The British Museum And The Crystal Palace
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
I have letters of introduction and a ticket of admission to the British Museum. About the Grecian marbles, the original Italian drawings, about the National Gallery, the Hampton Court galleries, the pictures at Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle, and the private collections, I shall say nothing. Still, what marvels and what historical tokens are all these things, five or six specimens of high civilization manifested in a perfect art, all differing greatly from that which I now examine, and so well adapted for bringing into relief the good and the evil. To do that would fill a volume by itself.
The Museum library contains six hundred thousand volumes; the reading-room is vast, circular in form, and covered with a cupola, so that no one is far from the central office, and no one has the light in his eyes. All the lower stage of shelves is filled with works of reference—dictionaries, collections of biographies, classics of all sorts—which can be consulted on the spot, and are excellently arranged. Moreover, a small plan placed on each table indicates where they are placed and the order in which they stand.
Each seat is isolated; there is nothing in front but the woodwork of the desk, so that no one is annoyed by the presence of his neighbor. The seats and the tables are covered with leather, and are very clean; there are two pens to each desk, the one being steel, the other a quill pen; there is also a small stand at the side, upon which a second volume, or the volume from which the extracts are being copied may be placed. To procure a book, the title is written on a form, which is handed to the central office. The attendant brings the book to you himself, and does so without delay. I have made trial of this, even in the case of works seldom asked for. The holder of the book is responsible till he has received back the form filled up when he applied for it. For ladies a place is reserved, which is a delicate piece of attention.
What a contrast if we compare this with our great library at the Louvre, with its long room, with half of the readers dazzled by the light in their eyes, the readers being packed together at a common table, the titles of the books being called out in loud tones, the long time spent in waiting at the central office. The French Library has been reformed according to the English model, yet with-out being rendered as convenient. Nevertheless, ours is the more liberally conducted; its doors are opened to all comers. Here one must be a "respectable" person; no one is admitted unless vouched for by two householders. This is said to be enough; as it is, those gain admission who are worse than shabby—men in working clothes, and some without shoes—they have been introduced by clergy , en. The grant for buying new books is seven or eight times larger than ours. When shall we learn to spend our money in a sensible way?
In other matters they are not so successful, such as the Crystal Palace at Sydenham, for instance, which formed the building for the Great Exhibition, and which is now a sort of museum of curiosities. It is gigantic, like London itself, and like so many things in London, but how can I portray the gigantic? All the ordinary sensations produced by size are intensified several times here. It is two miles in circumference and has three stories of prodigious height; it would easily hold five or six buildings like our Palace of Industry, and it is of glass; it consists, first, of an immense rectangular structure rising toward the center in a semicircle like a hothouse, and flanked by two Chinese towers; then, on either side, long buildings descend at right angles, enclosing the garden with its fountains, statues, summer houses, strips of turf, groups of large trees, exotic plants, and beds of flowers. The acres of glass sparkle in the sunlight; at the horizon an undulating line of green eminences is bathed in the luminous vapor which softens all colors and spreads an expression of tender beauty over an entire landscape.
Always the same English method of decoration—on the one side a park and natural embellishments, which it must be granted, are beautiful and adapted to the climate; on the other, the building, which is a monstrous jumble, wanting in style, and bearing witness not to taste, but to English power. The interior consists of a museum of antiquities, composed of plaster facsimiles of all the Grecian and Roman statues scattered over Europe; of a museum of the Middle Ages; of a Revival museum; of an Egyptian museum; of a Nineveh museum; of an Indian museum; of a reproduction of a Pompeiian house; of a reproduction of the Alhambra. The ornaments of the Alhambra have been molded, and these molds are preserved in an adjoining room as proofs of authenticity. In order to omit nothing, copies have been made of the most notable Italian paintings, and these are daubs worthy of a country fair.
There is a huge tropical hothouse, wherein are fountains, swimming turtles, large aquatic plants in flower, the Sphinx and Egyptian statues sixty feet high, specimens of colossal or rare trees, among others the bark of a Sequoia California 450 feet in height and measuring 116 feet in circumference. The bark is arranged and fastened to an inner framework in such a manner as to give an idea of the tree itself. There is a circular concert room, with tiers of benches as in a Colosseum, Lastly, in the gardens are to be seen life-size re-productions of antediluvian monsters, megatheriurns, dinotheriums, and others. In these gardens Blondin does his tricks at the height of a hundred feet.
I pass over half the things; but does not this conglomeration of odds and ends carry back one's thoughts to the Rome of Caesar and the Antonines? At that period also pleasure-palaces were erected for the sovereign people; circuses, theaters, baths wherein were collected statues, paintings, animals, musicians, acrobats, all the treasures and all the oddities of the world; pantheons of opulence and curiosity; genuine bazaars where the liking for what was novel, heterogeneous, and fantastic ousted the feeling of appreciation for simple beauty.
In truth, Rome enriched herself with these things by conquest, England by industry. Thus it is that at Rome the paintings, the statues, were stolen originals, and the monsters, whether rhinoceroses or lions, were perfectly alive and tore human beings to pieces; whereas here the statues are made of plaster and the monsters of goldbeater's skin. The spectacle is one of second class, but of the same kind. A Greek would not have regarded it with satisfaction; he would have considered it appropriate to powerful barbarians, who, trying to become refined, had utterly failed.