Multicoloured Smartypants Visits London, Part Two

After visiting the Jewish Museum, and meeting Frank, we stayed overnight in the cheap luxurious #ahem# surroundings of the Docklands Travelodge. It’s quiet. I’d rather know it’s going to be quiet than be in a posh hotel and be disturbed.

I’m just sprinting into middle age, aren’t I? (Who am I kidding? I’ve been middle-aged since I was 12.)

Just before we went away, I’d been reading about King Hezekiah in 2 Kings 18-20. He had an enemy called Sennacherib, described in the bible as an Assyrian king. Hezekiah, grandson of Zechariah the prophet, sought the advice of Isaiah, another prophet, and as a result, Sennacherib did not kill everybody (short version, read more here: 2 Kings 18 GNT)

What I had not known, until we got to the British Museum, was that there’s a whole host of Sennacherib relics, such as this:

Panels from Southwest Palace of Sennacherib (701-681 B.C), Ninevah

This room is enormous! The panels depict the creation of a stone, winged bull, a mythical creature, for Sennacherib’s palace.

And, fascinatingly, this:

Hexagonal prism commissioned by Sennacherib in 691BC, including the recording of how he ‘shut up Hezekiah’ within Jerusalem ‘liked a caged bird’

It is amazing to see things that relate directly to the bible, and amusing how the two accounts of what actually happened differ!

Also fascinating was this letter from one Roman lady to another in AD97. She invites her friend to her birthday, and several times calls the friend ‘sister’, which was apparently a term of close friendship. Might it be, then, that the use of such phrases as ‘brothers and sisters in Christ’ (as in Paul’s letters 50 years earlier) may actually be referring to this type of close, intimate friendship, and may be part of an established use of the terms, rather than a new invention? I think this makes more sense than the notion that ‘brothers and sisters’ is a Christian idea. It’s also something I can relate to more easily! I’m sure some learned theologian has already discussed this somewhere… 

There is so much to see in the British Museum that it would take you a fortnight to see it all. Every time we go back and discover something new. It’s so much fun!

Frank and I also visited the Foundling Museum, where a Christian philanthropist named Thomas Coram opened the very first children’s home in 1741. For the next 200 years, thousands of babies (they did not take children more than 12 months old) came through the Foundling Hospital’s doors. There, they were given a sense of belonging, access to healthcare, an education, and a home.

The mothers had to pass stringent ‘tests’ to see if their child could be admitted, and when these poor women left their child, they often left them with a tiny ‘token’ so that if ever their circumstances changed, they might reclaim their baby. Chillingly, their other options were even worse. The Foundling children were actually incredibly fortunate in comparison to the babies who were not admitted, many of whom died, or were compelled into destitution. It doesn’t take much imagination to know where such a life leads. Death? The workhouse, so vividly depicted in ‘Oliver Twist’?

A scrap of fabric was all this mother had to give to her baby. It contained her heart.

As I looked at the cases of tokens left by mothers for their babies, I tried to imagine handing over my baby to these (albeit well-meaning) strangers. If I do, I might have a chance at making something of myself. If I don’t, there are so few options left as to be almost none. Handing my baby over to these kind strangers is the best option. The only option. And yet so heart-wrenching, so painful, I lose my breath just thinking about it. A mother’s bond to her baby is not just love, there is an animal instinct that makes you feel as if this tiny creature is still almost part of your own body.

You see this same instinct whenever there’s a baby amongst a group of women who have already had babies; they fuss and they coo and they do it instinctively. I know. I’ve done it.

The tokens exhibit stood in the corner. I had to stand discreetly wiping my eyes for a minute or two before I could move on to the next room. I have never done that in a museum before! And these babies are long since grown-up, grown old and buried. Silly really. But as with the tiny Kindertransport doll in the Jewish Museum, I thought “such a small thing tells such a big story”.

Another profound exhibit was a modern creation, made up of children’s school uniform shirts, to show the lack of identity of children in care. Each collar had a name tag sewn in, like mothers everywhere sew into school uniforms, only instead of names, there were the things that had been said to the looked-after children who created the piece. Things like “you can’t live with your mother any more – she can’t cope” and “stop that crying!” Each label another sucker punch as one reads.

As I walked along, a museum guide came up behind me, leading a group of a dozen people. She explained the idea and began to read the labels aloud. One or two of the ladies listening laughed, as if the words were childish and endearing. I had to make myself walk away. Otherwise I might have lost my temper. Foolish women, finding the deep distress of a child amusing!

No wonder abuse goes unnoticed if people think it’s funny when dreadful words drop from a child’s lips.


One thought on “Multicoloured Smartypants Visits London, Part Two

  1. Sennacherib’s take on his battle against Hezekiah might have a hint of truth. He di dshut Jerusalem up tight for a while anyway.

    The stories of the children left by parents who could not care for them is heartbreaking, but also encouraging. There are people who care for kids, even those that are not their own biological children. It’s a manifestation of God’s grace to his creation, I think.

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