On Wednesday I began watching Ancient Worlds on BBC 2. It is a review of regional "civilisations", focussing upon their urban achievements (literally civitates). Presented by Dr Richard Miles.
On the whole I liked it, although I think Dr Miles laid on the "globalisation" propaganda a bit too thick. Ancient cultures may have been inter-connected, but they thought of their own part of oikoumene as unique and their own particular polis as the centre of the world. And although Dr Miles showed us lots of evidence of ancient travel, the vast majority of the world's population never left their own village.
Above: the Sumerian exhibits in the British Museum.
The part of the programme I most enjoyed was the section on the Sumerians. Often I go to the British Museum to look at the Sumerian room. I'm not sure what it is about this early culture that attracts me so much.
Above: a ram caught in a thicket - Genesis 22, verse 13.
Above: steps of the British Museum (picture taken in the summer).
A recent post by Grant McCracken (http://cultureby.com/2010/11/a-marketing-miracle.html) made me think about the purpose of the great London museums and galleries. Grant had been disappointed by the glass cases of the Victoria & Albert Museum ("everything ranged coldly on shelves" as Dr Aziz would say). Is this a cultural difference between the New World and the United Kingdom?
Why do British people feel satisfied with a purely visual experience? Is there something about the objects being captured and contained in a glass case that adds to the sense of satisfaction? On a sub-conscious level are we seeing a cultural reflex at work?
The big London museums present themselves as international centres of scientific learning, and to a certain extent that is true. But they are also undoubtedly filled with the plundered treasures of imperium. Walking in these galleries must have seemed, to our great-grandparents, as if they had entered the allegorical world of The East offering its riches to Britannia (http://www.flickr.com/photos/22955235@N00/638426578/ ).
In that respect the British Museum is the curiosity cabinet of the nation (like the millions of glass display cabinets in British sitting rooms, filled with knick-knacks, holiday souvenirs and Coronation mugs).
There is also the sense that the Victorians were attempting to dominate and subdue The Past itself, as if all the unknown jumble of history and archaeology could be captured, analysed and explained in a continuous progression of improvement (with the unspoken implication that the United Kingdom was the final and logical expression of that process - "and here we are today...").
What is to be done?
Should we sweep the old museums away and replace them with institutions that more fully represent who we are now? Or do we leave them, accepting that who we are now is more or less who we were then, both good and bad (including a genetic disposition to dominate others). Freudian psychology suggests that if you try to repress aspects of yourself those repressions tend to burst out in unexpected ways - the supposedly socialist government of the last twelve years carried out no less than five neo-imperialist wars.