The British Museum

August 17th & 24th

I have lived across the street from the British Museum for a solid 2 and a half months and except for a brief peek inside on the 4th of July, this was the first time I actually visited it. Terrible, right? Especially since I was a History major. But when something is so close it’s easy to put off visiting it. It would have been utterly disgraceful to leave London and not see it, however, so finally I ventured inside.

The museum is so big and sprawling I actually went on two separate weekends. The first Sunday I entered without a clue where to go or even what I was supposed to see. I dimly recalled something about facades from the Parthenon, but I had no idea where to find them in the vast museum. In fact the first room I wandered into turned out to be the gift shop. Hmmm. Once through the gift shop I did come across a cavernous room holding actual artifacts, including a massive stone foot from a toppled Roman statue. But no bits of the Parthenon were to be seen. I wandered across the wondrously dizzying Great Court – the heart of the museum, which has the most spectacular ceiling I’ve ever seen – and at last found my way to the Egyptian & Greek & Roman statues.

Right away I came upon the Rosetta Stone, which was quite exciting, as you can imagine. It’s encased in glass, of course, so my photo mostly shows the reflection of all the people standing around instead of the writing. But the writing really is incredible to see in person – each of the three languages is written in teeny letters but quite clear all the same. I don’t think I knew before that the Rosetta Stone was a black stone, with the etched letters showing up white. Thus far it’s the most striking ancient artifact I’ve ever seen.

After a bit more confused meandering through galleries that completely upended my sense of direction, I finally found the Elgin Marbles, the statues and friezes taken from the Parthenon by Lord Elgin in 1801. They’ve been displayed at the British Museum ever since 1816. The friezes run down both walls of a long gallery, with the statues from the pediments at either end. Nearly all the statues are missing heads and occasionally arms, but the friezes are in remarkably good condition. My favorite sections featured large troupes of men on horseback – the detail was extraordinary, and I really got the sense of energy and movement even out of figures frozen in stone. I spent the rest of my time studying the friezes until the museum closed.

The next Sunday I returned to the museum – I’d only seen those few areas on the first floor, and I knew there was a great deal more to see. So I promptly got lost in the endless galleries again. Not that I was ever really lost, but I definitely had no sense of direction. But it’s nice to wander around a museum with no sense of purpose, to explore leisurely and pop into random rooms that strike your fancy. I ambled my way through galleries devoted to China, India, Japan, ancient Egypt (complete with real mummies!), Celtic Britain, and even twentieth-century American graphics artists. I loved looking at the sleek ink drawings of 1920s New York, with women in cloche hats walking beneath towering skyscrapers.

I was at the deepest end of the Celtic Britain galleries looking at a massive iron cauldron when they announced closing, and as I made my way out I was surprised to find I was on the opposite end of the museum than I’d thought. I spent two days there and I’m sure I still didn’t see everything.

Hyde Park

Sunday, August 10th

The forecast called for rain on Sunday, but the morning and early afternoon were bright and sunny instead. So I made my way to Hyde Park for a leisurely excursion about the grounds.

This was yet another London landmark I missed on my previous visit, so I was really excited to see it. I always think of how gentlemen and ladies would go courting by taking drives about the park in my old Regency romances. (It is rather troubling how much my knowledge of England is formed by Regency romances. Hmmm.) I had a great time wandering the lanes and ended up walking all the way around the Serpentine and the Long Water, the small lakes formed from the Westbourne River for Queen Caroline in 1730. (I read a monument.)

Despite the chilly breeze quite a few people were out rowing or paddleboating in the Serpentine, and I even saw one person swimming in the bathing area. Some areas of the park were painstakingly landscaped while others were left to run wild—quite the interesting combination. At one remote area along the path I couldn’t believe I was in the middle of a massive city anymore; it was just grassland and scattered trees in all directions.

At the head of the Long Water I relaxed on a bench among the fountains and watched the swans. As I made my way down the opposite shore I wandered through the Princess Di Memorial Fountain, which is surprisingly fun and unique as fountains go. People were wading and playing in the bubbling stream all around the fountain. Further along I suddenly came upon a sandy exhibition area, where a dozen riders were competing in pairs events. The horses were beautiful; groomed to perfection, many with their manes and tails braided. Everyone was decked out in fancy riding gear, while one pair were wearing full riding habits with long navy skirts—and I do believe riding sidesaddle. It was delightful in an utterly English way.

Comfy folding chairs are grouped all along the Serpentine, and I hung out for awhile in one beside a willow tree and read In A Sunburned Country, Megan’s book on Australia by Bill Bryson. He really is a fantastic travel writer. I love how a big chunk of his travels through Australia consist of him wandering on foot through various residential neighborhoods in Sydney and Melbourne and Canberra. He does so much walking and most of it not even remotely near tourist areas, just random suburbs. Scratch that – he seems to go on foot pretty much throughout the entirety of these cities, only using a rental car to get from city to city and not even bothering with public transport at all. I have to applaud his dedication as I am someone who couldn’t even bear to walk the extra ten minutes to the Tube every day to get to work. I chose to use the bus stop half a block away at the end of my street instead, heh.

I timed my visit pretty much perfectly, as the skies opened up just as I was making my way out of the park. I wonder if the people still paddleboating got wet.

The Hayward Gallery

The Hayward Gallery, with one of the outdoor installations—Observatory, Air-Port-City

Wednesday, August 6th

Once again I got to enjoy the perks of the press with my internship. The company was provided with free tickets to the Psycho Buildings exhibition at the Hayward Gallery—anyone who wanted to go was free to leave work at 3 p.m. and make their way to the gallery on the South Bank. With such an incentive I didn’t have to be asked twice.

I might have felt shy about attending an artistic architecture exhibition with just my coworkers a month ago, when I felt I didn’t really know anyone very well. But over the past two months I’ve worked with so many editors and designers that I think I’ve gotten to know nearly half the office. This is all due to the fact that I was never assigned to any one magazine and never had a permanent desk, unlike Brielle. So not only have I worked with the editors of ten different magazines (ten, now!) I also had to repeatedly move throughout the building—even to different floors—in order to find an open desk. Although this could be painfully awkward at times (“Heyyyy . . . is anyone sitting here? Yes? Okay, I’ll just try over here . . .” *slinks away*) it also forced me to talk with others in the office and introduce myself, which might have been difficult otherwise. I hated not having a set spot, but it really was the best thing that I could have gone through. And now that I’ve taken over Brielle’s old desk I get the best of both worlds: my own desk where people know where to find me, because they know me.

So there was any number of people I could have cheerfully gone with to the exhibition, and that’s a great feeling. I’m so happy that I went, too. Of course a free exhibition is always tempting, but I am not the biggest fan of modern art, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. The result: I was utterly blown away. The installations were incredible, in their size, in their complexity, in their imagination. I can’t even begin to figure out how the artists constructed some of the pieces.

As this was supposed to be artists’ fantastical takes on architecture, nearly all the installations were large enough for people to walk around in. The odd fabric and paper materials used in some simply invited curious fingers, but the gallery attendants were barking “No touching!” (Of course I instantly thought of Arrested Development.) My favourite pieces—whoa, I just wrote favourite without thinking! I wouldn’t have noticed except spellcheck flagged it! Oh lord, my spelling is going to be so messed up when I come back to the States. Anyway: my favorite pieces without a doubt both involved dollhouses, not surprisingly. I’ve always had a fascination with dollhouses and miniatures, and the artists did not disappoint. Do Ho Suh constructed a massive replica of his first apartment building in the United States—I believe the scale was 1:5, which means this was a big, big dollhouse, easily taller than I am, and it held no fewer than four completely separate, individually decorated student apartments. Into this he’d smashed a replica of his childhood home in Korea, Wizard-of-Oz style. The miniature details he packed into both these houses were beyond belief. My coworkers and I lingered in front of it for nearly half an hour, continually asking each other “Whoa, do you see that teeny dictionary? Look at all the little dishes. And the washing machine! Check out the mini Domino’s box!”

Even better was Rachel Whiteread’s Place installation. Apparently she is a major collector of small dollhouses assembled by others over the years. She placed these empty dollhouses – dozens upon dozens of them – in tiers throughout a darkened room, with all their hundreds of windows aglow. Walking through them the effect was magical. It was like stumbling upon a fairy village that was both enchanting and hauntingly empty at the same time.

London's South Bank

Friday, August 1st

I got the day off work to do some final sight-seeing with Brielle before she flies back to the US over the weekend. We wandered all along the South Bank, a beautiful wide pedestrian boulevard that runs beside the Thames. We walked all the way from the London Eye to Tower Bridge, a considerable distance. We’d originally planned to meet at Westminster Station, but a security alert suddenly closed the station, so after some shuffling around (“Hey, I’m at Embankment now—where are you?” “Aw man, I just went through Embankment, I’m at Waterloo now”) we finally met at Waterloo. This actually happens fairly often—you’re merrily riding along and all of a sudden you hear a garbled message that means you will be disembarking at a spot sometimes quite far from your desired destination. Usually it’s not a big deal, but since cell phones don’t work deep underground, it can take awhile to figure out new plans if you’re trying to meet someone.

That said, from where I exited from the Northern line at Waterloo, I had to go completely outside, walk half a block, cross a busy street, enter and walk the entire length of the absolutely massive Waterloo train station to its opposite side to find the exit for the Jubilee line where I met Brielle. This proves to me that no, it wasn’t just me when I had so much trouble with the station last time; it really is just that confusing.

But we reached the South Bank and London Eye at last, with considerably less difficulty than our previous effort. The lack of pouring rain definitely helped. The day was gorgeous—mostly sunny with occasional clouds and a cool breeze. I cannot tell you how fantastic it felt to be wandering along the riverside on a lovely afternoon when I should have been stuck at a desk indoors. Yes!

A wide assortment of tourists and Londoners were enjoying the weather. We passed couples taking photos of each other, elderly people sitting on benches, teens on skateboards and bicycles, students relaxing in the grassy areas, even children riding a small carousel that played cheerful carnival music. I, meanwhile, took lots and lots of photos of the waterfront. I seem incapable of restraining myself.

To my delight we came across a used book sale, with no fewer than 4 massive tables filled with books sheltered underneath a railway bridge. I immediately set about searching for any Agatha Christie titles: Megan had found a pair for us to take to Croatia, so it was my turn to do the same for Turkey. And what did I find first? A book on Michigan! A Field Guide to Michigan State History, to be precise, proudly displayed right here in the heart of London. And right next to it? The American North Woods. Yeah Michigan!

Brielle helped me locate the cheap Agatha Christies and I got a fun-looking pair. Next we wandered into the Tate Modern, one of London’s most famous museums dedicated to modern art and located directly across the river from St. Paul’s. The museum is huge and this past spring several artists put up drawings along the outside walls that are mind-boggling in their size.

Inside we explored all the exhibits on the main floor and . . . well. I do like a lot of modern art; I think abstract paintings and sculpture can be very arresting visually and wondrously creative. But come on: a lot of it is just weird. One crazy Dutch artist had soaked a piece of canvas in blood, tacked it up, then declared it art. ….Yeah. On the one hand, I can see how that really is a different, creative thing to do, that perhaps no one else may have thought of. On the other . . . dude, you didn’t even paint anything. You just stuck up a piece of bloody canvas and announced that it meant something and was Art—not just any art but Art with a capital A. Seriously?

So yes. I am less than impressed with a great deal of modern art; but then, I have never made any claims toward understanding art in the first place. What I found really cool, however, was that we stumbled across one of Francis Bacon’s triptychs in the surreal section. This is noteworthy in that I recognized both art and artist because I had just written about him for one of the magazines—I had to read up on his life and works quite extensively. Otherwise I would have had no idea who he was; indeed my first thought when I got the assignment was “Francis Bacon? Like Sir Francis Bacon?” (Yep, my background is definitely in history, not in art.) Since beginning work with all these different magazines I’ve encountered this regularly: I have to research and write so much about cultural people and places and events that it’s really increased my knowledge of the world. It’s always a welcome surprise when I come across something in real life that I’ve written about—and then I get to feel super smart, heh.

We ate lunch at a yummy Greek restaurant just past the Globe Theatre. Since my Greek flatmates sadly don’t cook hardly at all—or at least, they don’t cook any Greek food – I figured this was my chance to taste some traditional Greek dishes, and sprang for the souvlaki. At a small replica of Sir Francis Drake’s ship we were forced to leave the river and wandered along various narrow alleys and streets until we could find the water again; along the way we passed London Bridge. Finally we came upon Tower Bridge, the first time I’d ever seen it on two visits to this country. It is absolutely massive and very, very cool. I’d thought the bridge was very old (like, centuries) but apparently it was only completed in 1894 to cope with the growth of East London. Interesting.

Upon crossing the bridge we found ourselves directly at the Tower of London, for which the bridge is named. We were intending to go inside and view the Crown Jewels but unbeknownst to us last tickets are sold at 5 p.m. and we arrived at 5:15. Oops. Oh well! We still had a good time wandering all around the ancient fortress—I hadn’t known it was so old that William the Conqueror built the original tower. The funny thing is that walking toward it Brielle was like, “Okay, so tell me about the Tower of London.” I mean literally phrased like that: "Tell me." Because . . . since I was a History major people think I know everything, I guess? Which of course I don’t, but I still get asked to become an unofficial tour guide all the time. What is really amusing is that usually I can think of some random fact or little tidbit about whatever person or place we’re discussing, so . . . yeah. I dredged up what I knew about Richard III and the Princes in the Tower, and how both Lady Jane Grey and Anne Boleyn were imprisoned there before they were beheaded, and how Queen Elizabeth I herself was placed in the Tower and almost executed by her sister Queen Mary. The Tudors were pretty bloodthirsty, that’s for sure.

Our tour of the South Bank at an end, we headed for Brick Lane and Meraz CafĂ©, our favorite Indian restaurant just off Brick Lane. They seriously make the best chicken korma I’ve ever tasted. I think I’ve been to the restaurant nearly every single week I’ve been in London – sometimes twice a week – and I always get the same thing. They don’t even have to give me a menu. The waiters are just like “Korma and rice, right?” or even better: “The usual?” Heh. After dinner Brielle and I joined our magazine coworkers (now that they were finally done with work!) for drinks to celebrate the end of the week. It was quite the fitting ending to our time together in London.