W. Blanchard Jerrold.

How to See the British Museum in Four Visits online

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now the limited experience of former ages. The sciences founded on
demonstration, though they may trace their origin to the writings of
the Greeks, have advanced to a state in which nothing would be gained
by constantly recurring to the ancient condition of knowledge. But it
is not so with those arts which belong to the province of design; they
require a different discipline, and the faculties which they employ
may have received a more complete development two thousand years ago,
under favourable circumstances, than they have now. Their perfection
depends on circumstances over which we have little control: they
cannot, in our opinion, ever become essentially popular in any country
but one where the climate favours an out-of-door life, and where they
are intimately blended in the service of religion. If then a nation
has existed whose physical organisation, whose climate, and whose
religion all combined to develop the principles of beauty, and taught
man to choose from nature those forms and combinations which give the
highest and most lasting pleasure, we of the present day who do not
possess these advantages must follow those who were the first true
interpreters of nature. Their models possess the advantage of being
fixed; for without some standard universally admitted, we should run
into all the extravagances of conceit and affectation.

"No work of the present time is ever universally admitted as an
indisputable standard. It is only when time has placed an interval
between the present and the past, wide enough to destroy all the
rivalries of competition; that great works receive the full
acknowledgments of their merits, and become standards to which we all
appeal. Thus in the art of writing our own language, we refer to the
best models of past instead of to the works of our own days; and our
youth at school are chiefly trained on the written models of Greece
and Home, instead of those of our own country. The advantage of this
consists in having before us examples which all appeal to, not because
we contend that they are in all respects the best, but because they
were the best of their day, and being written in a language no longer
subject to change, may be taken as an universal standard by which all
civilised nations may measure their thoughts and the mode of
expressing them. The frieze of the Parthenon and the dramas of
Sophocles, the forms of the marble and the conceptions of the great
poet, still speak to our imagination and our understanding: we
recognise, in both, the beauty of proportion, the simplicity and truth
of design; and we all assent to a standard which we feel to be in
harmony with nature, and to which all nations will yield a more ready
obedience than to any other that we can name.

"Though the artist and the student may examine the sculptures of the
Parthenon with somewhat different views, their studies are more nearly
allied than is generally supposed. The artist who looks at them merely
as delineations of form, without reference to the ideas which gave
them their existence, loses half the pleasure and the profit; and the
student who merely names and catalogues them, without connecting them
with the written monuments of Grecian genius, that is with the
illustration of ancient texts, is also pursuing a barren study."

And now the visitor's way lies through the sculpture galleries, back
to the grand entrance. He has accomplished the labour of examining all
that is exhibited to the public generally of the contents of the
national museum. He may wander into the eastern wing of the building
(if it be open to the general visitor), and through the northern,
where the vast library of printed books and manuscripts are deposited;
but these are only accessible to the public under special regulations.
This remark is applicable also to the print-room.

The visitor, however, cannot leave the British Museum, having wandered
over it and examined its various curiosities, without getting
something from his journey. It is full of suggestive matter, which,
with a little direction, may be turned to useful account by large
classes of the people. It affords glimpses into the mysteries of the
Animal Kingdom, with all its varieties, its wonders, its traceable
progresses, its past and extinct forms, its promises of future
developments. Then the mineralogical galleries afford the general
visitor a peep at the formations of the earth; the various
developments of minerals; the natural state of ores and stones which
most men see only in their manufactured state. From the mineralogical
tables the visitor stepped aside to examine the wondrous revelations
of extinct animal life recovered from the bowels of the earth; he saw
the colossal megatherium, the towering mastodon, and the great Irish
elk. He understood something of the progress of animal life, from the
fishes and the saurians. Then he passed into the Egyptian room, and
found himself surrounded with the preserved bodies of the ancient
Egyptians; he examined their household gods; he pried into their
coffins; he saw their food; he was familiarised with their apparel.
Still proceeding onward, he came to the beautiful bronzes; and then he
saw the wonders that the ancient tombs of Etruria disgorged. He still
advanced in the galleries, till he came to a room that was a little
museum in itself - an exhibition of the curious industries of many
different countries. Here were Buddhist temples; Chinese chopsticks;
marvels from savage islands; a tortoise-shell bonnet; a Chinese
bell; - in short, a room packed from the ceiling to the floor with a
compact mass of curiosities. And then he left the upper floor of the
building, after having spent two days there, through two towering
cameleopards. He came a third time, and at once passing many things
that tempted him by the way, he passed on into the great and wonderful
Egyptian Saloon. Here he lingered for hours over ancient Egyptian
tombstones; before colossal sarcophagi; thinking of the tough work
Belzoni must have had of it with the young Memnon; endeavouring to
realise the approach to the ancient Egyptian temples through rows of
colossal and majestic sphinxes. Next he passed on to the ruins of
Nineveh, and its mystic mounds. Here he was with Layard for a time,
dreaming of the ancient Assyrians and their winged bulls. Hence he
passed into the Lycian room, and saw something of the strange remains
of the Xanthus of old; and then, probably, he went home to dream of
these great marvels of the times gone by. But he came again; and this
time hovered throughout the day amid the ruins of the arts of ancient
Greece. And now he has examined these; and he may leave the national
museum, assured that he has some useful knowledge of the curiosities
which scientific men have gathered from the remote parts of the world,
for the benefit of the learned resident in England.

The tens of thousands who flock to the museum in holiday times prove
its attractions; and it is with the hope that these attractions may be
enhanced by the help of a methodical and homely guide, chattering to
the visitor various bits and scraps of pertinent information as he
passes from one object to another, that these four visits have been
presented to the public. They do not pretend to be scientific books,
but simply companions of the hour, that urge little points of
information while the mind is particularly impressible; and showing
the kind of interest that attaches to objects which, for the want of a
timely word, the visitor would have passed unnoticed.

Many objects which are curiosities to the scientific man, but which
could not in any way interest the casual visitor, have been passed by
without hesitation.

Our main object has been to give the visitor clear impressions of the
different departments or classes into which the national collection
naturally divides itself, by guiding his eye consecutively to those
objects which bear relation to each other. It was necessary, to make
ourselves attractive as guides, to eschew all learned and stiff
formalities; to class matters easily as we found them; and to sustain
the visitor's interest throughout his four journeys. The monotony of a
formal catalogue is repulsive to visitors chiefly bent upon enjoying a
few hours amusement; therefore we chose to direct the eye to objects,
and at once to interest the visitor in them, by shortly explaining
their points of interest. The success which this endeavour met
elsewhere has encouraged us to perform the present task; and we hope
shortly to be at the elbow of visitors to other interesting buildings
and exhibitions.

The popularity of the British Museum may be shown by quoting the last
return of the number of visitors, &c., presented to the House of
Commons. This return proves that, while the public interest in the
collection is on the increase, that the guardians of the different
departments look out eagerly for new curiosities: - "The number of
readers - or rather of visits made by readers, in 1850, was
78,533: - or, an average of some 268 per diem: - the Reading Rooms
having been kept open 291 days. The number of books returned to the
shelves of the General Library from the Reading Rooms was 119,093; to
those of the Royal Library, 11,252; to those of the Grenville Library,
387: to the closets in which the books are kept from day to day for
the use of the readers, 110,950: - making a total of 241,682, or 830
per diem. The number of volumes added to the Library amounts to 16,208
(including music, maps, and newspapers); of which 837 were presented,
11,793 purchased, and 3575 received by copyright. The Keeper of the
MSS. has been busy cleaning, cataloguing, and stamping. Eleven of the
valuable Cottonian MSS. on vellum (including the Chronicle of Roger de
Wendover, supposed to have been utterly destroyed), and two Old Royal
as well as five Cottonian on paper, all injured in the fire of 1731,
have been carefully repaired, inlaid, and rebound. The purchases
include a Psalter of the tenth century, formerly belonging to the
monastery of Stavelot, in the diocese of Liége, - 'a remarkably fine
Greek MS.' containing the works ascribed to Dionysius the
Areopagite, - and the Homilies of Gregory of Nazianzum, 'with scholia
written in the year 6480 (A.D. 972);' - together with nineteen
additional volumes of a series of transcripts from the Archives at the
Hague, of documents relating to English history, extending from 1588
to 1614 and from 1689 to 1702. - In the 'Department of Natural
History,' we find that great progress has been made in the arrangement
of the contents of Room No. VI., - its wall cases having been entirely
filled with the gigantic Osseous Remains of Edentata and Pachydermata,
and that the Central Room of the Northern Zoological Gallery has been
devoted to a collection of the Beasts, Birds, Fish, Reptiles, Shells,
Sea Eggs, Starfish, and Corals found in the British Islands. The
purchases include 'a silver decadrachm of Alexander the Great,' from
the collection of Colonel Rawlinson, - the first ever discovered, - 'and
two very rare British _gold_ coins, having on them the name TIN.'"

THE END.




NOTES


[1: Undoubtedly the finest coral is dredged from the Mediterranean; it
is an important article of commerce at Marseilles.]

[2: "The shrikes, or butcher-birds (_laniadae_), are a numerous and
widely-diffused assemblage, living upon the smaller birds and insects;
the former of which the shrike sticks, when killed, upon thorns, as a
butcher hangs up meat in his stall; hence the name of the
genus." - _Vestiges of Creation_.]

[3: Vestiges of Creation.]

[4: These birds build in the crevices of precipitous rocks, and tho
female lines the nest with the down plucked from her breast. From
these nests natives rob the down and sell it.]

[5: Vestiges of Creation.]

[6: "Oxides are neutral compounds, containing oxygen in equivalent
proportions." - _Dr. Ure_.]

[7: Sesquicarbonate of soda that is found in the west of the Delta. In
Mexico there are several natron lakes.]

[8: The cuneiform character, which was used in every part of Asia
Minor, up to the time of Alexander the Great, consists of a series of
wedges or accents variously combined, as, [Cuneiform: *** **]].

[9: A Metope may be described as the intermediate space in a Doric
frieze, between two triglyphs, or separating grooves.]



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Online LibraryW. Blanchard JerroldHow to See the British Museum in Four Visits → online text (page 17 of 17)