02 Jul 12

A (long) walk down memory lane

Today I went to the British Museum for the first time since I was studying in London over a decade ago. The building has changed dramatically. I barely recognized the entrance, now clear of clutter and heavy junk. When I was a student the Great Court was under construction. I remember dark Victorian bookstacks surrounding the reading room and noisy construction equipment. The front facade of the building and the bright and light room that has replaced the old home of the British Library is breathtaking, but the museum has lost its dusty steampunk vibe and taken on a more commercialized, modern appearance. The shops and caf├ęs are surely a better use of the space, at any rate.

It took me a while to get my bearings in the altered building. I studied the Elgin collection most closely, but I loved being able to walk through the Egyptian and Greek collections on my way to the Duveen Gallery on the days I went to the museum. I love the naturalism of Greek and Egyptian art. Both men and women are represented in vivid, lifelike form. One of my favorite pieces is an Egyptian funerary sculpture of a married couple. They are side by side, holding hands as they sit and smile into the distance together.

I love that this is how these people wanted to be remembered. This pose is very common in Egyptian funereal art. Rich and poor, male and female, deities and mortals mourn, laugh, cry, and smile. It’s a stark difference from Assyrian art, where women are utterly absent and the most common images sculpted from stone are angular bearded men and snarling monsters wielding weapons. Greek art takes a close second for me in terms of its ability to reach through time and connect human beings long dead to the people of today. However, sometimes its emphasis on perfection can drown out the voices of the real people who lived when these works emerged. A tall marble man with (literally) chiseled abs can be impressive, but his serene expression doesn’t feel quite as alive as a nice flabby-bellied pharaoh with a grin on his face.

I took a tube ride up to the Queensway stop and got to explore my old neighborhood, dropping by where I lived and seeing that not much has changed, except now the students have wifi. They don’t know how good they have it. I even got to have an ice cream cone from a place around the corner that I used to treat myself to when I’d saved up enough spare change to afford to indulge. Kensington Gardens is prettier than ever, with a prettier, more accessible entrance to the palace and a fresh coat of paint on just about everything.

My feet were killing me by the time I made it across to Royal Albert hall, remembering the good, the bad, and the ugly of being a starving student on her first real international experience. I loved living in the dorms at the university I was at, sleeping under a poster of Michael Owen and sharing in late-night storytelling with the girls I bunked with. I hated feeling jealous of some of the wealthier students in the program who were constantly going to shows in the West End and dining at the Savoy while I survived on kebabs and the rare half-price ticket bought with funds I’d scraped together from part-time jobs and a student loan. I really hated when I forgot to give the Round Pond a wide berth on my morning jog around Hyde Park. More than once I got chased and/or bitten by a swan, and I must confess that seeing those damn swans today, grunting like feathered pigs, confirmed that I still hold a grudge against the species.

Annoyed as I was that my formerly perfect memory of every street and tube station in zone 1 has faded somewhat, meaning I walked somewhat further than I ought to have done, I was thrilled to finally see the South Kensington station and the promise of a quick ride back to the hotel in Bloomsbury. The long walk down memory lane has left me pretty tired, but it’s good to be back in a place that, for at least a while, was home.