Pittsburgh: Heinz History Center

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When I lived in Cleveland, I used to go down to Pittsburgh about once every other month, usually to see a punk show and eat a burrito and some waffle fries from Mad Mex.  I guess museums weren’t that high on my list of priorities back then, because I’d never heard of the Heinz History Center until my boyfriend was searching for things to do in Pittsburgh last month (my parents were keen to take us there because of this brewery in an old church that they like, but since I’m not that into beer, I didn’t want to go all the way there just for that).  Actually, he wanted to go there specifically to see the Heinz Ketchup gallery, but it was sadly closed for renovation during our visit (it has since reopened).  Fortunately, there was more than enough to see there without it.

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Although the museum is apparently affiliated with the Smithsonian, it is not free like the Smithsonian, charging a hefty $15 for admission.  However, unlike most places I visit, I do think this one was worth the money.  The museum is spread out over six floors, and we arrived less than two hours before closing (largely thanks to my parents’ inexplicable distaste for the turnpike, meaning we drove there via back roads that took twice as long).  I knew there was no way we’d have time to see everything, so I prioritised.  Obviously, that meant skipping the sports exhibits on two of the floors (though being from Cleveland, even my dad, who likes sports, had no interest in learning more about the “Stillers”) and focusing on the actual history.

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We headed straight for the special exhibition on the steamboat Arabia, which sank near Kansas City, Missouri in 1856, en route to the frontier settlements along the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, and thus fully loaded with all the supplies a pioneer needed to survive out on a claim.  No one died during the sinking (except a mule), so this wasn’t really a “disaster” as such, but the sunken boat was highly sought after by treasure hunters until it was finally recovered in the 1980s.  Thanks to the lack of oxygen, the goods inside were immaculately preserved, and the museum had a fabulous array of them on display.

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Even though I’ve seen the degree of preservation on the Tudor artefacts from the Mary Rose, it was still difficult to believe that these items had been underwater for over a hundred years, especially the bolts of cloth.  Much to my boyfriend’s delight (as I think he was still a little bummed out about the ketchup thing, although I think he was hoping they’d have something about Heinz Baked Beans more so than the ketchup), they had jars of ketchup and pickles that had been fished out of the wreck.  The exhibit had a fair amount of other activities too: you could make a paper steamboat, have a steamboat race, and even pose with a half a horse (see below).  The signage was also excellent, and I was already quite impressed with the Heinz History Center.

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Heading upstairs (which the museum tried to make into a game by calling the steps a “fitness challenge” and providing stamps at each level; works for me!), we moved onto the history of Pittsburgh, starting with Native American settlements (there’s also a living history village set around this time called Meadowcroft that is associated with the museum, though I’ve never been there) and the early frontier, and moving onto the steel industry that the city is famous for.

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This section was huge, and where we spent the bulk of our visit.  There was simply too much here for me to talk about it all without boring you to death, but highlights included Elektro the robot and his dog Sparko (circa 1939, in case you couldn’t tell); Elektro was capable of smoking a cigarette (of course) and uttering a few phrases:

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Wax figures of Andrew Carnegie, and my favourite, Mr Rogers (I still love Mr. Rogers, he always seemed like such a genuinely kind man, and he was sort of cute when he was in his 20s (though I feel weird saying that!)):

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And a video about the Pittsburgh accent (surprisingly, it goes beyond “yinz” and “Stillers,” which are the words we always took the piss out of them for.  I mean, Clevelanders certainly don’t have an accent, right?), and a dinosaur decorated with pictures of famous Pittsburghers (Pittsburghians?):

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Oh, and stuff about Jonas Salk and polio, and George Romero (director of Night of the Living Dead and all the other zombie sequels.  You can also visit the cemetery where the opening of Night was filmed, which I really must do someday… “They’re coming to get you, Bar-ba-ra!”).  This gallery really was all kinds of awesome.

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We finally moved on to the other floors of the museum, one of which I think we only briefly looked at because it seemed like mostly kids stuff and sports memorabilia, and next headed to an exhibit on glass making, which was more interesting than I was anticipating (it didn’t hurt that they had a picture of FDR and Harry Truman using some fancy glassware right at the start).

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Although Corning, New York, was famed for its glass industry (fun fact: I was in Corning with my parents when I was a teenager, but my dad was too cheap to pay the admission price of the glass museum there, so all I saw of it was the gift shop.  This is also why I never saw Monticello), apparently Pittsburgh had its own little glass scene going on too.  I found this section notable not only because of the glass, but because of a portrait of a guy who looked disturbingly like an older version of Chumley from Pawn Stars.

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We were almost out of time by this point, so we quickly ducked into the “special collections” gallery, which appeared to hold all the miscellany the museum didn’t know how to otherwise categorise.  They had a collection for each ethnic group that has a sizable Pittsburgh population, which means that my own Polish and Slovenian heritage was well represented.

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Again, this gallery just had too much stuff in it to name everything, but I obviously loved the objects with presidential connections, like the alleged piece of George Washington’s hair, and a bed Lincoln slept in.

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There was also a great collection of old carnival games, a nice selection of military uniforms, and more random crap than I could count.

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The loudspeakers started announcing that the museum was closed when we were in the middle of this gallery, so I had no choice but to leave the rest of the floors unexplored.  I am, however, very keen to see both the French and Indian War exhibit and the revamped Heinz Gallery, not to mention Fort Pitt (which is also in Pittsburgh, and appears to have some excellent wax figures; you get half price admission if you present your Heinz History Center ticket) the Museum of Post-Natural History, and the slightly creepy sounding Randyland, so I think a return trip to Pittsburgh is definitely in order the next time I’m in America!  This is one of the best history museums I’ve been to in a while; I only wish I had more time there.  4.5/5.

Oh, and you may have noticed that I recently changed the appearance of the blog; I was just getting sick of the old design, and I like how this new one looks a lot cleaner and makes the categories and archives easier to access. I hope everyone else likes it too (or that at least it doesn’t offend the senses), because this is about the best you’re going to get since I can’t afford to go custom!

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As a treat for those of you who hung on til the end, here’s the best picture:  P1130070


Guest Post from Misadventures with Michael! Seville, Spain: Bullfighting Museum

I’ll be doing something a little bit different today by featuring a guest post on my blog for the first time!  Michael, from the always informative Misadventures with Michael, has kindly reviewed a bullfighting museum in Spain that he visited on his travels around Europe.  I highly recommend checking out his blog, especially if you’re in need of travel advice; he has a useful “City Guide” series, and offers many other tips for preparing for a trip and making the most of your destination once you’re there (he’s got some solid ice cream shop recommendations too)!  And now, here’s Michael:

Hi there! I’m Michael from over at Misadventures with Michael and am amped to get to write for Jessica on Diverting Journeys. For a little background, I’m a university student in the US but am currently studying in Bologna, Italy for the semester. Before I made it to Il bel paese, I made a pit stop in Spain and traveled around there for a little bit. One of my favorite cities was Seville. It seems to me the city that people imagine when they dream of Spain. In the city there’s a strong tradition of bullfighting, so, naturally, there’s a great museum on its history here, the Real Plaza de Los Toros.


While assembling a tapas lunch at Bodega Morales nearby Seville’s Cathedral, I consulted with my trusted city map and saw that the museum wasn’t too far. It wasn’t the highest on my to-see list for the city, but I figured that if I was close I may as well check it out. To visit, you must go on a guided tour: they leave every twenty minutes and are bilingual with the guide speaking both English and Spanish at each stop. Tickets are seven euros (but make sure to bring your student ID for a discount).


First, the guide brings you out to the bullring, showing you where Seville’s bullfights take place May through September, though with a break in August. Spain’s biggest bullring is in Madrid, but the one in Seville is also particularly famous and beautiful. While you can’t step onto the bullring itself, the guide allows you to climb up the bleachers under the king’s seat to get a good view of the whole arena. It’s pretty impressive, especially if you’ve never been to a bullring before (like me) and have studied Spain and bulls before.


The guide brings you inside next and shows you some art related to and inspired by bullfighting. I particularly liked some old pictures demonstrating the arte de torear, or the art of bullfighting. They have the feel of one of those old school textbooks walking you through how to complete a task, although I think bullfighting may be just slightly more intense and dangerous than how to conjugate Italian verbs. The pictures there are pretty cool, and once you’re done the guide then shows you the last main exhibit with many more artifacts that pertain to bullfighting. Dummy human heads hang from the walls, and these are apparently used in training bullfighters. In the room with the different toreros’ trajes de luces (or suit of lights), my guide explained that toreros were not actually seen as heroic, romantic figures until the twentieth century. Before then, I believe she said, the picadors who are mounted on horses were considered more heroic and honorable figures. But as certain personalities and famous matadors emerged, the toreros or matadors became the most famous.


Overall, the museum was interesting, but I was expecting a little more umph. There may have been less time spent idly standing around if there were designated tour slots in the different languages so that you don’t have to listen to everything twice, though it’s understandable that a small museum would do it this way. It’s certainly worth a visit, though, if you’re interested in learning more about bullfights. 3.5/5

London: ‘Tales from the Autumn House’ and Other News

I adore autumn (or fall, as I usually refer to it).  I’m always sad when I’m not in America when the leaves kick into gear, because the foliage in Southeast England (and yes, I’m including Kent and Surrey in that assessment) can’t come close to comparing to the stuff back home, not to mention that I’m missing out on all those other fall traditions: caramel apples, cider doughnuts, hayrides, pumpkin picking, haunted houses, and of course, the Halloween section at Target.  Needless to say, I was thus excited to hear about “Tales from the Autumn House,” a “multi-sensory experience” held in the belfry of a church in Bethnal Green.  Excited enough to trek all the way across London to see it last weekend.

The church (St John on Bethnal Green) is literally right when you walk out of Bethnal Green Tube Station, which was a kind of surprising to me; I don’t know why, since I knew it was in London, but I thought maybe it would be set back from the main road a bit, perhaps in a nice wooded park or something.  The exhibit is upstairs, and has no connection with the church or religion or anything, as far as I could tell (which I was admittedly relieved about, though I do quite like the incense-scented air that hits you as you enter the church), and is also free.

This was definitely the sort of thing that would have been ruined by a crowd, so I was glad to see we were the only visitors (and the exhibit is in a long, narrow room, so I think any more than four people would definitely constitute a “crowd”).  I didn’t take pictures because it seemed like it would ruin the experience, but I think they did do an effective job of making the space feel autumnal by strewing leaves everywhere, and relying on candlelight in the dim space.  There was a recurring theme of keys (the big, old-fashioned sort), and little poems to read throughout, as well as the promised sound and smell effects.  While I enjoyed the time I spent in there, the fact remains that it was a very small space, and only requires about five minutes to thoroughly see everything, so I definitely don’t think it was worth going to the opposite side of London.  However, if you already live or work in the area, I think it is worth popping in to check it out, though be warned – it may leave (ha) you longing for fall more than ever!  I also think it would have been much more potent had it been in a different sort of space; ideally, I think a shed in the middle of a forest would have been awesome (but if a suitable forest existed, I suppose you wouldn’t have to re-create the atmosphere of fall in the first place), or at least somewhere with more trees hanging around the place, as it’s kind of disorientating to leave a secluded space and find yourself instantly thrust into the chaos of Bethnal Green Road.  Anyway, it’s on til the 2nd of October, and is open 6-9 Thursday and Friday, and 12-5 on weekends.

And now for the other news; first, I’m featuring a guest post on this blog for the first time ever on Friday, so check back to see a museum review from Misadventures with Michael!  And secondly, I’m starting a new blog next week (don’t worry, Diverting Journeys isn’t going anyplace, the new blog is a completely different project), which is very much a labour of love for me.  It’s going to be based around the letters my maternal grandfather wrote to my grandmother when he was stationed in Europe during WWII (they didn’t get married until after the war, so you can see how their relationship progressed over the course of the letters).  I just discovered them last year, and have been wanting to do something with them for a while; as 2014 is the 70th anniversary of when he began writing them, it seemed like the perfect time.  The blog will essentially just include excerpts from his letters, fleshed out with extra historical details where necessary, and the occasional photograph, all done in chronological order, designed to mirror the dates he wrote them, so posts will at times be sporadic, but I eventually hope to visit some of the places he did (at least the ones in England) and write about those as well.  I know this will be even more niche than Diverting Journeys is, and probably primarily of interest to my family, but I thought I’d mention it anyway just in case anyone is interested!  I should hopefully have things up and running by the 23rd of September (the date of the first letter!).

New York City: Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace


I know I seemed pretty down on New York in my last post, but it wasn’t all bad.  I ate a lot of delicious pizza, some killer mac n’cheese, and awesome doughnuts from the Doughnut Plant (especially the chocolate chip cookie doughnut, because combining chocolate chip cookies and cake doughnuts is the best thing ever).  I also got a chance to visit Theodore Roosevelt’s childhood home.

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I’m sure you all know by now how much I love presidential history, and of my quest to visit all the presidential sites in America eventually; this was the only preserved presidential home I could find in NYC (there’s a building where Chester A Arthur was inaugurated, but it’s currently just a shop) so it definitely made the list.  I don’t love TR with the same fervour that I do FDR, but a Roosevelt is still a Roosevelt, so I was keen to see it.  The upper galleries of the museum are currently closed for renovation (not sure if this has anything to do with Hurricane Sandy or not…Ellis Island is still mostly closed for that reason, which is why I did not bother visiting it), and there’s not a tonne in the lower levels right now, but it’s free, and they still offer tours of the home, so I really can’t complain too much.

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The house is a brownstone located on E. 20th Street, which is the original location of the house, even if the house isn’t completely original (the decision to preserve it wasn’t made until it was too late, so the house is a re-creation, but Teddy’s siblings were still living when it was rebuilt, so they were able to assist with all the details of architecture and furnishings).  The site is run by the NPS, which I generally consider to be a good thing as the rangers are usually very nice, and the quality of NPS sites seems pretty consistent.  They also have public toilets, which I must say was a real relief (literally) as those are few and far between in New York (in desperation, I even popped my head into a couple of coffee shops, and even they didn’t have toilets, which is just bizarre and unhelpful).  We arrived a little early for the tour, which gave us time to poke around the bits of the museum that are currently there, and watch a short film about Teddy’s life.  Most of the display cases were empty, or just filled with timelines of his life that appeared to have been hastily printed out, but the series of cases to the back of the room held a few things that I really wanted to see.  There was one of his Rough Rider uniforms, which was cool, but it was a bit overshadowed by the ensemble he was wearing when someone attempted to assassinate him.  Fortunately, the bullet was slowed down by his layers of clothing, the copy of his speech that was folded in his shirt pocket, and his eyeglasses case, all of which were on display, complete with bloodstains and bullet holes.  The bullet did go inside his chest but Teddy had a “’tis just a flesh wound” attitude, and refused to go to the hospital until after his speech was finished (and actually never ended up having the bullet removed; probably not a bad decision considering what had happened to James A. Garfield (more on him in a future post!)).  So that was really neat to see.  I also enjoyed looking at some of the Bullmoose propaganda on display, and of course the actual moose head mounted on the wall.  There was also a hallway filled with some amusing caricatures of Teddy, which is always amusing.

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When it was time for our tour, we joined several other small groups of people that had accumulated and followed our guide up the stairs (I believe he was just a volunteer, rather than a ranger, since he wasn’t wearing the uniform like the other employees).  Though there was more to the house when the Roosevelts lived there, the current tour only encompasses two floors of the place, each with just a handful of rooms (brownstones tend to have long, narrow railroad rooms, since space was at a premium – and the house was effectively split in half, with Teddy’s uncle inhabiting the other side, which would have been a mirror image of Teddy’s half).  There was a library, dining room, parlour, nursery, and a bedroom, as well as an outdoor porch that Teddy’s father converted into an exercise space for the boy, as he was famously quite sickly and asthmatic as a child.  We were told how Teddy spent most of his time (when he wasn’t on the exercise porch) in the library, which I found rather depressingly small and lacking in books, even by 19th century standards (especially as the family clearly had money).  There was a cosy looking sofa, however.  The dining room only had one original piece of Roosevelt china (though I’m told Eleanor Roosevelt, who was Teddy’s niece, donated some of hers, so it was technically Roosevelt china, just not from Teddy’s parents).  The parlour was slightly cheerier, as it was quite a sunny room, and housed a fine looking piano and other furniture.  Teddy’s parents’ bedroom was also included on the tour, which included the bed where all the Roosevelt children, including Teddy (or Teedie, as his family called him) were born, and contained an extremely expensive suite of furniture (I guess you had to make the most of the space you had by filling it with really expensive things, since you couldn’t fit in many different pieces.)  So in addition to presidential deathbeds, I can add a presidential birth bed to the objects of interest I’ve seen.

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The tour took about forty minutes, and was air conditioned, which was a welcome relief because New York was extremely hot when we were there (I mention the air conditioning because it was unexpected in a historic property, but I guess since it’s been rebuilt, they have more licence to do things like that).  Though some of the information was fairly basic, I did learn more about Teddy’s childhood, and it was nice to have a chance to see furniture that actually belonged to the family.  There’s a small gift shop downstairs that sells some neat TR memorabilia, like magnets and postcards (I of course snagged one of each), and some books about his life (I definitely recommend The River of Doubt if you haven’t read it yet, it’s about TR’s voyage down a little-explored river in the Amazon, where he and his son nearly died, and is a gripping read). This site was so much more interesting to me than the Morbid Anatomy Museum and I’m sure it will be even better when they finish renovating the museum.  3/5

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New York City: Morbid Anatomy Museum

I’ve finally finished with Berlin!  (I can hear you breathing a collective sigh of relief.)  Sorry to drag it out so long, but I’ve been in America for the past few weeks, sans laptop, which makes it difficult to get much writing done.  But now you can see that one of the places I’ve been visiting is New York City.  I’d never been before (save for the airports), so I was excited to spend a few days there. Because I went with my brother, who has a low tolerance for museums,  I was somewhat limited in the weird attractions I could visit, trying to stick to only one a day (in the end, I didn’t even achieve that meagre total).  Unwisely (in retrospect), one of the places I decided was a must-see was the Morbid Anatomy Museum, in Brooklyn.

Now, I’ve long found their blog quite useful for finding medical museums and various other links to strange things (though not as useful as it could be if they’d simply organise their damn links by location – it is a bitch to search through them all alphabetically as most of the museums don’t begin their name with the city they’re in), even though I was unable to find any medical museums in New York City itself (which is pretty unbelievable in a city that size, and one of the many reasons I prefer London), so I had high hopes for the museum.  We arrived at the fairly nondescript building at noon, just as they opened (the street it’s on is also pretty crummy looking, but must not be that bad, since there was a huge Whole Foods down the block).  The ground floor is devoted to a cafe and shop, which did seem to have many interesting books, albeit at prices I couldn’t afford, and the museum is upstairs and costs $10. I thought that seemed like a lot to pay, but New York museum prices generally seem pretty inflated, so I just rolled with it, and hoped that the museum would be worth it.  As you may have guessed, it was not.

Naturally, you weren’t allowed to take pictures, because that’s how that sort of place works – I assume it’s so other people can’t see how small it is before they visit.  The museum was literally one room.  The current exhibit (which is all that’s there) is on death, so the contents of the room consisted of a few death masks, some spirit photography (where the faces of dead loved ones are superimposed as “ghosts” on a picture), and some mourning jewellery.  The signage was perfectly adequate, there just wasn’t a lot to see there.  To cap it off, the staff were all very self-consciously weird hipsters, and weren’t particularly friendly – the one guy who worked there kept talking to himself whilst we were the only other people in the museum, which I found really off-putting, especially because it didn’t seem like it was something he wasn’t aware of, but rather that he was trying to come across as strange.

There was another room attached, but it was a small library; it had a few taxidermy specimens sprinkled around here and there, and some fantastic books (I know because I own quite a few of them, and would like to own many others if they weren’t expensive and out-of-print), but I didn’t feel welcome enough to sit down and look through any of them (frankly, I don’t even know whether I was allowed to).  I am bearing in mind that their main library is currently closed, so perhaps they have better artefacts in there, as they’re meant to have a permanent collection somewhere, but their temporary exhibit was unbelievably lame.  I admit that I am spoiled by the excellent (and free!) exhibition on death that the Wellcome Collection put on a few years ago, but it’s hard for me to see how “the Morbid Anatomy Museum hosts the kind of temporary exhibitions that very few larger museums can produce” (as per their website), when I’ve seen better at pretty much every other medical museum, regardless of size (and most of those were free or very cheap!).  I know America can do better (for example, the Mutter Museum in Philly, which I adore), so I found the museum, and the price, very disappointing.  There are, however, many excellent places to eat around Brooklyn (I’d recommend especially the doughnuts from Pies n Thighs, and ice cream from Ample Hills Creamery or (the also hipstery, but friendlier staffed) Brooklyn Farmacy), so you might find yourself in the area anyway, but there must be something better to do there than this.  I honestly wish I’d rather just gone to Lorimer Street and snapped a picture in front of a Tree of Heaven or a suitably tenement-looking building or something, so I could pretend to be Francie Nolan (sans the extreme poverty).  I hate to say it, because I wanted so much to like this museum, but it’s nothing special, and kind of a rip-off.  1.5/5.


Berlin: Jewish Museum


Although most of the museums I visited in Berlin ranged from mediocre to downright disappointing, I’ve saved the best one for last: the Jewish Museum. Not only was it air conditioned (a bonus in itself), it was also huge and well thought out.  However, you shouldn’t go expecting a Holocaust Museum (though there is one of those elsewhere in Berlin).  While there is obviously some content relating to the Holocaust, the primary focus of the museum is the history of Judaism.  It kind of reminded me of the Maltz Museum in Cleveland, which is also very good (although I haven’t blogged about it yet!), only much bigger!  The museum consists of two buildings, an old and a new; the new one contains all the permanent art installations.

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You have to go through a full-on airport security style checkpoint upon entering the museum, but I do understand the reason for that.  However, I was irked by (and uncomprehending of) the different admission options.  A single adult ticket was 8 euros, but a family ticket, for two adults and up to two children, was 14 euros!  If they want to let children in free, then fine, but the family ticket should at least cost the same as two regular adult admissions.  So, because my boyfriend and I don’t have children, we had to pay 2 euros more than a whole family would, which I really don’t think is fair.  People shouldn’t be penalised for not having children (even though that does seem to be the trend…I notice the same thing going on with discounts for English Heritage and the National Trust).

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Anyway, you enter the museum down a flight of stairs, which in retrospect seems a bit backwards (although we just went the way the guy working there told us to go), because I feel like the museum makes more sense if you go to the upstairs galleries first.  The downstairs part is really the artsy half of the museum, but it is pretty cool.  It’s made up of long intersecting halls (axis) that are meant to represent different aspects of Jewish life under Nazi Germany.  There’s an Axis of Continuity, Axis of Exile, and an Axis of the Holocaust.  The last one leads to the Holocaust Tower, which is a bunker-like room with only a single shaft of light coming down from the ceiling.  It really is kind of overwhelming being in there, especially because the door is really heavy and slams shut with such finality.  The axis leading up to the Tower is full of objects belonging to families who perished in the Holocaust, with a little paragraph telling their story.  The Axis of Continuity has a learning centre attached with some WWI artefacts (which I appreciated, because WWI tends to get a little lost compared to the even greater horrors of WWII, but I still find it extremely interesting), and a lot of computer modules where you can learn more about certain aspects of the Jewish faith, like keeping kosher.  The final Axis tells the story of the families that successfully emigrated before the war, and leads to the Garden of Exile, which is meant to mimic the experience of being set adrift in a foreign land.  It’s made up of a series of columns set over an uneven pavement, so that wandering around feels disorientating.  It was neat.

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To represent the victims of the Holocaust, the museum also has “dead spaces” built into it; basically passages that lead to nowhere, or halls with nothing in them.  The largest of these is filled with metal plates in the shape of faces, all piled up on top of each other.

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The room next to it had a robot that was copying the Torah at human speed, which was fun to watch, and a distraction from the bleakness of this opening section.  We then progressed upstairs to start exploring the main galleries, which tell the story of Judaism from its beginnings thousands of years ago, up until the present day.  At the start of it, there was a wish tree, meaning you could write down a wish and pin it to the tree, but I was too embarrassed to let other people read my wishes (which probably goes against the whole principle behind it).  Most of this first floor was geared towards Judaism in the Middle Ages (and the Early Modern period), when much of the persecution began in Europe, particularly following times of plague.  There were lots of fun interactive games and activities throughout this floor, and I found it enjoyable and educational (everything was in both German and English, and they appeared to have a range of audio guides available as well).

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The next floor talked more about Judaism in the 19th  and early 20th century, and all the changes that happened in Germany around this time, like the First World War, and the reforms of the Weimar Republic (which were subsequently all reversed when the Nazis came to power).  It was sort of shocking to see how rapidly the rights given to Jews changed during this period, and I can well see what a horrible and confusing time it must have been to live through.

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It wasn’t all doom and gloom though, as they included some more playful aspects of the modern faith, as well as some amusing stories about prominent Jewish philosophers and thinkers.  There was a quirky selection of yarmulkes in one case (apparently you could get a Friends yarmulke when the show was popular), one of those machines that transform coins into flattened out coins that was free (!), and even a vending machine selling kosher Haribo (they sub the pork gelatin with fish gelatin)!

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Unfortunately, because these galleries were so large and full of detail, I was feeling tired by the time I got to the end of them, and kind of rushed through the last sections (which were of course about the time just before and after the Holocaust, so maybe it was good I was able to properly appreciate all the relevant installations before I started looking at this section).  Everything here was incredibly informative, and very well put-together, however, and there were enough interactive things to generally hold my attention quite well.  I was honestly very impressed with this museum, and for once, I think the admission price was a fair one (except for the fact that we had to pay 2 euros more than a family! ugh!).  I’d definitely recommend stopping by this one if you’re in Berlin, because it really is about so much more than the Holocaust, and touches on human experiences common to all of us.  I’m not Jewish, or religious in any way, but I still found it very interesting!  4/5

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Berlin: The Ramones Museum

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Today’s my birthday, so I’m going to celebrate with a post on a museum that I would have loved to visit a decade ago (just to remind myself how old I’m getting, jeez!).  Back in the day, in my teens and early 20s, I was a full-fledged punk rocker.  While I’ve probably still got the attitude problem (and unfortunately, the tattoos) to show for it, I no longer rock some of the more, er, colourful looks of my past (I’ve had hair in every colour of the rainbow, including a bright red spiky do, a blue mohawk, and in the most ill-advised moment of all, blonde dreadlocks.  The memory of the dreads lives on to haunt me in my passport picture, which is sadly still valid for another three years).  I also gave up on most of the music (especially that awful D-Beat crap and anything else that was pretty much just yelling over noise), though I do retain a fondness for some of the bands with actual lyrics, including the Ramones (yes, just repeating “Sheena is a punk rocker” over and over again counts as lyrics.  At least you can sing along to that!).  This is all my way of explaining why I was excited when I found out Berlin was home to the world’s only museum devoted to the Fast Four.

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The museum was located in a bar/cafe a few streets away from our hotel, near Hackescher Markt.  You pay either 3.5 euros for admission, or 5 euros for admission plus a drink (cheap beer or fancy soda), which means that you can walk around the museum drinking a beer if you choose, in true punk style. They give you a Ramones badge as your ticket – if you manage to hang on to it you get admission for life (though I have never been able to hang onto a badge for more than a couple weeks, those stupid cheap pins always come undone and fall off).  This is less of a traditional museum and more just a collection of Ramones memorabilia, so there’s absolutely no point in visiting here unless you already know and like the Ramones (I used to read all those punk biographies back in the day, like DeeDee’s Lobotomy and Please Kill Me, so I’ve got a decent amount of Ramones trivia floating around in my cranium somewhere, even if it’s not a part of my brain I normally access).  Also, everything is in English, with absolutely no German, which is a little odd, considering the museum is in Berlin, but obviously wasn’t a problem for me.

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With the death of Tommy Ramone just a month or so ago, all of the original Ramones are now dead, and though the museum hadn’t had time to set up anything for Tommy when I visited, there were memorial sections for all the other members that contained a mix of biographical details and photo collages.  Most of the museum just consisted of hundreds of photos plastered over every available surface, with terse yet humorous captions provided by their friend/manager Danny Fields.  There was an outfit, or some clothing anyway, from each Ramone, as well as loads of albums and other random crap.

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There were also lots of lists – set lists, lists of tour stops, and lists of their catering requirements; I found the last item particularly intriguing.  Who was drinking all that fresh milk and YooHoo? (the thought of drinking milk before going on a hot stage in a leather jacket makes me feel ill).  I get why they didn’t want Soft-Baked Pepperidge Farm cookies though, those are offensively artificial (not that the traditional crunchy ones aren’t, I guess, but they taste better.  Especially Milanos, mmm).

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A back room (which was even hotter than the rest of the place, because it was in Berlin after all, why would there be air conditioning?) showed videos – it appeared to include a mix of clips from Rock n Roll High School (which is just as terrible as you’d imagine, but pretty much required viewing for any budding punk along with The Great Rock n Roll Swindle and the dreadful Suburbia), and the story of how Joey lost Linda, the love of his life, to Johnny, who married her (which caused quite a few problems within the band, as you can imagine).

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Appropriately enough, since it was in Berlin, much of the museum was devoted to their European tours (and how much they supposedly hated Europe, which I think was at least partially tongue-in-cheek).  I learned that Bono, of all people, was good friends with the band, and sent Joey gifts when he was dying from cancer (which I guess means Bono has done some non-douchey things in his life, though nothing will induce me to like U2).  The museum also contained a stage,where I guess you could either pretend to rock out, or just sit and have a read, since it was stocked with comfy chairs and magazines.

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Obviously, since it was just a shitload of photographs, and more reminiscent of a poor man’s Rock n Roll Hall of Fame than anything else (I’m from Cleveland, and I’ve only been to the real one once because it is so damn expensive, and not at all worth the money), it wasn’t the most amazing museum I’ve ever visited, but it was nice to revisit the music of the Ramones (which was playing in the museum throughout the visit, as you’d want and expect) and some of my misspent youth.  The atmosphere was pretty chill (though not literally, it was boiling in there), and it seemed like a good place to have a drink and enjoy a walk through the history of one of the most influential bands in the history of punk.  3/5, for the nostalgia factor.

Berlin: The DDR Museum

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I think it would have been difficult to visit Berlin and NOT go to the DDR Museum, as its advertisements are prominently displayed throughout the city.  In addition to that, it was literally right next to my hotel, so I couldn’t even use laziness as an excuse not to go.  Not that I was a particularly reluctant visitor, as the reviews were overwhelmingly positive, praising the many interactive exhibits.  I was a bit put off by the queue to get in, but naively assumed they wouldn’t let everyone in if the museum was filled to capacity.  How wrong I was.  We paid 7 euros each, and scanned our tickets in the Ampelmann barriers (he’s the little green man on crosswalk signs in Germany, and is apparently much better than green men in other countries because he is wearing a hat and shoes) for entrance…and were met with utter chaos.

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The pictures above should give you some idea of how many people were crammed into this relatively small (only two main rooms) museum.  Clearly, the advertisements work, which is great for them, but they need to institute some kind of timed ticket system or something, because as things stand now, it is a most unenjoyable experience.  I don’t relish having to push my way through crowds of fat smelly teenagers (for real, there were some serious B.O. problems happening in there, and the cramped conditions weren’t helping matters) to look at things.  The most crowded display was a Soviet car you could climb into; there was a queue stretching half the length of the museum to get in, and these people weren’t budging.  It might have helped if they had simply climbed into the car, snapped a picture, and got out, but nope – there were middle-aged men sat in there pretending to drive for minutes at a time, I mean, really?!

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I’ve somehow gotten halfway through this review without even telling you what the museum is about, so I should remedy that now.  It basically tells the story of life in the DDR, or East Germany, which was of course the Soviet half.  However, this was a more lighthearted perspective on the DDR than at the Stasi Museum, or the Tranenpalast, as the DDR Museum chose to focus more on the mundane drudgery of everyday life, rather than the dark side of living under communism.  Not that those subjects weren’t addressed, but they were done so in a playful way (that I supposed detracted from some of the harsh realities of life under the Soviet system), for example,  a mock interrogation room where you could have the fun of pretending to torture your friends!

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In addition to the interrogation room, there was also re-creations of a jail cell and a typical DDR era home, where you could theoretically touch and fiddle with everything, though you couldn’t in reality as it was so crowded and there was already a crowd of people plopped on the sofa to watch Soviet television.  Another annoying feature of the museum, which would have been fine if it wasn’t so busy, was that most of the information wasn’t out in the open – the museum was set up as a series of walls covered in cabinets, and you had to open the drawers and lift the flaps to read everything, which you couldn’t do if someone was blocking the way, so it just added to the general inconvenience.  There also seemed to be some “Disneyfied” touches in there for no reason at all, other than to increase the “interactivity,” for example, a spray of mist as you walked from one room to another and some portraits of Karl Marx and Lenin (and other some other communist, Engels, maybe?) with moving eyes that followed you around the room (which was neat, I’ll grant them that, but would have felt more at home in the Haunted Mansion than a museum).

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There were, as promised, many interactive things, but I didn’t have a chance to use most of them as the smelly teenagers already had their paws all over everything.  There was a short film, or game, or objects to look at under every one of these many flaps, but there was no way you could stand there and watch a film with a crowd of people waiting behind you, and though I did play a couple of the games, I felt like a jerk as I really had to hog the space to do so.  One was a game where I was a factory manager trying to increase productivity, and the game told me I would have been an awesome manager under the communist system (maybe that’s where I’m going wrong, work-wise), in another I had to create the ideal communist by dressing up a girl from a selection of outfits and expressions (I was trying to make her look a bit like me, which led to the game informing me I did not look like a good communist, so now I’m not sure what to think).

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The museum did have a lot of gen-u-ine Soviet artefacts, which was pretty cool, and seemed to be really aimed at capturing quotidian affairs, so there was a lot on fashion (ugly, everyone was desperate for Levis because Soviet jeans blew), travel (you could only travel to other Soviet countries, so lots of trips to the Baltic coast, especially to Nudist resorts.  There were a LOT of nudists back then), and work.  There were also some cute whimsical touches, like puppet versions of Soviet party leaders and the little military dove shown below.

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Everything was in German and English, and the displays I was able to look at (by pushing through the crowds) were quite interesting, so I think this could have been a very good museum if they somehow regulated their visitors (and I was there on a Wednesday morning, so it really shouldn’t have been a peak time or anything).  It is definitely quite a different approach than that taken by the Stasi Museum et al towards the DDR, and I think perhaps glosses over some of the worst parts of communism (or tries to turn them into a game, which is just as bad), but I think as long as you balance your visit to the DDR Museum with one to a more serious museum, you can still manage to get a good picture of Soviet German life.  However, I’m going to have to majorly downgrade them for not doing something to limit the flow of visitors, as it ruined my whole experience.  2.5/5, but could have easily been a 3.5 or higher with proper crowd control.

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Berlin: The Stasi Museum

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I’ve mentioned before how I’m not hugely interested in 20th century history (except FDR, I love FDR), but the Stasi Museum sounded intriguing – a museum on the East German secret police based in their former headquarters, with authentic preserved offices.  I read before visiting that only the main displays were in English, but that was also the case at the Criminology Museum in Rome, and that worked out ok, so I was willing to give it a go.  Since it was obviously located in the former East Berlin, the museum was in an extremely ugly area of town (I’ve heard that Karl Marx Allee, the youngest planned thoroughfare in a major European city, is within walking distance, and is bleakly imposing), though one of the nearest stations is the hilariously named Frankfurter Allee.

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Reviews of the museum also mentioned that they gave you a cloth propaganda patch as your ticket, but after paying my 5 euros, the guy just handed me a receipt, so I guess not anymore.  However, the museum charged an extra fee if you wanted to take pictures (not sure if it’s that well-enforced, but I didn’t want to take any chances (given the venue and all) so I just paid the extra euro – the things I do for you guys!) and they gave us one of the patches as proof we’d paid that fee, so I guess that’s the way to get one (there was also a shop, but it appeared to be shut when I visited, so not sure exactly what they sell in there).  At least they didn’t charge for the toilets, unlike a lot of other museums in Berlin, but of course there was no air conditioning, which made the visit brutal, especially when we got up to the 2nd and 3rd floors. There wasn’t even any windows that opened on one side of the building (so I can kind of see why Stasi agents might have been pissy)!

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As promised, though the walls were lined with colourful propaganda posters with no English translation, the main exhibit in each room was written in English in addition to the German (the museum was divided up in a bunch of small rooms, I’d imagine these were Stasi offices at one time as well).  A lot of the content seemed to be on all the communist organisations that were set up for the East Germans to join, like youth clubs; and the Soviet holidays they attempted to introduce (only the youth day caught on, rather than the substitutes for Christmas and Easter and such).  However, there wasn’t much background information, and the museum seemed to assume the visitor already knew all about the Stasi, including how they were formed, and the names of the main officials, which was definitely not the case for me.  Also, half the rooms on the first floor just contained an ugly chair (and a wall covered with seat cushions, so I guess we were supposed to note the different fabrics used in East Germany for some reason), and a poster with a photo and biography of various people, all in German, which I think was meant to be a tribute to those who were wrongfully imprisoned or killed by the Stasi, but it took me a good few rooms to figure this out.

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There were also an inordinate amount of everyday objects that had been reconfigured as spy cameras on display, so I guess everyone was spying on everyone else at all times.  This did convey, more so than the actual text, some of the horrors of living under communism, and the lengths the Stasi would go through to try to police people’s lives and thoughts.

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Because of this, I expected the preserved offices to be simultaneously utilitarian and formidable, but they turned out to be a surprisingly cozy homage to mid-century style.  I mean, this was furniture any hipster would kill to have in their living room.  It’s certainly not to my taste, but it wasn’t particularly communist looking at all; it actually looked pretty trendy for the time, unlike the dated furniture and clothing they were fobbing off on the ordinary citizen.

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They made a big stink about Erich Mielke’s preserved office being there (I kept referring to him as Eric Milky, because I have no idea how you actually pronounce his surname), and I know he was the head of the Ministry for State Security because the museum told me, but I don’t know anything else about him other than that.  Maybe the average German has heard of him, because the lack of information was puzzling otherwise.

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There were also some kind of crazy lifts that my boyfriend was interested in; apparently they somehow go sideways or on a circular track or something?  I dunno, they weren’t operational so I couldn’t witness them in action.  Anyway, the offices were probably the most interesting part of the museum, simply because of the chance to see the creature comforts that these leading communists surrounded them with, like a mod looking TV, and a radio with (very high-tech) Scotch tape marking the approved Soviet stations, though there was nothing to stop you from listening to Western radio if no one else was around (except of course, for the spy cameras hidden in literally everything).  Though the museum managed to get across the authoritarian leanings of the DDR, as well as the paranoia lurking under the surface of the government, and it was clear that most citizens would have had to be constantly on edge to avoid getting hauled off by the Stasi, I still would have liked to learn more about the history behind the agency, and I don’t feel that the displays were all they could have been.  3/5.

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While we’re on the subject of East Berlin, I of course had to swing by Checkpoint Charlie for a quick photo, which was easier said than done because the place is absolutely swarming with tourists trying to do the same thing, and they also have a couple “American” guards stationed at the checkpoint who pose for pictures (for a fee) so I had to avoid them as well.  I did not go to the museum, because it cost something ridiculous like 15 euros, and all the reviews said it wasn’t that good, particularly as there is plenty of wall-stuff to see for free, like a section of the remaining wall (as seen below) and the Traenenpalast (though they’re both a fair walk away from Checkpoint Charlie).

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Finally, this has nothing to do with anything communist, but I thought this post could use something funny at the end to lighten the mood, and I had to throw these pictures in somewhere.  We kept seeing these stupid bears all over Berlin, since “Ber” means bear in German.  Here are two of the creepiest examples (and I kind of look like a creeper too).  Enjoy!

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Berlin, Germany: Charlottenburg Palace

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I know I often complain on here when I feel that museums in England are poor value, but after a recent trip to Berlin, I might have to rethink some of my grievances with British museums.  I went to Munich years and years ago, when I was doing the whole backpacking thing, and I wasn’t terribly impressed, but I thought I ought to give Germany another chance, so we headed to Berlin a few weeks ago.  In retrospect, going in the middle of July was a mistake, because almost nothing was air conditioned, something I wasn’t counting on because unlike Britain, Germany gets proper summers (and even though it’s only hot in London for a few weeks, most public places are still air conditioned, even if our homes aren’t).  I completely wilt in hot conditions, and lose the will to do much of anything (as evidenced in my trip to Thailand), so making it to all the attractions I’d planned on visiting was always going to be a losing battle.  However, I did head across town with my boyfriend (on the most awful sweltering train) to see Charlottenburg Palace, which was built for Sophie Charlotte of Hanover in the late 17th century (Sophie Charlotte was the sister of George I of England, and was by all accounts an extremely intelligent and cultured woman who sadly died in her prime, at the age of 36).

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I implied at the start that I had some complaints, so here we go.  Admission to just the palace was 12 euros, which I figured fair enough, it was comparable to other stately homes, and cheaper than most British palaces.  However, they made it seem like the gardens weren’t included in the price of admission, so we paid the extra 3 euros for a Charlottenburg+ pass, which was good for entrance to everything on the site.  After visiting the palace, we realised that the gardens surrounding it were public grounds, and we didn’t need to pay admission at all to visit them, much less a supplementary cost to our palace admission.  All the extra cost of the + pass was to gain admission to a little bonus pavilion behind the palace that we couldn’t have cared less about visiting anyway, and the mausoleum, which was fine but not worth paying to see.  So be aware that unless you want to see some extra art, the base 12 euro ticket will suffice.  Another thing that riled me up was the fact that they charged 50 cents to use the toilet.  I understand why they might charge for the toilets in the gardens, since they’re open to the public, but the only way you could access the toilets in the palace was if you paid admission, and if I pay 15 euros for something, I at least want to be able to use the bathroom free of charge.  They also charged extra for information sheets (I mean, basic single sheets of paper that would be free to just stand there and read and then return in any other museum), and it was another 3 euros if you wanted to take pictures in the palace, which is why all of mine are of the grounds.  I understand that the palace is probably enormously expensive to run, but if that’s the case, then just tack an extra euro onto the admission fee, don’t charge people to use the loo!  It just felt really money-grubbing and made me instantly resent the place.

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They offer a free tour, but only in German, so everyone else is dependent on the audio guide, which surprisingly was free of charge (given that they charged for everything else).  It actually wasn’t that bad, as it had a fast-forward feature and most of the recordings were relatively short, so that you could hear all of it in the time it took to look at a room.  That said, though I have awesome retention when I read something, I suck at remembering things I’ve only heard, so most of the history of the palace completely escapes me.  My overriding memory is of room after room filled with portraits of bewigged men sporting hilarious “Dirty Sanchez” style mustaches that looked like they’d been Sharpied in over the painting as an afterthought.  And some portraits of Sophie Charlotte herself, and her husband, Frederick I of Prussia.  Whilst the palace was once home to the famed “Amber Room,” which was covered entirely with amber (obviously), it was given as a gift to Peter the Great of Russia (along with all Frederik Rusych’s finest specimens…man, I wish I could travel back in time just to see Peter’s baller collections), and “lost” after the Nazis stole it during WWII.  The most famous remaining room is therefore the Porcelain Cabinet, which certainly has the most porcelain I’ve ever seen adorning the walls of a room – it was built to hold Sophie Charlotte’s collection, but she died before it was finished.  There was also a small chapel inside the palace, with a pipe organ, and lots of rooms named after the colour of their panelling, which was usually some kind of ostentatious velvety looking number that certainly didn’t cool the place down any.

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There were two floors inside the palace (though the audio guide kindly gave me the option of only seeing one floor and then leaving, I guess in case I couldn’t bear the temperature inside the palace anymore, or really needed a pee but didn’t have any change), and the upstairs was set up more like a museum rather than as a reconstruction like the downstairs rooms.  I did like how when I was looking through some of the showcase rooms, the audio guide told me that they wouldn’t describe the pieces to me because then I’d linger in there too long and block everyone’s way, so they would just play some classical music for my enjoyment as I looked at the collections (I wish the English Heritage audio guides were so thoughtful and advised visitors to be considerate of other people trying to look at stuff…I’m looking at you, woman blocking the Horn Room at Osborne House).  My favourite display in this section was a set of china that Frederick requested be decorated with “exotic animals,” so he ended up with a monkey and then a bunch of imaginary creatures.  You could also see some of the Royal Jewels, though as the selection was limited to jewelboxes and one pair of diamond earrings, it was ultimately not that impressive.

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We were already pretty tired when we left the palace, because of the heat and all, but since we stupidly paid extra to see ALL the buildings, we felt like we should at least check them out.  The New Pavilion was directly behind the palace, and as I said earlier, is home to an art collection.  I cringed a little when the man inside offered us the use of another audio guide, because I felt it would be rude to turn it down, but I could not bear the thought of listening to another full audio tour.  So I took one, then fast-forwarded through most of it, but from what I heard, the guy voicing this one (which was entirely different from the one in the palace, which was split between a different man and a woman) sounded like the Crypt Keeper or Igor or something.  He had this really creepy monotone voice, which amused me, but wasn’t conducive to learning about art.  I gave all the paintings the most cursory of glances, and then thought it would be best to find the mausoleum, which was obviously more up my alley.  After wandering for a bit through the gardens (which had rather nice flowers and a fountain), I spotted a rock pointing to the mausoleum, which turned out to be about four times the size of any mausoleum I’d ever seen (when we spotted it in the distance, I couldn’t believe that was it).  The inside held stone effigies of four of the Hohenzollerns buried in there, and felt nicely chilled because of all the marble.  In fact, that’s probably the only thing that made the extra admission even sort of worth it, the delightfully cool temperature inside.

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After walking back through more of the gardens, I was ready to leave because the heat was just unbearable (I was hoping they’d have a stand that sold ice creams and maybe pretzels, like this one palace we went to in Vienna where I had the biggest and most delicious pretzel of my life, but no such luck), so we called it a day and headed back to the station, even though we never found the Gazebo, which was also included in the Charlottenburg+ pass.  I still don’t know an enormous amount about the Prussians or House of Hanover (at least, the branch of the family that never made it over to Britain), as the audio guide mainly covered things like the furnishings and the layout of the palace.  Even though it is the largest palace in Berlin, I’m not sure it was worth going to the outskirts of the city for.  Those little extra charges just really got on my nerves, and other than the Porcelain Cabinet, and Sophie Charlotte herself, there was nothing particularly remarkable about Charlottenburg.  2.5/5 is a fair score, I think.