Lizzie Blaylock's enforced tour of the British Museum (with her former teacher in hot pursuit) was inspired by the countless happy hours I've spent among the exhibits. It's always a pleasure, even when I'm there for research. I retraced Lizzie's footsteps and snapped some photos along the way as I thought you might care to see exactly which treasures she mentions in her tour.
The ground-floor sculpture gallery of the British Museum was heaving
with school parties when I arrived. All around me, small groups of
children snaked in double-file from one exhibit to the next. Teachers
spoke in hushed voices, explaining the various treasures on display.
I made straight for my statue of the Memnon, the huge stone
head that I always came to see. For thousands of
years this pharaoh’s eyes had gazed out across burning deserts. Now
all he had to look at were the dozens of pale-faced Londoners who
trooped past him every hour from dawn to dusk. I sighed. What was
wrong with me today? Normally I could dream up some really
wonderful fantasies about him, so why not now?
‘Girls, if you look to the front, you will see before you the colossal head of the Memnon, believed by many to be the face of Tut-mosis the Third.’
I froze with a start, then peered cautiously over my shoulder.
‘The word “memnon” is not in fact an Egyptian term; it derives from the Greek. Can anyone tell me what it means? Sally Stanley! Take your hand away from your mouth this instant!’
Mrs Smutts! Lord, she was the last person I wanted to run into! Praying that she hadn’t seen me, I slipped quietly through the Assyrian hall into the Greek section beyond. Annoyingly, she seemed determined to follow.
‘To your left you will see an enormous pair of human-headed winged-bulls, which once guarded the entrance to King Sargon’s citadel in Khorsobad. Notice, please, the number of legs.’
‘They’ve each got five, miss,’ a voice called out from the group.
‘Correct. Now, there’s a reason for this apparent madness. Seen from the side, these massive figures appear to be advancing towards you. Seen from the front, they look as if they’re standing still. It’s extraordinarily clever. I always think the Assyrians got it spot on where animals and human bodies were concerned—they just never quite managed faces. For some unknown reason, they all seem to be smiling.’
‘What are those little scratches down there, miss?’
‘Oh, trust you to find those, Bronwyn! It’s tic-tac-toe, if you must know. Whilst on duty, the bored, badly behaved guards would deface their beautiful monuments in order to play pointless little games with each other. Appalling lack of self-restraint, I’ve always thought! Now, if you follow me, you will see before you the Nereid Monument—’
Damn her! Why couldn’t she have taken the steps up to the right, which led to one of the other galleries? Dodging through the crowd, I pushed my way down the side of what looked like a large Greek temple and found myself in a room with a statue of a bull in it. I slid past some tall, glass display cases and ended up in yet another room, this one, containing some sort of tomb.
‘Now, I want no dawdling! That’s it—file on through! This fine marble statue of a recumbent bull is one of the museum’s most recent acquisitions—’
The gallery beyond, the only other exit, was dark and silent—cordoned off with a sign which read, “Closed for Maintenance and Refurbishment”. Glancing back, I could see that the only things separating me from Mrs Smutts were those tall glass cabinets.
‘—If you look carefully you will observe that the artist intended the bull to be viewed from below and quite probably from the front. Why the curators have chosen to display it this way, on floor-level, is beyond me—’
To hell with closed! Bobbing down, I rolled under the cordon and dashed across the darkened floor, to where a small flight of steps led down to a basement corridor. I threw myself headlong down the stairs and lay there at the bottom gasping for breath.
‘It seems that the Mausoleum Room is closed, class. Such a pity! However, if you gather round the doorway and look towards those steps over there, you should be able to make out the statue of a mighty rearing horse.’
I ducked my head.