Learning in London – A Living, Urban Classroom

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St Paul’s reflected by the face of One New Change.

Shoreditch, London – If I ever wanted to study history, there are few cities in the world that are greater places to do so than here. Not only is my class studying the history of London in London, but we’re doing it by going around and actually seeing the history and how the present is presenting and re-presenting it through museums, galleries, plaques, and monuments. So far, this is the best way I’ve found to learn the history of a place, because it cuts out the Prof. Binns effect to use a Harry Potter reference, in that the class can just be a boring list of names, dates, and battles. Not that I’ve actually had such a class thus far in my academic career, of course. However, the class I’m in right now is by far at the extreme opposite end of the spectrum from such a Binns class. After all, how many history classes have you taken where your classroom for the day is the British Museum, or where your main project is to find something in the history of London that could be better represented or needs to be told in the first place.

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“…how many history classes have you taken where your classroom for the day is the British Museum…”

My paper and presentation is going to be on how the linguistic history of London could be better represented in the Museum of London. In particular, I’m going to be looking at how the languages and cultures of the past, whether Celtic, Roman, Saxon, Norman, Medieval, Tudor, or the more recent generations, impacted the landscape and life of London today. You can see the impact greatly in toponymy. For example, in London one can find a tremendous amount of Anglo-Saxon street and borough names, such as Aldgate, Cheapside, and Smithfield.

My first full day of class was at the British Museum. We spent the day wandering through it, first looking at how the museum told the story of humanity, and then in particular how it told the story of Britain. There were somethings in the museum that I found really interesting and exciting, particularly in the British sections, such as the Barnack Burial, which is a skeleton of a man who died between 2330 BC and 2310 BC. (Source: British Museum). The crazy thing about it is that when I thought about it, I realised that because he was a pre-Roman Briton (the ancestors more so of the modern Welsh than English), this skeleton is probably one of my ancestors. That realisation made the experience more personal, and much cooler for me.

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“…this skeleton is probably one of my ancestors.”

One area that I am most interested in, as can be seen by my mention of the aforementioned skeletal man, is in the peoples who came before the great civilisations and empires of Antiquity. Two such peoples are the Etruscans of Italy and the Minoans of Crete. The British Museum has a collection of Etruscan artefacts, which were a delight to see, as I don’t get to see much save Rome in Kansas City. Among them was a wall painting showing your normal Etruscans from the height of their civilisation. A lot of these ancient things are so eerie because I think about how when they were first made, that culture was probably not unlike our own in that it seemed stable, and ready to continue on into the future. But, they are no longer around, just as one day we will most probably not be around as well.

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“…that culture was probably not unlike our own…”

Another interesting thing that caught my eye was the Assyrian collection. Being a lover of Gilgamesh, I had to take a look at this section of the museum, which was as it should be: astounding. Again in the artefacts that we leave behind, the future can learn more about lost civilisations and cultures. So too, in things such as a wall carving of an Assyrian king wrestling and stabbing a lion, we are shown a particular image of their society, and the power of their kings, that could or could not be unlike our own. I had a good laugh later in the day when at the National Portrait Gallery, I came across a Reubens depiction of a Lion Hunt.

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An Assyrian King stabs a lion whilst throttling it.

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Peter Paul Rubens, A Lion Hunt, about 1614-15.

The thing to keep in mind is that despite the passage of time, the changing of language and culture from one to another, we always remain human. Just as a king in the 16th Century BC may have a fascination with hunting lions, to show his own power and prowess, so too a 17th Century painter would use that same image to depict the greatness of his subject. After all, what is the symbol of English Football than the 3 Lions of England? This is one of the great things about history that I love so much, that we learn so much about ourselves and our culture when we study others. In London, one can see this more so than perhaps in other cities. Here in the courtyard of the London Guildhall, one can see architecture from every period in the City’s 2000 year history from the Roman amphitheatre under one’s feet to the late 20th century buildings on of the Guildhall’s West Wing. This is truly a great place to study history, one of, if not the greatest there is. I am looking forward to next week’s class, as we continue on our walks through London, learning about the past, and how the present depicts it, while keeping a watchful eye on how the future may depict us when we too become the past.

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