Travelling When Staying At Home

In line with the ‘Stay at home’ and ‘Keep social distance’ advisories, I was thinking of a temporary change of name for this column – Not Going Places. But, being one of the lucky ones who can work from home, I was browsing the internet and, on the Travel Magazine website, I came across an article by Sharron Livingstone with the wordy title, ‘5 marvellous museums go online after lockdown so you can still enjoy a tour’.

So, wherever you are, you now have the chance to pay an online visit, courtesy of Google Arts and Culture, to any of these five famous museums: the British Museum in London, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Louvre in Paris, the Guggenheim in New York and the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Wonderful.

I accepted the offer and started with the first on the list, the iconic British Museum, and one I know a bit about from my student days back in England.

When you open up the site you have a space and time choice. I chose Africa and clicked on the nearest and most recent orange dot to see what artefact would pop up for me. It was a wooden coffin in the shape of an eagle, with its feather painted gold. I hadn’t noticed that my curser had been on ‘Living and Dead’ in the list of themes. It was not a theme I would have chosen in this coronavirus time, but the eagle coffin was so magnificent that I decided to read the accompanying text.

I learnt that the coffin was made in the village of Teshie in Ghana. And then I remembered that I had once seen a documentary about the Ga people of the south-east coast of Ghana. They attach great importance to funeral celebrations. From the early 1950s there has been a fashion for figurine coffins, representing the interests of the persons who will be buried in them – it could be a car, an aeroplane, a bible, a fish or a camera. This eagle example on the website was particularly fine; it was lined with silk and it was standing on a green platform with carrying handles. As well as the photograph there was an audio description and a map.

I decided to go deep into the past – back to 2,000,000 BC. I clicked on the one orange dot and found myself quite close to home. It opened up with Olduvai Gorge across the border in Tanzania. It was a photograph of a stone chopping tool made out of a basalt chunk of rock – the oldest object in the museum. It was found by Louis Leakey, the Kenyan Archaeologist, on his first visit to the site in 1931 – an expedition, coincidentally, sponsored by the British Museum. It was a crude tool, certainly, but adequate enough for chopping branches, cutting meat or smashing bones to get at the marrow fat.

With family and friends, we have made quite a few trips to the Olorgasailie prehistoric site out on the Magadi Road. We have seen the piles of what are claimed to be stone tools on display there. At first sight they look to amateur me like random sharp-edged stones, and I have wondered if they were really fashioned by the Acheulian peoples who lived in this place half a million years ago.

However, the text beside the tool found by Louis Leakey makes it clear that this sharp cutting edge was not as it is by accident – it was made by a deliberate sequence of blows of a uniform force. When I next go to Olorgasailie I will look with more care and with greater respect.

And now I am looking forward to my next cyber safari to one of the five museums – I think it will be the Louvre in Paris.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation