sexta-feira, 6 de setembro de 2013


It was the outside of the Ashmolean that attracted me first. For a year in the late 1950s, as a junior research fellow at Balliol, I had rooms that looked out across St Giles. Every morning as I shaved, I watched the early sunlight playing on the east wing of the museum, with its four pale-gold Ionic columns, topped by gesticulating female figures, whose purpose and identity I speculated upon inconclusively. It seemed to me a building that would be more at home in Paris than in Oxford. I suppose that was partly because the east wing housed the Modern Languages Library, where I sometimes worked—a lofty, hushed, old-world place where the assistants were as likely to whisper to you in French as in English.
Carey.jpgThe grand classical portico that gives access to the museum was round the corner in Beaumont Street, and I hardly ever went through it until much later, after I had married and we had two little boys. On Sundays in the late 1970s we used to take them to the Ashmolean, along with other Oxford parents—in those days, Sunday afternoon was a great blank sheet of paper, not the tempting prospect it is now. Gradually we started to discover the riches the Ashmolean held. We would begin in the Egyptian section, where our favourite thing was a mummified cat, tall and rather spiky. We always checked on him first, to make sure he had not left during the previous week. Then there were scarabs and amulets and seals and shabtis—the little clay or ceramic figures who were going to slave for the rich in the afterlife, or so the rich hoped—and an elegant model wooden boat, shaped like a scoop and packed, as tight as peas in a pod, with swarthy, mop-topped oarsmen who, we thought, might perhaps be shabtis trying to escape. Some of the oars were still there, sticking out at the side, and at the back were two outsize oars for steering. In the middle of the room was a mummy lying at the bottom of a big wooden showcase with a glass top. We would peer down at it and it peered up at us with its painted black eyes. I found that, if I tapped very gently with my toe against the skirting at the bottom of the showcase, it made a passable imitation of a heartbeat. My sons reacted with delighted horror, and thereafter demanded that I should make the mummy’s heart beat.
The pride of the Egyptian collection was a complete little temple—or, strictly, a shrine from a larger temple. Its outside was covered with carvings that showed the Pharaoh Taharqa, to whom it had belonged, hobnobbing with assorted gods. You could walk inside and sit and dream. There were reproduction wall-paintings showing water birds and dancing girls, and you could imagine that when you came out there might be something similar—or maybe just sand and camels and palm trees. In fact, outside there was a life-size ram with curly horns, carved from granite. He was not really a ram, but the sun god Amun, and his nose was shiny from generations of children stroking it......

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