Home Tourist – The British Museum

The Galleries in the British Museum open at 10 am most days, but the Great Court, the wide, white open space underneath the geometric glass roof, opens at 9.  I only know this because I arrived early on the day my drawing class spent in the Museum.

Before 9:30 it was an extraordinary space, I walked all the way around, from the main entrance to the back where one person was already manning the partially open coffee stall, and then back again.  My footsteps echoed around me, and although I was not alone, the place  was calm and quiet.  Armed with my coffee (not particularly to be recommended, coming as it did from a big urn in the midst of a city otherwise bristling with places where proper espresso is available) I returned to the entrance area and sat down on the end of a thirty foot bench ready to study the glass roof, enjoying the peace.

This was a short lived experience.  A crocodile of forty small boys in maroon blazers were soon corralled along the length of the bench, starting at the far end, but approaching within a couple of yards of me.  The noise of two score nine year olds rose and rebounded against all the hard surfaces.  A few moments later, to my genuine astonishment, three middle aged Italian ladies approached to sit down, staring me out, to move my coffee cup and to shuffle further along to the very end of the bench.

Astonishment, because there are a great many benches available in the Great Court, and everyone was now sitting squashed up on just one of them.  I eyed the entirely empty bench on the other side of the entrance for a few moments, hesitating in what I suspect is a peculiar British way, feeling unpleasantly crowded in upon, but feeling it might be rude to  move away, even though the people crowding me were total strangers.  The hesitation was brief, though, and I moved and had another thirty foot bench all to myself until the time to rendezvous with my classmates.  (Maybe it was rude?)

By 10am the place was humming with people,  school trips in colour coded blazers, large groups of Japanese people, couples meeting, pointing and heading off into the four corners of the Museum, but there was enough space for everyone, and somehow, the more the noise grew the less noisy it felt.

My class spent the day drawing in the Museum, in the Asian Gallery first, then the Mexican, and finally amidst the African artefacts.  Spending any extended period of time on one spot in a Museum allowed me to observe how cursorily most visitors glance at the things on display, but it was also noticeable that simply because I had chosen to sit in front of a particular object gave it more apparent interest to the other visitors.  They wanted to see what I was looking at, even though there were more celebrated pieces nearby, and one of the reasons I’d chosen the particular sculpture was because it was placed out of the way and looked a bit neglected.

Many people took photos of it, stood behind me to examine it, and presumably took a peek at my sketching efforts; if they expressed an opinion on my attempts, I was spared it as it was in a language I didn’t understand.  Even more people physically brushed past me, something I found very surprising; I was not positioned in a thoroughfare, and there is a whole Museum for everyone to explore.

The boldest starers were a group of British children who surrounded us in the small Mexican Gallery, each carrying a susurrating plastic lunch bag, herded by constantly ‘shushing’ adults.  It was a toss up for them which was more exciting, looking at us sketching, or touching the stone reliefs on the wall to trigger the alarms.  Rather than being discouraged by the klaxon, they appeared to think it was but one aspect of an interactive display.

The experience has made me look at the Museum with fresh eyes.

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  1. ” (Maybe it was rude?)”



    As soon as the kids hove-to, I’d have scarpered instantly.

    I am reminded of nothing more than the number of times I have parked a new undinged car in the supermarket car park-miles away from any other car, leaving a hike to the front door, only to return and find some lonely prat has parked his right next to mine.

    ” Even more people physically brushed past me, something I found very surprising; I was not positioned in a thoroughfare, and there is a whole Museum for everyone to explore.”

    This is definitely something for the sociologists to examine. Our movement to cities is increasing. Perhaps we are all learning to behave like rats in a bag. I know when I visit London these days, I am convinced those in a crowd have almost no peripheral vision. They wander about, crashing into one another without bothering.

    When finding themselves alone, like on an empty seat, they can’t bear it.


    • Hi Brendan, true about the children, but at the beginning they were quite funny in their noisiness. I tend to think it’s the tourists who are bumping into me all the time – looking up and around instead of their direction of travel…..

  2. I remember going to see a film one early afternoon in Hillbrow, Johannesburg, many many years ago. I can’t recall the film, nor the name of the cinema (which will have been razed to the ground since then), but I do remember that, until 5 minutes before the movie started, I was entirely alone. It felt a bit alien and surreal but not at all unpleasant, plus I had a small sack of unshelled monkey nuts to enjoy by myself. Two minutes before the lights dimmed, a middle-aged man came in and sat down RIGHT NEXT TO ME. I think if I’d been the me I am now, I would have been able to say something (mildly, with a touch of humour), but I didn’t have the presence of mind to do that then, so I just shuffled off to another row with my nuts. Funny the things one remembers… 🙂

    • Wow Jill, that’s such a peculiar thing to do, and such an invasion of your space. Glad to hear that you’d be prepared to express your views more clearly now! I didn’t say anything either though last week to the strange Italian ladies, but I figured life’s too short.


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