The British Museum can be glorious. It also has two irritating downsides. (1) The gents toilets at the back of the first-floor always honk. (2) There are way too many people.
One of these problems has now been solved by Google Cultural Institute, which has partnered with the museum to offer free virtual access. This means you can wander the halls any time you like via Google Street View without bumping into a single tourist. (We're still awaiting a response from Google on how they intend to fix the smelly toilet problem.)
You can take your virtual tour in one of two ways. Simply use the little yellow danglefellow on regular Street View to penetrate the interior (the largest ever captured with the technology, apparently), or else you can use this special interface, which includes a map of the museum and 4,500 close-up pics of the treasures.
We thought we'd give it a spin.
Let's begin at the only sensible place: the front door. The famous ionic portico looms large over the front courtyard. Here, the British Museum has placed a nebulous installation just for Google Street View: what appears to be an antique cloud of London smog. It can be viewed from all angles in all its chokesome glory:
Stepping inside, we find ourselves in territory that is at once very familiar, and yet surreal. Not a tourist in sight. Ne'er a selfie stick to sidestep nor backpack to dodge.
Most of the galleries are free to roam using standard Street View controls. Like so many before us, we make a beeline for the Ancient Egypt Galleries on the ground floor. Here we find the Rosetta Stone. It's usually surrounded by an excited crowd. Not here. You can press your eyes right up against the relic; read every delicious word of demotic script.
You can even tour the Elgin Marbles without fear of the crowds or protesters.
But we are not entirely alone. Every now and then, a curious, alien reflection rises to meet us. You can see it in the Rosetta Stone image. And here the wheels:
It's the Google wheeliebot, going about its business, photographing the museum. Is this thing totally automated, though? Surely there must be some human agent at the remote controls? It becomes something of a game. Can we find its meat-based masters hiding in the background?
We search in vain. Google has done a really good job of hiding its magic. The image capture is not perfect though. This mummy case appears to have seeped out of its holdings.
And there's not much point in going to the Money gallery. It is enshrouded in more of that fog.
Elsewhere, the technology really makes the galleries shine. Take, for example, this dazzling view.
It really is addictive, renewing acquaintance with our favourite galleries, without having to peer over shoulders. And then, finally, we catch a glimpse of fellow museum explorers. Two actual corporeal beings reflect in the glass of a display on Ancient Greece. Evidence that the Google Davros-cam is not driving itself.
It's quite eerie. Turning about face, no person stands behind us to cause that reflection. Ghosts.
We head back out again. Bereft of its crowds, the British Museum is a strange kind of place. On the steps, we finally encounter another human being. Or do we?
Have your own special adventures at the museum here.