The minimum subscription is only two guinea a year, and there are many others advantagnthis U ot count an advertisement, but fully justified. In fact both library and Department of Print and Drawing always have display the Library ha both a permanent and a changing one, that of the Prints and Drawing changea selection from thc enormous range that dwells, safe from light and fading, in solandcr caws. The National Art Collections Fund card will also admit to thc Manuscript Department One further Department keeps almost all its treasure firmly under lock and key (necessarily, owing to the extreme temptation offered by the objects to light finger)Coin and Medals; a few (out of over a million) are visible in the Greek and Roman Life Room on the first floor, but to consult the collection, you must consult the office of the Department.
Apart from the Departments already mentioned (Printed Books, Manuscripts, Oriental Printed Books and Manuwripis, Print and Drawings, Coins and Medals) the main divisions are into Egyptian Antiquities, Western Asiatic, Greek and Roman, British and Medieval (a portmanteau title, embracing in iu scope such things as docks and Chelsea porcelainhere as in some other spheres, the holdings of the B.M. overlap with those of thc Victoria and Albert Museum); Oriental Antiquities and Ethnographythe Utter a difficult word, but when broken down into objecu, proving to contain thc whole range of fascinating and, to modem art, semanticobjecu of so called primitive art, from Polynesia to the Congo.
“The collections in the British Museum,” says the official guide again, “cannot be studied in a single visit”there is no hesitation at all in this statement, and it is dead right; at some point in any visit to the Museum, everyone of any imagination is likely to be swept by a profound chastcning and healthy humility, a despond of sheer ignorance. Knowledge it is true remains (how many books in the B.M.?no one can tell you six million? seven million?), but who can know knowledge in a single life time? One can but make forays, snatch and grab raids. Even for the habitu6 there is at present, and no doubt will be for some years to come, almost always some shock of surprise as one goes through the Museum; another room has closed for rc habilitation here, another one opened there.
Left of the entrance door lies ancient Egypt, Assyria, Greece and Rome. I can but select ruthlessly and sweep clear through to one of the major treasuresthe Elgin marbles. These arc heralded, at their entrance, by one of the caryatids from the Erechtheum on the Acropolis (its London sisters you can see on New St Pancras church in Bloomsbury and on the Soane Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields) and two beautiful bronze heads the Apollo formerly at Chatsworth, and the Berber from Cyrenc like an intense dark head of Olivier playing fourth century Greek. The caryatid is one of the purchases Lord Elgin made from Athens, but his great haul is beyond, through double glass doors that sometimes on opening promote a loud, satisfactory roaring as if the winged Eumenides were swarming; the Elgin Marbles. These are of course the sculptures from the Temple of Athena built on the Acropolis of Athens in 448 432 bc, the Parthenon, and brought to England from 1802 by the antiquarian Lord Elgin, who sold them, with some difficulty and very considerable personal loss, to the nation. Their history is set out lucidly in the corridor like room to the left. They were honestly bought by Lord Elgin, though not from the Greeks but from the Turks who then occupied Greece. No one now doubts but that this was a piece of rarely disinterested salvage (if they had stayed in situ they would almost certainly have been cither scattered elsewhere to later buyers, or half lost by weathering and neglect).
Yet they remain a cause cilibre, argued over through the generations as is the cleaning of National Gallery pictures, the friends of Greece maintaining stoutly that they belong morally to Greece and should bc returned there. There may even be argument on the subject within the Museum fine studies, accessible to British artists, said a Keeper of Prints and Drawings well over a ccntury ago (J. T. Smith), but enduring mementoes of a very unworthy cupidity. The subject of the frieze, which runs round the walls of the main body of the room, is an idealised rendering of the major four yearly festival of Athens, the Great Panathcnaca.
This is the processiona long movement of incomparable grace and skill, the movement itself best seen in the series of horsemen which gathers momentum, from the initial preparations of those taking part, into canter. In contrast, the fragments of sculpture from the two pediments (to the left, as you enter, the contest of Athena and 220 Poseidon, and to right, the birth of Athena in the round) fond a colossal monumental drama, the vitality of the carving mum. phant over the losses and breakage of time.
The there survivors from the scries of metopes, panels originally set on the outside of the building under the lintel, representing the battle of the Lapiths, a people of northern Greece, with the legendar centaurs, carved in high relief. The best commentary on the revolution of Greek art and the quality of its achievement is perhaps simply to come direct to the Elgin room from the Egyptian and Assyrian ones, as if into an explosion of life, evenas in the friezeof gaiety.