February 18, 2008

A Visit to The British Museum

Hello from Jolly Olde England where, believe it or not, the sun is shining and the daffodils are in full bloom! This lovely weather makes walking the transport of choice and it a great opportunity to get to know the city in a way that taxis and the Tube just don't allow. I still have to get used to checking in every direction before crossing a street but for the most part it's been most enjoyable to get around on foot.

One of the big attractions in London at the moment is a special exhibition called "The First Emperor: China's Terracotta Army" at The British Museum. The timed entry tickets are often sold out and I was very glad that I had pre-ordered mine online well in advance of this visit.

The First Emperor was born Ying Zheng in 259BC. He became King of Qin at the age of 13, and went on to build an empire that eventually earned him the title "Qin Shihuangdi", or, "First August Divine Emperor of the Qin". His rule was short, he died at age 49, but had a huge impact on the development of China as the mighty nation we know today. By amassing an enormous army, mostly through conscription, and devising methods of combat and arms that were far ahead of their time, he had the military strength to conquer the independent states in the region that is now China. He unified these states by instituting a common script, currency and legal system, although his idea of rule through punishment was merciless. His soldiers constructed the first Great Wall of China, an edifice that remains impressive to this day.

Despite this absolute power and strength, The First Emperor had one great fear that dictated many of his actions. He was afraid to die. He wanted to remain Emperor of the Universe forever. He tried to postpone death by taking special herbs and medicines, but in case that didn't work, he persevered and constructed an eternal empire - a massive underground tomb complex guarded by a huge terracotta army. Lost for centuries, this amazing buried treasure covering 56 square kilometers, was re-discovered by accident in 1974 by a farmer working in his field.

Since then, excavators have uncovered about 7,000 life-size terracotta soldiers, officers, musicians, acrobats, and horses as well as countless bronze statues of chariots and birds. Archaeologists estimate that there are over 600 pits containing untold treasures, with the great prize being the burial mound of The First Emperor himself. This remains untouched although experts believe it to contain rivers of mercury and skies of pearls.

Museum goers who have already visited the site at Xi'an in China will be disappointed with this exhibition. However, those of us who have not yet cast our eyes on the acres of excavation with thousands of statues will find the history and the artifacts fascinating. This special presentation remains on view until April 6.

The British Museum's permanent collection is a treasure trove of antiquities like the famous "Elgin Marbles" from the Parthenon, the colossal statues of winged lions from the Palace of Ashurnasirapal in Assyria/Nimrud, and, of course, the Rosetta Stone.

On a more contemporary note, The British Museum celebrated the New Millennium by commissioning Sir Norman Foster to design and build The Great Court, a glass covered square that encloses the area around the world famous round Reading Room and created the largest covered square in Europe. The result is spectacular and expands the museum's indoor common areas exponentially.

There is lots to see in London at the moment and I intend to check it all out! So stay tuned - I'll be back soon with more British art adventures for your armchair museum pleasure.

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