On a summer vacation in London last summer, my husband and I spent a day visiting the British Library and the British Museum, where we had the privilege to take in many symbols that chronicle western civilization.
In the British Library, I saw the Rosetta Stone. Dating from 196 B.C., the hieroglyphics written on this black, monolithic rock allowed linguists to decode Egyptian writing and open the window of Egyptian history, which is as long and fertile as the Nile. Unearthed again in 1799, it took scholars 20 years to decipher that the Stone contained three versions of the same text. The Rosetta Stone has been on continuous display in the British Museum since 1802, and is the most visited exhibit in the Museum.
I have always been fascinated by language. Did you know that in the Russian language, the word for “world” is the same as the word for “peace”? In German, the word “gemütlich” cannot really be translated, although “cozy,” “warm,” and “comfortable” put together come close. The Eskimos have 50 words to describe “snow.” Indeed, the words we choose to communicate reflect our culture, and our culture is a mirror of our language.
As I stood on tiptoes in the buzzing, echoing, high-ceilinged hall where the Rosetta Stone stands behind thick glass amid throngs of tourists speaking many languages, I wept to think of this Stone as one of our birthplaces of all language … communication … and community.
I thought of our tiny community huddling around the Stone. I thought of the community that was London protecting the Stone as the Nazis bombed the city for 57 consecutive days during the Blitz of World War II. I thought of the 6.82 million visitors the Museum saw walk through its doors in 2016, and every year since the Stone arrived in 1802. I felt wrapped warmly in the rich, layered quilt of generations, cultures, and peace-loving people.
Later that afternoon, in a dimly lit room of the British Library, I saw one of the four remaining copies of the Magna Carta. It stands as the basis for England’s system of government, and by the winding path of history, the United States. One of the undying tenets of this document that has endured for centuries is that no one is above the law. No one. Not the King. Not the Queen. Not the President. Our brothers and sisters around the globe have almost unanimously agreed that we are created equal under the eyes of the law. As an attorney, I read this document as the text that binds civilized societies. As a global community, there is a consensus that there are no “others.”
I also read the words of what would become the lyrics of a “A Hard Day’s Night” scrawled in John Lennon’s hand on the back of a birthday card he had given to his son Julian. The note was a father’s apology to his son for the long hours spent on the road away from home. I saw Beethoven’s scribbled symphonies – erased and marked over a dozen times before he decided on the right harmony; Mozart’s melodies — his creative genius manifested perfectly the first time he transcribed it from his imagination to the page; and Chopin’s score — tiny, neat and tight — I had to squint to read it. I read a note from Sylvia Plath to her editor about the gift that insomnia had been to her writing (how I wish I had this gift), and the original, billowy sketches of Leonardo da Vinci.
As I took in these wonders, all manner of humanity noisily scurried around me: languages, cultures, races, clothing, age, politics, and religion. I remembered that while we’re all together, we bring with us all of our differences, our lenses, prejudices, problems, pasts, and peeves. Despite our differences, we spoke to each other with nods and smiles, a wave of the hand, or a bow of the head. We broke bread beside each other at cafés, we said ‘excuse me’ when we bumped into each other crowding around the mummies, and we grinned politely as we passed the sarcophagi ... in peace and civility … as bloody and futile wars raged on all over the world outside the museum walls.
As I stood in the airy expanse of the bright, white, marble bustling Great Court of the British Museum, time hung over my head like a triptych. I thought about our past, fiercely protected by museums, books, and in the stories of our elders. I thought about two presents: one international buzzing harmony immediately around me and another so violently divided outside the hallowed museum walls. And finally, I thought about our future.
What will remain of us in museums in 2,000 years? With much of our world so sharply divided, will it be the remnants of an iPhone XXXX like a stone tablet behind bulletproof glass? Pieces of a wall built between the United States and Mexico? Tour guides telling stories about how Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple were the gods that finally turned our souls to dust and ended civilization as we know it?
I achingly hope these are not our legacy. If we are to survive 2,000 more years, it is my belief that it will be because people from all over the world will visit a museum to see a 7-ton granite statue of our first female President. I hope the tour guides retell history in many languages about the people of our time who came together and rose up against hatred, racism, and bigotry like nothing the world had ever seen. I believe this is the only path available to us now to save not only our democracies, but our very civilization. And I hope they will say that the Beethovens and Shakespeares and DaVincis of our time – our diverse community – mirrored back to us the hard truths we needed to see … brought us from inert to inspired … from talkers into listeners … and from our knees to action.