There are few things I love more than a creepy European amusement park, and Wurstelprater, or simply Prater as it’s more commonly known (though there are no shortages of sausages inside the park, which is how I’m going to assume it got its name), is no exception. This is one of the few places we came on our last visit to Vienna, and remembering how many creepy clowns there were, I definitely wanted to come back. The park is free to enter (you only pay if you want to actually ride anything), and though we didn’t do much other than wander around and eat some cotton candy and ice cream, I wanted to do a (admittedly half-assed) picture post to share some of the creepiness with you. Enjoy!
I couldn’t visit Vienna without visiting a cemetery, and Central Cemetery, which is one of the biggest in Europe, caught my eye immediately, not least because they have a funeral museum within the cemetery. Central Cemetery was opened in 1874 as an interdenominational cemetery, which was somewhat controversial at the time (the Catholic church was NOT happy). Despite its name, Central Cemetery is far from central (it’s in Simmering, which is literally the end of the line on the U Bahn and you still have to take a tram from there to reach the cemetery), so to attract burials, the Viennese authorities decided to create a “celebrity section” of composers, which involved digging up Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Salieri, Strauss, and Schoenberg from their respective cemeteries and re-interring them here. Mozart was spared that, presumably because he’s already buried elsewhere in Vienna, but there is a memorial here to him.
Other than the composers’ corner (and the museum of course), the main attraction of the cemetery is the massive chapel pictured at the start of the post, St Charles Borromeo, which was completed in 1911. It’s equally impressive inside, with art nouveau mosaics and stained glass and a beautiful starry ceiling. I had to laugh at the hand sanitizer bottles shoved in to the holy water fonts though.
I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about Falco, who seems to be the cemetery’s leading attraction. Of course I know “Rock Me Amadeus” and “Der Kommissar”, but I’m not exactly familiar with his entire oeuvre. However, every single Austrian seems to be, judging by both his impressive grave and memorial benches and the sheer amount of people who apparently make a pilgrimage to his grave. His was the easiest to find in the cemetery – all we had to do was follow the crowds!
Other famous burials include Hedy Lamarr, who has quite an unusual memorial consisting of wires with balls strung on them (perhaps something relating to her scientific work?) and Manfred Deix, who I hadn’t heard of previously, but who had my absolute favourite monument in the cemetery. He was a cartoonist, so I assume the cat was based on one of his drawings. I looked at some of his work on the long U Bahn ride back into town, and I like his style!
Marcus has a couple great-grandparents and various other distant relatives who are buried here, so we spent some time looking around the Jewish section for those, and can I just emphasise again how massive this cemetery is? It is incredibly huge; each section stretched on for what felt like miles, and the ground between the rows was not particularly well tended (though still nowhere near as bad as most British cemeteries), so I found myself stumbling a lot as we searched the sections his ancestors were meant to be in. We never ended up finding most of them, possibly because this section was bombed during WWII, but we did, however, find someone with Marcus’s exact name (except for Marcus was spelled Markus), which was kind of exciting, in a creepy way. (I might have forgotten to use my cemetery voice and yelled out, “Holy shit, it’s you!” when I spotted it.)
And on to the museum. The Funeral Museum is housed in the bunker-like basement of an otherwise rather charming building near the cemetery’s entrance (I should say one of the cemetery’s entrances…there’s at least six different tram stops and entrances all outside the perimeter of the cemetery) and costs €7 to enter. Given that the website was all in German, I wasn’t entirely sure if we’d find any English inside the museum, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that everything had an English translation, including a large interactive screen with tonnes of information on the history of the cemetery.
Though this museum wasn’t anywhere near the scale of the National Museum of Funeral History in Houston, and focused primarily on Central Cemetery itself rather than death-related traditions around the world, it was still a pretty cool little museum. We learned a lot about 19th century funerary practices in Austria and enjoyed looking at displays of mourning jewellery, caskets, adorable miniature models of the cemetery, a collection of uniforms worn by funeral attendants, and even a knife for stabbing the heart of a corpse (I guess to prevent vampires?).
The museum clearly also had a sense of humour about itself, because in addition to an excellent collection of death themed cartoons in the last gallery, they also had a quirky little shop selling amusing t-shirts, tote bags, LEGO hearses, and even honey made in the cemetery! I would have loved to buy some of the honey, but because we had hand luggage only, I wouldn’t have been able to take it back, so I settled for a tote bag and some postcards.
Other than there being far too much walking, this was a very nice experience. Loved the museum and the cemetery itself. It seems clear that Central Cemetery is meant for the living as well as the dead, as the cemetery also contained a bustling café and another little shop by the entrance full of black humoured merchandise, and was probably one of the busiest cemeteries I’ve been to (which sounds weird to say, but you know what I mean), with most of the visitors seemingly fellow tourists, though there were some people obviously visiting deceased family members as well. It’s just nice to see a cemetery being used as a gathering place in true Victorian style! Even though it’s a little bit of a pain to get here, I highly recommend visiting if you find yourself in Vienna. It’s not the most picturesque cemetery I’ve ever been to, but it’s certainly one of the largest, and the museum is the icing on the (soul) cake.
If it wasn’t already clear from my last post, just let me say that if you like the Habsburgs, you are going to love Vienna. To stick with the Imperial theme, after seeing the underwhelming Anker Clock and eating an exceptionally large Kaiserschmarrn with caramelised walnuts that unfortunately left me disgustingly full for the rest of the day (Kaiserschmarrn is also Imperial, having been a favourite of Franz Joseph I, hence the name, so it was in keeping with the theme), we headed out to Schonbrunn Palace. On our last visit to Vienna, although we walked around the grounds and ate that giant pretzel I mentioned in my last post, we didn’t actually pay to go inside the palace, as it was obscenely crowded. This time, we set out with the best of intentions and fully meant to see Schonbrunn, but when we got there and saw the price and the crowds and thought about how much we hated Charlottenburg and the fact that this just looked like more of the same, well, we just couldn’t bring ourselves to do it. Instead, we headed over to the much more appealing sounding Carriage Museum, which is a very short walk away from Schonbrunn, despite what the misleading signage in Schonbrunn’s gardens would have you believe.
Despite being right by Schonbrunn and containing all Habsburg stuff, it is actually run by the Kunsthistoriches Museum, so it’s not included on any Schonbrunn ticket package (not that we bought one anyway). It’s €12, and you can buy tickets at the museum – it certainly wasn’t very busy when we were there, which was extremely refreshing after the crowds at the nearby palace. I said that I would talk more about Sisi in this post, and I wasn’t lying, because even though Sisi has her own dedicated museum (which we did not visit), that is clearly not enough for the Viennese, and the Carriage Museum is also basically the Sisi show. That’s her wedding dress you can see above right.
“Who the hell is Sisi?” you may rightfully be asking if you’re not Austrian, because I certainly didn’t have a clue. Well, the museum was here to tell you, and even went so far as to bill her a 19th century Princess Diana, so apparently beloved is she by the Austrian people. Her proper name was Empress Elisabeth of Austria, wife of the comparatively unremarkable Franz Joseph I (except for his love of Kaiserschmarrn I guess), and after reading the museum’s description of her, I’m still not quite sure why she was so beloved, as she seemed incredibly vain, high maintenance, and frankly, a bit of a nut.
I mean, just look at her extraordinarily creepy mourning dress, or at least what you can see of it in the above picture. 19th century mourning dress typically included a crepe veil for women, so nobody was going to see your face anyway, but Sisi took it upon herself to have a mask made of black feathers that covered her entire face like some kind of scary bird woman, and then still wore a veil on top of it (honestly, I think it’s kind of awesome, but her obsession with mourning is really the only thing I can get behind. Well, that and the horse chapel I talk about later). She spent hours on her beauty regimen and refused to have any photographs or paintings done after the age of 32 so she would be seen as eternally beautiful, which, as a 36 year old, I honestly find kind of insulting. I’m not that decrepit yet! It also sounded like she had an eating disorder – she would go through periods of starvation followed by binge eating, and she was described as too thin by acquaintances. In fairness to her, I don’t think she had the easiest life – Franz Joseph was supposed to marry her older sister, but fell in love with the beautiful Sisi instead, who was unprepared for life at the Austrian court. She had multiple children die in tragic circumstances (including a murder-suicide), had a difficult relationship with her husband, who was cold and businesslike, and was eventually assassinated by an Italian anarchist at the age of 60. Perhaps her violent death has something to do with her exalted posthumous reputation.
But this was still a carriage museum, not exclusively the Sisi Museum, and there were lots of fabulous carriages too, most of which belonged to, you guessed it, Sisi. Or more broadly, the Habsburg family, who managed to amass quite a collection over the years. The frequent tragedies that befell the Habsburg line in the 1800s also meant that they had some fab mourning carriages painted true priest black, rather than just a very very very very very dark blue.
My favourite thing was that absolutely fabulous leopard print sleigh, shown above left, though I was less keen when I realised the leopard print was actual leopard skin. I also learned that the Habsburgs built carriages with springs under their seats for comfort, but none under the coachman’s seat, even though the coachman would be expected to sit outside for hours in all weathers driving these people around. That is just a straight-up dick move, and almost made me glad most of them were assassinated. Seriously, clearly you can afford springs, so why not give everyone springs? Because they were assholes, that’s why.
The main reason I was drawn to the Carriage Museum in the first place was because they were hosting a temporary exhibition on masks and epidemics, which, even after experiencing a pandemic, is still very much my jam. The exhibition turned out to have been put up during the first lockdown in 2020, so only incorporated artefacts that were already in the museum’s collections, and was fairly small, but still interesting. I wish I could have read the Viennese equivalent of the Bills of Mortality that was on display here, but alas, I do not speak German (all the signage here was in English as well though, so it wasn’t an issue for the bulk of the museum). I also liked Sisi’s collection of horse paintings. She apparently considered horses her only friends, and had a whole chapel decorated with horse paintings, which sounds totally bonkers. I wish it was still around, because I would have loved to have seen it.
The museum took us right up into the modern era, with a Hapsburg automobile and even a custom racing car. I loved the old auto – naturally, the Hapsburgs didn’t have anything so plebian as a license plate number, just an image of their coat of arms on the plate, and the car was decorated in Imperial colours, as were many of the carriages.
I actually enjoyed this museum quite a lot. Although I don’t think I would have liked Sisi much as a person judging by the way she treated her servants (in addition to the coachman thing, she also forced the woman who styled her hair to wear white gloves at all times and save every hair that fell out of Sisi’s head whilst styling it, and then Sisi would yell at her if she thought there were too many hairs), learning about her was interesting, and I loved all the mourning carriages and reading about what was inside each carriage, though it would have been even better if we’d actually been able to see inside them (some of them had beds and reading lamps. Luxury, though not for the poor coachmen of course). 3.5/5.
And because I’m sure you’re dying to know what happened with the giant pretzels at Schonbrunn, well…after a far too long slog around the gardens where we failed to find the pretzels I remembered, we headed over to the Easter Market set up behind the palace. They were selling giant pretzels, but they weren’t the same ones from my earlier visit, not being quite as large nor delicious looking, and unfortunately, the stall was cash only, which meant we had to find a cash machine that charged a fee to use it (I hate that scammy shit. Those machines are illegal in the UK now, so it’s sad they still have them in Europe). I mean, I still ate the pretzel, and it was a good pretzel, but not at all the heavenly item I remembered from my first visit. The market had other delicious looking foods, like Kasespaetzle, but unfortunately, because I was so damn full still from breakfast, I just couldn’t eat any, much as I wanted to, so Schonbrunn Palace was sadly mostly a bust, except for the slightly disappointing pretzel.
This trip to Vienna was my first time back in continental Europe since well before Covid – I think the last time I went anywhere besides Britain or the US was when I visited Oslo and Gothenburg back in summer 2019 – so though I was much less worried about travelling than I had been before I’d had Covid (because I think I’m unlikely to catch it again so soon), I was still feeling anxious about visiting a non-English speaking country for the first time in so long, and wanted to ease myself in with somewhere on the well-beaten tourist track. Marcus and I had visited Vienna once before, but since that was all the way back in 2010, and we couldn’t remember actually doing much apart from seeing the Josephinum (I would have loved to go back there to blog about it, but it’s currently closed for renovations), eating a giant pretzel in the gardens of Schonbrunn, and making frequent trips to the Manner Wafer shop, we figured we were probably due for a revisit.
So, we managed to find some cheap last minute flights and a deal on a hotel (which thankfully turned out to be pretty nice), and headed off to Austria. We were originally intending on going to the late opening at the Welt Museum the evening we arrived, but even though we hadn’t done much other than sit around an airport all day waiting for our flight, we were too tired to bother, so after a quick stop at a nearby supermarket for food, we crashed out at the hotel and saved sightseeing for the next morning, when we got up bright and early to have time to see the Imperial Crypt before the Anker Clock did its thing at noon.
Other than the infamous Habsburg jaw, my knowledge of the Habsburgs is patchy at best, so I wasn’t really that sure why they were all just shoved in this crypt in a fairly nondescript church in the middle of Vienna rather than some kind of bigger mausoleum somewhere, but I wasn’t going to pass up the chance to look at some rad skeleton and skull décor. Actually, when I heard it was a Capuchin crypt, I was picturing something more like the one in Rome, where the actual bones were arranged into art pieces, but of course that treatment wouldn’t be suitable for emperors, so their bodies are all firmly contained within extremely elaborate caskets.
Admission is €8, which gains you entrance into the depths of the coffin-lined temperature controlled crypt. Lest you be worried about any kind of a smell, these coffins are welded shut and encrusted in so many death-themed geegaws that nothing would be able to seep through (plus the earliest sarcophagi are from 1618, so those emperors must be good and skeletonised by now). The crypts provide a free map in English that lists the names of all the people “resting” here, but that’s pretty much it. There’s almost nothing about who these people actually were, so if you’re not au fait with the Habsburgs, as I am not, you’ll be pretty clueless.
I’m not entirely sure if all that matters though, with tombs as fabulous as this. It was really worth looking closely at each one, because the detailing was incredible. So many derpy lions and skulls and creepy veiled ladies. Lesser names got a small, roughly chronological spot along the main galleries, but Maria Theresa (probably one of the most famous Habsburgs – she was Marie Antoinette’s mother, and a formidable ruler in her own right) and her lesser known husband Franz I got an entire mausoleum (pictured at the start of the post) with painted ceilings and marble detailing that was the centrepiece of the crypt.
As we moved towards the 19th and 20th centuries, the sarcophagi got noticeably less ornate. Guess the Habsburgs finally had to cut their budgets in the age of assassinations and revolution. You can’t go to Vienna without hearing about Sisi (much more on her in next week’s post), and she was here in a casket decorated with delicate ironwork, but I don’t think we even photographed it because we didn’t learn what a big deal she was until visiting the Carriage Museum that afternoon. The casket below with the sombrero (apparently also a traditional Austrian hat) belonged to the ill-fated Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico, who only reigned for three years before being executed, though he had no business being in Mexico in the first place. The last Imperial funeral was for Empress Zita, who died in 1989; though she and her husband had been deposed following WWI and exiled to Switzerland in 1922, her body was allowed to return to Austria and rest in the crypt. I think the most recent addition to the crypt was one of Zita’s sons who died in 2011.
Although I would have appreciated more English text in the free handout to learn who these people were, since the German text seemed far more comprehensive, I very much enjoyed looking at these completely remarkable and no doubt insanely expensive tombs. I don’t know if the tombs were always open to the public or if it is a more recent development, but somehow I can’t picture them allowing plebs in during more turbulent times when the Habsburgs were still clinging to power. Though there were other visitors, including a man who photographed literally every single coffin using a camera that made a super loud and annoying noise after each photo, it was still empty enough that it didn’t feel overly touristy. Well, that or the Viking Cruise people had already been through before us – we had to fight through hordes of them in a nearby square en route to the crypt. 3.5/5.
The V&A recently starting opening seven days a week again (since Covid, they’d only been open Wednesday-Sunday), and since my preferred day for museuming is Tuesday, I was keen to pay them a visit (I hadn’t been since seeing Faberge in November). The Beatrix Potter exhibition was fully booked on the day I wanted to go, so I ended up booking “Fashioning Masculinities: The Art of Menswear” instead. Most fashion exhibitions are geared more towards women’s clothing, and though obviously I love ogling fashions I would actually want to wear, I was intrigued to see an exhibition of men’s fashions for a change, particularly as the theme of the exhibition was exploring concepts of masculinity and gender through fashion.
The exhibition cost £20 (£10 with Art Pass) which seemed a little steep for the smallish gallery they normally have fashion exhibitions in, so I was pleasantly surprised when we arrived and discovered it was actually in the Sainsbury Gallery, their fancy newish underground exhibition space. I was somewhat dismayed when a large group of fashion students arrived at the same time as us (even if they hadn’t been wearing their student badges, I would have been able to tell from the fleekness of their eyebrows. Do kids even still say on fleek?), thinking it would be very crowded, but the spaces are so large and open it was actually not bad at all inside, and we were easily able to navigate the exhibition without having to queue.
The museum warned that there would be nudity in this exhibition, and they weren’t shy about jumping into it right from the start, with various photographs of nude men, clothing featuring penises, and a video of a naked man gyrating around (not that any of this was a problem for me). The first room of the exhibition was focused mainly on contemporary designers and some of their gender bending designs, such as skirts and shapewear for men. It also talked a bit about homosexuality in the mid-late 20th century and the way the gay community played with popular conceptions of masculinity.
After the first room, the exhibition focused more on men’s fashions throughout history, starting with the early modern period and progressing through to the 20th century, along with modern styles influenced by historical fashion. Needless to say, I generally preferred the historical fashions – those giant ridiculous shoes certainly aren’t doing that pink outfit any favours.
This segment of the exhibition was focused primarily on the role of colour in men’s fashions prior to the 19th century, when things took a turn for the drab. This was largely due to the invention of industrial dyes – before that, most dyes were made from natural materials, which could be expensive to make, so wearing brightly coloured clothing signified wealth (by the time the Victorians rolled around, this was no longer the case, so the upper classes could live out all their goth desires and still flaunt their wealth). For example, there was a fad for the colour yellow, which in China was only permitted to be worn by the emperor and his family, but when it became popular in the West, they quickly developed a version for the export market (which was still out of the reach of the lower classes).
Though I loved the colourful clothes, I also loved the 19th century part of the exhibition, which contained a massive wall of drab black suits and explained how the shape of the suit evolved over the course of the Victorian era. I’m not a tailor, so I don’t exactly understand how all this works, but what I got from the interpretation panels was that men’s coats were originally laboriously constructed from many different pieces of fabric, but as they started to become mass produced, tailors developed a way to reduce the number of pieces of fabric used by carrying the weight of the bottom part of the coat in the waistband. This allowed them to develop longer “skirts” on the coats, which invariably became narrower, as that was seen as a more masculine silhouette (and honestly, I love a long slim-fitting coat, and would totally wear some of the ones on display).
I also loved the 20th century part of the exhibition, which featured a display of tuxedos, including one worn by Marlene Dietrich (I’m embarrassed to tell you how much I paid for a pair of woolen Marlene Dietrich inspired suit trousers with matching waistcoat, but I get compliments every time I wear them, so maybe it was worth it); a display of photographs of mods taken in the ’60s, and the Edward VIII inspired trend for fair isle knits. (I know the man was a Nazi sympathizer, but I absolutely love that portrait of him with the dog, and I’m not going to turn down a fair isle jumper either.)
The denouement of the exhibition was a room containing a few dresses that were all famously worn by men, including Harry Styles. This seemed a fitting end – through showing us examples of fashion throughout history that don’t fit into the narrow constructs of modern masculinity (as defined by the more conservative elements of society), the whole exhibition seemed to be leading us to the conclusion that masculinity can be defined however you want it to be, and anyone can wear any clothing they like, though in the real world, obviously some people are still going to have prejudices, and this is probably easier said than done if you don’t happen to live in a big city or liberal area (based on the reactions I used to get to my unusual hairstyles in my youth, including one man who told me I should be dragged into the street and shot for having a blue mohawk). All this being said, I ended up enjoying this exhibition much more than I thought I would, given the focus on menswear. There were some great outfits here accompanied by good interpretation, the latter of which seems increasingly rare these days. It runs until November, so you’ve got plenty of time to go and see it if you find yourself in London. 4/5.
This was the first outing I’d been on since getting Covid (other than work, but that doesn’t count as an outing), and I didn’t want anything too taxing, so the Tate Modern, which is relatively easy for me to get to, seemed like a safe bet. I often think I don’t like surrealism, but really what I don’t like is abstract art – surreal art that still looks like something, even if that something is weird, is ok by me, and Surrealism Beyond Borders, which runs until 29 August, looked particularly interesting because it included lesser-known artists from around the world, instead of focusing solely on the most famous surrealists. Admission was £18, or £9 with Art Pass, and we were able to book tickets the morning of our visit (this was a snap decision on the last nice day in March before the weather turned horrible again).
Unlike the Lubaina Himid exhibition, with its disappointingly patchy signage, this exhibition actually did go into quite a lot of detail about the history of surrealism and the way the movement spread around the world. It was started in Paris by a group of artists in 1924 as a way to “subvert the everyday”, challenge tradition, and explore dreams and the unconscious mind. Surrealism was often collective, as seen by the “exquisite corpse” drawings on display here where one artist would start a drawing, fold over the paper so only the bottom of the drawing could be seen, and pass it along to the next artist who would draw their own image, etc. etc. (I remember doing this as a kid, but we definitely didn’t call them exquisite corpse drawings). Because surrealism had a revolutionary aspect, it also caught on in former colonial countries agitating for political change. Although surrealists were anti-colonialism, because we’re talking about the ’20s and ’30s, they did have a gross tendency to interpret the traditional art of many indigenous peoples as surrealist without understanding the meaning behind it, which this exhibition also discussed.
I’m glad that all this signage was there, because I love a bit of context, but of course I was mainly there for the art, and there was some good stuff. Although there were of course pieces by famous Western artists here, including Dali and Magritte, there was also a decent amount of art from around the world, including a whole room of Caribbean art, and the two pieces above, which I loved. The one on the left was by Japanese artist Koga Harue, and the one on the right was by a Mexican artist (whose name I sadly don’t remember – the label was on a different wall and I didn’t get a photo of it) and shows traditional objects associated with Dia De Los Muertos, including calabacitas, pan de muertos, and a prayer candle. There’s quite a few more pieces here I’d like to show you, but I don’t have all that much commentary (and I’ll be on holiday the week before this goes out, so I’m rushing a bit to get it finished before I leave, to be completely honest), so I’ll switch into photo/caption mode for a bit to save you having to slog through a load of unnecessary text.
I could honestly show you way more, but I think I’ve made you scroll down enough. Suffice it to say that I really enjoyed this exhibition, and recommend seeing it in person if you can, not least to see all the black and white photos that didn’t photograph particularly well on my phone. 4/5.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention A Year in Art: Australia 1992, a free exhibition located on the same floor as Surrealism Beyond Borders. The exhibition is inspired by the 1992 High Court Ruling in favour of Edward Koiki Mabo, who was of Torres Strait Islander ancestry and was trying to reclaim his hereditary land (sadly, this came five months after Mabo died from cancer, but it does mean he was able to be buried on what is once again his own land). Prior to this, all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander lands in Australia were dubbed terra nullius, meaning land belonging to no one (because apparently indigenous people aren’t people), thus making them up for grabs to white Australian settlers. It is appalling to think that this practice went on until the 1990s.
Because it was free, I wasn’t expecting this exhibition to be as large as it was, but it filled one huge gallery space and a few smaller rooms, and included art made using ancient Aboroginal techniques as well as more modern pieces. I particularly loved the works by Gordon Bennett, including Possession Island (above right) based on a painting glorifying Captain Cook’s arrival in Australia, and How to Cross the Void, a series of often darkly humorous etchings criticising Australian culture, one of which can be seen above left.
Other works here included Up in the Sky, a photographic series by Tracey Moffatt that references the trauma experienced by the “stolen generations”, i.e. Aboriginal babies who were forcibly taken from their families and raised in white Christian missions; Judy Watson’s a preponderance of aboriginal blood, which is a series of reproductions of government documents showing the discrimination against people of Aboriginal descent that was enshrined in the Australian legal system through the 1960s, including denying indigenous peoples the right to vote; and Helen Johnson’s Bad Debt, pictured above left, which references the construction of Canberra on Aboriginal lands and the non-indigenous animal species introduced by Europeans that have had a devastating effect on native species (there’s obviously an analogy being made there). I’m glad we stumbled on this exhibition, because it was absolutely fascinating. It’s there until the end of September, so go see it if you can!
I will take any excuse to go to Museum of London Docklands because it is only a short DLR ride away from Greenwich Market, home of my beloved Brazilian churros, so when I saw that they had a new exhibition called Port City, I thought, “Churros plus maritime history?! Sign me up!” I normally work on the days the churro stand is there, so I don’t get to visit often, but I had a day of TOIL to use in early March, so I took full advantage and planned to head out east. However, my luck being what it is, there was a Tube strike that day. Fortunately, the DLR was still running so we did manage to get there via a more convoluted route, but because we had to leave for the museum earlier than we were planning due to the longer journey time, I didn’t have time to attire myself in a vintage-inspired nautical outfit, as I otherwise definitely would have. I know, no major loss to the world, but I do like to theme my clothes if possible!
Port City is a free exhibition located in Museum of Docklands’ relatively small temporary exhibition space, the same one where I saw the Havering Hoard, Secret Rivers, and many others. It runs until 8 May 2022 (and apparently opened back in October – where have I been?). The exhibition “traces more than 200 years of extraordinary experiences and intense activity on a river that has always been essential to the city’s survival”, though seemed to focus mostly on the 20th century.
Obviously, the Thames is a hugely important part of London and probably dear to every Londoner’s heart (certainly my own), but we often don’t think of London still being a major port, not least because we’re inland, but also because most shipping operations these days happen at a “mega port” about thirty miles outside the city, so it was interesting to explore that side of London.
My absolute favourite thing in the exhibition, though excessively imperialist by today’s standards, was a map of the world from the perspective of Britain as the centre of the still fairly flourishing empire of the 1920s. I spent about ten minutes examining it on account of the little animals with talk bubbles drawn all over the map, particularly the polar bears. I had just remarked on their being incorrectly located in the South Pole when I noticed one of them had a talk bubble saying, “It’s a long way to Tipperary” and another saying, “This is all wrong! We belong at the North Pole!” Nice.
There were some interactive elements to this exhibition, though sadly the ambergris pictured above was not one of them. I excitedly reached my hand in the hole to touch it, only to be blocked by plexiglass that was invisible from the side. However, there were a few boxes filled with authentic smells of the docks, some of them surprisingly pleasant. We were the only people in the exhibition, so I was able to pull my mask down for a bit to give them a good old whiff.
I also loved the wall of nautical inspired phrases and London place names. You could pull out different bricks to read how these terms came to be, and I spent a good long while pulling out all of them. By the way, the horrible sounding Mudchute, a stop on the DLR that I’ve mentioned before, was named after muddy engineering overspill, so it was just as unpleasant as the name implies (I don’t think the overspill is there these days, but I suspect it’s still not particularly nice).
Before we went into the museum, Marcus commented that the statue that used to stand out front was no longer there, and neither of us could remember who it was depicting. Turns out it was of the slaver Robert Milligan who helped to create West India Docks, the area the museum is in, which was initially built to house sugar processed by enslaved people in the West Indies, and his statue was understandably removed in 2020. So it was helpful that the exhibition mentioned it and saved us the trouble of looking it up!
Apart from the odd snippet of pertinent facts like that, the exhibition was largely object and image driven, with only small amounts of information on the signage, so although it was quite visually engaging and interactive, I would have liked to see more text. I think it would have been interesting if it focused a bit more on the early history of Docklands, as that was a relatively short section before jumping into more recent history, and I tend to prefer Georgian and Victorian history to the 20th century. Also, though it’s a depressing subject, it might have been nice if they’d included more information on how areas like Canary Wharf have turfed out the poor and been turned into the hideous high-rise monstrosities they are today (I absolutely loathe Canary Wharf and Canada Water, in case you couldn’t tell). However, as it was a free exhibition, I really can’t criticise too much, and being the only people inside was an added and delightful bonus, though for the sake of the museum and the very friendly and enthusiastic staff member who greeted us, I do hope their visitor numbers pick up. 3/5 (the churros, as always, were a solid 5/5).
Well, that was an unexpected break! Like so many other people who had managed to avoid Covid for the past two years, I finally came down with it in March (and passed it on to Marcus a few days later). We’re both feeling fine now, but I was struggling so much with fatigue for a couple weeks after contracting it that even when I was otherwise recovered, I didn’t have enough energy to care about blogging, let alone to go into town and walk around an exhibition. I visited the exhibition I’m blogging about today two days before testing positive, and since I hadn’t been anywhere else that week, I must have either caught it on this excursion or at work the next day, even though I was wearing a mask the whole time (and am of course fully vaxxed and boosted), which does slightly put a damper on the whole “Joy” thing, as did the experience I had directly before visiting, which is the original opening I wrote to these piece (as seen below) before getting knocked on my ass by Covid. Also, because I was delayed in posting this, the exhibition has now ended, but as you’ll see, you’re not missing much.
It’s a shame I wasn’t in a more joyful mood when I went to see this exhibition, but I had a rather stressful experience beforehand that effectively quenched any joy I might have otherwise been feeling. When I visit the Wellcome Collection, I normally get a train to Vauxhall and the Victoria Line up to Euston, and this trip was no exception. The Tube train paused for a suspiciously long time at Warren Street, but the driver eventually made the usual announcement about regulating the service, so I didn’t think too much of it. However, when we arrived at Euston, the power immediately shut off on the train and the doors remained closed, though we could clearly hear an announcement playing over and over again inside the station to “immediately evacuate the station”. Being an anxious person, I’ve had a lot of practice at quietly panicking inside whilst outwardly appearing calm, so I was able to carry on casually leaning against the inside of the train waiting for the doors to open whilst my mind was racing with thoughts of my impending doom, because I had no idea why we were being told to evacuate. What if there was a fire and we all burned to death on the platform because we couldn’t get off the train? Or what if there was a signal failure and the train behind us just plowed right into us whilst we were stuck on the platform? Or, being that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was very recent at that point and the war was fresh in my mind, what if Russia was about to nuke us (although then it frankly wouldn’t matter much if we were outside or inside the station)? (I realise that in retrospect this story makes me sound like a bit of a drama queen, but it was honestly kind of scary at the time because no one explained what was happening.) Fortunately, none of those things happened, and someone eventually came and opened the doors with a key and told us to exit the station from the other platform, whilst blocking our view of the driver’s end of the train. We weren’t exactly reassured when we eventually made it out either, as there were loads of ambulances, police cars, and fire trucks parked outside, and an air ambulance circling overhead. Given that we still had no clue why we were asked to evacuate, we weren’t sure if we should still see the exhibition in case the area was somehow unsafe, but since staff at the Wellcome were totally unconcerned, we went anyway and spent the first ten minutes googling the incident at Euston to try to figure out what was happening. We eventually found out that it was a person who had jumped onto the tracks (and died at the scene), which is obviously very sad, but not a threat to anyone else, though I think it was the train just before ours that must have hit the person. Not at all something I would want to witness, and I feel terrible for the poor driver and of course the family of the person who died. After all that, I was not feeling joyful in the least, and though I suppose one of the points of the exhibition was to bring joy, it was just not going to happen under the circumstances.
“Joy”, the exhibition (which was free, like everything at the Wellcome) opened with an immersive-ish film of people dancing, complete with sound effects and various screens set up around the room to walk past. It was meant to be about the restorative properties of dance for people dealing with trauma. However, instead of being the kind of music I would joyfully dance to (normally KC and the Sunshine Band when I really want to boogie (bearing in mind I only do this in the privacy of my own home)), it was something with a pounding insistent beat that sent my heart rate soaring even higher.
The main room of the exhibition was fortunately more joyful, especially the many drawings by David Shrigley. Some of them veered towards black humour, but that’s totally my vibe anyway, so I liked them. Dunno that there’s much joy to be found in porridge though…I think it’s horrid!
There were also a few photographs in here, including one of a Spiderman impersonator entertaining children during lockdown, and one taken at a Butlin’s in the 1980s. Now, Butlin’s is my personal idea of hell anyway, but the font they chose for their slogan “Our true intent is all for your delight” on the pool house in the background makes it look like some kind of creepy Brave New World-esque dystopian thing. No thanks.
The painting of the intergenerational British-Nigerian family was a bit more cheerful, as was Sam Jevon’s Crazy Community, above right, which depicted dogs and their owners happily coexisting in a world where the dogs are as big as people. She took up drawing to help herself recuperate from a car accident, and now helps others who have experienced brain injury.
Finally, there was a room filled with triangle placards that were apparently used for some kind of street procession in front of the Wellcome that took place last year, which I suppose could have been fun if you took part, but the signs didn’t do a whole lot for me piled against a wall (in fairness, there was also a video, but I really feel like it was the sort of thing where you would have needed to participate to enjoy it). I think it’s obvious that due partially to the circumstances under which I saw this, but mainly because of the content of the exhibition itself, it did not meet its stated aim of showing the “diversity of euphoric experiences and the effect of positive emotion on the body”. There wasn’t enough here to show a “diversity” of anything, other than Shrigley’s drawings, which made up almost 50% of the content (I liked them, don’t get me wrong, but there needed to be other things there too!). To be honest, I had thought this exhibition was located in the much larger gallery downstairs when I decided to go and see it, and if I had realised it was in the small one, I wouldn’t have bothered making a special trip and would probably have spared myself a lot of trouble in the long run. 2.5/5.
“Stonehenge! Where the demons dwell. Where the banshees live and they do live well.” OK, now that I’ve gotten that Spinal Tap song out of my system, which is what pops into my head as soon as anyone mentions Stonehenge, I can talk about my personal experience with Stonehenge. I have been there only once, for summer solstice in 2009. Even though I dabble in witchery, I am not at all the sort of person who is into the Druids or stone circles or any of that crap, nor do I do drugs, so this was an unlikely place for me to be, but it was something Marcus had always wanted to do (even though he is REALLY not into any of the above), and at the time, he was about a month out from having heart surgery and doing some things from his bucket list in case he didn’t make it (but don’t worry, he is totally fine now!) so we drove down with a friend of ours. Now, this was the first summer I had spent in the UK, so in my head I was thinking, “summer solstice, longest day of the year, must be warm, right?” WRONG!
After queuing in traffic for about three hours and walking from the event carpark, which was an insane distance, probably a good two miles, away from the stones, we reached the site and sat down on the grass to watch the sunset, me wearing only jeans, ballet flats, and a light three quarter sleeve jumper. As soon as the sun went down, I was absolutely bloody freezing, and getting increasingly annoyed by the behavior of everyone around me, basically a bunch of hippie/festival types getting drunk and drugged out of their minds and climbing and hanging off the stones in a really inappropriate manner, so Marcus and I walked the two miles back to the car so we could try to get some sleep. Said car was equally freezing and for whatever reason, Marcus didn’t want to turn the heater on, so I spent a completely miserable night shivering to death whilst our much more outgoing friend was by the stones having the time of his life. We finally left the next morning, stopping in a Little Chef so I could use their toilet because the port-a-loos at the ‘Henge were even grosser than a Little Chef toilet (also the only time I’ve ever been to a Little Chef) and I already had a horrendous sore throat, which would develop into the worst cold I’ve ever had in my life. I was sick for about a month, and lost a stone (as in fourteen pounds, not a Stonehenge stone). And that is why I have never been back to Stonehenge.
But that terrible experience wasn’t enough to stop me going to see “The world of Stonehenge” at the British Museum, since I wouldn’t even have to leave London for that (also the toilets at the British Museum, whilst not always the cleanest, are still a hell of a lot better than port-a-loos). The exhibition, which runs until 17 July and costs £20, or £10 with Art Pass, is all about the culture of the Neolithic people who created the monument, although since it is prehistory we’re talking about, much of the content is speculation based on the archaeological finds from the area.
I’m never going to be the biggest fan of stones, which made up a large percentage of the artefacts here, but I am a fan of sea monsters, like the ones above right, and of the moon and stars, and skeletons, and weird little figurines with removable phalluses, all of which featured here. Unfortunately, photography wasn’t permitted of one of the best objects in the exhibition (though it didn’t stop pretty much everyone in there from taking a photo), the Nebra Sky Disc, which shows the Pleiades and is the oldest surviving star map, but it is the background image in the BM’s exhibition page, so please do click the link in the above paragraph if you’d like to see it.
Just as I was surprised by the intricacy of many of the ancient objects on display at the BM’s excellent Peru exhibition, so was I surprised by the craftsmanship of many of the artefacts here, craftsmanship not necessarily (perhaps wrongly) being the first thing you think of when you think of Neolithic people. I mean, an arrowhead is usually just an arrowhead, but the signage described the ones pictured above as “exquisite” and damned if they weren’t. I was also fascinated by the story of Seahenge, which was uncovered on a beach in Norfolk in 1998 after a shrimper found a Bronze Age axe head and a tree stump. Crazy that there was an elaborate prehistoric monument just hiding under the sea for all those centuries.
It is incredible to think that people actively used Stonehenge as a revered site for over 1500 years, and that the arrangement of the stones underwent major changes over time, and I’m always up for reading about burial practices, as the site originally served as a cemetery. Although I’m not one to feel the “power” of the stones, anything that old and mysterious is still kind of impressive, and I did love seeing all the objects associated with sun worship. I think I’d pass on actually wearing the ear discs though, which were the size of a chocolate digestive! I used to have stretched ears, although I only went to a 2 gauge, and even that was an incredibly unpleasant process that my ears have never fully snapped back from, so ain’t no way I’m getting those holes biscuit-sized.
I think it’s clear that I was actually fairly impressed by this exhibition, but if I had a complaint (and it’s me, so of course I have to have a complaint), it would be the usual one I’ve had since social distancing stopped being a thing – way too many people. I saw a sign saying that the exhibition was sold out for the day as we went in, which I knew meant trouble, and indeed, it was extremely crowded. I’m not overly concerned about Covid these days, being fully vaccinated and boosted, though I do still wear a mask inside public spaces, it was more the fact that I hate queuing and having to shove my way in to get at look at things, and there was definitely some of that, though the exhibition was fortunately large and spread out enough that I was able to move to less crowded bits for most of it to avoid queuing for long. I still would have enjoyed it much more with fewer people around though! As it is, I’ll give it 3.5/5. Definitely a better experience than visiting Stonehenge itself!
I’m afraid that this exhibition will have ended by the time this post goes live, but what can I say? Sometimes I’m lazy and don’t get around to visiting things until near the end of their run, especially if they’re things I wasn’t that bothered about seeing in the first place and only went to so I had an excuse to stop at the big Whole Foods and Arancina, which was definitely not the case here…
Anyway, Waste Age: What can design do? at the Design Museum was all about consumption, the waste it generates, and what design can do about it, so by its very nature, it was always going to be a little bit depressing. Nobody really wants to hear about how we’re destroying the planet, even if it’s something we need to hear. To really drive home the point, the exhibition opened with a series of photographs taken at dumps and other waste sites around the world, as well as graphs showing how much waste different countries and groups of people generate. Unsurprisingly, it is the middle and upper classes who are responsible for the most waste.
For me, one of the most interesting parts was a timeline illustrating the growth of consumer culture. I hadn’t realised that plastic bags weren’t invented until 1960! I knew a bit about the concept of planned obsolescence (being a weird anarcho-punk as a teenager will do that to you), but also didn’t realise that the Phoebus Cartel, which controlled the lifespan of light bulbs, was set up so early as 1925. The cartel artificially limited the lifespan of light bulbs to 1000 hours, even though early lightbulbs were designed to last for 2500 hours, and many could go for even longer than that. The exhibition had a photo of the oldest continually operating lightbulb, which has been burning in a fire station in California since 1901 and has provided over a million hours of light. Really goes to show how corporations have been screwing the world over for a very long time indeed.
The next section was a bit more positive, as it showcased ways designers are recycling materials that would otherwise be wasted. I was excited to spot the chairs we have in our café at work, which are made from waste from plastic factories and lumber yards. Although I think our chairs are reasonably attractive (they’re the ones stacked at the back of the photo above left), the design of some of the objects here left a lot to be desired. It’s all very well creating sustainable furniture, but if it looks like melted candle wax mixed with poo, like one of the chairs here did, who is going to buy it? Same goes for the rope made of human hair, which is an interesting concept, but I think I would barf if I had to touch it, unless it was my own hair.
Also intriguing, if a bit unsettling, was the display about a manky old cottage that some designers had preserved instead of knocking it down and building something new. Whilst I love old houses, and I’m all for preservation, their method was definitely strange, in that they decided to preserve the dust and dead bats inside the house. I love bats, but having dead ones laying around frankly feels like a health hazard, and as someone with dust allergies, I’m pretty sure walking into that place would kill me. Shame, as the fireplace with creepy faces in it is awesome!
Throughout the exhibition, there were examples of these concepts at work, with walls of the different exhibition spaces made of various recycled materials, which again, is all fine and dandy, but one of those walls absolutely stunk; I think it was the one I’m standing in front of in the photo above. It was made of sugar, and I find that sometimes sugar stinks when you open the bag, so I guess it was that smell concentrated, but damn! I could smell it through my mask, and I made Marcus smell it to confirm it wasn’t just me. It was kind of like that episode of One Foot in the Grave where there’s a bad smell by their sideboard.
After walking through a couple other rooms of conceptual products of varying degrees of attractiveness (yes to the dress, no to that stool with all the holes, which is triggering my trypophobia, and I really don’t think that “Bin Burger”, where all the burgers are made from food waste, is likely to take off), we finally reached a cool interactive nature wall that lit up as you walked past it. Not really sure what it had to do with the exhibition, except maybe to show what the world could be if we stop destroying it with waste.
As you might expect from somewhere called the Design Museum, this was very design orientated, and some of it was just too high concept for me, but other products did seem to have a practical use, particularly the ones that were for sale in the gift shop. However, I think a good place to begin, before we start eating garbage burgers and using hair rope, would be to do away with planned obsolescence and increase the lifespan of the normal objects we all use, like computers and small appliances (and to be fair, there were prototypes of laptops and phones in here that could easily be disassembled to install newer hardware as it comes out and thus prolong the life of the device). It gave me some food for thought about the ways we’re destroying the world (though according to the green checklist they had in there, I’m already doing pretty well by not owning a car, recycling, and not eating meat), but as someone who prefers history to futuristic design, this type of exhibition was never going to be my favourite, though obviously I knew that going in, so I don’t really know what I’m complaining about. 3/5.