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A History of Science, Volume 5(of 5) by Williams

But in the mean time archaeology has become a science


But

no one who sees this building to-day would suspect its relative youth. Half a century of London air can rival a cycle of Greece or Italy in weathering effect, and the fine building of the British Museum frowns out at the beholder to-day as grimy and ancient-seeming as if its massive columns dated in fact from the old Grecian days which they recall. Regardless of age, however, it is one of the finest and most massive specimens of Ionic architecture in existence. Forty-four massive columns, in double tiers, form its frontal colonnade, jutting forward in a wing at either end. The flight of steps leading to the central entrance is in itself one hundred and twenty-five feet in extent; the front as a whole covers three hundred and seventy feet. Capping the portico is a sculptured tympanum by Sir Richard Westmacott, representing the "Progress of Civilization" not unworthily. As a whole, the building is one of the few in London that are worth visiting for an inspection of their exterior alone. It seems admirably designed to be, as it is, the repository of one of the finest collections of Oriental and classical antiquities in the world.

There is an air of repose about the _ensemble_ that is in itself suggestive of the Orient; and the illusion is helped out by the pigeons that flock everywhere undisturbed about the approaches to the building, fluttering to be fed from the hand of some recognized friend, and scarcely evading the feet of the casual wayfarer.

With this scene before him, if one will close his ears to the hum of the great city at his back he can readily imagine himself on classical soil, and, dreaming of Greece and Italy, he will enter the door quite prepared to find himself in the midst of antique marbles and the atmosphere of by-gone ages.

I have already pointed out that the turning-point in the history of the British Museum came just at the beginning of the century, with the acquisition of the Egyptian antiquities. With this the institution threw off its swaddling-clothes. Hitherto it had been largely a museum of natural history; in future, without neglecting this department, it was to become equally important as a museum of archaeology. The Elgin marbles, including the wonderful Parthenon frieze, confirmed this character, and it was given the final touch by the reception, about the middle of the century, of the magnificent Assyrian collection just exhumed at the seat of old Nineveh by Mr. (afterwards Sir Henry) Layard. Since then these collections, with additions of similar character, have formed by far the most important feature of the British Museum. But in the mean time archaeology has become a science.

Within recent years the natural history collection has been removed _in toto_ from the old building to a new site far out in South Kensington, and the casual visitor is likely to think of it as a separate institution. The building which it occupies is very modern in appearance as in fact. It is a large and unquestionably striking structure, and one that gives opportunity for very radical difference of opinion as to its architectural beauty. By some it is much admired; by others it is almost equally scoffed at. Certain it is that it will hardly bear comparison with the parent building in Great Russell Street.


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