British Museum Treasure Hunt

From a diary entry 10th December, 2013: London

One of the joys of international research is that often you get to have quite lengthy email back and forth discussions with the managers charged with gatekeeping collections. Sometimes all the way down in the Antipodes, one doesn’t quite realise just how many gates one must pass in order to be admitted to the inner, hallowed sanctum of a reading room.

With such an established institution as the British Museum, this should come as no surprise though. Millions of items dating back through antiquity and beyond are now even more precious than they were to the Georgians who began collecting them (through sometimes less than savoury means – but that’s another story altogether).

The conversation began by email between myself and a staffer of the Prints and Drawings Room, as I was interested in seeing what they might have collected as a background to the famous goldsmith, Peze Pilleau.

It culminated with the directions:

“We are limited to 12 places so I would suggest that you try to get here as close to 10.00 if possible. It is best to come via the North entrance which is at the back of the museum in Montague Place – take the lift to the 4th floor, you will come to a set of double doors leading to our exhibition gallery (Room 90), turn right & behind the Michelangelo cartoon is the entrance to the Print Room -please ring the bell. Please bring some form of ID with you.”

It was enough to make me feel like my visit would resemble an episode of Get Smart.

So the day came. As I was to enter through the back door of the Museum, I thought it best to disembark the Tube at Russell Square, closer than Holborn which is nearer the front of the Museum. Conveniently (not), that had 176 stairs to street level, no options.  Then I went on a 10 minute adventure through a children’s playground and several parks that weren’t Russell Square as I had expected, but in the opposite direction to that intended, making me late for my 10am appointment. But even when I’d got to the back door, there were many more gates to pass through.

Note to self for next time you’re running late: when you find the two Aslan lions lackadaisically sentinel with paws crossed, as if guarding the ark, enter with caution. Do not presume to leave your cloak conveniently just inside the back entrance, because that Cloak Room is for ‘members only’ and you’ll need a member’s card.

Then, use the accessible toilet because it is the only one within a waterbag-walk of where you are at present. Then, know that Room 90 is an active rotating exhibit gallery which will probably have an exhibit entitled ‘Japanese Art of Sex and Pleasure’.

Also, know that the Michelangelo ‘cartoon’ takes up a full tall-door sized wall.  Oh, and you can rattle the door to the Prints and Drawings Room all you like, but unless you press the top doorbell – brass (of course) you will stand there ALL DAY.  Bring a time-piece – the clock in the reading room maybe incorrect as it gets wound only once a week!!

I took the opportunity to go to the shunga exhibition later. It was full-on.  I have never seen (as you’d expect), so many over-sized penises assembled in one place. There was flesh everywhere – nothing left to the imagination.  It seems that the masculine inclination to hyperbole made it onto limited edition Japanese prints too – the features of porn are apparently everlasting. Men’s and women’s genitalia were equally displayed in all their glory – a democracy of erotica. It was quite a revelation and it seemed, considering the number of couples being caught in flagrante delicto through the wide open doors of Room 90, that the gatekeeping might have more appropriately been re-assigned.

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