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Hands on

We'd seen the Rosetta stone, the Elgin marbles, and loitered among the Assyrian lion-killers. We passed the negligible solid-gold Kate Moss sculpture along the way. I learned about my sister's long-term fascination with the code of Hammurabi, a replica of which stood on a landing outside what used to be the British Library. (The original code stele in in the Louvre.) Then I took her to see the Enlightenment gallery, because, for browsing, it has no equal in the museum. It's a eighteenth-century cabinet-of-wonders confection. Even the temporary exhibit of painted Damien Hurst plastic skulls looked somewhat at home in its eclectic scope.

After the skulls and oil lamps and an orrery (some day I will have one of my own), we passed a lone museum volunteer, sitting at a table, with seven or eight objects arrayed in a tray in front of her. The sign beside her said it was a Hands-on activity, so we stopped to enquire. In reverse chronological order, she placed the objects in our hands and asked if we knew what each was. The youngest was a mere 200 years old, an east African carved wooden headrest, useful for resting while wearing an elaborate headdress and to avoid getting bugs in one's ears. The little Ganesh sculpture was another few hundred years older, as was the thirteenth-century Islamic star-shaped tile with fake writing on it.

The small alabaster container obviously once had a stopper; it was used for kohl, 3000 years ago in Egypt, as was the other object pressed into our hands from the same time - a piece of fabric, woven, smooth, pleasant. Only after we'd already handled it, did she tell us it was from a mummy shroud. (Her comment on this was along the lines of, "The deserts of Egypt are full of mummies, since back then, everyone was mummified.) A cuneiform-decorated clay peg from Sumeria was older still. Older by tens of thousands of years was the hand-axe. And a fossilized ammonite was oldest of all.

The feel of the scrap of fabric, its small, smooth weight in my hand, are what stick with me most vividly. Each strand was spun before being woven together into a large piece of fabric. It was wrapped around a mummified corpse and lay under the desert for hundreds of years. It was excavated, ended up in the British Museum as a spare, suitable for handling. Originally, the handling scrap was larger, a foot by two feet or so, but years of touching have worn it, or lost its pieces, until there is only this, perhaps two inches by five, and it is fabric and it has survived and been placed in my hands freely to connect with people who lived 3000 years ago.


( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 26th, 2008 05:23 pm (UTC)
That's lovely; thank you for posting it.
Nov. 26th, 2008 05:48 pm (UTC)
Hello m'dear; you may not have seen my message on a different thread or my text to your phone; can you confirm if you & C are coming this weekend for games and if you need crash space?
Nov. 26th, 2008 11:00 pm (UTC)
Yes, we'll be there! And we won't need crash space. Let us know about what time to turn up and what to bring.
Nov. 27th, 2008 11:16 am (UTC)
Saturday morning (from 10 or so; we're not fussy), bring...er...yourselves? We may do take-out for dinner; depends if I'm too tired to cook :-) (No seafood, I know)
Nov. 26th, 2008 06:02 pm (UTC)
That is wonderful!
Nov. 26th, 2008 09:01 pm (UTC)
That's one of the things I love about the fifteenth-century engravings and woodcuts I have and care for. I can handle something actually made and touched by artists of so long ago, including Albrecht Durer. But your having the experience of handling and thinking about the mummy wrapping cloth brought you to another order of distance, time, and connection altogether. How wonderful for you, and how great that the BM makes this available to the public. Is that the gallery on the way to the old cafeteria?
Nov. 26th, 2008 11:03 pm (UTC)
I think the old cafeteria is in the front-west corner of the building? This was in the Sir Hans Sloane room, on the long east side of the Great Court. The handling stand isn't always there - it's the first time I've seen it there. For all I know, there's a schedule of when it's available.
Nov. 27th, 2008 12:49 am (UTC)
Just the idea of it is sending shivers down my spine, strange how significant a small scrap could prove.. thankyou for sharing.
Nov. 29th, 2008 03:26 pm (UTC)
I love the idea that they put together objects you could touch. Shame the stand wasn't there when badgerbag and I went round earlier in the year.
( 9 comments — Leave a comment )