Industrial Action.

Inside the British Museum

Wednesday, on my second trip to London I found a placard outside the Tate Britain saying that most of the galleries in the museum would be closed that day on account of “industrial action”. I guessed that meant something like demolition or cleaning, but thought that seemed rather exteme. When I went inside I asked the guards who wanded my bag what the sign meant. They said that “it was an effort to provide me with better service” (by closing over half the museum??!!) Their opaque answer left me even more clueless. An official but penitent looking man in a suit shuffled over to me as I walked into the lobby; he whispered apologies for the closed galleries as he handed me a map of the museum and explained which rooms would be open today. It turns out that an “industrial action” is a union strike. (Ah ha.)

I’d come hoping to see the works of the Turner Prize nominees, but no dice. Those galleries were shut down for the day. I did see some works by the Chapman Brothers who are enjoying the limelight at both the Tate Britain and Tate Liverpool. The titles of the works were hilarious but poignant, and very long so I don’t remember them well. The works were impossible and tragic-looking “machines” that implied but performed no function.

In the marble staircase leading to the second floor were large scale photographs that I liked very much. I’m pretty hopeless with names–whether people I’ve met or figures I’ve heard or read about, so I regret that I don’t remember the artist’s name. He stages photographs of himself as the prominent figure in reenactments of famous historical paintings in Western culture. Because the artist himself is black (either British or American, I can’t remember) the result is an image of himself as as a powerful person in periods when people of color would not have been allowed (or at least found it very, very difficult) to occupy such offices or social status. Though he dresses in period dress he looks recognizably like himself, giving the image a strange contemporary edge that is rather eerie. He is physical evidence of a void that existed at the time the original paintings.

I skipped the Tate Modern to avoid the strike, and moved on to the British Museum believing the “action” was limited to just the Tates. Wrong. The British museum was also only a fraction of itself, but rewarding nonetheless. The hallmark of this museum was as much the building as it was the collection. The newly covered inner courtyard (pictured above) was soaring. Off in the wings, each room had its own flavor. Below is a picture of the the room that formerly housed the archives and is still lined with many books. Many of the artifacts in this room (and others) were excavated long ago and by English diplomats to foreign countries who liked to collect bits of the countries they were sent to…and then take them back home to England. One such diplomat made off with significant portions of the Parthenon (”legally” at the time, though that has been disputed since). Sounds dicey, and this issue crops up with uncomfortable regularity throughout many British museums.

One of the many galleries in the British Museum


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