The British Museum makes Papa and Babushka laugh a lot. They walk around, look at the frankly astonishing amount of stuff from a ridiculously large number of countries and snigger about how hoseistvenii the British are. Being hoseistvenii, translated from the Russian not particularly well by my Mama, is connected to the idea of being a home-maker, a sense of ownership and playing the host, and whenever Papa makes this comment, which he does whenever these sorts of places are mentioned, Mama always imagines the British Museum as a sort of national mantelpiece upon which all the items brought back by people who would nick anything not actively nailed down as a souvenir of their holidays are beautifully arranged as conversation pieces for dinner parties.
The British Museum always makes Mama feel slightly guilty, and not just because she comes from a nation of tea leaves. She thinks she ought to understand the significance of what she is seeing more. For example, she once took a whole course at university which she calls the appreciation of pots module and which everybody else calls ancient history, and briefly she actually knew the difference between black figures on a red background and red figures on a black background in the GrecoRoman displays. Unfortunately, somewhere in the last twenty years or so she has forgotten it all, and is now forced to fall back on appreciating the aesthetic beauty of the objects. This is not Mama’s skill. She really should take a tour or something, but probably not when I am about. I take a lot of looking after in museums. Luckily the GrecoRoman area is not busy.
The mummies do not need a lot of understanding in order to be appreciated but Mama would like to recommend that people with aggressively ambulatory toddlers do not go and visit them because the huge press of visitors makes it less fun to chase the small person around. If you have a pushchair, you can use it to ram the little knots of tourists preventing you from keeping up with the small body wiggling its way though their legs, but if you do not then you will be forced to use your elbows. Something to consider when you are faced with the choice of putting the pushchair in the very accommodating cloakroom or not. Mama says. I just think it is one big game.
In my opinion, we could quite happily avoid most rooms, because the huge space which now encloses the famous reading room is beyond fun for me to toddle around. There is a gutter! I can walk with one foot in the gutter and one foot out all the way round the edge of the massive, massive room, as long as I squeeze carefully behind the odd bust-bearing plinth. This gives Mama plenty of time to wonder why they still need a gutter when the whole thing is indoors.
Mama likes the Oriental rooms, as most of the items are kept sensibly behind glass rather than on standing free and open for anyone (me) to touch. She was impressed,too, that most of the display cases came right down to the floor, giving me an excellent view, especially as they are also not obscured by a huge press of bodies. And as many of the ceramics are brightly-coloured and some of them are animal-shaped, the actual exhibits held my attention for all of five seconds, which is something of a record in a museum. Of course, I also had an excellent view of the fire extinguishers.
But the clear highlight of our visits are the benches, which Mama not only lets me touch but also lets me pull myself on and slide off! Until we find ourselves on an upper floor and get to go down about five million steps to get back to the main hall. I really like going down steps even if it does take all afternoon. Mama, who is quite the connoisseur of staircases these days, likes it because it was sweeping and affords an excellent view of the people scurrying round the main hall with which to entertain herself during this long expedition.
Mama would like to recommend the eating arrangements. It seems as though the tables attached to the cafes in the main hall are open for all to picnic on, as long as the place isn’t too busy, and the main hall is a lovely place to hang out. Of course, Mama is generally compelled to supplement our packed lunch with a coffee, so she would like to add the caveat that you get a truly tiny cup for your three pounds. But hey, it’s all supporting the collections. If it isn’t raining there is always outside, where there is ample space for lounging around on walls, running around on a square of grass and a caravan selling coffee as well as ice cream.
Anyway, I recommend the British Museum to anyone who thinks their toddler would like to go on an indoor treasure hunt, where the terrain is vast and varied yet easy on the little legs. For older kids there are all sorts of trails and worksheets. And for the adults there is the satisfaction of being able to say that they briefly saw the Rosetta Stone as they trotted past it on their way to inspect another bench.
This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide has to say about why we have museums.
Address: Great Russell Street, London, WC1B 3DG.
Opening: Daily 10.00 – 17.30, Fridays until 20.30.
Price: Admission is free.
Tube: Tottenham Court Road (Northern and Central lines – 500m), Holborn (Piccadilly and Central lines – 500m), Russell Square (Piccadilly line – 800m), Goodge Street (Northern line – 800m).
Bus: Stops on New Oxford Street, Tottenham Court Road, Gower Street or Southampton Row.