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THE GREAT EXHIBITION AT BLOOMSBURY.
By the Great Exhibition at Bloomsbury, my readers will at once understand that the British Museum is intended. There has been a talk of removing it from its present position to some more occidental part of London, which would be obviously more difficult for its visitors to reach, and as this can scarcely be the object in view, it is well to know the removal is talk and nothing
Now, rather more than a century ago, when George the Third's grandfather was king, and Jacobites were clinking their cups over a bowl of water in secret homage to the romantic Stuart King on the other side of the Channel; when powder and periwigs were in fashion, and deep politicians, lounging at the chocolate-houses, were known by a liberal display of snuff on the upper lip; when the dandies of the day, in coats of glowing colours, ventilated their tailors' frippery at Ranelagh, and varied their inane lives by insulting peaceably disposed people, and taking the wall of those who wore no swords; when Hogarth was painting his inimitable pictures; Pope "doing" Homer into polished English; Handel composing his magnificent music; Wesley and Whitfield, amid a storm of reproach and contumely, awakening the sleepers by their earnest zeal; when the rich and poor-the fashionable butterflies and vulgar caterpillars of society, were alike stirred by Arminian or Calvinistic Methodism-then Sir Hans Sloane offered, in his will, to Parliament the collection of curiosities which he had been collecting for a life-time, together with some rare old books, for something less than half their value. Parliament accepted the offer, and raised the money by means which we have learned to regard as immoral-as a mere gambling transaction-but at which our forefathers looked in another light; and so the funds were realized by a lottery. For the Sloane Museum £20,000. was paid; £10,000. for the Harleian Collection of Manuscripts; and £10,250. to the Earl of Halifax for the mansion known as Montague House, in Bloomsbury,-in those days a very much more dignified locality than it is now.
So began the British Museum, one of the most splendid national collections in the world. Availing themselves of the nucleus thus formed, eminent men became liberal donors, and the additions were numerous and valuable. George II. presented the Royal Library to the Museum, and granted the right to the trustees of claiming a copy of every book entered at Stationers' Hall. Hamilton's vases, Abercrombie's spoils, Cook's trophies, the libraries of Banks, Birch,
Hawkins, Burney, Garrick, Arundel, Lansdowne, and Bridgewater, swelled the treasures of the Museum; curiosities of civilized and barbarian life, from all quarters of the globe, crowded up the mansion, until it was found necessary to re-build, and alter, and enlarge and contrive, so that the wealth of the National Museum might be seen by the nation, and not be as completely concealed from public view as the bullion in the bank. A new British Museum was commenced in 1823, and notwithstanding the extent of the area occupied, and the economy which has been practised as to space, the Museum is still too small to hold its daily increasing
What a storehouse of learning the building has become! What an eloquent exponent of the dead past to the living present! What light it flings on the page of history from its sculptured stones and common household goods and pictures-how solemn the lessons which it teaches, how impressive the morals they enforce!
I am very often at the Bloomsbury Exhibition, spending a great many hours every week in the reading room, to which I shall allude more particularly by-and-by. The public are admitted to the Museum on three days in the week only: Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays; but not a few, ignorant of or forgetful of these arrangements, come up to Bloomsbury to see the sight and find the gate closed; a man inside to open to visitors bound for the reading room, and to answer the unfortunate comers who are disappointed of the sight. I remember hearing two country lads debate the question with the Janitor, urging upon him the fact that it was their last day in town, and that they could not come another time. They were very earnest about it, and entered into some minute family particulars, which interested the policeman on duty, and three or four lads on errands, and a woman with a big basket and a little child; but it was of no possible use, the gate-keeper was civil, but could not make the disappointed visitors understand that he had no authority; they grew cross about it, and were going to write to somebody and "have that sort of thing cleared up."
It is a curious sight to see the crowds that come to the Museum, that stand in its central hall and look up at its painted ceiling and round on its sculptures, and officials, with a sort of pleased wonder. The visitors, especially at holiday times, are a sight to see. Mechanics in their Sunday suits, fathers of families with their wives and children; girls in parties of three or four, who have arranged to meet each other and "go to the Museum;" a large number of young people, with a predilection for sitting on the landings of the two grand staircases. I have sat there myself and watched the people
coming in and going out, wandering into the libraries, or gathering in groups to gaze furtively down the passage leading to the reading room, kept by two officials, who are as civil and obliging as men can be. One cannot help noticing how strongly and how oddly the curiosity inherent to our race, is shewn by those who visit any public place. What there is to be seen is comparatively uninteresting to what is hidden. Mark any door "private," and the heart of the stranger yearns to open that door and look inside; run up a barrier of planks, and the strangers seek by all sorts of means to peer behind; "no admission except on business," is provocative of the most intolerable curiosity. There is something comical in seeing an individual, careless about the marvels and beauties presented to his gaze, straining his eyes at a crevice, to find, perhaps, a few shavings, a basket of tools and a workman taking his dinner. But it is an instinct of nature within us all, a desire to know, to find out, what is hidden.
The thousands and tens of thousands of visitors who come to Bloomsbury enter that palace of antiquities as their own house; if not admitted every day and everywhere, they are disposed to resent it; but how different was all this a century ago, and less. Then if you wished to see the Museum, it was necessary to make known that wish to the porter, stating your name, condition, abode, in writing, and naming the hour and the day when you would be glad to be let in. Your application was duly registered, and laid before the secretary or librarian. Supposing one or other of these gentlemen, or both, were satisfied that the applicant, from his position in society, might safely be allowed to see the sight, the porter was directed to give him a ticket if he called again. The applicant presenting himself again, receives the joyful news that a ticket-ofleave to see the exhibition has been granted. On the appointed morning applicant arrives, according to the hour on the card-say nine in the morning-and is shewn or ordered into a room to wait until other fortunate ticket-holders arrive. Ten is the number, and the tenth man having made his appearance, the party is marshalled into two divisions, each under the charge of an official, who is excessively sharp in his attention, as if he suspected that one of the visitors would surreptitiously pocket, or otherwise dispose of a Hans Sloane curiosity. Under such rigid regulations very few people of the common sort, if any, ever crossed the threshold of Montague House; the building was virtually closed against the public, and the only book-worms admitted were the literal representatives of the insect world, who were allowed to devour the books without a ticket! To watch the busy cheerful wondering
throng now freely visiting the Museum, is a gratifying token of the improved state of public feeling, and the conduct of the visitors is very creditable and assuring.
Here are the holiday groups of modern England among the sarcophagi, column statues, sepulchral urns and funeral tablets of ancient Egypt, stone coffins, hewn from the solid rock, polished and engraved with hieroglyphics which tell how great and mighty were those for whom they were prepared; there are the coffins of royal ladies and scribes and priests, some of them huge boxes, others fashioned into the form of a mummy, all, or nearly all, inscribed with names-the door-plates of the dead!—an allusion to a faith as dead as those who trusted in it. The urns are scarcely less interesting; in these were stored the intestines of the embalmed Egyptian, and the figures sculptured on the vases are those of the genii, who were supposed to preside over the interior of the body. But most conspicuous of all, are the colossal figures in granite; heroes, sages, kings, dedicated to Osiris, Isis, and Orus, but serving only to illustrate the manners of an ancient to a modern race, to add external testimony to the truth of the faith held by the enslaved people who groaned under the rod of the task-master on the banks of the Nile. The people of the modern race who know the story of that slavery and emancipation, from their childhood, are here brought face to face with the material evidences of the Bible narrative. Memnon still resounds, the carved tablets, the sphynxes, the colossal statues, the urns and frescoes, are all eloquent of the truth. Here is the painter and the sculptor commenting on the Pentateuch-artists contemporary with Moses, whose illustrative criticism must be more valuable than that of a modern sceptical prelate Slabs, statues, marbles, bearing witness to the truth of other parts of Old Testament history; and Assyrian chisels, sculptors of Nimroud, Kuyunjik, Khorsabad, telling how Sennacherib came up against Lachish, and how the Jewish captives were brought before his throne. The prophets and the historians are alike verified by the cold dumb stone, made warmly eloquent in defence of Bible truth.
But to me there is something very awful in the whole contents of the Bloomsbury Exhibition. There is so much that tells of death of the vanity of all human things; death everywhere; death in the glittering beetles transfixed in cases, in the giraffes of North and South Africa, craning their long necks at the top of the grand staircase; death in the long avenues of wild beasts, of tame animals, of all the birds of heaven, of all the fishes of the sea; monkeys that stare at us out of their glass eyes with a fixed gibber; dogs that
can give no response to a friendly touch; larks that shall no more "Sing at heaven's gate," nor "build their nests upon the ground." Death in the vegetable world in the dead fossils; sea-weed and ferns that shall never again put forth their branches, or wave their singularly formed foliage; death in the pictures, the pictures of dead faces looking down upon us from the canvas, great and mighty men, but of the "earth earthy," are gathered to the great garner house centuries agone. Deadliest of all, here are the Egyptian dead, the mummies, swathed and bandaged corpses that once were men and women, and now lie amid a curious collection of their household goods, chairs, stools, head-rests, iron keys, bronze hinges, models of houses, a workman's apron, a palm leaf basket, hair studs, cord sandals, toilet services, mirrors, and a state wig, beautiful and lustrous as though it had left the barber's block but yesterday, everything round it speaking of death and decay; bottles which shall hold no more liquors, cups to which no lips shall come, lamps whose light is extinguished for ever, and viands ready dressed that shall never be eaten; musical instruments that shall give forth no sound, and toys with which no childish hand shall play.
And yet it is not all dead. Turn into the libraries, and the books of the dead, many of them written in dead languages, attract the eye at every turn; in the glass cases rare volumes of the dead and gone are laid open for inspection, and solemn acts of State signed and sealed by dead hands; and letters breathing of life and love penned by skeleton fingers centuries ago. But the books are not dead; the solemn deeds and charters are still to all intents and purposes alive; here is the Magna Charta, won from the crafty Lackland nearly six hundred and fifty years ago, but still the basis of our English Constitution; it is curious to stand and look upon this parchment deed, which once upon a time was fair as the new vellum in the law stationers, but dark and dingy as it now is, has become the very corner stone of English liberty; the eyes that saw it when the ink was wet, looked differently on it to what we do now; triumphant glances met the baffled gaze of the king checkmated in his island of Runnymede. Checkmated-here is the specimen of one of the earliest printed books, the book of chess, printed by good Master Caxton; this book and its brothers have founded a mighty family and revolutionized society. Dead! these are not dead at all events, the seeds of truth-vital truth-have been broadcast by the press; the light of truth has been everywhere shed abroad, relieved of that encumbering bushel under which it lay when the monkish Scribe was the only teacher. It is well to look thankfully