I walk through the British Museum’s Great Court. It’s empty except for two visitor assistants. I follow the arrows on the floor and enter a hall full of Ancient Egyptian artefacts. Huge stone heads tower over me, fans whirr in the corners blowing a draught through the ages. This gallery is also empty, except for a lady in a wheelchair on her phone. I’m directed to turn another corner, this time into Ancient Greece and the ancient Mediterranean and another visitor assistant. And so on. The British Museum, one of the greatest hauls of cultural treasures in the world, is finally reopening, and it’s pretty much the nearest thing to being in a waking dream I’ve ever experienced.
Lots of other cultural monoliths have reopened in London recently: the V&A, both Tates, the Natural History and Science Museums, but there’s something about the British Museum that feels different. Possibly that it’s full of the dead – tombs, memorials, monuments, sculptures, actual bits of dead people. Every room is a reminder that empires, cultures, societies and cities are built on the ruins of previous ones, sometimes literally. Without the bunches of tourists and gangs of schoolkids, the British Museum feels silent and huge.
For now, just the ground and lower-ground floors are open, with a one-way guided route that is a BM greatest hits: Ancient Egypt, the Athenian Parthenon friezes, Assyria (some of it, anyway – not the lion hunts, sadly), the Africa galleries, the Americas and then out on to Montague Place and a lot of dead leaves blowing around. Entry is by pre-booked timed slot, so with more people, the experience will probably have a kind of rhythmic chain-gang shuffle to it. One thing’s for sure, there won’t be any more popping in to the British Museum to meet your mates or hide from the rain for a little while.
The museum has also put on display a 2011 work by Grayson Perry, ‘The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman’: a strange funereal ship festooned with various votive elements that kind of looks like it’s made of dried fish. Perry says that the work is meant to celebrate all the artists and craftsmen who created the fabulous things in the museum, almost none of whose names have survived along with their works. It’s a humbling tribute to the everyday men and women who lived and died and worked in the cultures and societies whom we only really know through their most splendid creations. A fitting monument to 2020.