Wednesday, August 18, 2010


By Claire
Yes, we're back in London. We have a few days to spare before departing for France on August 24 so we took advantage and decided to see some things we missed the first time around.

We started with the Sir John Soane's Museum, a free trip through a quirky, collector’s paradise. I've never seen so many mirrors in one house. Lots of interesting domed, square and stained-glass skylights too. This guy certainly collected a lot of Roman and Greek statues as well as an Egyptian sarcophagus that was hoisted up and through a hole made in a wall of brick then carefully lowered down into the crypt below. It was a perfect fit. The townhouse is full of Soane’s (and his wife's) collection of ancient relics, curios and famous paintings. In 1933, just before his death, Soane established his house as a museum, stipulating that it be kept as nearly as possible in the state he left it. Apparently, it is. We enjoyed seeing it.

Our next stop was the British Library. Expecting something old and small, we were astonished to find this huge, magnificent, very modern library.

The lobby is open and airy and very inviting. We marched up to the information desk right away, hoping to get in on the 3 pm guided tour. Fortunately, there was room and with 20 minutes to spare, we made our way to the café for a cold drink and a chance to sit down. We had forgotten how much work is involved in maneuvering around a large city. The Underground is great but you can walk for blocks inside going up and down stairs and down long passageways before finding the correct platform. We certainly get our exercise seeing the city.

We noticed these standing computer stations. I tried one and they’re comfortable; but you’re still standing.

Back in the lobby, we found a display with digital books which operate something like an iPhone. You sweep your finger to turn the pages.

Our guide, Daniel, gathered our group together, explaining some of the history and cost of this building, somewhere in the hundreds of millions of pounds. We were shown King George III’s 80,000 book collection and a behind-the-scenes look at how books are retrieved for someone in a reading room. There are several reading rooms, most of which fill up quickly. If you want to see a particular book—which you can find on-line at the provided computer at your desk—you click on request, enter your desk number and send it off. When the book arrives, a light at your desk tells you to go to the reception area to retrieve it. You are allowed to keep it one day at a time in the reading room—no books can be checked out.

We watched a video of a book making its journey on the conveyor belts from the basement up to the particular reading room. It’s quite a process. It was interesting to learn that books are stored by size, not by title, subject or author; this is to save space. Oxford University has a similar system. As the copyright library for Great Britain, by law, the British Library must have a copy of all books published in the country—this is a lot of books: around 14 million, along with a substantial additional collection of manuscripts and historical items dating back as far as 300 BC. The entire collection holds over 150 million items in all known languages and formats: books, journals, newspapers, magazines, sound and music recordings, patents, databases, maps, stamps, prints, drawings and much more. While it holds more items in total, its book collection is second only to the American Library of Congress.

The tour ended at the Treasures Room. Daniel pointed out the important items—The Beatles lyrics on scrap paper, the Magna Carta, Henry VIII’s prayer scroll, ancient religious texts from all major world religions, original notes and manuscripts for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, and more. The interpretive display claims that Charles Lutwidge Dodgson created his penname by translating his given name into Latin and then interpreting it back to English; who knew?

I made a beeline for the Beatles display and was able to listen to the music of each song in the exhibit as I read about it and saw the handwritten lyrics, one on the back of an envelope, another on the back of a birthday card to John Lennon’s son.

At the other end of the music spectrum, there were original musical scores from Handel’s Messiah, and from Schubert, Beethoven and Mozart.

Next, I listened to James Joyce reading an excerpt from Finnegan’s Wake, Virginia Woolf in an interview—she sounded really old, frumpy and large—nothing like Nicole Kidman in the movie The Hours.

The Magna Carta room had a wonderful interactive video display with a touch screen with 10 questions which were answered by one of the library curators. It was interesting to find out that only 3 of the 63 items in the charter are still British law.

The Sherborne Missal is a vast illuminated manuscript weighing over “three stone”—that’s 42 pounds. Sultan Baybars’ Qur’an is 7 volumes of Arabic script, handwritten in gold.

There is a copy of the Gutenberg Bible, of course. Leonardo da Vinci’s notebook is on display. He wrote in medieval Italian and mirror-script; so, you need to read it off a mirror to interpret it easily, assuming your language skills are adequate. The diary of Captain Scott’s journey to the South Pole is exhibited.

There was a terrific map exhibit with more maps than I’ve ever seen in my life. I loved the one of America with California as an island. When I came to a map of Ireland from 1708, I searched for places we had been. I found Ballydehob right away! The area that is the Dingle Peninsula was not labeled as such but I found Tralee, which was then spelled Tralley. The exhibit had the tiniest atlas, designed for Queen Mary’s doll house, and the largest atlas, with huge pages that were almost wall size. It was a fun and fascinating exhibit. We were racing for time even after 3 hours and just made it out before closing at 6 pm.

By now we were really exhausted but made it back to Homer like pros. I was amazed at this guy with his huge bass. It had one wheel on the bottom to steer it through the hoards of people.

What a great day! It didn’t even rain!

London, that great cesspool into which all the loungers of the Empire are irresistibly drained. ~ Sherlock Holmes


Karin said...

What an exciting and "enlightening" day!

Thanks for noting Ballydehob was there in the 1700's!

Karin on Paros

Carol said...

Thanks Claire,

I always like to learn about the different libraries you and Chuck go to. Certainly different travelers than most! How many people want to go to the library when they go overseas?

Chuck and Claire said...

One of our favorites is the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. We have now seen the top 4 in the world. I only wish we had one of them (Alexandria and Amsterdam are the other two) close to home. The British Library even has a business center where you can sign up to meet with top people in different fields and talk to them one-on-one. Workshops, business meetings and more take place there. We were impressed with the number of people using the free Wifi. They were spread all over the library. There are large, comfortable chairs with wide arms that have built in electrical plugs along the front and a swing mechanism desk top. We didn't even mention the map reading room....There is so much here.