Sunday 26 October 2008

British Museum, Bloomsbury, central London

The mother of all museums, the British Museum is an imposing and vast neo-classical building surrounded by the Georgian terraces and squares of Bloomsbury. The hordes of visitors are initially sucked into the striking Great Court - a large rectangular space covered by a glass roof and surrounded by cream-coloured classical facades with doorways leading into the scores of galleries packed with antiquities plundered from across the ancient world. In the middle of the court is a large, circular reading room flanked by broad spiral staircases leading up to a smart restaurant at the top. To the east are several charming and venerable wood-panelled rooms, dripping with a sense of adventure and history. Behind glass panels is a wide variety of objects, from stone age axes to eighteenth century medals, designed to show the breadth of the museum's collection. Beyond these rooms is the Paul Hamlyn library where children can pick up backpacks, which contain a series of activities based around a couple of galleries in the museum, or a colourful booklet detailing one of half-a-dozen trails, which mostly involve spotting particular artefacts.

Dramatically-lit statues of Greek Gods
West of the court are more than a dozen galleries with pottery, jewellery, vases, Lykian sculptures and other objects tracing the development of a series of civilisations in Greece from the Mycenaeans to Alexander The Great. Among the highlights is the Parthenon room where dramatically-lit statues of Greek Gods and lengthy frescos line the walls. Nearby are some eye-catching stone sculptures from Assyria, including a hulking bearded and winged lion from the ninth century B.C. But some of the galleries have utilitarian tiled floors and plain walls, more in keeping with a general hospital than one of the world's great museums. Upstairs are many more galleries featuring mummies from ancient Egypt, samurai armour from medieval Japan, engraved silver from Roman Britain, sixteenth-century clocks and many more treasures. Downstairs, is a sculpture of a tree made out of guns, a haunting sixteenth-century ivory mask, mysterious wooden carvings and other objects from Africa.

Rum and chocolate truffle cake
Although many of the galleries have benches where you can break a tour, you will only have seen a fraction of the rooms before feeling the lure of one of the cafes. Unfortunately, the Court Cafe, where you sit on metallic stools around long tables and eat with plastic cutlery, feels a bit like a canteen despite the grand surroundings. The rather ordinary Gallery Cafe on the west side of the building also fails to capture the special atmosphere of the museum. Still, the large slices of rum and chocolate truffle cake (£2.95) are rich and delicious, while mugs of tea cost a very reasonable £1.75 considering admission to the British Museum itself is free. History and archeology buffs will want to visit again and again to see all this extraordinary institution has to offer. 8/10