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The British Museum: Cradle of Enlightenment

The British Museum: Cradle of Enlightenment

The British Museum is one of the most popular attractions in London.  It’s often packed, but today I discovered that visiting on a Friday afternoon is a much more civilized experience.  The school groups and crowds are gone.  The pace is more relaxed.  Since the museum is open until 8:30 on Fridays, you don’t have to rush through your visit.  You can even have cocktails in the Great Court Restaurant if you’re so inclined.

The British Museum has over 8 million artifacts, so even on a quiet day it’s impossible to see everything in one visit.  However it was the perfect time to see the museum’s most prized possessions.  During the day, there are often long lines for popular exhibits such as the Rosetta Stone, which was the key to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics, the Parthenon sculptures, and the Egyptian galleries.  Visitors might only get a few minutes to look at them before feeling pressured to move on.  I was able to enjoy them all at my leisure.

The Rosetta Stone has been my favorites exhibit since my husband and I first visited in the early 1990s.  I have to admit I was a bit disappointed in the Egyptian galleries.  The mummies and other artifacts are displayed in row after row of glass cases.  The small signs on the cases are difficult to read.  The Egyptian displays at the Field Museum in Chicago are much more engaging.

I also managed to squeeze in quite a few other highlights, including the Portland Vase (an extremely detailed Roman vase that was the inspiration for Wedgwood), galleries filled with Greek and Roman statues, the large stone horse from the Mausoleum of Halikarnassos (one of the seven wonders of the ancient world), and a four-ton statue from Easter Island.  It’s hard to believe they managed to move it from the South Pacific to England in the 1800’s.

The most unexpected find of my visit was the Enlightenment Gallery.  It looks like something out of a 19th-century explorers club.  The Enlightenment was an age of reason and learning that flourished across Europe and America from the late 1600’s to the early 1800’s.    The gallery houses thousands of artifacts that tell the story of how scientists, explorers, and collectors of the Enlightenment period examined the world around them, which led to the beginning of the British Museum in the 1700s.

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