. Interestingly, the display also covers Churchill’s personal side, including his heavy drinking and abusive treatment of his staff. There is even a note from his wife pointing out the change in his character and particular treatment of a junior officer. It is refreshing to see such candid histories behind significant individuals. The history also points out how devastated Churchill was in losing the Prime Ministership immediately after the war.

Churchill's wartime bedroom

It is well worth visiting this unobtrusive museum in the heart of London.

 



 

Shrek’s Bridge in Bristol?

My first thought on seeing Pero’s Bridge was that Bristol had a tide-driven sound-sculpture. Either that or Shrek was the chief designer. But it turns out that the horns were functional in a different way; as counter-weights for the bascules. This is a bridge that can be raised to allow taller vessels to pass through. The locals call the bridge ‘The Horned Bridge’ or ‘the horny bridge’.

Pero's Bridge

Pero’s Bridge

Pero’s bridge was named – controversially – for an African slave brought to the UK by West Indies plantation owner John Pinney. Pinney named him Pero Jones, and brought him back to the UK in 1783. Pero thereafter lived, worked and died in Bristol.

The Slave Trade

The slave trade was a morally dark period in Bristol’s history, which underpinned much of Bristol’s 18th century prosperity. And it is not an issue discussed openly. But there is at least acknowledgement, both in the naming of the bridge and in the museum display at the M-Shed that speaks frankly of the slave trade and the movement towards its abolition. Bristol was the second city outside of London to campaign actively for abolition of the slave trade, setting up a committee, public meetings, and petitions as early as 1788.

Women campaigners

Women played an active role by instigating a boycott of sugar and sugar products. As women were the household managers, they held authority over what was bought for use in the house. And sugar was largely produced by slave labour on the plantations in the West Indies, so there was an economic impact.

The end of the slave trade in Britain

Aside from those who benefitted directly from the slave trade, there were a large number of pro-abolitionists in Bristol. The first petition raised over 800 signatures. And the Slave Trade Act was finally passed in 1807 by the British Parliament, banning the transatlantic slave trade.

So next time you cross a quirky footbridge seemingly adorned with two large trumpets, Spare a thought for Pero and and his compatriots, and for those who had the courage to take a stand for human rights, and for a place that has the maturity to acknowledge the darker side of its history.