Monday, August 8, 2011

London Pride

As I boarded my flight to London with fourth-of-July fireworks still ringing in my ears, it occurred to me that England does not have an independence day. “No,” said the woman next to me on the plane, who was, by chance, a Londoner, “we’re the ones who gave everyone else their independence.”

This sense of being “the giver of independence” is evidenced throughout London, from the stately houses of Parliament to the national dish of Chicken Tikka Masala. Even in my conversations with Londoners, the pride of belonging to this place of power has surfaced, if only in the simple lines of “we have so much history,” or “American artifacts are pastiche.” (More than one of our tour guides commented on London’s refusal to lend out precious artifacts with the rationale that “transportation is too much trouble” and “Britain can take better care of them.”) While my introduction to the city involved descriptions of a city whose humble streets were once covered in shit, this image seems to be superimposed by steel buildings, sleek department storefronts, and twenty-first-century transportation that buzzes through the streets. Under the cobblestone streets and the trunks of London plane trees a heartbeat thrusts the city into life, thumping the rhythm “I am not just my own motherland, but I have granted freedom to others.”

It would make sense, then, for the museum in the center of London, the British Museum, to be a shrine to this sentiment of power. However, far from boasting a large collection of portraits from its own empire, the British Museum has almost nothing to do with Britain. Its most expansive exhibits by far are Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece and Rome, and then the (ancient) Middle East as a close third. But the displays at British Museum actually reveal an important element of British culture. Through its ownership of artifacts from ancient civilizations, Britain manages to reach its hand back to exert control in a time that preceded its own existence. For instance, while Memphis, Egypt claimed the Rosetta Stone in 196 BC, Britain reclaimed the rock after defeating the French in 1801. Similarly, Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin and the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1799-1803, spent eleven years from 1801-1812 shipping marbles and sculptures from the Parthenon to Britain under the auspices of a treatise that is argued to have been faulty. Both collections, along with countless mummies, jewels, and artwork from civilizations all over the globe, fill the museum’s marble walls and, in turn, fortify London with their very presence. For beneath the steel-glass ceiling of the museum’s Great Court (which, of course, is Europe’s largest covered square) and behind the glass cases of its many displays, the old London pride stirs, almost audibly goading to those who pass through it: “I’m sorry, were you expecting a portrait of the Queen? Well, we have Ramses.”

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