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London Day Trip Stop 3: British Museum

Thinking I was being too obvious, particularly having just told Twitter I was in Russell Square, I tweeted a photo of the base of a pillar as a clue to my next location.

British Museum pillar

I hadn’t intended this to be a stop on my trip as I’ve been before but, having had lunch by the fountain in Russell Square Gardens, I couldn’t resist a few minutes inside the British Museum.

Outside of British Museum

I made my way to the Enlightenment Gallery. I enjoy this room, which usually seems calm (relative to the bustling Egyptian galleries opposite) and is full of interesting small pieces including scientific instruments. I hadn’t realised but I had just missed the “eye–opener gallery tour” (Free; Daily, 12.30; for 30–40 minutes).

Having seen the King’s Library in the British Library earlier that morning, I was interested to read that this room was the previous location of the same library. Apparently its donation caused a building programme to expand the British Museum and this room was built in 1827 specifically to house the new library.

After the King’s Library was moved to the British Library in 1997, a restoration of the gallery in 2000-3 “revived the original room to its previous glory of the 1820s”:

Repairs to the oak and mahogany floor and classical architectural features have refreshed the space. Hundreds of square metres of plaster were cleaned to restore the yellow and gold ornamentation and the re-gilded balcony.
Two hundred kilometres of wiring (twice round the M25 motorway) enabled a subtle lighting system to be installed, which aims to complement the newly-restored colour scheme.
The result was that two centuries of use and London grime were washed away and a major permanent exhibition, using thousands of objects from the Museum collection to show how people understood their world in the Age of Enlightenment, was created.

Enlightenment gallery, British Museum

Enlightenment gallery, British Museum

To my surprise, no one had yet guessed my location! I tweeted a second clue, a row of postcards of the Rosetta Stone on sale in the museum shop, and Courtney Williams was quick to guess my location. Showing considerable wisdom, she tweeted:

I’d ask if I won a prize, but it was enough of a prize to take part

I said that was fortunate!

On my way out of the museum I popped my head around the corner to the Rosetta Stone.

Rosetta Stone, British Museum

The story of this stone is fairly famous and often, in my experience, mentioned in talks on cryptography.

After the stone was rediscovered in 1799 by Napoleon’s soldiers near the town of el-Rashid (Rosetta). The stone passed to British hands in the Treaty of Alexandria (1801), being exhibited in the British Museum since 1802 (apart from briefly moving to a safe location during wartime). The Enlightenment Gallery houses a replica of the stone positioned as originally displayed.

The stone carries a decree, crucially:

inscribed on the stone three times, in hieroglyphic (suitable for a priestly decree), demotic (the native script used for daily purposes), and Greek (the language of the administration).

The repetition of the same text in three languages was important to modern understanding of hieroglyphs, and through them our understanding of ancient Egyptian culture.

Thomas Young, an English physicist, was the first to show that some of the hieroglyphs on the Rosetta Stone wrote the sounds of a royal name, that of Ptolemy. The French scholar Jean-François Champollion then realized that hieroglyphs recorded the sound of the Egyptian language.

After my short but enjoyable visit to the museum, I moved on to my next location, which I will save for a later post.

London Day Trip Stop 1: British Library

In a previous blog post Things to do in London on a Tuesday I asked for suggestions of things to do on my day trip to London. I went because I was invited to attend the inaugural London walking tour from Maths in the City – we’ll get to that – and apparently the date was chosen on purpose as it was a palindrome: 21-02-2012.

On arrival in London, I idly tweeted a photo along the station platform with the caption “Looks like London”. James Clare responded to this with a guess at which station.

I was at St. Pancras. What everyone seems to notice about St. Pancras is the roof, seen in the picture below which I took on the day. This was apparently first opened in 1868 and the 243ft roof created “the largest indoor space in the world“. More recently, an £800m restoration project was completed in 2008. You can watch an interesting BBC short video about this project, featuring interviews with the chief architect, the project director and the project engineer.

St. Pancras station

Following James’ tweet, I liked the idea of a guessing game so I tweeted a clue for my new location. David Ault guessed correctly that I was at the British Library.

British Library

Outside the British Library is a statue of Newton (1995), which had been suggested to me as a destination on my day trip. Designed by Sir Eduardo Paolozzi, who said it was “intended to show how art and science are interconnected”, the statue is inspired by a 1795/circa 1805 colour print finished in ink and watercolour on paper entitled “Isaac Newton” by William Blake, which can be found in the Tate gallery.

Newton statue 2

Inside the library, I found the King’s library. Created by George III, donated to the nation in 1823 by his son George IV and once housed in the British Museum, these books are housed in an eye-catching six-storey tower (pictured below). A description of how the library was formed and its history is available on the British Library page George III Collection: the King’s Library.

King's library, British Library

I also visited the Treasures of the British Library gallery, described on the website as “a permanent free display of many of our greatest treasures”. No photographs were allowed but I took a few notes.

I saw a collection of photos and documents from the Scott polar expedition. Fresh from my Twitter photo clue competition, a note caught my eye about the use of photography to increase public interest in Scott’s expedition. The Guardian has a piece about an exhibition of photos from the expedition, which says:

In 1910 and 1911, as Scott struggled to raise funds and public support for the Terra Nova venture – media hysteria about the race to the pole was the reason the South Pole was bolted onto the scientific expedition – the explorer knew the propaganda value of superb images

Herbert Ponting (1870-1935) was hired as expedition photographer. A selection of Ponting’s photos have been uploaded to a gallery by the National Archive and one is available below.

Camp on ice

I also saw two pages of notes by Leonardo Da Vinci from Codex Arundel. Leonardo began the collection in 1508, writing that this was “a collection without order, drawn from many papers”. The writing is mirrored Italian written from left to write. According to the British Library website pages were added from different periods in Leonardo’s life, “covering practically the whole of his career”. The website has this to say of the contents:

It includes notes for a book on the physical properties and geographical effects of water, and a broad range of other material encompassing Leonardo’s other interests in art, science and technology over a period of four decades, from the description of a prehistoric sea monster (c. 1478-80) to architectural projects for the royal residence at Romarantin in France (dating to about 1517/1518). The range of subjects – from mechanics to the flight of birds – demonstrates Leonardo’s almost compulsive intellectual curiousity about scientific and technical matters.

The pages I saw in the library were on mechanics and arithmetic. There are pages on the British Library website that show some pages from the Codex Arundel, and an introduction to the Codex.

I also saw an exhibition on early printing, many sacred texts and Magna Carta before moving onto my next stop. That, I’ll save for another post.