Though I thought to leave the museum then with my natural curiosity sated, I was unprepared for one of the last sights on our way out and in which I found, as it were, the whole of my seventy-two hours in London condensed to a single artifact. In the Egyptian section, the mummy of the Lady Takhebkhenem made its home in case 19. Yet not all of its belongings had stayed with the one-time owner, for some way off we discovered a net of blue, glazed faience beads which had formerly run the full length of the lady’s remains.
A neckhole punctured the net’s upper edge; tassels and their knotted ends adorned the lower. The craftsmen had arrayed the beads into a network of diamonds, each bead which closed a diamond thus forming the beginning edge of the next. The precise shape of the diamonds had, or so I supposed, distorted with the years. Certain had flattened while others were drawn out to their greatest possible length. Still others had vanished into rhombii.
The beads’ color varied from one instance to another as some sported an azure coat and others a tarnish or patina of the years accumulated. But the display perhaps provided an answer in the legend, which told of the net’s restoration in, as per my best estimate, the 1990’s. In fact, both mummy and net had been acquired from a certain Yanni the Greek at Alexandria in 1832 and came on display shortly thereafter. The subsequent century and a half were less than kind to the pair, and the museum’s curators undertook a careful restoration project.
Of the net, that same legend told how the rotting of the original thread had caused disintegration of large stretches of the net. Given that this fact had made it difficult to make out the original pattern and form, the curators proceeded from contextual clues and what remained of the structure to get an idea thereof. It was first necessary, however, to separate net from mummy. Careful though their efforts to transfer the net to tissue paper might have been, it occurred to me that the beads found another arrangement entirely on that paper, unbeknownst to the restorers.
Once eased onto a table and inspected, the net revealed itself to be a work of fabric twisted about itself. That twisting provided important clues to its earlier organization, for the net’s edging contained a number of knots, which, again according to the legend, had allowed the restorers to extrapolate the original weave of the upper netting. Of course, some beads had gone missing with the years, so they (the restorers) found themselves obligated to order bespoke beads, not of faience but of glass. They then painted these to match the tone of the surviving originals, which procedure likely accounted for the difference in hue between the beads.
The missing replaced, the disintegrated in place, the net entered the last phase of restoration as it was rethreaded on a new polyester yarn entwined about what thread remained of the original. Though the legend suggested that the net had been returned to its rightful place, it stood, as I found it that day, in its own case, cast off by or from the dead. It had passed from the realm of mortuary garment to artifact of full standing.
So cast off, it was easier to consider the net’s own existence as a network of points and lines within a unitary space. For the craftsmen, in laying out beads and thread millenia ago, had set out a pattern where no such artifice had existed. Once that pattern laid over a space previously unworked, it proved nigh impossible to dislodge. Certainly, when inner development or outer pressures caused degradation within the network, those in power worked the network over: replacing elements which had gone missing; tracing new lines and shapes; closing the space between elements once far; opening spans between those once neighboring. In this way, the space retained its overall appearance all the while its precise make-up altered from one crisis to another. The overlay remains, but the individual perishes.
The Egyptian collections remain far and away the best known of the Museum’s treasures. We did our best to skirt the children arrayed before the mummified remains and sarcophagi in the hopes of finding a somewhat calmer corner. We found such a space, at least for a short time, between narrow glass rows of mummies from the Roman period. As we learned at a glance, these stood out from the rest due to the presence of a wooden portrait panel integrated into the linen wrappings or the smaller plaster case into which the remains were set.
Although the name and provenance suggested more traditional Egyptian portraiture with the privilege of the profile, the reality proved quite other. Indeed, the anonymous artists showed a remarkable mastery of light and shadows and skin texture. Such considerable attention to minute detail would not resurface, in Europe at least, until the Renaissance.
If the Egyptian dead had previously sat for their artists, as the former had been accompanied for centuries by an image, the Roman period marked a new development. For the dead’s dress, hairstyles and accessories hailed from the Greco-Roman world. I could not help but think that the deceased’s facial structure and skin pigments had altered with subsequent migrations and conquests, the ebb and flow of nations bringing new blood.
The painter’s materials and techniques had changed as well. As it happened, the wood panels came more and more often from foreign shores and boughs, oak and linden. The paints likewise had evolved to include minerals, like lead, from elsewhere about the Mediterranean basin. The techniques themselves owed much to lands beyond: tempera, still widespread in the present and combining pigments with water soluble substances; encaustic, perhaps lost with the years, or at least to my limited knowledge, and mixing pigment with melted beeswax.
As was my wont, I asked my companions how much wax they thought had gone into such projects and how the Egyptians had procured the wax. Perhaps, like the other materials, it had arrived from distant lands or, perhaps instead, bee homes nestled amid the outcroppings and dunes and valleys laid about the Sahara. In the latter case, questions, to which I had no ready answer, made themselves felt, as to the whereabouts of the beekeepers and the frequency with which they visited the hives. I even fancied that I might find another Beehive, of the kind I had seen the other side of the ocean, a rounded seaside mount, but in the rocky innards of which those flying insects made their homes, below the solitary monks clustered in the miserable dwellings at its top.
I could not quite grasp why so few people stopped before those panes, but I might wager that it simply proved too startling, for the average person, to find themselves before a realistic depiction of the deceased. It was one thing to confront the mummy’s wizened skull and retreating skin; it was another entirely to take in the face so captured and borne through the years, rather than lost beneath the layers.
The currents of that artificial network swept us next from the upper floors to the ground where we drifted between fragments of the Parthenon. We made a full inspection of the pediments, metopes and friezes which depicted scenes from Greek mythology and a contemporary religious procession, the intelligibility of which varied, for the viewer, the level of conservation of the piece. While some had largely retained their original, clear-cut appearance, more had faded with the years, weathering and handling, into a soft focus not unlike that seen in early photographs.
Perhaps more than the display, the controversy to which the museum documentation alluded held my attention. For the depth of the issues surrounding the pieces’ ownership astounded all the more when one took into account the battery of arguments, long prepared and refined by the Museum, to counter every aspect of the polemic. It represented either decades of accumulated work or that of one singularly thorough clerk.
To charges of theft, the Museum responded that Lord Elgin had acquired the pieces through legal channels in the early years of the 19th century and by leave of the proper authorities, the Ottomans, though their status as occupiers remained unaddressed. The subsequent transfer of those pieces to the British Museum had likewise established the museum’s trustees as owners, leaving the government as stakeholders unable to dictate to the former, whatever the outside pressures. Any such decision necessarily fell to the rightful owners.
To calls for return to the site, the museum recalled that the most damage had resulted from parties other than Lord Elgin and laborers and cited such parties as: the Venetians and Ottomans responsible for the powder keg episode of 1687; Nikolaos Balanos and his botched 1920’s restoration with the use of steel staples and rods; Athenians for their part in citywide atmospheric pollution; finally, acts of god given the likelihood of earthquakes in the region . All pointed, for the Museum’s trustees, to the same natural conclusion that the pieces could not be restored to an unprotected ruin, structurally incapable of bearing their combined weight and at risk from geological activity.
To claims for redress, the museum noted that it had always acted in good faith. It had not authorized the cleaning of 1938 with wirebrush and chisels and had sent those responsible on their way in the follow-up. The institution had, in the same way, provided a proper display space for the fragments, secure, modern and safe from the elements. Lastly, those fragments would be no closer to their original home in an Athenian Parthenon museum than they were in this one, through which millions passed: artificial museum lighting would still stand in for the natural light of the Mediterranean.
If the museum had had to go to such rhetorical lengths against polemic, it suggested in and of itself that its opponents might have a case of one kind or another. Then again, quantity of contentions does not warrant the quality of those same contentions. Still, it gave me to wonder whether museums worldwide would not be brought to return old holdings and new purchases alike to their original contexts in the face of mounting claims to their restoration. Perhaps the thought proved further beyond my powers of comprehension than I would have guessed, for I experienced a touch of sadness, bittersweet, at the thought that museums, cultural conquerors, would be swept free of alterity and the other and become mere monuments to the tribal.
This half-formed thought, more felt than formulated, stayed with me as I admired a Greek with shield bent beneath the blow of an Amazon in the midst of a frieze removed from Halicarnassus and its long since ruined mausoleum.
A display case to one side held an object of particular interest for me. Therein my eyes locked on a small box, slightly higher than it was wide. Turned about its hinges, the interior revealed an ornamental backing on which gold and shell inlay alternated in figurative patterns of which, for one reason or another, I made too little note. Still, it seemed that those patterns had not always been the interior’s main draw. Though the central piece was now missing, I could still make out the fittings where an image, perhaps of Mary and child, had once sat.
The legend suggested that the piece had originated in the Jesuit workshops at Nagasaki, perhaps even on the island of Dejima now swallowed by the city, and that its dimensions owed to the culture of discretion surrounding Christian worship in the Japanese isles of the 16th and 17th centuries. This private altarpiece remained small enough to store about one’s person, between two folds of cloth or beneath household furniture. It was not difficult, for me then, to imagine the size having serving both personal devotion and devotional person well, as evidenced by its standing before me, having escaped the governmental wastes and persecution of the 1620’s and 30’s.
A series of color prints lined one of the remaining walls and depicted the pleasures which citydwellers could know in the Edo period: theater, brothels, purveyors of food and drink. I had seen similar prints at a Hokusai exhibition some years before in Paris. And, as with that exhibition, a sign below recalled that the term “floating world” first arose in usage to designate popular forms of entertainment, for which seduction and pleasure took pride of place. Though routinely censored by the shogunate, the prints depicting such scenes achieved wide circulation among the populace. Though far from the world of devotion, through censorship, floating world prints came to share a parallel fate to the altarpiece: at one remove from the public, out of open currency.
If the term now stood in for an entire school of art and media, it had not always done so and perhaps not always would. Indeed, as the future took shape in my mind, I could see the term in another usage entirely: a term of art capturing the slightly desolate air hanging about works such as one finds in museum exhibits, pieces unmoored from their original cognitive context, floating free of that first relational network to drift on the new, that artifice by which curators articulate new relations, suspect relations, theretofore unseen if not undreamt.
The illustrations gave way to a Japanese teahouse, a reconstruction ordered and built on the model of the Urasenke school outside Kyoto. Inside, I could glimpse a tea caddy, complete with cloth bags, storage box, lidded jars and tea-brush. Impressive though its tatami and sliding, diaphanous doors were, the textual won my attention in that place.
For, in the rooms to follow, I could not entirely get out of my mind the accompanying legend’s description of Zen monk practices. As best I might understand, in order to hone their attention during seated meditation, particularly at night, the monks gave themselves over, with the help of tea, to the study of kōan, which one might render as “impossible riddles”. The example given read “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”, the invention of an 18th century monk by the name of Hakuin.
Though my companions passed the riddle over, I stayed a short time before the teahouse to study its conditions more closely. If one ordinarily clapped with both hands, an individual gifted with sufficiently long and slack fingers might overcome the difficulty so posed. By extension, a person could simply clap a hand against an object similar in material and resistance to a human hand. Still, the perplexity which I experienced on the first reading did not diminish with my attempts to dispel the mystery.
Taken as I was with the challenge, I sought to devise a number of my own, which I then tried out when I had caught up to my companions. I asked what was a mind, its contents emptied out into the world, or what was a city of no structures and organization, or what Napoleon and Chateaubriand stood for in the mind of Hakuin, taking his leave of the world just as they began to enter. My efforts met with flat faces, singularly unimpressed by the thoughts with which only the alienated of farflung schools and wooded walks keep themselves awake at night.
Perhaps, in so picturing a Japanese dedication to replica, I did little but perpetuate the same stereotypes as those spread by my cellarman and his talk of the meticulous work done at Japanese whisky distilleries. So great then came my relief to find an 18th century clock. Perched atop a lacquered stand with poem, the device presented itself as a rectangle, upright, with the clockface’s concentric black and red circles placed in its front and a bowl-shaped bell suspended above. A length of bronze or copper worked with small teeth ran along the rectangle’s upper back edge; there hung a bronze weight at either end.
If time had formerly been told using water clocks or sundials, from the 16th century onwards Japanese clocksmiths had come by the technical know-how to recreate European-style clocks in using a series of weights to propel the clockhands through the hours. As the day and night were each subject to a sixfold division and the day units and night units varied in length according to the season, the smiths had thought to include a mechanism to alter manually the the hours’ passing. Moving the two bronze weights towards the inner teeth sped up the clock; placing them nearer the outer in turn slowed it down. In this way, a servant, charged with the task by his or her liege, might regulate time’s own flow.
As can easily be imagined, such clocks required the servant’s constant care and, be it because of or in spite of this attention, did not prove wholly accurate. As such, the Japanese clock served more as a wealthy possession, a sign of surety and luxury, than as a timetelling device. Although, in truth, most would go on living their lives according to that time dictated by bells or drumbeats in the shrines and temples around, I briefly entertained the notion that for each feudal lord’s clock there had existed a separate regime of time, its hourly authority extending only within a certain radius. From one regime to another, clever residents could then slip in order to lengthen the day or shorten the night as they might have need.
Our circuit of the room led us past a scroll illustrating a mounded tomb, that of 1st century BC emperor Sujin. The legend suggested that the artist had prepared the document, comprising more than one hundred such illustrations, with an eye to surveying and eventually restoring the Kinai region’s mounded tombs. Turning my attention back to the illustration, I could make out a dyke raised not in order to turn back the sea but to enclose a square lake. Bounded in this way above ground, the artificial body of water in turn held an oblong island at its center, with a few islets scattered to either side. On the central island rose the titular mound and its growth of ornamental trees beneath which lay the emperor’s remains.
To set foot on the island tomb, the visitor would first have to approach via an elevated walkway and pass beneath two white torii at either end of a small enclosure at water’s edge. Only then, might the visitor board a small boat, perhaps carried there for just such a purpose, to be ferried across the artificial lake to the raised mound at its center. The level of artifice involved in such a construction could perhaps be thought to rival, in audacity if not in detail, that of the clock which we had left behind some moments earlier. Yet the emperor had no need of such a device to mark out his nights and days, equally uniform, which neither servant’s attention nor weight’s heft would alter.
A five-minute walk found me before the British Museum, my final destination on that summer day. Having made arrangements with my companions, I lingered in the entrance courtyard a moment. They were, not, however behind the columns or to one side of the court and so I considered how I might best make myself as conspicuous as possible, a line of thinking to which I was not typically given. Looking about and turning the thought over, I decided at last to take up a position on the jutting pedestal to the right of the main stairs where I would be silhouetted by a column and away from the masses milling about.
My hunch proved a good one as my travel companions, near the entrance, sighted me easily enough. With my hands, I pushed myself off the ledge, and my feet met the ground, perhaps a little unsteadily, a short distance below. Contact made, we turned to the question of our path, for, in a museum so large, the viewer must inevitably confront a series of choices and construct for herself a universe, or collection thereof, from the disparate materials with which the institution presented her. Still, it must be decided how and by what method the person goes about constructing that universe.
My experiences that day confirmed prior such experiences: most came in with a prior agenda in the form of their collateral interests and commitments, such that a group path required splicing together the individual. My companions cast aside Persian, First People and Oceanian; they retained in their place the Egyptian, Greek and Japanese collections. The Japanese collections being held on the upper levels, we set our steps one above another in order to work our way back down later.
A replica of the Kudara Kannon statue greets the visitor to the first of the Japanese rooms. It would seem that the craftsmen behind the replica had reproduced it in accordance with the most exacting standards of likeness, for their creation was precise down to the finest of details. The reproduction encompassed not just the hues of the paint or the grain of the material but even the damage marring the statue’s surface. Although the signage suggested nothing of the sort, I liked to think that the craftsman might be called upon in the coming years to recreate on the replica incidents having occurred on the original or, still further, that a law of absolute likeness now bound the original’s appearance to any accidents befalling the replica. In my mind, it was almost as if the replica could only exist in perfect parallel with the original to the point that, having been made for the same fate, the original would disappear with the replica.
Still, as a replica of a National Treasure, the statue would encounter no fate of the sort. I remembered having read in a Japanese travelogue, as experienced by a Frenchman, that the National Treasures were not limited to buildings and artworks alone but extended as well to entire crafts, traditional skills, and, in rare cases, people. I entertained my companions for a short time with the suggestion that the Living National Treasures, like the inanimate, had been copied for the sake of posterity and that a sufficiently curious traveller could find in any given Japanese thoroughfare a potter’s flesh-and-blood replica or the breathing reproduction of a weaver. In this way, they lived beyond their years.