Art Everywhere, All the Time

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Image courtesy of Elena Chapman. Licensed under CC BY SA 2.0.

I spent the past week and some change in London, my first visit there. It was, as you might imagine, an excellent trip for my flavor of nerd. So many museums! Free museums! With type specimens! So many type specimens.

I mean really. Y’all, on a whim, I visited the British Library. In their “treasures room,” I saw—in no particular order—the notated manuscript draft for Jane Eyre, a Gutenberg Bible, Austen’s hand-written draft of Persuasion, a letter by Darwin, a hand-written Sylvia Plath poem, and two (two!) of the original copies of the Magna Carta. This was in a single room, and doesn’t even include the section of books that were included just as art objects (they were, as you might imagine, covered in gilt and beautiful). In the room downstairs, I got to see one of Neil Gaiman’s original Sandman scripts.

I wandered into the Natural History Museum and saw mounts of Darwin’s pigeons and the type specimen for archaeopteryx. (That building, by the way, has dinosaurs and monkeys and beetles carved into the walls.) Halfway down the block I popped in the science museum and, after seeing a display of the sculpture that James Watt apparently took up after inventing steam engines, wandered upstairs, where I promptly lost my shit in front of Babbage’s reconstructed difference engine.

(Such a nerd am I that not only was I aware of Babbage’s part of things, but I had actually read a book about building that particular reconstruction of the difference engine, written by one of the people who spearheaded the project. Did you know that Babbage intentionally put half of the parts backwards in his plans, to confuse would-be copyright infringers?)

A day trip to Oxford led me to the Ashmolean, where I saw in the flesh a whole mess of Greek vases that I had spent an entire semester studying. (Also on display: a sign saying that the role of pederasty in ancient Greek society is debated, which, c’mon guys.)

Wandering around the British Museum I saw the Parthenon marbles, and at the Tate Modern I saw 14 rooms of Matisse cut paper pieces (as well as a stained glass window of his). The Tate Britain included one of Van Gogh’s sunflower pieces—the one he intended to hang in his guest room for a visit from Gauguin—on a wall next to Gauguin’s own work and a Seurat and a Monet water lily. Next door was Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth.

To be clear, I am an awful museum visitor. I wander without purpose and miss exhibits and don’t understand how building layouts work. I wasn’t looking for any of those works, and just thought the museums themselves warranted a visit. With that in mind, I still saw all of those things. That was the insane density of Art Everywhere All The Time.

Even the transit system was dense with references. Half the train stations we stopped at were names I knew from a childhood spent reading. Of course there was Harry Potter at King’s Cross and Sherlock Holmes at Baker Street, but leaving from Paddington Station I thought of Paddington Bear, too, and of my mother. It is weird to know a city’s transit system by name, without having even visited.

I would have to go back to know if I’d ever want to live in London (it is, after all, horrifyingly expensive). But for a visit, particularly for my flavor of nerd, it was a completely lovely trip.

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