Texas Roundup (Yee-Haw!)

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Now it’s time to talk about all the other stuff we did/ridiculous fried stuff we ate during our few days in Texas. (Translation: This is just an excuse for me to bitch about the Texas State Fair.)  I apologise for two posts in a row that are mostly angry rants, but I do love to complain, so this is what you get.   One of the things I was most excited about was attending the Texas State Fair on its opening day.  I used to look forward to the Geauga County Fair every year, so I thought a State Fair that is one of the biggest (the biggest?) in the country must be even more awesome.  Unfortunately, I was wrong.

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To begin with, the fair is expensive.  Like, super expensive.  $18 per adult, plus an additional $15 for parking.  We managed to get half price entry by bringing a 20 oz. Coke brand product (for the homeless apparently, which is really bizarre.  I would have been happy to bring some tins of beans or jars of peanut butter or something else with actual nutritional value, but collecting a nutritionally devoid beverage on behalf of needy people felt wrong.  If they had just wanted an empty bottle, like if Coke was sponsoring it and they wanted you to buy their products, that at least would have made sense.  Donating something that unhealthy made me kind of uncomfortable, but I guess empty calories are better than no calories?  I dunno, maybe I’m being too judgy), but we still had to use the stupid ticket system to buy food and junk.  Yeah, you can’t just pay with cash at the stalls like a normal fair, you have to get tickets for everything.  I mean, rides, sure, but food?  I think it was just an excuse to jack up the prices and hope you wouldn’t notice how much everything cost, because tickets.

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And can we talk about the food?  The Texas State Fair is famous for deep-frying any kind of weird shit they can put on a stick, so I imagined they’d have all the fryers fired up, and the stuff would at least be fresh.  Not so.  I don’t know when they fry this crap (I mean, it was the first day of the fair, so it couldn’t have been sitting around for that long, but that’s not what the taste would have you believe), but it was definitely not fried to order like all the stuff at the Geauga County Fair is.  If someone tried to give you an hours-old funnel cake there, you’d tell them where to shove it.  Here, that was just standard procedure (although I don’t even think I saw any funnel cakes there.  Not strange enough I guess).  My boyfriend was more adventurous than I was; after eating a stale old fried Snickers, I’d had enough, but he tried the fried coke (disgusting.  It was soaked in some kind of cold Coke syrup that made the balls all soggy and gross) and a fried chicken and waffle on a stick, which he said tasted a week old.  So we struck out on the food.  Well, except for the free pudding samples Kozy Shack was giving away.  I’ve never been a big pudding person (in the American sense of pudding), and eating a free tub of chocolate pudding that was just sitting out seemed kind of gross to me, but it was actually still cold, and damn, that shit was tasty.  Made up for the unpleasant vaguely coconut flavoured cotton candy (seriously, how do you mess up cotton candy?!  It’s just sugar!).

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The attractions were not much to speak of either.  Except for wooden roller coasters, I don’t really go on rides (because they make me hurl if any spinning or loops are involved), but I do enjoy all the baking and craft competitions they normally have at fairs.  Well, not here.  Instead, they only had grim warehouse-like expo buildings full of pushy people selling various useless crap.  There were a few attractive art deco-y buildings, some of them used by local museums, including a music exhibit put on by the historical society, which was ok, albeit too crowded, but the rest of them were just full of new cars and other boring junk.

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And the animals, which are usually the best part of this sort of thing, were limited to cattle, horses, goats, and a few pigs.  I know there’s some poultry disease going around this year, which is why none of the fairs were having chickens or ducks, but what about the rabbits?  Or sheep?  Normally the horses all have names, and are really well groomed, but these horses were nameless, and kind of dirty and sad looking, with unkempt manes.  Clearly, these were not owned by 4-H kids like the ones in Ohio, as no pride had been taken in their appearance.  They weren’t even that many animals there overall; at a fair that’s meant to be one of the biggest, I was expecting a lot more.

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Because it was the opening night, they did have fireworks and a little parade of Texas themed floats, with Texas themed music, which was cute.  And of course Big Tex was there in all his glory, and he was pretty great.  As we were about to leave, we discovered where all the cute animals were hiding; in something that was labelled a children’s barn, which is why we didn’t go in at first, but it turns out it was open to everyone, and you could buy food for a dollar a cup to feed the animals.

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The problem is that all the cutest ones had already been fed by every child there, so they weren’t much interested in eating (plus I felt bad that they’d already been harassed by everyone, though that obviously didn’t stop me petting them).  I couldn’t get the tiniest baby goats or the Highland calf to come over, so I just ended up giving all my food to the buffalo calf, as he was the only enthusiastic one (and he was still pretty adorable).  The fair was not great (understatement of the year), and if you’ve never been to an American fair before, I’d definitely head to a nice county one before wasting your time here.  It was way too commercial, and completely devoid of that homespun feel I’d usually associate with fairs.

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The only place I did like in Dallas was a doughnut/biscuit joint called Hypnotic Donuts.  We had to wait for about twenty minutes just to get inside, but their biscuits (biscuits in the American sense, just to clarify, so picture big fluffy buttermilk scone-y things, rather than dry cookies) were nearly the size of my head, and awesome (though if you don’t eat meat, you’re limited to peanut butter and honey or jam as toppings, which was not a huge problem since I usually just have honey or lemon curd on biscuits anyway), as was the Peace-taschio doughnut with brown butter icing and roasted pistachios.  My boyfriend can recommend the fried chicken sandwich on a glazed doughnut, with bonus sriracha.

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Going back to earlier in the trip, after we left the Dr. Pepper Museum in Waco, we saw signs for a Mammoth National Monument.  Being a geologist, my boyfriend is pretty keen on fossils and such, so we stopped off at this National Park Site.  For $5, we were given about an hour long tour and explanation of the site by a knowledgeable ranger (or maybe just employee? He wasn’t wearing the hat, so I dunno).  Even though the billboards kind of made it look like a tourist trap, it wasn’t that at all.  Just a legit prehistoric site where the ranger seemed to really know his stuff and the mammoth bones are remarkably well preserved, so this is probably worth a stop if you’re interested in this kind of thing.

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We also stopped at Round Rock Donuts on our way out of Austin (what can I say, I LOVE doughnuts), which you may have seen featured on Man vs Food and other shows for its super huge “Texas-sized” glazed doughnuts.  For once, this is a place that does live up to the hype.  I only had the normal sized doughnuts, but they’re served warm, and are pretty damn amazing.  I just don’t get why they’re orange.  Not in flavour, but colour.  Their website says it’s because of the fresh eggs they use, but that doesn’t explain why the glaze is orange as well.  Whatever, they’re good, and I can deal with ingesting some artificial colouring (Cap’n Crunch Berries is one of my favourite cereals, so I’m apparently ok with quite a lot of artificial colouring!).

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Continuing on the subject of fried things, Austin is the birthplace of Whole Foods, and it’s quite a hippie kind of town, with lots of health food stores (which is why it was my favourite place we went, by far.  Not that I eat healthily (see above), but health food stores generally have crackin’ vegetarian options, which is not something that be said for most of Texas).  The Whole Foods flagship store is there, and it’s giant and really nice, but there’s also Wheatsville Co-op, home of the world famous (in the veg*n blogging world) popcorn tofu (as in, fried like popcorn chicken, not covered with actual popcorn). In fact, Wheatsville Co-op was all around pretty cool, especially for those of a vegetarian persuasion (you can’t beat homemade agua fresca and Zapp’s Cajun Crawtaters!).

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Also in Austin is the State Capitol building.  This beautiful building drew our eye at night on our way back to our hotel, because it was all lit up.  We went closer to take pictures, not expecting it to be open as it was nearly 9, but it turns out, it’s open until 10 at night, although most of the public rooms are only open during the day.  Some friendly rangers (I think they were rangers this time, they did have hats) waved us in (after we went through metal detectors), and the building is just as gorgeous from the inside as the out.

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We felt a little uncertain about just wandering up the stairs, but no one seemed to mind, and it’s the best way to get pictures of the floor and ceiling of the rotunda area (and admire all the portraits of former governors, including (sigh) Dubya)  I’d like to go back when they actually have tours on to see some of the Victorian offices, but even without it, it’s a stunning building, and I highly recommend stopping by.

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Well, that about sums up Texas.  Basically, Austin was my kind of place (aside from the heat) and Dallas definitely wasn’t, but I’m glad I got to see a state I’d never been to before, even if I didn’t always enjoy it.  Next up, a few posts from my old home state of Ohio.




Dallas, Texas: The Sixth Floor Museum and the Old Red Museum

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When you think of Dallas, you think of the Kennedy assassination, right?  I mean, judging by the queue at the Sixth Floor Museum (the former Texas School Book Depository), I have to believe that JFK getting shot is the only thing people associate with Dallas.  Morbid as I am, and as much as I enjoyed the music of Danzig-era Misfits in my youth (and still do, around Halloween), I was actually not all that keen on seeing this museum, since I have very little interest in the history of the  second half of the 20th century, and I assumed (rightly) it would be a tourist trap.  But in the end, we thought we might as well go, since we might never be in Dallas again, which is how we found ourselves in a breezeway next to an overpriced parking lot, standing in the world’s longest queue.  Well, not really, the one at Dismaland for non-ticket holders was definitely longer, but this was probably the longest I’ve waited for something I wasn’t all that interested in in the first place (lines for rides at Disney World don’t count; I wanted to ride those).  The only benefit was that at least we were out of the sun, since it was about a million degrees outside, and I don’t really cope with heat very well.

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When we finally (FINALLY) got to the front of the stupid queue, which probably took over an hour, we then had to part with the absurd $16 admission fee, and join another line to take the lift up.  Of course, you can avoid most of this queuing if you have the foresight to book tickets online (dunno whether there’s a booking fee).  We clearly didn’t, and when we saw the online ticket people skipping to the front, we briefly thought of booking them then and there on our phones, but were quickly warned off by one of the employees, as you can apparently only book them at least two hours out from the time you want to go, and I was certainly not coming back to this place.  So we eventually got up to the Sixth Floor, with our free audio guides (they’d better be free, after paying $16 to get in), only to be met with the mass of people who were in the queue in front of us.  There was no way you could get close enough to most of the signs to read them, so we were left pretty reliant on the audio guide, which you know I hate.  Anyway, even if we could see the signs, this was a lame museum.  The only artefacts to speak of were a model of the assassination site, and a suit one of the cops escorting Lee Harvey Oswald was wearing when Jack Ruby appeared and shot him (Oswald that is, not the cop).  The actual corner where Oswald stood and fired those shots (depending on what you believe I guess, though conspiracy theories are given fairly short shrift in the museum) is behind glass, so you can’t get close to it, though you can see roughly what his view of the grassy knoll would have been from the window a few feet over.  Today the grassy knoll (really just a small patch of grass in the middle of a plaza) is full of idiots who dart between gaps in the traffic to stand on the x in the middle of the road that marks the spot where Kennedy was shot.

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The whole thing was grim really, and not because of the assassination.  I hate being forced to part with that kind of cash for something as uninspiring as this.  The seventh floor, which was the only place you were allowed to take pictures, was even more of a bust.  All it had was some murals of the Kennedys, and another window where you could try to capture the view.  This was an awful tourist trap, and I would not recommend it to anyone, which is really a shame, because they could have done so much more with a building with this kind of history.  Just take a picture of the plaque in front of the building acknowledging that this was the Texas School Book Depository, and spend the money you saved on an ice cream or something else that would actually be enjoyable.  1/5.

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I was more enthusiastic about the Old Red Museum, simply because I’d spotted the building from the highway without knowing what it was, and thought it looked really cool.  Turns out it is both a working courthouse, and a Dallas history museum.  I immediately got annoyed, however, when the guy at the admissions desk disappeared right after we walked in.  We waited around for ten minutes, and were just about to take our chances heading up the museum without a ticket, when he reappeared and sold us our $8 tickets, complete with a hefty free dose of attitude problem (I know that’s rich, coming from me).  There was a temporary exhibit on the ground floor about Mexicans living in Texas that sounded pretty good, but it was just a couple of Mexican dolls in a small room.  Dallas was not going well.

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The actual museum upstairs was a bit better, but still fairly meh.  We ended up watching a couple of the videos, just because our legs were tired from queuing so long over at the stupid Sixth Floor Museum, and we wanted to sit for a while.  One of them promisingly opened with a line about how, “John Neely Bryan was the founder of Dallas.  He would eventually be committed to a mental institution, where he died, but for now he was just a farmer.”  With an intro like that, my expectations were high, but it just gave a very boring history of the early years of farming in Dallas, and never said anything more about Bryan’s alleged lunacy.  This summed up my problems with this museum.  It promised a lot, but it didn’t really deliver.

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Sure, they had Clyde Barrow’s gun, the handcuffs used on Lee Harvey Oswald, and Larry Hagman’s hat from Dallas, the TV show, as promised on their website, but most of it was just your standard local history museum affair, albeit on a slightly larger scale (everything is bigger in Texas, after all).  I would have been fine with that if we’d only paid maybe $3-$5, but for $8, I was expecting something more.  And one of the world’s first frozen margarita machines wasn’t going to cut it, much as I find frozen margaritas the only vaguely palatable way of drinking tequila (perhaps if they’d been giving out free samples of margaritas, it would have improved my mood).

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So it’s fair to say I was not overly impressed with Dallas’s museum offerings.  I do hear very positive things about the Perot Museum, but we could go to a natural history museum anywhere; this was why we opted for things more Dallas-centric, which was clearly a mistake.  The Old Red Museum fared slightly better than the Sixth Floor Museum, because it was half the price, almost empty, and contained more artefacts relating to Kennedy than the stupid Sixth Floor thing did, but it still wasn’t anything I’d go rushing out to see.  Maybe just skip them both and buy two (or four, at least ice cream is affordable here) ice creams.  You’ll need them in that heat.  2.5/5.

Waco, Texas: The Dr. Pepper Museum

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Can I talk about blogging for a minute?  Even though I’ve only been posting once a week for a while, I’m at a point right now where even that feels like a chore (although I have no pressing obligations, so it’s not a question of finding the time to do it, because I have loads of time.  I’ve just lost interest).  I don’t know, it’s just when your stats are never quite as good as you’d like them to be and you’re not even sure people are actually reading your (admittedly overly-wordy) posts, it’s hard to summon up enthusiasm to write them.  I’m not sure why I’m telling you this, because I have enough posts stored up that I can get away with doing nothing but editing for another month or two, and I have no plans to stop blogging or anything; I guess it’s just so if you notice a slip in quality, that’s why.  Ennui.  Anyway, let’s move on from my listlessness to the always effervescent Dr. Pepper.

Thanks to David Koresh, you’ve probably heard of Waco before (unless you’re a young person, and then maybe not?).  However, over twenty years have gone by since the siege, and all that remains of the Branch Davidian compound is a small marker by the side of the road that people aren’t really encouraged to stop at.  Happily, there is another, much less depressing attraction in Waco, in the form of the Dr. Pepper Museum.

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I don’t really drink pop very often anymore (not because I don’t like it, but because it’s pretty calorific, and I’d rather save those calories for dessert), and when I do, Cherry Coke tends to be my soda of choice (only the full sugar version please, I HATE diet), at least whenever I don’t have an overpriced imported bottle of Stewart’s Key Lime or Oranges ‘n’ Cream to hand.  However, I’ve nothing against Dr. Pepper; in fact, I probably stunted my growth as a teenager thanks to my frequent consumption of “Dr. Thunder,” the Wal-Mart version of Dr. Pepper, so it was high time I knocked one back in the place of its birth.  Yes, Dr. Pepper was invented right in Waco, Texas, at Morrison’s Drug Store, by a pharmacist named Charles Alderton, aka “Dr. Pepper.”  In fact, in soda jerk slang, you used to be able to order a Dr. Pepper by saying “shoot me a Waco,” which I probably wouldn’t recommend doing today.  But to learn all this inside the museum, I first had to part with the rather steep admission fee of $8 (dollar off coupon available on their website, and I suggest you use it).

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One of the only parts of this three floor museum that seemed even vaguely worth the admission price was right by the start, inside the mock-up of an old-timey pharmacy.  They had an animatronic Charles Alderton who would long-windedly tell you the story of how Dr. Pepper came to be, which was amusing if only to hear how he spent most of his profits on cigars (Texas seems to love its animatronics).  They clearly kept emphasizing how Dr. Pepper is NOT a cola, which I would think is fairly obvious to anyone who’s ever tried it, and if you haven’t, then what the hell are you doing paying $8 to see this museum?!

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Ok, I confess part of my motive in parting with that much is that I was secretly hoping it would be like the Mr. Pibb Factory in American Dad, and it was not even remotely close, but then again, the museum is in an abandoned bottling plant, rather than a working factory.  The closest operational bottling plant was in Dublin, Texas, but that appears to have recently shut down, so I’m not sure where the soda fountain is sourcing their “all-sugar” Dr. Pepper from (more on that later).  Anyway, the ground floor of the museum, other than the animatronic Doc, mostly consisted of a collection of glass bottles from throughout history, and an old artesian well that was blocked up until recently (you can buy chunks of the bottles that were disposed of in it at the shop, if for some reason that should appeal).

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We only really knew the museum had three floors because the woman at the admission desk told us; otherwise, it wasn’t terribly clear.  We were scared to take the only stairs, because they looked like a fire exit (as in, an alarm might have gone off if we opened the door to them), and the lift wasn’t particularly well-marked or inviting, but we eventually just ended up using it.  The first (second in Americanese) floor proved to contain a temporary exhibit about promotional thermometers put out by soda companies (I’m not gonna lie, I’m intrigued by Squirt and gin, since I used to really like Squirt.  Do they even still make it?), and some weird half-assed attempt to explain how weather worked.  The Dr. Pepper memorabilia section was slightly better, even though we didn’t understand why there was a foot-shaped ashtray until we got up to the next floor.

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The rest of the floor space here was taken up with a “Western” theme, including the Dr. Pepper cowgirl (well before my time), a horse made of bottle caps (I think), and a collection of Western themed pop cans ranging from mildly to extremely racist (such as the cringing “Heep Good Soda,” complete with Native American caricature).  Alright, there was a Doc Holiday (sic) soda too, which I would drink just because I love Val Kilmer’s portrayal of him in Tombstone so much, but from what I hear he was pretty damn racist in real life too (Doc Holliday, that is), so I guess he fit in with the rest of the cans.

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We decided to take our chances on the stairs for the trip up to the top floor, and the door ended up not being alarmed, to our relief, just obviously disused (the stairwell was rundown and kind of smelled).  Here we were greeted with a video projection of “Foots,” an enterprising Dr. Pepper salesman who eventually became the president of Dr. Pepper, so named because of his enormous feet, apparently.  Which explained the mysterious ashtray downstairs, as well as all the other foot themed memorabilia (I admit to being relieved that it wasn’t just the result of some employee with a raging foot fetish).

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There were a few interactive games up here (not that fun, especially the marble one, which was really hard), and some crap about Foot’s Christian work ethic, but I rather enjoyed the cinema that was playing videos of retro Dr. Pepper commercials.  Some of those Dr. Pepper songs were damn catchy, even if it was all too painfully obvious which demographic they were attempting to appeal to with each one.

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Back downstairs, there was a shop where you could buy Dr. Pepper merchandise and that elusive sugar-not-HFCS pop, which apparently you can get all over the place as “Throwback Dr. Pepper” anyway (you’d never know from all the hype about it in the shop), but whatever, it wasn’t too expensive.  I was most excited for the vintage soda fountain, where they still make drinks with the actual syrup, but it was ultimately kind of a bust.  I mean, my float tasted good and all, but the girl making it was not very enthusiastic, and I was most disappointed that it was just served in a crappy plastic cup, instead of an actual soda glass.  Every other vintage-style soda fountain I’ve been to has used real glass, so why can’t this place, especially when that’s the vibe they’re aiming for? I don’t know, this museum was way overpriced, and not particularly impressive.  If you really like Dr. Pepper, it might be worth stopping if you’re in the vicinity to try something from the soda fountain (because who am I to tell you to turn down a delicious float; just don’t count on an actual glass), but you can probably skip the museum.  Although that said, I don’t regret going, because if I didn’t check it out, I’d be worried I was missing out on something cool.  It’s not every day you get to go to a soda museum, and it was definitely a uniquely American experience.  2/5.

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Austin, TX: LBJ Presidential Library and Museum

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I’ve always gotten the impression (probably from my mother, who hates the man, even though she was a bit too young to have been part of the whole Vietnam/hippy generation) that Lyndon Baines Johnson is one of the more reviled modern presidents, after Nixon and George W Bush, at least, depending on your political leanings.  But you all know I adore presidential history, and given the other presidential museum options in Texas (the Bushes…I’m sorry, but it happened too recently…I just can’t bring myself to give money to Dubya), LBJ was really looking pretty good.  Besides, we share a birthday (August 27), so I’ve always felt an affinity with the man, despite some of his unsavoury personal habits.  And Austin is pretty much the only city in Texas with a reputation for being vegetarian friendly (and how!  You must get the “popcorn tofu” from Wheatsville Co-op), so that settled the matter.  LBJ it was.

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Unlike some other presidential sites, because the LBJ Museum is also a library and archives, it is run by the National Archives and Record Administration, rather than the friendly rangers from the NPS.  So they made me pay the full $8 for admission, even after I mentioned that we share a birthday, which I still think should have been good for some sort of discount (though I did learn that the museum is free to all on our birthday, and you even get cake (which I will keep in mind for future birthdays)).  Anyway, the museum is on three different levels (the rest of the building is archives, as you will see), and they have a special exhibition space on the ground floor for temporary exhibits somehow relating to LBJ’s presidency.  Currently, it is on the Beatles, since he was president in the 1960s and all.

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I like the Beatles fine, but I’m not a super Beatles fan, like some of the people visiting the exhibition clearly were, so it was good for a quick walk-though (to be honest, I probably liked Elvis’s guitar better than the Beatles’ stuff) to admire those excellently mod Beatles sneakers (they even had a pointy toe, and I LOVE a pointy toe) and get a drum tutorial from Ringo (though I was afraid to give it my all because people were looking at me), but I didn’t feel the need to spend a whole lot of time in there, especially since we only had about two hours before the museum closed.

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So I fairly dashed through the timeline of LBJ’s life on the ground floor, and headed straight for the animatronic LBJ.  You may remember the animatronic William and Ida McKinley from my post on the McKinley Museum, but LBJ blows them out of the water.  His whole head and hands move, just like a real person’s, and he tells a variety of the mildly raunchy stories he was known for.  It had me wishing they had an animatronic FDR at the FDR museum, so I could have experienced this magic with my favourite president (maybe there’s one in the Hall of Presidents at Disney?  I don’t remember, I haven’t been there since I was a kid).

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Speaking of FDR, it soon became obvious that LBJ loved FDR just as much (possibly even more, since he actually knew the man) as I do.  This is also the point when I began to warm to LBJ, because no one who liked FDR that much could have been all bad.  LBJ worked for the WPA (too many acronyms?), as a young man, and was offered a fairly prestigious position in it by FDR himself, which LBJ respectfully declined because he wanted to run for the House of Representatives instead (and he did, and won).  It seems like all his life he tried to emulate FDR and further his policies, making him rather socialist in his leanings (at least in his zeal for making healthcare more accessible to all), which was probably influenced by the time he spent teaching in poor Mexican schools in his 20s, and the poverty he saw there.

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Having gone over LBJ’s personal life and marriage to Lady Bird in the timeline, this floor was devoted to his political career, starting with the FDR days, and ending with his own presidency.  So it of course addressed all the major controversial stuff, like Kennedy’s assassination (which you will hear a lot more about in future posts, this being Texas) and the Vietnam War.

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I think divisive political issues are always a difficult thing to cover, especially in a museum that ultimately aims to honour the presidency of a particular leader, and though the museum was somewhat apologist in its view on Vietnam (LBJ was opposed to it, and saddened by it, but he couldn’t find a way out, blah blah blah), they did make some effort to show the horrific consequences by showing letters written to LBJ by parents whose children had been killed in the War.  I mean, there was pretty much a whole gallery on Vietnam, but it was still clear the museum preferred to focus on his efforts for civil rights rather than the huge negative that was the Vietnam War.

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To that effect, there was a lot in the gallery about the evils of segregation, and what LBJ did to fight it, as well as a little annex at the back of the floor with biographical details about various people who achieved prominent roles in society as a result of LBJ’s policies, as well as all the ways LBJ’s legacy has benefited us today, which was perhaps laying things on a little thick.

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The only way to the top floor, as far as I could tell, was by lift, since it’s a good six stories up (you can see all the books and papers that fill those floors in the picture two paragraphs up).  This held more items relating to LBJ’s personal life, as well as some material pertaining to Lady Bird.

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There was a mock-up of the LBJ-era Oval Office that was pretty neat, complete with a voice over telling you about all the objects in there (he had a custom-made marble-topped table with a pull-out phone in it), and outside the office, a different phone where you could listen to examples of the “Johnson treatment,” whereby LBJ would try to charm/intimidate people.  Listening to his conversation with a female reporter really drove home that the ’60s were a very different time…I don’t think a president telling you he wished he wasn’t married so he could take you up against a fence post like an animal would be seen as “charming” today.  More sexually harassing, if anything.

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Nonetheless, it must have worked somehow, as he managed to win over Lady Bird, who was very intelligent, and frankly, much too attractive for him, especially when she was young (she kind of looked like a prettier version of Ruth Goodman as she aged, not to dis Ruth, because I enjoy all those “Insert Historical Era Here” Farm shows).  There was, again, a mock-up of an office in the corner, this time Lady Bird’s, and a collection of some of Lady Bird’s (whose real name was Claudia) personal items, including dresses and china, because that’s of course how most people think of first ladies, even though she had much more to her than finery, being well educated, a shrewd investor, and providing the charm needed to smooth over her husband’s brashness.

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Heading back downstairs again, on our way out, we got to check out LBJ’s presidential limo, and the rather impressive shop.  I mean, they not only had an excellent range of refrigerator magnets and postcards (both of which we collect), but a big old heap of retro presidential campaign buttons (not actually dating back to LBJ, but I spotted a couple Nixon ones in there.  I couldn’t quite bring myself to buy one, but it was still cool), and a collection of presidential bobbleheads.  I couldn’t resist the one of FDR with Fala (I think I have a problem).  Although the LBJ museum was, perhaps out of necessity because of the very nature of a presidential museum, apologist at times, I learned a lot about a president I’m not that well versed on (not being the biggest fan of 20th century history, particularly the latter half), and I was in general pretty impressed with the quality of the displays, and, of course, all the bonus FDR stuff.  3.5/5.

Houston, TX: The National Museum of Funeral History

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It seems like late summer/early fall is always such a travel whirlwind for me (and the blog).  First Italy, and now the US, specifically, Houston (which I’m always tempted to mispronounce Hoos-ton in Matthew Kelly style, since I’ve watched far too many old-ass episodes of Stars in Their Eyes).  My boyfriend had to travel there for work, and as soon as I found out, my first thoughts were of the National Museum of Funeral History, which, as readers of my Places I’d Like to Visit page will know, I’ve wanted to go to pretty much forever.  Fortunately, my boyfriend agreed that it and many other things in Texas were worth seeing, so we arranged to meet there for a few days after he was done with work stuff, before flying up to Cleveland for a bit to see my family ‘n’ junk.  The Funeral Museum was my top (only?) priority in Houston, so that’s where we headed my first morning there.  Which is convenient, because in lieu of anything spookier, it’ll have to serve as my Halloween post this year.

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The museum was not that easy to find, being located in a nondescript building on the outskirts of town, but I’m happy to say that it was both massive and deserted when we got there.  Admission is $10, which seems kind of steep until you see the size of this place.  The main gallery is dominated by a splendid collection of hearses, including some that pre-date the automobile.  Numerous other smaller galleries split off from there, focusing on funerals of celebrities, the popes, and the presidents, among others.

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Even though I was dying (pun intended) to see the presidential gallery, I thought I’d restrain myself and save that for last, so I started in the opposite corner of the museum with celebrity funerals.  There was a large display about the Wizard of Oz, primarily about the recently deceased actors who portrayed various Munchkins, with a replica of the Coroner’s outfit, as well as an old video of the actor who played him explaining why he was given the role (he could competently deliver a few lines, basically, having had some experience in show business.  He had previously worked for Oscar Mayer, travelling around the country in the Wienermobile as the “World’s Smallest Chef,” which is a story in its own right).  There was also a Walt Disney corner, but most of the space in this gallery was devoted to some guy’s collection of funeral memorial booklets.  You know, those little pamphlets they give out at a memorial service, usually with a picture of the deceased on the front and some information about their life inside (actually, I’ve never been to a funeral where those were handed out, since Catholics tend to favour those little prayer cards, but I’ve seen them before).

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These were worth remarking on mainly because many of them belonged to people who I thought were kind of cool, such as Jack LaLanne and Al Lewis.  There was also a quiz on the epitaphs of various famous people, which I should have known since they were also actors I liked, including Leslie Nielsen and Walter Matthau, but I did not excel at it.  (I also love Jack Lemmon and Burgess Meredith, primarily from Grumpy Old Men, but I can’t watch the sequel without crying when Burgess Meredith dies.  I also get weepy at that one Twilight Zone, because all the poor guy wanted to do was be left alone to read.  I can sympathise.)

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We accidentally went through the funeral history section backwards, getting to the Egyptians last, but that didn’t matter, because I was most interested in all the Victorian mourning paraphernalia anyway.  I’m already very well acquainted with hair art and mourning jewellery, but the mourning clock was a new one.  I actually think it’s a lovely idea, though obviously I don’t want any of my friends or family to die anytime soon, so perhaps acquiring an antique one would be best (or I could have one made in honour of my grandparents maybe?).  I am definitely goth enough to hang something like that in my house (it helps that the picture on the one on display was Edward Gorey-esque).

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The Egyptian stuff was fine; they had a very blinged-out sarcophagus (I’m a pretty good speller, but I always have to try that one a few times before I get it right), but it was mostly just laminated print-outs hanging from the walls, and not quite up to the standard of the other galleries.

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Especially the Papal Funerals.  Oh my gott.  This was much much larger than I was expecting; every time we thought we were done, we turned a corner and it kept going.  I am, as I’ve mentioned before, an EXTREMELY lapsed Catholic (lapsed all the way into atheism), so I can’t pretend I’ve any particular interest in the popes or their funerals (other than the fun of saying Papa Francesco with an Italian accent), but I was surprised by how much I learned in here.

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From what the colours of the hats mean about the various ranks of clergy, to what happens to the pope’s ring after he dies, and how the whole red shoe thing got started, it was unexpectedly fascinating stuff.  Did you know the pope is buried in not one, not two, but THREE coffins?!  It’s like they’re scared he’s going to turn into a vampire and escape or something.

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My boyfriend was probably most keen on the Ghanaian coffins, which were kept in a slightly hidden-away room about funeral customs world-wide.  Basically, some guy in Ghana started making coffins in shapes that reflected either the dead person’s personality, or something the dead person loved when they were alive, and it caught on and became a whole craze for anyone who could afford one.  On an episode of An Idiot Abroad, Karl Pilkington had a giant Twix made, which we both agreed is the best one we’ve seen (it helps that Twix is probably the best candy bar, tied with Snickers), but the ones here were pretty good too, especially the big ol’ crab (let’s face it, if it’s meant to represent one’s personality, that’s probably what I should be buried in).  There was also some stuff about Japanese and Mexican funerals.

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It’s time to talk about some of the displays in the main gallery; the coolest thing (in my opinion) being a funeral bus (above right).  It was built in 1916, and meant to be a solution to the problem of extended funeral processions tying up roads, since it could hold the coffin, up to twenty mourners, and the pallbearers.  Unfortunately, when they tried it out, it proved to be unbalanced, and flipped; the coffin opened up, the mourners all fell out, and the whole thing was a bit of a disaster, so it was never used again. But apparently some guy lived in it for a while; if you have to live in a bus, I think a funeral bus is probably the way to go.

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Other noteworthy objects included a 1921 hearse with beautiful wood carvings made to resemble drapes on the side, hearses used to carry the bodies of Grace Kelly and Ronald Reagan, and a money casket, with slots on the side to donate coins (I guess in theory to help pay for funeral costs, although it’s just used for fundraising events, and not to actually hold bodies).  Personally, I’m a fan of the old-school body shaped coffins, which weren’t really well represented here, but no matter; the depressing story of the coffin built for three (it was meant for a couple who planned to kill themselves after their child died, so they could all be buried together, but apparently changed their minds, as it was never used) made up for it.

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I finally made it over to the Presidential Funeral section, which was not as big nor as extensive as I’d been hoping (especially compared to the papal one), and focused mainly on Lincoln, I guess because he had the most public and extravagant funeral.  Because he was the first to be assassinated AND he was president during such a pivotal time in American history, the American people really went all out for his funeral, arranging for his body to be embalmed (which really began to become more mainstream because of the American Civil War) and carried on a special funeral train throughout major Northern American cities on the way home to Springfield, Illinois, where he would be buried.  One of the stops was Cleveland, and I definitely would have turned up to see it, you know, had I been born 150 years earlier or so, but since I don’t own a TARDIS or other time machine, I enjoyed looking at the miniature model of the train.

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You all know how much I love FDR, and I confess I was hoping for more on his funeral than the brief treatment it got, but alas, that was the fate of most of the presidents, save for the assassinated ones and Ronald Reagan.  A brief blurb if they were lucky (and maybe only ten of them even got that much), and maybe a newspaper article relating to their death.

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The final section was a tribute to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the soldiers from all the various wars who have been buried in Arlington National Cemetery.  There didn’t appear to be a special exhibit at the time we visited, although future ones on the myths and legends of the graveyard and the history of cremation in America look pretty interesting, and I’m sorry to have missed them.

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I was a little disappointed in the shop (they could have had a better selection of souvenirs relating to the museum, like postcards and books, instead of generic skeleton stuff), and I do wish the presidential section could have been more comprehensive, but overall, the museum more than lived up to my expectations (which were admittedly pretty damn high).  I’m fascinated by morbid stuff like this, so I loved it, especially the Victorian funeral history section and the casket and hearse collection.  In fact, I think there could have been even more funeral history, since that gallery seemed to skip over most of the advances in preservation between the Egyptians and the Victorians, which is a big time period to exclude.  For example, I think the work of early modern anatomists and preservationists like Frederik Ruysch (there he is again), was revolutionary, and well-worth a mention.  Those things aside though, the National Museum of Funeral History really delivered, and I’m thrilled I can finally cross this one off the list, since I’ve been waiting to see it for so damn long.  4/5.  And because I won’t have another post out until next week, and I can’t neglect my favourite holiday, I’ll use this as an opportunity to wish you all a happy (scary?) Halloween!

Open House London Weekend 2015

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I swear to you, one of these years Open House London weekend will not be a bust.  I will book everything that requires booking well in advance, and get to everything else super early before queues form (well, that’s not likely, since I’ll never be an early riser), and carefully plot out the whole weekend so I can see as many things as possible.  And I’ll post about it right after it happens, instead of a month later. However, this is not that year.  In typical Open London fashion, everything went a bit awry.  Unlike last year, when I only managed to book Pope’s Grotto because I was supposed to be a steward at the Geffrye Museum, until being informed at the very last minute that my services would not be required, I didn’t book anything this year because I knew my boyfriend and I would be going to America at some point around the end of September, and I wasn’t sure we’d be around for Open House Weekend.  As it turned out, we didn’t leave until the week after, which meant I was free to attend but had nothing lined up (and all the really good stuff requires pre-booking).  And we had to prepare for our upcoming trip, so we really only had one day to venture around, which ended up being more like half a day after running a few errands and detouring to Maltby Street for overpriced doughnuts.  Bearing all that in mind, it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that I thus only managed to visit two places: the Brunel Museum, and the Thames River Police Museum in Wapping.

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The Brunel Museum was perhaps not the wisest choice, as the whole point of Open House is to visit things that aren’t normally open to the public, and the Brunel Museum is, but in my defence, the Grand Entrance Hall is only open at lunchtime normally, and there is usually a small admission fee, so at least it was free and we could show up at any old time and still get to see the former hall.  (Plus most of the other stuff that is part of Open London is architecture based, which is not my bag at all, so cut me some slack.)

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The Brunel Museum is pretty tiny, but it does satisfactorily give biographical information on both Isambard Kingdom, and his father Marc, who was the one commissioned to build the Thames Tunnel in the first place (a 19 year old Isambard acted as supervisor).  It also tells the story of how the Thames Tunnel came to be (there needed to be another way of crossing the Thames, other than London Bridge, but instead of building over the river, hell, why not tunnel under it? Such was the brilliance of Marc Brunel, and really, he laid the groundwork for the London Underground and pretty much every subway system that was to follow), and what it was ultimately used for (it wasn’t practical to build a means of getting horses or carts down there, so it was primarily a pedestrian walkway, until it was converted into a tunnel for trains, which it still is today).

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The best part was of course the souvenirs that you used to be able to buy down the tunnel.  You see, there was an ancient (well, medieval) rule in London that stated pedestrians could only be charged a penny to cross a toll bridge, which may have been fine in 1200-something, but was not so great in the 19th century, especially after the Brunels and their investors plowed the equivalent of millions of pounds into building it.  So they had to think of ways to raise more money, and one of those ways was by selling souvenirs featuring the tunnel in all its glory (they also had fairs down there, and a whole shopping arcade.  It seriously looked unbelievably awesome back in the day).  Fortunately, the Brunel Museum has carried on that tradition, and although the modern souvenirs were not as kick-ass (I was not able to get a stereoscopic card of the tunnel, or a piece of Staffordshire pottery), I did still manage to spend all the admission fee I saved by visiting on Open Weekend on some postcards and a bookmark, because who doesn’t want a bookmark showing both Brunels and a view of the tunnel?!

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And then we went inside the tunnel, or the sad portion that is left, which is not ideal for claustrophobics or acrophobics, both of which I am to some degree, but not so severely that I couldn’t manage.  You have to crawl through an unpleasant half-doorway (though I hear they are in the process of building a full-size one) and then climb down some shaky scaffolding to get inside.  I should definitely not have been wearing flats with nothing grippy on the bottom, but I survived.  Unlike some of the workmen constructing the tunnel when it suddenly flooded.  The man who did survive was young Isambard himself, who had his legs crushed by falling beams, got knocked unconscious, yet still managed to float up to the top as the water rose, where he was pulled to safety and resumed supervising the construction a day later from a mattress on a boat in the Thames, since he couldn’t use his legs for some time afterwards.   We heard this story, and several others, whilst we were inside the former entrance hall (which is just a black pit, with none of its former grandeur, more’s the pity), all of which were discussed inside the museum as well, with varying degrees of detail.

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I’ve been fascinated by the Thames Tunnel for a while, so it was neat to get to see the one remaining piece people are actually allowed inside, but it did make me sad about all the bits of Victorian London that have been lost (although some of them, like workhouses and prisons, are probably gone for the best).  Well, it’s not really the only remaining piece, because the tunnels are still in use, as I said earlier, and you can see them if you take the Overground to Wapping (you just can’t really get a look at them whilst you’re passing through them).  There’s a plaque about the tunnel in Rotherhithe station, and then when you get to Wapping, you can see the old tunnels from the end of the platform, just, you know, mind the tracks.  This was convenient, as the River Police Museum was in Wapping, right (actually left) down the street from the station.

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Visiting the Thames River Police Museum was more in keeping with the spirit of Open London, in that this is the only time of the year it’s open, being housed in a working police station.  You wouldn’t be able to spot it from the road; fortunately, there were big Open Weekend banners hanging up all over the place, and the man at the gate was only too eager to welcome us inside.  Although the room it’s housed in is not that big, there was actually more content than I was expecting, as it’s packed pretty full.  However, there were not very many detailed captions, so it didn’t take that long to see it all.

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I managed to strike up a conversation with the curator (or maybe he was just a volunteer) when he pointed out some minie balls to me, which somehow led to me telling him how Stonewall Jackson died (don’t ask, I guess people who have a fondness for historical trivia somehow manage to sense kindred spirits), and he told me that the museum is in a former carpenter’s workshop, and pointed out the trapdoor in the floor where parts would be winched up.  The back door was open, and offered an excellent view of the Thames, where you could contemplate the various river disasters discussed in the museum taking place.  He also told me a story about how drunken sailors in a pub in Wapping used to be given a length of clothesline to pass out over, and then were charged for the privilege; apparently one of the model ships in the museum was made by a sailor who did just that and neglected to pay…feeling guilty about it, he made a fine model and gave it to the owner of the pub, who obviously eventually donated it here.

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I can’t lie, the main reason I wanted to visit the River Police Museum was because Lucy “Bloody” Worsley (my nickname for her, because it seems she’s always on the TV.  As in, “ugh, it’s Lucy bloody Worsley again!”) mentioned it on her A Very British Murder programme (and in the book, but Judith Flanders’ The Invention of Murder is far more comprehensive, so I wouldn’t recommend Worsley’s).  The brutal murder of a family by a mystery killer took place in Wapping in the early 19th century (interesting because the murder was never definitively solved, and the maid just happened to be out of the house at the time of the murders, which no one seems to have found suspicious), and the museum was meant to have some objects relating to it.  Unfortunately, all I was able to find was a print showing the alleged murderer’s corpse being paraded through the streets (as far as I can remember, his initials were found on the murder weapon (I think it was some sort of hammer), so he was arrested, and when he killed himself in prison, was assumed to be guilty (despite never having gone to trial), so locals decided to haul his corpse through the streets so people could pelt it with things); the curator/volunteer was busy talking to someone else by this point, and I was too shy to interrupt, so I never found out if there was something else I missed.

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I’m happy I’ve finally gotten to see this museum, but it was mainly policey type stuff and river stuff, rather than grisly murders (you know, the sort of thing you I want from a police museum), so it wasn’t really what I was hoping for.  I probably wouldn’t bother going back, but at least I can tick it off the list.  Well, this year’s Open House Weekend was about as successful as most (perhaps more so, since we headed up to Shoreditch to get pizza from Voodoo Ray’s afterwards.  I’ve said it before, but as much as I hate Shoreditch, I love Voodoo Ray’s pizza.  I could do without the loud-ass terrible music they’re always blasting in there, but I can suffer through it for the sake of the pie), but I will try harder next year, assuming I’m not attempting to volunteer at it again or back visiting America, as I often seem to be at this time of year (what can I say, I like fall foliage and apple cider doughnuts).  The best part was probably getting to explore bits of London I hadn’t really seen before; despite living here for seven years, I’d never been to Rotherhithe or Wapping, so that was something.  And I discovered a random cat statue near the Brunel Museum (see below) so that was also a treat.

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Turin: National Cinema Museum

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On our last day in Italy, we only had time to visit one museum in Turin (it was a long drive back to Geneva), and like any normal person, I was having a difficult time deciding between the enormous and renowned National Cinema Museum or some smelly old gunpowder tunnels (ok, the fact that I was strongly leaning towards the tunnels means that I am NOT normal, but regular readers already knew that anyway).  Fortunately, the voice of reason (aka my boyfriend) prevailed, and the Cinema Museum it was (the glowing review on Misadventures with Michael also helped).

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The museum offers a number of different ticket combinations, mostly based on whether you want to go up to the roof or not.  It’s 10 euros just to see the museum, or 14 if you want to see the museum and access the roof by either lift or stairs.  Now, the museum is housed in a beautiful 19th century building with a cupola, and is probably about ten stories high, so I’m not sure how many hundreds of stairs are involved, but if the scenic glass elevator is the same price, why wouldn’t you take it?  Admittedly, there was a bit of a queue, but we only waited about 15 minutes to go up, so it wasn’t too terrible.  And yes, the views of Turin are pretty good, but the coolest part was getting to see the interior of the museum via lift, because the main floor has a lot of cool features and the other floors are made up of walkways that wrap around the building, so there’s a lot to look at.

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Once we’d left the lift and made our way over to the museum proper, our experience began with a look through the beginnings of cinema, before the advent of cameras, when things relied on shadowboxes, puppets, or silhouettes (which I always want to pronounce sil-you-ettes a la Bert in Mary Poppins).  There were any number of interactive things here showing you how light and lenses worked, and (my favourite part) little peepshows of stereoscope type cards you could flip through (there was a sexy red lit “adults only” room of Victorian pornography, but I was partial to the devil and skeleton themed set).

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Actually, I just lied, my absolute favourite favourite part was a phantasmagoria magic lantern show that we stumbled upon by chance when we peeked under a curtain (ok, there was a clearly marked entrance, but we hadn’t gotten to that part of the museum yet).  This began with creepy creaking door sounds, and progressed to a veritable cornucopia of ghosts and demons, and a man who got beheaded but calmly carried on rolling his head along in a wheelbarrow.  It was like a combination of the best bits of laff-in-the-dark rides and old fashioned haunted house effects, and I think I want a set of slides for my own house to project this shit on the walls and freak people out (not that I have ever visitors, probably because of reasons like this).  It was that good.

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The gallery progressed on to cover early films, with a viewing room where you could watch some of them (I should mention that everything in the museum had an English translation).  I tend to love anything Victoriany, so you can see why this whole section, titled the Archaeology of Film, was so appealing.

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However, the main floor also had its moments.  As near as I could work out, it was made up of composites of different film sets; or at least, sets that represented different genres of film.  So there was a kind of mad scientist room, a Western room, a musical room, a cartoon room, and many more.

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And a “poo room” with toilets.  I’m not even sure what the deal is with that one.  I don’t think we looked around this floor correctly, as we entered the first set, and then just kept crossing from set to set, rather than going out the entrances and exits, so I think we missed the descriptions of what some of the rooms were.

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The most awesome thing about this floor, without a doubt, is that golden demon looking thing you see me standing with on the right.  His name is Moloch, and he is a Phoenician god featured in the 1914 silent Italian film Cabiria; not being any kind of film buff I had never heard of this, but apparently people got sacrificed to him, so perhaps I shouldn’t have gotten so close.

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The upper floors, despite there being about 4 of them, were unfortunately not very interesting, as they were all about Italian cinema, and I genuinely don’t think I have ever watched an Italian film in my life (French, sure, because we used to have to watch them in French class in school, but I’ve never taken Italian).  You access them via that aforementioned sloped walkway that wraps around the building, so it is a lot of walking for not very much useful content.

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However, there was a whole section we very nearly missed seeing.  At the top of the stairs, before we entered the walkway, there was a curtain with a bunch of security staff standing in front of it, so we initially ignored it.  On the way back down we noticed some people going in, so we braved the guards and followed them through.  Turns out there was a whole floor of movie memorabilia and film posters hidden back there, which just goes to show you should ALWAYS pay attention to what’s behind the curtain.

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I’m not a Star Wars fan, at all (except for Halloween themed Jabba the Hut dolls, if you’ve been looking at my Instagram) but even I can see that poster is hilariously inaccurate.  Other than that, the highlights were probably Christopher Reeve’s cape from Superman, some of Marilyn Monroe’s clothes, an original mock-up of one of the T Rex scenes in Jurassic Park, and Robocop himself.  I’m not really that into movies, other than ’80s comedies, a handful of musicals (starring either Gene Kelly or Julie Andrews, or, erm, Whoopie Goldberg (yeah, I love Sister Act. Deal with it)), cheesy campy horror films like Evil Dead (the original version only), and Indiana Jones (my god I love Indiana Jones), so most of this didn’t do much for me, but I can see how other people would think it was cool.

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Considering they didn’t have anything from Dead/Alive or Hocus Pocus and I still enjoyed it as much as I did, the National Cinema Museum must have really been pretty decent.  Since I am the exact opposite of a film buff, all the ghost-type stuff in the Archaeology of Film section was my favourite by far, but I think most people who appreciate movies not starring Chevy Chase or Bruce Campbell would love this place.  It was superbly put together, and the building itself is attractive.  There is also a large shopping complex thing on the ground floor, with a gift shop (they have Moloch postcards and magnets, so we stocked up on both), a small branch of Eataly (the very expensive Italian gourmet food store; I’d recommend visiting the main store just outside the centre of Turin, not so much to buy things as to just admire all the types of pasta, but their gelato is reasonably priced and very tasty), and free wifi, so you could probably kill quite a lot of time in here if you were so inclined.  I’m going to give it 4.5/5, because I’m not that interested in cinema and I liked it regardless, so most people will probably love it.

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Turin: Museum of Human Anatomy (Museo di Anatomia Umana)

I am sad for your sake that this will have to be a picture-less post (the no photo rule was especially strictly enforced in the museum); there were so many excellent anatomical specimens in this museum, it seems a shame not to show you any.  If you read my last post, you will know that the Anatomy Museum is one of three museums within the University of Turin that you can visit with a 10 euro pass (or 5 euro for one, though if you like anatomy, you’ll probably want to visit the Cesare Lombroso Museum too.  Just sayin’).  The Anatomy Museum is located in the same general complex as the Lombroso and Fruit Museums, just on the opposite side of it, so you’ll have to exit and walk around the block, but again, the museum itself is clearly signposted, so you’ll know it when you’re there.

Like the Lombroso Museum, most of the written content of the museum was conveyed through big sturdy wooden boards waiting in holders next to each display case.  I was initially dismayed to see that the signs only appeared to be in Italian; luckily, I flipped one over and realised that English was on the other side.  Huzzah!  Let me tell you, these were pretty excellent signs/captions/illustrated descriptions/factsheets (I’m not sure what they’re actually called, but you know what I mean). There were cute little drawings of the museum’s choice specimens on each one (insofar as pickled body parts can be cute), with diagrams directing you to the highlights, and detailed descriptions of all the wax anatomical models.  There was also information about the workings of the human body, so it was kind of like a crash anatomy lesson (Canvas actually offers a free online course called Mini Medical School; I took it last spring for something to do.  Not to brag, but I totally aced the infectious disease unit.  Well, actually all of it, because you can retake the tests, but I got 100% on infectious diseases on the first try).

The main gallery is quite long, with cases alongside both walls, arranged (for the most part) in anatomical order.  Each section includes a beautiful old wax model or interesting skeleton (or both), like the skeletons of a giant and dwarf.  There are also paintings of famous anatomists adorning the walls; my favourite was of course Vesalius (since Ruysch or Paré weren’t represented.  Coincidentally, I was reading The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons at the time, which I definitely recommend if you’re into anatomy or the workings of the brain.  There’s a whole chapter on Vesalius and Paré.  Actually, I like all of Sam Kean’s books, as I am also “keen” (get it?) on the history of science).  I got to look at an early edition of De humani corporis fabrica when I was doing my MA, and the memory of those gorgeous drawings has stayed with me.  Highlights of this section, other than the wax models, include a couple of South American mummies, an eighteenth century plaster cast of a pregnant woman, with belly opened; and a large amount of dry anatomical preparations (as opposed to wet ones aka “stuff in jars”) which really allow you to admire the muscular and circulatory systems.

The back room is all about the head, and contains an impressive amount of preserved brains just casually hanging out on shelves (in that neurology book I just mentioned, Kean kept compared sliced brains to foccaccia, which I thought particularly apt here since we were in Italy.  I did eat a lot of focaccia on the trip, so clearly I wasn’t grossed out by this).  There was a huge wood and ivory model of the brain, a few skulls (like the Lombroso Museum), and, also like the Lombroso Museum, the skeleton of its 19th century curator, Carlo Giacomini.  He too decided he wanted to become a part of the museum upon his death, so his skeleton is here, along with his brain, preserved using his own technique.  (Can I just say that I think this is an excellent idea?  One of my goals in life is to amass enough interesting crap whilst I’m alive to have my own Wunderkammern, and if that happens, I wouldn’t mind being stuck in there myself after I die.  Though maybe Jeremy Bentham style, where everything gets preserved, because I think that would creep people out more.)

The brain collection is largely from the 19th century, thanks to the work of Giacomini, there was of course also a phrenology case, including the plaster casts of heads of some famous/notorious individuals.  Aside from Napoleon, most of them were probably famous only in Italy, but I was intrigued by the story of the “Hyena of San Giorgio,” whose (plaster) head is on display here.  If you’ve read my Danish Police Museum post, you’ll know that a mysterious photo of a murder scene featuring a bloodied sausage grinder, with no English translation, has triggered my fascination with finding “sausage murderers.”  Well, it sounds like this Hyena fellow was probably one of those, as he brutally raped and killed a number of girls, and allegedly turned some of them into sausages.  I mean, awful stuff, obviously, but I do feel somewhat vindicated every time I discover proof that sausage murderers are a thing (if I’m getting technical, this may have started with one of those stories in the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books (those of the terrifying illustrations that traumatised every child who grew up in the 1990s) in which an evil butcher was making children into sausages).

Anyway, moving on from that grisly interlude, because the Anatomical Museum really isn’t all that grisly itself.  Sure, there’s a lot of body parts, but they’re more about displaying the intricacies of the human body than deformities or abnormalities (to be sure, there are some of those, but not to the extent I’ve seen at other medical museums).  And the galleries that the museum is housed in are truly beautiful, very classically museumy, so even if medical stuff isn’t normally your bag, you may be able to appreciate this place for its historic value.  I really loved it; even the signboards were witty and charming, and the wax anatomical models were stunning.  If you’re in Turin on any day but a Sunday (the museums are closed then), I highly recommend taking an hour or two out of your day to check both the Anatomy and Lombroso Museums out…if you love medical museums as much as I do, you definitely won’t be disappointed.  4/5.


Turin, Italy: Cesare Lombroso Museum of Criminal Anthropology (and the Fruit Museum)

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I recently turned thirty, and rather than sit at home eating a cake of sadness and mourning the loss of my youth (not sure what a cake of sadness would even involve.  Probably raisins, because I hate them), I thought it would be better to go on a short trip somewhere, especially as my birthday tends to fall right around the August Bank Holiday weekend.  Italy is not normally high on my list when it comes to museums (aside from the few I visited in Rome last year), since I’m not a big fan of religious art or architecture, but I’m always in the mood to eat some gelato and focaccia, so my stomach overpowered my mind this time.  In the end, we managed to plan a driving holiday that would take us to some less-than-culturally-exciting destinations on the Ligurian Coast, because focaccia, but would also give us a couple days in Turin, which fortunately did have quite a few museums I was interested in seeing.  On the top of my list was the Cesare Lombroso Museum of Criminal Anthropology, located on the University of Turin campus.

I think it’s been well-established that I love both crime and medical museums, so combining the two was sure to be a winner.  Especially when the collection was primarily from the 19th century, and Cesare Lombroso himself was still residing in the museum (in a way).  Finding the museum wasn’t too tricky, since it was well sign-posted, for all that we had to go up a couple floors inside an old university building, and unusually for Italy, it was not only open on time, it was even open a bit early (it opens at 10, but we got there about five minutes before and there was already someone at the admissions desk).  There are currently three museums that are part of the university (they also have a normal anthropology museum that looks pretty cool, but it’s closed for renovation): criminal anthropology, an anatomy museum (which I was also keen to visit), and a fruit museum, which came as a surprise to me, as I’d only noticed the first two on their website.  Admission is 5 euros for one museum, or 10 euros for all three, which we went with as I knew I would definitely want to see the museum of anatomy as well.

The museum did not allow photography (most likely because of the human remains and all), but I was relieved to see that there were large boards throughout the museum providing English translations of each gallery description, as well as translations of most of the item captions.  Obviously, this greatly enhanced the experience.

On walking in, we were greeted with a mock-up of a court room, and a dialogue between a young man and an old man debating all the changes that took place during the Victorian era (or Italian equivalent, which I guess would include Garibaldi), followed by a room showcasing some of Lombroso’s equipment, and a description of his work.  Basically, Lombroso was the Chair of Forensic Medicine at the University of Turin from the 1870s onward, and he had a special fascination with criminals and mental illness that led to him combining forensics, anthropology, medicine, and a hefty dose of pseudoscience into a discipline known as criminal anthropology.  It relied heavily on phrenology and physiognomy, so has essentially been proven to be complete nonsense, but nonetheless, Lombroso was seen as producing some revolutionary work in his time, and he also had an influence on introducing more humane treatment of prisoners and asylum inmates.  And he left this amazing museum behind, so he clearly wasn’t all bad.

The main gallery, Lombroso’s original museum, was probably the most interesting part.  It’s here that his skeleton resides, along with an impressive collection of criminal skulls and wax death masks taken of prisoners (people who died in prison, mind, they weren’t specially killed for this or anything).  There is also some wooden furniture  featuring human figures with elongated heads made by an asylum inmate called Eugenio Lenzi; his stuff was really awesome, and I’d love to get my hands on a piece.

There were actually quite a few things created by prisoners and people suffering from mental illness, including a costume made from clothing fibres that weighed forty kilos, which a certain psychiatric patient insisted on wearing every day (and considering how damn hot it was when we were there, I have no idea how he didn’t just pass out or die of heat exhaustion).  I also loved the collection of water jugs made by prisoners, including one featuring a mustachioed man and cat motif.

Speaking of prisoners, another room contained little wooden models of cells from four different prisons, as well as a larger model of the notorious Eastern State Penitentiary in Pennsylvania (which is supposed to have an amazing haunted house in it for Halloween…part of me really wants to go, and part of me is kind of glad I don’t live anywhere near there so I don’t have to).  Eastern State specialised in the silent treatment, where prisoners even had their own private exercise yards built at the ends of their cells so they never came into contact with the other prisoners.  Little wonder many of them were driven insane.

The museum closed with a re-creation of Lombroso’s study (very cosy, with a couch and some plush chairs, I’d have it) and a hallway explaining some of his theories in more detail, and refuting them with modern science.  Like most people back then, he had some racist ideas based around physiognomy, though a bit unusually, because he was Jewish, believed that “Semitic peoples” were the highest race.  He also didn’t seem too keen on women, which is again not surprising given the time period he lived in, but didn’t do much as far as winning me over.  However, I can’t knock the museum, which is delightful, especially all the wax masks and inmate-made artefacts, and I’d definitely recommend checking it out if you’re passing through Turin.  4/5.

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I also mentioned that there was a fruit museum.  I love fruit, but I probably wouldn’t have bothered going in if we hadn’t got the museum pass that meant it was essentially free.  Also, it was right across the hall from the Lombroso Museum, so I really had no excuse not to venture inside.  Disappointingly, unlike the other museums, nothing here was translated into English, but that didn’t stop me from appreciating the many, many beautiful models of fruit that adorned cabinets around the museum.  Seriously, there were hundreds of different apples alone.  I never knew there were so many varieties!  There were also tonnes of pears, and assorted cherries, plums, and melons…even a few root vegetables. (I just found out, via the brochure, that it is predominantly a pomological museum, which explains why it was mostly apples and pears.  Which I am admittedly not big on unless they are baked into a crumble or covered in caramel or smashed into cider (or perry), but I ate a lot of plums when I was in Italy (since I missed cherry season), and they were fantastic).

The other item of note was a small display about caterpillars.  Longtime readers will know that I am absolutely terrified of butterflies, but I was fairly indifferent towards caterpillars until I saw these paintings.  A caterpillar when enlarged is a hideous creature, and especially when cut in half in giant 3D model form.  Ick.

I wasn’t terribly impressed with the fruit museum, but if you’ve gone for the multi-pass, it’s worth popping in just to marvel at those plastic fruits.  It might well be better if you can read Italian, because it seemed like there was quite a lot in there about the science of agriculture, and the history of fruit growing in Italy.  And Francesco Garnier Valletti, who started the museum.  So I’ll only give it a 1.5/5, but you might be able to bump it up a couple of points if you can understand Italian.  By the way, I didn’t forget about the anatomical museum…more on that in the next post!

Chichester, West Sussex: The Novium

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“Oh boy, Roman crap!” I thought sarcastically to myself as I entered Chichester’s Novium.  But really, it turned out to be ok in the end.  I can’t pretend that it’s worth making a special trip to Chichester for any reason, but if you are stupid enough to do it, like me, you’ll probably find yourself inside the Novium at some point, since aside from the cathedral, it’s really the only tourist attraction to speak of there.  Fortunately, it is free and offers clean toilets with no daddy-long-legs in them, which is more than can be said for Chichester’s public toilets (ugh, I can still picture their horrible thin legs crawling around.  When I say daddy-long-legs, I mean it in the American sense of a spidery thing.  I think Brits call them harvestmen, but I’m not looking it up because I don’t want to have to look at pictures of the damn things).

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It is perhaps apt that the Novium offers nice bathroom facilities, since a Roman bathhouse used to stand on this very spot, and the museum has been cleverly built around the ruins so you can admire them without having to exert yourself too much.  Unless of course you want to look at them from the special viewing area on the first floor, which you will want to do because that’s where all the galleries are.  Then you have to walk up a bunch of steps (though a lift is available).

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There’s a kind of foyer area outside the first floor gallery that is currently dedicated to Sir George Murray, a Vice-Admiral in the Royal Navy from Chichester who was chummy with Nelson, and his wife, Ann, who outlived him by nearly half a century.  The main gallery features a huge glass “cube case” holding objects relating to Chichester’s past, from the Roman era through the present day.  I was partial to the former possessions of Joe “Pie Man” Faro, including his baker’s hat, gravy warmer, and a few ads for his pies.

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The second floor’s distinguishing characteristic was a huge window overlooking the cathedral (you might be “blinded by the light” shining in if it’s a sunny day), with a little map describing everything you can see from this vantage point, including some unique Chichester-made chimney pots (they have a couple examples you can touch sitting out).  The gallery up here, by far the largest in the museum, has objects currently grouped by the type of human emotion they represent: Joy, Sorrow, Bravery, and Creativity.

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I was digging it, because there was some pretty rad stuff in this gallery.  My absolute favourite thing was a sling produced by St. John’s Ambulance during the First World War, showing all the different ways it could be used to wrap various injuries (with a mustachioed man as model.  Something about the moustache really takes it up a notch.  I’ve always kind of wanted a phrenology head, and I found one the other day with an amusing moustache.  If I had 3700 euros laying around, you’d better believe that’d be the one I’d buy).  There was also a drinking mug with a fake frog moulded into the cup, to give whoever was drinking out of it a fright.  Excellent. UPDATE: My boyfriend noticed how much I liked that sling (probably because I kept talking about it) and bought me one for my birthday, so now I have my own WWI instructional sling.  Kick-ass.

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With the centenary and all, there was a fair bit of WWI stuff, including a little trench hut set up in the corner (you weren’t allowed inside though, boo) and a wounded soldier mannequin lying on a cot, but I gravitated towards the display of hats for trying on.  I think I probably look better in a standard British Army cap than a German one, though I have to say the pickelhaube really kind of suited my boyfriend (every time I see a pickelhaube, I just think of that 3 Stooges short where they’re doughboys who accidentally set off a canister of laughing gas, and get captured and taken to the German headquarters where they all laugh their asses off when one of the Germans falls on his spiky helmet.  Classic).

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They also had a mobile stocks cart (built in the 1820s, yikes! That’s more recent than I would have thought) for wheeling offenders around the town so they could be pelted with rotting vegetables, or worse, if they were really unpopular.  And a small display of skulls explaining what each one could tell us about the person it came from (the one with a hole in it from a person with a persistent ear infection made me cringe a little.  I only had a couple ear infections when I was a kid, but I still remember how agonising they were, and I can only imagine letting it progress to the point where the pus punched a hole in your head.  Jeez).

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I should also mention that there is a small temporary exhibit on the ground floor about the history of collecting, which has as its prize object an old Japanese Shogi game on loan from the Horniman in London, as well as some information about explorers and their collections, including Cook and Livingstone.  Although I read a couple negative reviews of the Novium on Trip Advisor before going, I frankly don’t see what their problem was.  It was a free museum, and I was actually pretty impressed with many of the objects on display, as well as the labelling, which, despite a few spelling and grammatical errors, tended to be comprehensive, educational, and often amusing.  It has clearly been renovated in recent years, as all the facilities seemed pretty up-to-date, but hadn’t lost the old-fashioned charm of a local museum.  3.5/5.

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Oh, and because the cathedral was also free, we popped in there too, so I’ll just show you a few highlights.

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The 3-dimensional man on the wall is to commemorate a local man, John Cawley, who was one of the MPs who signed the death warrant of Charles I.  He managed to survive the Restoration (just) by going into hiding in Belgium, but died in the 1660s.

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They had a small treasury room containing a lot of boring silver and pewter (basically a bunch of “you have chosen…poorly” Holy Grail replicas like in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.  Damn I love that film), but also a weathercock with dents on his tail where he was clipped by bullets during the Battle of Britain, so that was pretty cool.

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And they had a bunch of large wooden paintings depicting kings of England, and I guess some popes?  Or maybe something more Anglican, like Archbishops, I dunno.

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There are also some pretty cool gargoyles on the outside of the cathedral, and apparently a pair of peregrine falcons roost in the tower, so those are things to look out for.  As I said at the start, I really don’t think Chichester’s the kind of place that merits a special trip (in retrospect; at the time, it seemed like something reasonable to do of a Saturday, at least until we got stuck in traffic for a couple hours) but if you find yourself in the area, there’s a couple of free things you can do to kill some time.  And clearly there are people out there that really like Roman stuff, as judged by the unexpected popularity of my old post on the Verulamium, so you may also enjoy the bathhouse ruins in the Novium if this is so.