27 November 2011

Japanese collection at the British Museum

I have worked near to the British Museum at times for a total of some years yet it has never managed to pull me in to its clutches in any meaningful way.

Most of the times that I have been there have been to use it as an attractive route when walking north/south in that area.

These walks take me through the central courtyard that always gives pause to the journey and compels an upward glance or two at the geometric beauty of the new roof that crafts a gorgeous room below.

I wanted to pay a serious visit to the museum as I have been visiting several museums and galleries recently and the final spur was an informal guided tour arranged by the Arts Link Meetup Group.

One of things that kept me away from the British Museum was the daunting task of where to start and what to see. Going with an arranged tour solved that.

Twenty or so of us headed up to the fourth floor and the Japanese collection which is spread over three rooms.

Welcoming you in to the first room is a life-size standing Buddha.

Luckily there is also a large diagram and notice that give a summary of Japanese history that I knew little about apart from the Samurai stories and the invasions of China that I heard so much about when in China.

The defining feature of Japanese history is that they have deliberately kept the rest of the world at arms length and so their culture developed almost completely independently, the ingress of Buddhism and the excursions in to China being two notable exceptions.

Japan is also the place where the earthenware pot was first invented.

A year or so ago that would have been a complete surprise for me, I would have guessed the Middle East, but the secret was let out in the landmark Radio 4 series A History of the World in 100 Objects.

The oldest pots are 7,000 years old.

Most of the pottery on display is functional rather than decorative with a notable exception being a pair of white elephants. These were enhanced by our guide explaining that white elephants were considered sacred and so were not worked, hence the phrase a white elephant meaning something that has no worth.

There were decorative arts on display in the form of drawings and prints.


The summoning of a skeletal ghost may not have been typical of the drawings on display but it was the most eye-catching. Actually it was the second most eye-catching but while I lived the Astro Boy poster I felt it more appropriate to feature something a little older.

The three rooms are a little Spartan and lacking in the expected samurai relics, there is only one suit and that is an amalgam of several suits from different ages and styles, and the display verges on disappointment. It was rescued from this by our guide and somehow the scant relics kept us entertained for forty minutes or so.

An unexpected treat was to be found in the floor below.

Manga at the British Museum, drawings by Hoshino Yukinobu is a display of some of the original drawings from the manga series Professor Munakata’s British Museum Adventure.

The story includes famous exhibits from the museum, such as the Rosetta Stone, and I am hoping that the book may give me suggestions for other parts of the museum to visit on future occasions.

All I need to do know is to persuade somebody to buy me the book.

The slight detour over I rejoined the rest of the group that had moved on from the museum and taken up residence in the upstairs room at The Plough.

I am still not completely convinced by the British Museum and it may take another guided tour to get me there, however, this visit did all that I hoped that it would and it has made it more likely that I'll return.

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