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Amongst the ruins: Hadrian at the British Museum

Et quod vides perisse perditum ducas

Hadrian: Empire and Conflict is an exhibition so weirdly fragmentary, unfocused and inconclusive as to leave me wondering how far, exactly, I should go in reading it not only as a metaphor for the future of the British Museum, but for cultural life more generally.

The way into the exhibition — chaotic, diffuse, confusing — prefigures what we’ll take away from it. Bathed in the milky light and perpetual semi-muffled roar of Great Court, I was guided first by the woman who sold me my ticket, and then by various signs and portents, into a darkened tunnel where my bag was nodded at, rather than searched, before someone else failed to sell me an audio-guide and directed me into an even darker tunnel beyond, which in turn led into a cul-de-sac. Had I missed the exhibition? No, the entrance was in fact now behind me. Having thus discovered the correct, alternative darkened tunnel, I made my way up it, along a low sloping ramp.

Hadrian enthusiasts of more optimistic stripe will, perhaps, have already begun to construe this ramp as a reference, stunning in its subtlety, to Hadrian’s tomb, now the Castel Sant’ Angelo, in Rome. Well, maybe.

Instead, though, my attention was transfixed by the view along the tunnel, upwards and to the left. For there, a few yards above me, ran shelf after shelf of books — half-hidden in the gloom, three-quarters forgotten, surely now wholly inaccessible — a tactless reminder of the fact that the exhibition space, left over from the recent occupation by everyone’s favourite Terracotta Army, is built out over the old Reading Room of the British Library. In other words, where once there was research, independent enquiry, the insistent coursing after knowledge (useful or otherwise) amongst the thickets and savannahs of the canonical printed or written word, now there is something else, superimposed across the top of it: spectacle, crowds appraised quantitas quam qualitas, crass money-making schemes, in short the ponderous mechanics of yet another British Museum Blockbuster.

Now, like most of us when we come up against the resonant detritus that is all we now have left of what used to be called Antiquity, I’m more than willing to succumb to semi-enjoyable reflection regarding the irrecoverability of the past, hackneyed regret that everything man-made really does end up ruined or lost eventually, or even pointless and sentimental sub-animist pity for the flotsam of Time’s shipwreck. That’s Antiquity’s promise, isn’t it, in all its well-worn emotional banality?

Yet it’s an oddity of Hadrian: Empire and Conflict that I managed to feel all these things before entering the exhibition itself, when confronted with the ruins of the Reading Room. Thus I stood alone for a moment, revisiting memories of doctoral research carried out countless ages ago, which is to say, in the early 1990s — those bigs desks with their turquoise-blue leather surfaces burnished by a thousand now-decayed elbows, the companionable clanking of the book trolleys, the weight of those archaic leather-bound catalogues in which so many answers were once thought to repose — and then, with a sigh, moved on.

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