London: “Robots” @ the Science Museum

dsc00001“Robots,” at the Science Museum, is one of those rare exhibitions that I rushed out to see the same week it opened.  This was partly because I like robots (though I like animal robots the best), and partly because the Science Museum have been hyping it up for months on their Instagram account, but mostly because the week after it opened was half-term, and I can’t stand a crowd (sometimes when I say that I can’t stand things, I like to go full-on Lina Lamont from Singin’ in the Rain for emphasis). Also, after that unpleasantly overbooked Robot Sex night I talked about last week, I really needed some kind of non-disappointing robot event to lift my spirits.  I’m happy to report that “Robots,” while not quite living up to all the hype, didn’t actually disappoint either.

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Because I was still worried about crowds, it being opening week and all, we booked our tickets the night before for one of the earliest time slots in the morning (it takes a lot to get me out of the house before 10, especially in winter, so I was obviously keen), which meant we were able to stroll right into the exhibit.  I’m glad we did go early, because there was quite a queue built up by the time we left, which was just before noon.  “Robots” costs a very hefty £13.50 (without donation), so I was pleased that we were able to use our National Art Passes to get in for half that (the Science Museum also accepts National Rail 2-for-1s).  The first thing that greeted us when we entered the exhibition proper was a very creepy robot baby that moved eerily like a real baby (something about the fact that it was wearing a safety-pinned towel instead of an actual diaper made it even creepier, like it was a neglected robot baby or something).

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However, once we were past creepy-baby, the exhibit was off to a promising start, with a stroll through the history of robots, via the very earliest forms, including clocks and automata (which I suppose are a form of clockwork too).  There were also some fine early articulated prosthetics made by armourers, and some nifty anatomical wax models (my kind of macabre).

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Unfortunately, then the exhibit briefly moved back into the realm of things that freak me out (admittedly not that hard to do, since I’m terrified of stupid shit like butterflies. Even dead ones), because there were some 16th century religious automata, including a monk that bore more than a passing resemblance to Nosferatu that apparently can make his way across a table whilst making praying motions, and a crucifixion scene where Jesus moves his head around and cries tears of blood (fortunately, these things weren’t actually working.  Due to my Catholic upbringing and accidental viewing of a few religiously-themed horror movies, I spent most of my childhood living in fear that one of the Jesuses (Jesi?) on the couple of crucifixes my parents had hanging up would start moving, so this crucifixion automaton would have pretty much been my worst nightmare).

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But after I turned the corner and saw the Silver Swan, all the other automata were forgotten.  I have wanted to see the Silver Swan, which normally resides at the Bowes Museum in County Durham, for years, so I was thrilled it finally came to me.  They still turn it on every day at 2 in Bowes, when it’s there, but I’m not sure if they start it up in this exhibit (I suspect not, because there were no signs indicating that they did), though they did have a video of it in action (here’s one I found, please watch!).  Even without being able to see it move, it is still a thing of beauty, made in 1773, and composed entirely of silver (and glass rods for the water).

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There was an abrupt end to the history of robotics as we entered the hall of 20th and 21st century robots (according to the exhibition guide, actually three separate galleries, but they all flowed together), because after a very brief note about the rise of automated machines in factories, the exhibit sort of just stopped talking about technological developments in order to focus on the robots themselves.  The word robot was first used in print in 1920, in Karel Capek’s play R.U.R. (as I mentioned in my last post), though it was actually coined by Capek’s brother, who was also a writer.  From the ’20s onward, there seems to have been a real interest in creating humanoid robots (though why this was wasn’t adequately explained), and my absolute favourite in the entire exhibit is from that early period – the large seated fellow on the right, above.  Even though all the other robots had names, he didn’t get one, which made me feel bad for him, and he looked slightly sad, yet sweet (he kind of reminded me of Bert from Sesame Street).

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To represent the more sinister side of robots, there was Eric, a re-creation of the first British robot, built in 1928.  He can apparently walk and talk (as could the original), and I’m sure he means well, but I think if you give a robot pointy metal teeth, you’re just asking for trouble.  There was also a robot from Terminator, though as Marcus said, he wasn’t from one of the “good films.”  Sandwiched between Eric and the only moderately evil-looking Cygan was George, the poor dopey Wallace-esque (of Wallace and Gromit) robot shown at the start of the post (probably my second favourite, and the one I bought in badge form at the gift shop, since there were no “unnamed humanoid robot” badges.  I like my robots derpy, metallic, and nonthreatening, I think). The rest of this section was a bit of a waste of space, as it consisted of a wall of toy robots, with no text, when I think the exhibit could have been better served with a more thorough explanation of why these early robots were made.

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We then proceeded into the world of 21st century robots (who seemed to often have full lips, judging by these two femme-bots).  Apparently, the robot on the right worked at a reception desk at King’s College London from 2003-2015.  Even though I attended King’s from 2008-2009, I have absolutely no recollection of this robot whatsoever (and I’m quite sure I would have noticed and remembered a receptionist bot), and I didn’t get to ask her a question this time either, because her keyboard was being hogged by a small child.

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This section was probably the most construction-oriented of the exhibit, with a display case of robot limbs and brief explanations of how they were made.  But some of the robots were so horrifying that the explanations provided didn’t suffice (is there really an adequate explanation for a robot so terrifying that it makes you make the same face as the guy in Munch’s The Scream when you see it?!). Case in point: the robot on the left, who was meant to show how humans reacted to various facial expressions, but I don’t think you could obtain accurate results from any scientific study where someone was left in a room alone with that robot (plus wouldn’t it have been easier to just show people a video of actual humans making those expressions?).  The one on the right was meant to scan your face and ape your movements (I guess), though he didn’t seem very good at it, so they might as well have given him two eyes instead of making him a scary Cyclops.

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The last part of the hall o’ robots didn’t really provide any information in the captions other than the name of the robot, their country of manufacture, and their capabilities, but most of them were actually working and interacting with visitors, which was pretty neat, and somewhat made up for the lack of info.  Except poor Harry, who never seemed to play his trumpet.  He was the one I was most excited to see in action, and I don’t even think he was turned on (I did find this video when I got home though. He’s part of a quartet!).

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I was also disappointed that Pepper (on the left, above), who the Science Museum showed giving fist bumps on their Instagram, didn’t appear to be doing it in person.  She was talking, but thanks to the horde of people surrounding her (the exhibit wasn’t actually that crowded, but everyone who was there seemed to congregate around the interactive robots), I couldn’t get close enough to hear what she was saying.  No matter, it left an open space in front of Amico, who was another of my favourites, thanks to his expressive eyebrows (what can I say, I am a complete sucker for expressive eyebrows.  I mean, his acting skills (or lack thereof) are not the reason I’m a fan of a young Roger Moore (but it’s not just his raised eyebrow I like…I also can’t resist his taste in knitwear)).

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I’m just going to show you a bunch of photos now (rather sloppily arranged, as is my wont), because there were so many robots, and my commentary on each individual one will get very tiresome, but I don’t want to leave pictures of any good ones out.  They are of varying degrees of creepiness, which seems directly proportional to how human-like a robot was (i.e., the realistic ones were creepiest by far. Those child ones with the big heads are scariest though.  No contest).

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As I’ve said, most of the labels in here didn’t go into detail about the development of the robots or anything, which was probably fine in an exhibit for popular consumption (since I know pretty much nothing about engineering, I certainly didn’t want to read some long, boring technical description), but might disappoint the more technologically-minded.  Although I didn’t care so much about the technical side, I would have appreciated more discussion of the historical aspects, as the exhibit seemed to skip from the 18th to 20th centuries without much explanation of what brought robotics to that point (the initial section on automata was the only one that had a good balance of explanatory text to artefacts).  But I think most people were just there to see a shitload of robots, and on that, the Science Museum certainly delivered.  This certainly made up for my disappointing evening at the British Academy, though it was a little light on content for a £13.50 exhibition, so definitely try to snag yourself a discount.  It’s on until 3 September, so there’s plenty of time to see it, but it appears that the Silver Swan will only be there until April, so maybe best to get there before then.  3.5/5.

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London: Embroidered Tales @ the Brunei Gallery & A British Academy Late

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Sometimes this blog takes me to new and fascinating places I never would have discovered otherwise, and sometimes it leads to a real dud of an evening.  Unfortunately, this post is about the latter sort of occurrence.

I suppose this visit to the Brunei Gallery had its origins in a giveaway I entered on Goodreads about a year ago.  I ended up winning a copy of Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, and received my copy in time to take it on a transatlantic flight with the best of intentions, hoping I’d be able to read most of it on the flight and then review it, as I was asked to do.  Well, unfortunately, I didn’t count on how very long (656 pages), and let’s face it, dull, this book would be.  I ended up only reading about 50 pages, watched crappy movies for the rest of the flight, and abandoned the huge, heavy book at my parents’ house (in favour of reading books from the library there that I can’t get from the libraries in Merton. This is what I mostly use visits home for (besides seeing friends and family, of course): binge-reading, and eating all the doughnuts and ice cream), never to be reviewed or read again. I still feel kind of guilty about it (and I think the fact that I never reviewed it is why I haven’t won a giveaway since), so when I saw that the Brunei Gallery (which I’d never heard of before) was hosting an exhibition entitled “Embroidered Tales and Woven Dreams” featuring textiles from the Near East and Central Asia, I thought it was a chance to redeem myself by at least learning something about the regions along the old Silk Road.

The Brunei Gallery is part of SOAS (short for the School of Oriental and African Studies…I only knew of it from watching University Challenge, and based on the picture I’d formed of it from its UC teams, I was surprised to see that most of its students appeared to be young people, rather than retirees), which is near Russell Square and the British Museum, and is fortunately free, or I’d be even more annoyed by this experience than I am already. I was initially relieved when we stepped through its doors and left all the hustle and bustle of the university behind us, but was soon dismayed when I realised just how odd this “museum” was (and for once, I don’t mean odd in a good way).  No pictures allowed inside the gallery either, so this was a flop of an experience all around.

Quite frankly, I’ve never seen anything like it.  Because this “museum” had no labels on anything.  None.  The first room we entered was a large space ringed with textiles, and they had signs with information about the regions the textiles were from, so I didn’t think too much of it at first.  But then when I went into a smaller, more traditional museum-style room featuring objects from their special collections, and there still weren’t any labels, I realised there was definitely something off here.  Although I often bitch about glaring spelling and grammatical mistakes on signs, or somewhat inadequate signage, I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a complete lack of labels before.  And now I realise just how much signs make (or break) a museum.

The exhibit primarily consisted of a load of the creepiest mannequins I’ve ever seen (creepier even than the ones at Demolition World, because these ones had more lifelike faces, and there were just so damn many of them that I felt surrounded. I usually like creepy mannequins, but these were really bad) grouped in sinister clusters, with various textiles draped over their lifeless bodies.  Also, there were a few larger pieces of fabric that were hanging on the walls. I can’t even tell you if they were antique textiles, or modern examples, or where exactly each piece was from, because there was absolutely no indication given inside the exhibit (I suspect they were modern, because they were just sitting out on the mannequins, not in cases or anything, but I don’t actually know).  It was really annoying because some of the signs with the country/regional information (again, the only text in the whole of the exhibit) described specific types of cloth from those regions, but then there were no items of clothing around the sign that seemed to fit what they were talking about, which made talking about them pretty damn pointless.  I mean, some of the textiles were neat to look at, like one with birds and elephants on it, and another that appeared to be showing some Hindu gods, but most of them were from the Islamic world, where I believe depictions of people and animals are frowned upon (this is just going by what I’ve read in the past, certainly not from this exhibit), so they just consisted of geometric patterns; I’m sure each region uses its own particular pattern, and maybe the patterns have different symbolism, and there are different ways the cloth is produced, etc, etc, but with no information provided here on how specific pieces were made, or when, where, or why, it was really quite boring. Even the special collections section, which had some beautifully decorated Arabic books and prints, wasn’t really any more interesting, because again, I had absolutely no idea what I was looking at or what it meant.

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There was what appeared to be a professor showing a group of students around whilst we were visiting, and she was giving them information about the textiles; judging by that, I have to believe that this gallery is set up mainly for professors to lecture in here to their students, or for people who already know a lot about cloth – not for the general public, because I got absolutely nothing out of the experience. With all that’s going on in the world now, and especially all these ridiculous and appalling “Muslim bans” Trump keeps trying to enact, I think this exhibit could have been a nice opportunity to educate visitors about different cultures, and try to bridge some gaps.  Instead, it was a waste of a museum space, all for the want of a few captions.  This is genuinely one of the worst “museums” I’ve ever visited, and it’s all the more annoying because it didn’t have to be this way; the displays would have been perfectly…well, not good, but acceptable (creepy mannequins and all!) if someone had just told me what the hell I was looking at.  1/5.  Oh, there’s also a Japanese rooftop garden on top of the gallery (pictured above), but I’d save yourself the walk up the stairs in winter, because it was just a bunch of sad, wet gravel under a gloomy grey London sky.  Perhaps it’s better in summer, but I won’t be rushing back to SOAS to find out.

To round out this evening of let-downs (well, we grabbed a pizza in between, and that was fine, so it wasn’t all bad), we headed to see “Love, sex and marriage…with a robot?,” a free night of lectures and performances about the ethics of “artificial companionship” at the British Academy, which I’d booked a few weeks beforehand and was genuinely excited about (it was free, but you had to book tickets in advance).  Unfortunately, I was being overly optimistic about a free event in London, yet again.  Even though it was ticketed, the British Academy had released far, far too many tickets.  Apparently the lecture hall could only seat 120, and at least double or even triple that number showed up (I don’t want to overestimate crowd sizes here, but it was genuinely very busy).

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The activities were divided between a few different rooms, with performances in one room, and lectures in another, but they didn’t have enough seats between them to accommodate everyone.  We made the mistake of going to see a performance first (of a love scene from Karel Capek’s play R.U.R., which introduced the word “robot”), because we weren’t that interested in the first lecture. However, when it came time to see a lecture we were keen on, the lecture hall was still full of people who had showed up for the first lecture and refused to vacate their seats, so only a few people were able to enter (and the queue was easily a hundred people long, it stretched through the whole upstairs).  So we went to watch another performance (a robot and scientist improv, which was a cute idea, and I liked how smiley and enthusiastic the scientist was, although it somewhat failed in execution), but almost half the audience rudely left in the middle of the performance to queue up for the next lecture (I didn’t because I felt really bad for the performer on account of how rude everyone else was being) so we had no hope of getting into that either.  Because the other performances were repeats of the ones we’d already seen, we gave up and left at that point, despite being urged to just “enjoy the other activities.” (For the record, the other activities were buying drinks at the bar, making stuff with Lego, or drawing (bearing in mind this was an adults-only event).  Look, I’m 31 years old, I didn’t get dressed and pay to come into central London in horrible rainy weather so I could play with Lego all night, when I could have been warm and dry in my jimjams at home watching the last Spy in the Wild.  I didn’t even like Lego very much when I was a kid.)  So I don’t know any more about the ethics of love robots than I did when I started.

I am (hopefully not unfairly) laying the blame for this squarely on the British Academy.  They knew how many people their lecture theatre could accommodate, so why did they release so many tickets?!  I wasn’t the only one annoyed either, as I could hear others loudly complaining, and one woman even yelling at the security guards (which was uncalled for, it wasn’t their fault).  The security guard explained that because the whole building was open, the organisers thought it would be all right, but did they seriously think people would be happy to pay to stand around drinking all night, and not watch the lectures?  Or that people would voluntarily leave the lecture hall so that others could come in?  They might understand robots, but they sure don’t understand human nature.  If they did want to overbook out of fear that some people wouldn’t show up, they could have at least alleviated the problem by holding lectures in different rooms, so that people wouldn’t be able to monopolise one seat for the whole evening, kicking everyone out of the hall after each lecture, so that other people had a chance to come in, or issuing tickets at the start of the night for each lecture, and limiting them to say, two lectures per person, so that everyone would have a chance at seeing something.  This was another pointless disappointment, because judging by the lecture descriptions, this event had the potential to be really good, if only they’d been more organised.  But don’t worry, I have something better to blog about next week, to end this round of damp squibs!

 

London: The (New) City of London Police Museum

dsc09918_stitchLongtime readers may have a vague recollection of my post on the old City of London Police Museum, written way back in April 2014.  Well, sometime in late 2016 (or maybe mid-2016, because I did hear about it a while ago, and kept saying I ought to check it out, but it’s taken me until now to actually get ’round to it), they closed the old museum, which was located inside a working police station, and re-opened in a gallery next to Guildhall Library.  Interestingly, I think this is the same gallery that the Clockmakers’ Museum (which I blogged about in January 2014) was formerly located in, as it appears that the Clockmakers’ Museum has since been relocated to the 2nd Floor of the Science Museum (meaning both those posts are now outdated, but I suppose that’s one of the hazards of long-term blogging).

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Assuming the new City of London Police Museum is where the Clockmakers’ Museum was (I’m like 80% sure that it is, simply because I know that was also in Guildhall Library, and they can’t have that many museum spaces attached to the library, I don’t think), they have really completely transformed the space – in my opinion, not for the better.  I remember the Clockmakers’ Museum being one large, rather elegant room, with wooden floors and beautifully presented clocks in glass cases all around the space (because you weren’t allowed to take pictures in here back then, I have no photographic evidence, but that’s the impression it made on me, anyway).  In contrast, the Police Museum is downright claustrophobic-feeling in parts, because they separated what was one big room into a number of tiny rooms, and in spots where there were other visitors standing, we literally couldn’t move around each other without bumping into things. Plus the floors are black, and the ceilings are black, and most of the signs are black; taken all together, it gives the room an oppressive atmosphere.

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But I suppose I shouldn’t waste too much time comparing it to another museum entirely, when the more pertinent question is: how does it compare to the old City Police Museum?  Well, admission is still free, fortunately, and the objects have actual labels now, which is nice, but almost everything else compared negatively with my experience of the former Police Museum.  (If you actually clicked the link at the start of the post and read my old post, this might seem a bit repetitious, but bear with me.)

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The old museum was also small, but it was absolutely crammed full of stuff (which is probably why they didn’t have room for labels), and I was expertly guided around it by the delightful Bob, who was a retired police officer (OK, the tour did end up taking three times as long as I was anticipating, but it was so interesting that I stuck with it).  Because Bob had actually been on duty during various London calamities – most memorably, the Moorgate Tube Disaster – he was able to go above and beyond what any sign could convey, with actual anecdotes and his own theories about what could have caused the Tube Disaster.  Obviously, you can’t put hearsay on a sign (well, I mean, you can, but not if you want to be considered a reputable museum), so although the new museum probably did a better job of sticking to the facts, it was quite bland and dull by comparison. It also contained the merest fraction of objects that the old museum did (I assume they wanted to move at least partly to free up space in the Wood Street Police Station, but they must still have to store all the old stuff somewhere) – although they kept many of the highlights, such as the Olympic gold medal won by the City Police team at tug-of-war, the helmet of an officer caught in an IRA blast (helmet absolutely destroyed, but it saved the officer’s life), and one of the early police hats (a reinforced top hat that officers could stand on to peer over fences and such), the old museum had loads of police ephemera, like an entire wall of Jack the Ripper newspaper clippings, that apparently didn’t make the cut.

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The old museum kind of had objects from different historical periods all stuck together, but the new museum is divided up into a series of chronological rooms, from the early days of the night watch, up until the modern policing era.  Which is fine, but there’s an awful lot of text relative to the amount of artefacts.  One new feature, that I’d read about before visiting, was a re-creation of Catherine Eddowes’ (one of Jack the Ripper’s victims) last night alive, which she spent at a City police station (she was arrested for drunkenness and brought to a cell to sober up.  Shortly after being released at 1 in the morning, she was killed by the Ripper, presumably an easy target on account of her intoxication, so the police afterwards took some flak for releasing her in the middle of the night).  For some reason, I was picturing this as an actual cell you could walk through, with perhaps a projection of Catherine on the wall telling her story.  Instead, it was a set of goggles mounted on a wall that you looked through to see a video of a woman dressed in Victorian clothing pacing around a cell.  This was certainly less than thrilling, especially as I had been hoping for authentic smells.

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The only other real “interactive” feature (other than trying on police hats, which is always a joy) was a test you could take to see if you were a super recogniser, but it seemed to be having trouble connecting to the internet, and wouldn’t load (I have taken super recogniser tests before online, so I guess this wouldn’t have told me anything new, but it still would have been fun to do, had it worked). The rest of the museum only highlighted a few notable police cases; other than Jack the Ripper, there were also the Houndsditch Murders, which I won’t discuss in detail here because it’s in the old post, and the aforementioned Tube Disaster; and very briefly touched on things like the suffragettes (it was kind of bizarre, frankly, because they just had a sign saying that some people consider suffragettes heroes today, but they used to be considered terrorists. The museum provided no real context or detailed description of the suffragette movement) and the IRA bombings. It also contained a wall of old uniforms (I quite liked the women’s uniform from the ’70s, which included a polka dot blouse and a stylish wool coat, though I can’t imagine that was the ideal kind of outfit to be fighting crime in) and “weapons” (including a wooden hair pick and a nasty-looking homemade metal stabby thing. I would have loved to know more about the stories behind those, but alas, that information wasn’t here). The most interesting thing was probably the statistics on the sides of the walls leading into each new section, which showed how many people lived and worked in the City during the given time period (the population of the City (aka the Square Mile) has dropped dramatically from the time of Victorian slums, and only about eight thousand people actually live there today), as well as how many crimes of each type were committed (in addition to murders and robberies and such, it also included things like animal cruelty).

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So although I should have been glad that the museum had the opportunity to move into a new, slightly larger space, it unfortunately left almost all its character in the old museum.  Compared to Bob’s stories about sifting through piles of animal bones on the banks of the Thames to try to find the remains of a murder victim, collecting meat orders at the end of the a shift from the Police Box near Smithfields, et al, the new museum is sadly watered-down and banal.  I think the problem isn’t even the vast decrease in objects on display, so much as the lack of personality, which was something that abounded in the old museum, thanks to Bob and presumably the other guides as well. Leaving the old museum aside for a second, I also have to think how this museum compares to the many, many police museums I’ve seen around the world, and again, it performs unfavourably.  Considering that most police museums are housed in large, freestanding buildings (usually former jails or police headquarters), and contain excellent grisly displays (which are most definitely not present here. They even managed to talk about Jack the Ripper without actually describing what he did to his victims.  C’mon now), I find the lack of space and attention given to a police museum in London, one of the most famous and otherwise museum-rich cities in the world, rather appalling, and I really hope this situation can someday be remedied, because this new museum is certainly not the answer (granted, the City Police are only responsible for policing the Square Mile, so I can kind of understand why their museum isn’t huge, but I don’t think the Metropolitan Police even have a museum, other than the Black Museum that the public isn’t allowed in, so this is really all London has to offer, police museum-wise).  A real disappointment. 1.5/5.

 

 

London: The Design Museum

dsc09845Back to blogging about London again! So, it was the day of the presidential inauguration, and rather than sit at home feeling simultaneously infuriated and dispirited (before this whole mess, I wouldn’t have said it was possible to feel both those things at once, but apparently it is!), I turned, as I so often do when feeling down, to a museum.  The old Design Museum, which was in Bermondsey, was not somewhere I had ever been, mainly because they charged (hefty) admission to all their exhibits.  However, the new Design Museum, located on Kensington High Street, which I think only opened around last November, not only has a couple of free galleries, but is also much more conveniently located for me (and is dangerously near to purveyors of delicious cookies and muffins. If ever a day called for a chocolate chip muffin, it was that one (I may have eaten cookies’n’cream ice cream for breakfast too.  Don’t judge!)).

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Appropriately enough, the museum is housed in a very designery-looking building, but it wasn’t purpose-built, having originally been constructed in the 1960s for the Commonwealth Institute, which apparently hosted a permanent exhibition on (appropriately enough) the nations of the Commonwealth, until it closed in 2003.  So although the building has always included a museum space, the interior was given a complete revamp before the Design Museum moved in (of which more later).  The museum currently features two exhibitions that charge admission fees: “Fear and Love,” which looks interesting, but costs £14, and “Beazley Designer of the Year,” which costs £10.  Needless to say, I didn’t see either on this visit (though I will consider coming back and paying for the Soviet exhibit opening in March; it sounds pretty good!), but instead stuck to the free permanent gallery, and the three free “displays” (really only two, because the one was just a small selection of photographs of the building’s interior being constructed.  Big whoop).

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Ironically, although the design of the museum looked very grand when we walked in, I wasn’t all that impressed with the practicality of it.  For one thing, all the free exhibits were on the second floor, so you had to walk up three sets of stairs to get to them (either one of the floors counted as a sub-floor, or we somehow came in on the “lower ground floor” or something, because there were definitely three sets of stairs).  And there was only one set of stairs per floor, which were inconveniently located on the opposite side of the building from the staircase you just climbed up, so you have to walk around the entire damn building twice just to get up there (there are emergency staircases on the sides of the building, but I’d still hate to be in this place if a fire broke out).  And because all the other exhibitions were located on the ground floor or in the basement, except for a cafe and a few other empty rooms I could see that they probably rent out/use for classes, it made for a lot of wasted space, which doesn’t seem like good design.

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However, once I actually got up to and inside the “Designer Maker User” permanent gallery, I was a lot more impressed.  It was very visually appealing, for one thing, and much bigger than it seemed at first glance (all you can see when you approach is the wall full o’crap from the start of the post, and a timeline, and I was worried I’d be done with this place in five minutes.  It opens up and winds around a lot once you get inside).

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It was meant to be showing the highlights of the museum’s collections (mainly 20th century inventions or innovations), divided up into areas focusing on the designer, maker, and user, but to me, at least, there wasn’t really a clear delineation between these things.  There were objects scattered throughout the entire exhibit with information about their designers, so it all felt like it was focusing most on the “designer” aspect, with a brief nod to the “user” (I assume by “maker,” they meant the manufacturers of these products?  I didn’t get much of that aspect at all).  However, that wasn’t really a huge problem, because the objects in the collection were interesting enough in themselves, especially when the history and evolution of the design had been provided, like with Harry Beck’s Tube maps (those seem to pop up a lot in London museums, unsurprisingly) and how they influenced the New York Subway map, or the classic fitted kitchen, which was first invented in post-war Germany.

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I have to say, for such a new, modern looking museum, I was kind of surprised that there weren’t more interactive displays.  There was a video screen, shown above, that “dressed” you up in fashions of the past (though I could only get it to bring up that ugly 1980s outfit, even though I walked back in front of it a couple times), and a few other computer screens here and there, but not really to the extent I was expecting.  It seemed like there were more activities encouraging you to draw or write things using good old paper and pencil.  Which is great, nothing wrong with that, it just seemed a little out of keeping with the museum’s otherwise ultramodern character.

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We spent about half an hour walking through “Designer Maker User” (that lack of commas really irks me) before heading over to the small side gallery housing “Designers in Residence.” This was, for lack of a better term, just weird.  There was a coat made out of hair that had been collected from schoolgirls (by a woman who was working on the project with them, so less pervy than it sounds) and more felted hair that you could touch.  I did touch it, because I can’t resist a “touch me” sign, but I felt like I needed to wash my hands after. (Speaking of, I was hoping the bathrooms here would be really odd, like the all-black seatless toilet in Bob’s Burgers, and they were definitely designer-y, if that makes sense, but not quite as out there as Bob’s toilet, which was kind of a shame. Even though I have no desire to use a seatless public toilet (I’ve been forced to do it in Italy on multiple occasions, and it is not fun.).) There was also some other ugly “futuristic” looking clothing in here. Let’s just say that I wasn’t real thrilled by this section.

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The final free display (since I’m not counting those lame photographs of the building) is a pop-up called “New Old,” which is only there until 19 February.  I had read an article in the paper about it the week before, so this was what I was most excited to see. It featured the attempts of designers to meet the challenges presented by a “rapidly ageing society,”and there was definitely some cool stuff in here, though plenty of creepy dystopian stuff too (although we appear to be rapidly moving towards Orwell’s 1984 now, so maybe it’s all fitting).

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The creepiest thing was definitely this concept called “Spirit,” which seemed to be envisioned as a series of robotic implants that would sort of take over your body.  There was an insulated pod where you were supposed to talk into a microphone as a computer asked you questions (I initially thought the pod was for privacy, but then when Marcus started laughing at me, I realised my answers were appearing on a big computer screen as I said them, for everyone to read. D’oh!), and this “friendly” voice to keep people company was somehow meant to eventually evolve into hearing aid type implants, and most disturbingly of all, a kind of matchmaker service, wherein it would learn all about you and store the information in a database, and then you’d get an implant in your stomach that would create the feeling of butterflies whenever you met someone who was compatible with you.  I didn’t quite understand how this aspect of it was supposed to help an ageing population specifically, but whatever.  There was also that seal pup robot that has already been used in some nursing homes (though he was too cute to be creepy, or maybe I just have a soft spot for animal robots.  Has anyone else been watching Spy in the Wild on BBC1? I want spy crow as a pet!), and this gross metal structure that was supposed to improve people’s quality of life by giving them access to an outdoor space, but it was so small and grim-looking that it would just depress me if I had to sit outside on that instead of actual grass.

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More useful, I think, were things like a completely collapsible wheelchair, a (relatively) discreet bodysuit that aids mobility, and a convertible scooter.  Apparently every day between 12 and 3, there is a random person sitting at a table in there who you can ask one question of, and they ask a question of you in return (I suppose to show how we can learn from other people’s life experiences, and to show how older people still have an important role to play in society), but I was there just after 3 so I missed them.  Had I known, I would have gone in this exhibit first.

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Relatively poor practical design of the museum aside, I thought that the permanent exhibit and the “New Old” pop-up both exceeded my expectations (which were admittedly not that high).  I guess I initially found something off-puttingly pretentious about the whole concept of a design museum, because I presumed it would just feature really out-there designs, and though there was some of that sort of thing here (like the hair coat), I also learned how design, both good and bad, shapes the world we live in, and I am now convinced there is a very valid reason for the Design Museum to exist.  I’ll give it 3.5/5, because there is some room for improvement, but for a museum that just opened in this location a few months ago, I think it’s doing quite well.

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Akron, OH: Akron Art Museum

img_20161229_191212528The Cleveland Museum of Art, which you may recall me blogging about a fortnight ago, is not the only art museum in Northeast Ohio.  There’s also the Akron Art Museum, located about 45 miles south of its Cleveland counterpart (actually, I wouldn’t say they’re strictly counterparts, because they focus on different things, but it is all art), which sounds far when I put it that way, but I grew up halfway between Cleveland and Akron, so they were about equidistant for me (I usually hung out in Cleveland, but I went to the University of Akron, so I have ties to both places.  However, my grandparents grew up in Cleveland, and I say “tree lawn” rather than “devil strip” so I feel much more like a Clevelander than an Akronite).  Anyway, the CMA is a large, venerable institution with an extensive collection that includes examples of many genres of art from ancient times to the present, whereas the Akron Art Museum has a newer, more modern feel (even though it was founded in 1922, only 9 years after the CMA), and focuses almost exclusively on modern art, with the exception of a small gallery of mid 19th-20th century art (which probably helps with the modern feel, as does the rather, um, interesting looking building it’s housed in, which was completed in 2007).

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Also unlike the CMA, the Akron Art Museum charges a rather hefty $10 admission fee, which is probably why I never bothered to visit it when I was attending university (also, it was still in the old building back then, which I think was fairly lacklustre).  I mean, when I could visit the excellent CMA for free, it was hard to justify paying $10 for modern art, which I tend to have a bit of a chip on my shoulder about anyway.  Fortunately, the Akron Art Museum now offers “Free Thursdays” when (you guessed it) admission is free to all, so my mother and I paid it a visit while I was in town.  (I’ll try to include all the artists’ names, in case anyone’s interested, so from left to right above, there is Viola Frey’s The World and the Woman, James Gobel’s I’ll Be Your Friend, I’ll Be Your Love, I’ll Be Everything You Need, and Vernon Fisher’s Man Cutting Globe.)

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I actually had been there once before on a Free Thursday, a couple of years before I started blogging, and remember being distinctly unimpressed. Happily, because many of the exhibits on the 2nd floor are temporary, most of the art I didn’t particularly care for was gone, and there was some exciting new stuff in its place!  (Left to right, above is George Segal’s Girl Sitting Against a Wall II (no idea what happened to the first one, if it even exists), Miles Carpenter’s Untitled (Pink Octopus) and Peter Dean’s Circus Family (which I like because it reminds me of James Ensor, but with layered paint).)

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The first few rooms mainly held paintings and sculptures that I think are there all the time, but except for the huge Chuck Close piece (not pictured), I didn’t remember most of them from my previous visit.  There are a few big-name pieces there, like Lichtenstein and of course the inevitable Warhols, but most of them were by artists I’d never heard of (which isn’t really saying much, since I’m not exactly well-versed in modern art).  I’ve included pictures of some of my favourites, like Man Eating Trees by John Sokol, above left, and Rita by Malcah Zeldis, above right, which is a rather hilarious interpretation of Rita Hayworth’s sensual dance in Gilda.

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Mickalene Thomas’s Girlfriends and Lovers, above right, didn’t photograph particularly well (well, nothing did, but that had more to do with the skills of the photographer (me) than the artists), but I can assure you that it is fabulous in person, because the whole painting is absolutely covered in sequins.  Also shown is Yinka Shonibare’s Gentleman Walking a Tightrope.

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The museum was hosting a temporary exhibit called “Our Land” that commemorated the centenary of the National Park Service through photographs of some of its parks (which were lovely), but I haven’t included pictures of them because it’s hard to photograph a photograph that’s covered in glass without getting hideous reflections (you can view some of the pieces on their website though!). (Above, Richard Deacon’s Cover and Jackie Winsor’s #2 Copper.)

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But I’ve got loads of pictures from “Intersections: Artists Master Line and Space,” (which has now ended) because surprisingly, I really loved some of the pieces.  The three sculptures above (as well as the one that opens the post) are all by Nathalie Miebach, who was my favourite artist featured here. Her work is all science-inspired, and these particular pieces were all based on hurricanes.  Basically, she takes meteorological data and somehow converts it into woven sculptures.  Some of these incorporate elements of rides that were destroyed during Hurricane Sandy, which is probably why I liked them so much (I love old-fashioned amusement park rides).

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The first picture, above, is of a piece that was not really the kind of thing you could capture successfully in a photograph (even if you’re more talented than me), but it was really cool to stand under.  It was called inside green by Anne Lindberg, and was simply made of cotton thread stapled to the walls, but it was like standing underneath a prism, and it hurt my eyes to look at it after a while.  The piece to the right of it was by Ursula von Rydingsvard, and was part of a whole room full of giant things made of cedar (including one that kind of looked like a big turd.  More so than that other turdy wooden thing a couple paragraphs up) and the final piece shown above took up an entire room (that apparently required its own security guard to make sure no one touched it), and is called Turtle, by Judy Pfaff.  It had a lot of what I think was blown glass, but didn’t really do anything.

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I’m not sure if these pieces were part of “Intersections” or not (well, the last squiggly one is, it’s by Mark Fox), because I couldn’t find them on the museum’s website (believe it or not, googling butt spoons got me nowhere), but I’m including the pictures anyway, because butt spoons (only one of them is a butt though, I think)!

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I did recall seeing the downstairs gallery before, but I looked around again anyway, for the sake of the blog.  The first painting is worth noting because it’s by William Somer, who lived in Northfield (where I’m from!).  Also it contains cows and chickens, and you know how I like that sort of thing.  The middle painting is Raphael Gleitsmann’s Winter Evening, and shows neato 1930s Akron. When I was there, I joked that Young Mother by Zoltan Sepeshy (on the right) looked like me if I stopped plucking my eyebrows, but now it kind of reminds me of the McPoyle chick from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Which made me realise that I’m only a pair of tweezers away from becoming a McPoyle.

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The downstairs gallery had a few other cool things (from left: Robert Henri’s Spanish Shepherd, William Merritt Chase’s Girl in White, and Elmer Novotny’s The Artist and His Wife), but it seriously is only three small rooms, so we went through it pretty fast. Which meant it was time to explore the final temporary installment, Jimmy Kuehnle’s Wiggle, Giggle, Jiggle. I couldn’t really photograph it from inside, but you can see it in the picture of the front of the building below.  It was basically a giant inflatable red squishy thing with a bunch of arms, and you squished and squeaked your way through it like you were in a maze, while lights flashed on and off.  The whole light thing made it kind of disorientating, and I’m not sure if I actually giggled out loud (frankly, I don’t know if I’m really the giggling type), but it was pretty damn fun nonetheless.

img_20161229_194158186Overall, I appreciated the Akron Art Museum much more this time around, and thoroughly enjoyed my visit.  I would highly advise visiting on a Free Thursday (there’s also free parking in the garage across the street if you show up after 6, which is very doable because they’re open til 9 on Thursdays) because it only takes like an hour to see, which is not really worth $10, but it’s really the only large(ish) modern art museum I can think of in NE Ohio (there’s one in Canton, but that’s even smaller), so merits a visit if you’re looking for that sort of thing.  3.5/5 for this visit, but obviously that score will vary based on what they’ve got in it, because of the high proportion of temporary installations.

 

Columbus, OH: The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum

dsc09555It’s odd that when I lived in Cleveland, I went well over a decade without visiting Columbus (I went a few times as a child, primarily to go to COSI, but never as a teenager or 20-something), and now I try to go back every time I’m in Ohio, but I suppose the joys of the North Market (I love their Belgian waffles) have won me over, plus my uncle and his partner live down there now, and they have two super cute golden retrievers and know all the best ice cream places in C-bus, so that’s another good reason to visit!  Fortunately (because I can’t drive), Marcus and my brother were also both up for a day trip.  However, me being me, I had to sneak in a museum visit somewhere between waffles and ice cream (it was pretty much a perfect day), and not wanting a repeat of the grim-yet-inconveniently-hilarious Jubilee Museum last year, I did a better job of researching my options this year.  Some of the places that looked interesting (like the James Thurber house) were closed because it was right after Christmas, but the Billy Ireland Cartoon Museum, located right on the massive OSU campus, was open, and seemed right up my alley (and interesting enough to not bore my brother).

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Not being a football fan or cool enough to have friends to party with when I was an undergrad (or a grad student, for that matter), I’d never actually been to OSU, but my brother (who is much more popular than I am) had, so he knew roughly where to go (and to get doughnuts from Buckeye Donuts down the street, which was a smart move, even though eating a doughnut right after gorging myself at the market meant I had to unbutton my jeans to make space for everything (TMI?)).  (In fairness to me, I graduated when I was 20, so I wasn’t even old enough to (legally) drink, thus there wasn’t much point in bar-hopping.)  However, as I said, the campus is huge, and was almost empty because it was winter break, so we did initially get a bit lost and had no one to ask for directions, but we eventually figured out that we were looking for Sullivant Hall and managed from there.

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The Billy Ireland Museum immediately won my heart because in addition to the museum being free, there was also a display of free cartoon-themed bookmarks and exhibition programmes (really nice ones!) sitting out on a desk when we walked in, which the student working there urged us to take (he didn’t have to tell me twice!).  To avoid disappointment (or a trip to the Jubilee Museum), be aware that the museum is closed on Mondays, and only open from 1-5 the rest of the week.  The museum consisted of three mid-sized galleries, the first of which seemed to hold highlights of their historical cartoon collection, as well as cartoons from around the world.  Don’t miss pulling out the drawers of the cabinets in here, because they held some of the best stuff, including that cartoon of TR and Taft (above left) and an early drawing from Disney’s Robin Hood (above right), my favourite Disney film!

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They even had some pieces by English cartoonists, like Gillray and Rowlandson, in addition to a selection of non-boring manga (pretty much miraculous in itself, because I hate most manga with a passion).  I do have a general policy where I don’t like comic strips where the people actually look like realistic people (my favourite modern comic strip is Pearls before Swine, in case you’re wondering. I’m basically Rat), so I didn’t spend much time with all the Dick Tracy/Mary Worth type stuff on the walls, but I would take every one of those cat comic bobble hats in that case, and wear them with pride.

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One of the main reasons I wanted to catch the Billy Ireland Museum on this visit was that they had a temporary exhibit called “Windows on Death Row: Art from Inside and Outside the Prison Walls” which sounded really interesting.  I am opposed to capital punishment, as are apparently most cartoonists and satirists (the exhibit only had two pro-death penalty cartoons, because they said that was all they could find), so it wasn’t going to change my mind or anything (though maybe it would give you something to think about if you were in favour of capital punishment?), but the artwork done by inmates was very moving (particularly the painting done by a man who was executed shortly after, and a cartoon by a professional cartoonist who was the recipient of this man’s last phone call, which depicted that conversation), and the statistics were thought-provoking.

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For example, I learned that Ohio has the seventh highest number of inmates on death row of any state (currently 142) and has executed the eighth highest number of people since 1976 (53, which trails behind Texas’s appalling 538(!), but still).  In addition to charts and polls, there were also a number of stories from death row inmates, prisoners serving life sentences, and others in the criminal justice system who had widely varying views on the death penalty, which helped bring some balance into the exhibit. I do think it’s always important to educate yourself on both sides of an issue, even if you don’t agree with one of them, and I think the museum tried their best to make that happen with the captions and other text, despite the obvious anti-death penalty bias of most of the cartoons.

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On a cheerier note, the final room contained “What a Hoot,” an exhibition devoted to the work of Mike Peters.  I can’t say I was familiar with Mike Peters’s work before seeing this (I have seen greeting cards featuring characters from his comic strip Mother Goose and Grimm but The Plain Dealer (Cleveland’s newspaper) never carried the strip when I was growing up, so I’ve never really read it), but I was genuinely “loling” (as the kids say) at some of his cartoons.

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Mother Goose and Grimm is about an old woman and her dog, Grimm, so was sort of Garfield-esque (whether that’s good or bad I’ll leave you to decide), but I think quite a bit funnier, because he detoured into other subjects, including some brilliant punny ones. There was also a whole wall devoted to presidential cartoons (I think Nixon through (shudder) Trump, but there might have been a LBJ one in there?), which I loved, and a number of other political strips that had to do with non-major events that took place before I was born, so I didn’t really know what they were about.   In addition, the exhibit contained some biographical information on Peters’s life.

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After experiencing all those different emotions in a relatively short time (laughter-contemplative sadness-laughter again), I left feeling really impressed with the Billy Ireland Museum.  As my brother said, “It was just the right size,” so that even he didn’t have time to get bored, but there was plenty there to make it well worth a special visit, and most importantly, it showed that cartoons can be so much more than the medium might have you believe at first glance.  It left me wishing there were more free museums on the OSU campus (except for a museum of biological diversity that is only open once a year, I couldn’t find any), because this was so well-done (and also wishing that British papers had a whole comics section like the PD and Akron Beacon Journal still do, because I miss reading them). I’ll post a picture below of the front of the building, so you know what you’re looking for if you go, because I don’t want anyone else to get lost (for real, OSU is the largest university (by enrollment) in America.  It has over 63,000 students!) if you decide to visit, because you really should, if you’re in the area and like cartoons! Don’t miss those Buckeye Donuts either!  4.5/5.

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Cleveland, OH: Cleveland Museum of Art Redux

dsc09619Because I went back to Ohio for a few weeks over Christmas (and now I’ll have that stupid Back to Ohio (actually called “My City is Gone” apparently) Pretenders song stuck in my head all day), I wrote and scheduled a whole bunch of posts in advance because I knew I’d be too busy eating doughnuts, ice cream, and pancakes, and hanging out with my brother to want to do much writing while I was there.  As a result, I haven’t really written anything in about a month, and I’m finding it really hard to get back into the swing of things (and this damn jet lag (which I should probably just call insomnia at this point) isn’t helping).  So I thought I’d start by revisiting what used to be my favourite Cleveland museum: the Cleveland Museum of Art.

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I first wrote about the CMA in my first month of blogging, nearly four years ago now, shortly after they had finished their extensive remodelling project, and unfortunately at that point I was so attached to the old museum that I didn’t really give the new museum a fair chance. I also think that many of the galleries had yet to re-open then, so I wasn’t experiencing the museum at its fullest potential.  Well, this was my first trip to the CMA since that last ill-fated one, and I’m happy to report that it feels like a museum I can love again!  It doesn’t hurt that the CMA is still one of only a few free museums in Cleveland, though they do get you with the $10 minimum parking fee in their garage (yikes! Try to find a metered spot on the street if you can, because I think those are only a couple bucks), and they charge for major special exhibitions, but there were none on at the time of my visit.

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The main reason I was inspired to go back was that the museum was hosting a small exhibit on early portrait photography that sounded interesting (I confess I was hoping they’d have some of those creepy Victorian death photographs, but no such luck), but the exhibit was hidden away in the  middle of the second floor galleries, which meant I got to do a lot of exploring before I found my way there.  And look, I found one of my favourite paintings on the way (that I bitched about not being able to find last time): Cupid and Psyche, by Jacques-Louis David (above left).  And that excellent saucy portrait of George Washington by Charles Wilson Peale that I also know well and love (above previous paragraph).  And the three Van Gogh paintings the museum owns (my favourite is the tree one shown above right).  It was glorious, like finding long-lost friends.

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I am also very glad that the museum seems to be ordered in a manner that makes sense again.  I think when I visited four years ago, only about half the galleries were actually open, so they only had some of the collection’s highlights on display, and they weren’t really arranged in any particular order.  Happily, the paintings are now sorted chronologically, by country of origin, and by genre again, which makes it easy to find paintings that I know are there and want to see, like the handsome fellow on the left, above (Jean Terford David, painted by Thomas Sully.  I believe his wife’s portrait is also there, but the poor woman is kind of unremarkable next to Jean’s strong jawline and dreamy tousled hair). The only exception to this was Henri Rousseau’s Fight between a Tiger and a Buffalo, which I love, but wasn’t in any of the places I expected to find it.  However, thanks to the free wifi the museum now offers, I was able to search for it on my phone, and discover that it wasn’t currently on display.  Annoying, because I really wanted to see it, but still better than me aimlessly wandering in search of it (or I guess I could have gone old-school and just asked someone working there, but if I can avoid human contact, all the better).  You will also notice that unlike at the hideous (except the armoury) Wallace Collection that I wrote about a couple weeks ago, the paintings are attractively displayed against plain walls painted in soothing solid colours, which makes them a pleasure to look at.  (The painting on the above right in Mary Spain’s Girl with Birds, but I was so busy looking at the cat that I scarcely noticed the birds.)

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And the CMA genuinely does have a first-rate collection.  You’ll notice the Picasso and the Velazquez above, but they’ve also got Monets, Manets, Gauguins, Toulouse-Lautrecs…basically all the big names, as well as an extensive collection of top-notch American paintings, like Ryder’s The Racetrack (Death on a Pale Horse) shown below left, and the portrait of Nathaniel Olds by Jeptha Wade that I included in the last CMA post, but had to include again because I love it so much (below right).

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I did eventually find my way to the portrait photography display that I had come to see in the first place, though ironically, it was pretty much the only place in the museum that photography wasn’t allowed.  It was only one room, but it was pretty interesting, mainly because I enjoy photographs of Victorians that prove that they weren’t always as stuffy as we sometimes imagine them to be, especially all the posed “joke” photographs that were apparently popular at the time, including one of a couple guys pretending to rob their friend, and another of men pretending to fight.

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There was also a small temporary display on Catholic vestments (more copes and chasubles, woot?), which I suppose was fine, but after seeing the incredible pieces of medieval English embroidery at the V&A, boring floral embroidery really paled by comparison.

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The final temporary display I saw was in the aptly named “Focus Gallery” and revolved around the 14th century Gothic table fountain (above left).  Apparently, table fountains (basically automata that spouted water at the dining table in various clever ways) were very common amongst the wealthy in medieval Europe, but eventually almost all of them disappeared, and the one now in Cleveland is believed to be the most complete surviving example.  And splendid it is too, full of dragons, and little grotesque figures that play instruments and spout water.  I presume it’s too fragile to actually see it in action, but they made a video of what it should look like when it runs, and the fact that it wasn’t in motion allowed me to study all the charming little paintings around its sides in detail.  Delightful.  I also liked the less elaborate castle themed fountain (above right).

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Because Cleveland is only a medium sized city, they don’t really have the resources to have separate museums for archeology and antiquities and all that kind of stuff, so it all gets lumped together at the CMA.  Although my description probably makes it sound like some poky local museum, which it is definitely not.  It’s a big museum, and everything is beautifully and professionally presented.  My whole point is that this is also the place to come in the CLE if you also want to see armour, or Ancient Egyptian stuff and other ancient artefacts.  There’s lots of very old Asian and Islamic art too!

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And the Christian religious art might not be in the creepy old gallery I used to love anymore, but it it still full of disturbing pieces (and some funny ones, like ol’ St. George above, who appears to be sprouting some sort of potato from his head).  That throne puts me in mind of Mr. Burns’s “chair” at Springfield University (which I would totally have in my flat, by the way).

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At some point Marcus decided he was going to photograph all the lions, only a couple of which I’ve included here (they have a surprising amount of lion-themed art), but I liked his thinking – I think picking one theme and focusing on objects relating to it is a good way to gain a new perspective on museums you’ve been to before, or just keep them interesting (I know the head on the left is not a lion, but it is a splendidly derpy face, so I couldn’t not include it, and it was in the same gallery as the lion on the right).

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The museum also had a few new technological/interactive things that I don’t recall seeing before, like a giant wall where you could select objects from the museum’s collections, and learn more about them, and some kind of motion wall thing that I noticed children jumping up and down in front of.  There were also quite a few touchscreens in “Gallery One,” which highlights some of the museum’s best pieces, and gives you a chance to discover more about the meanings behind them, and the historical periods in which they were created.  I think it’s a neat idea, even though the execution wasn’t quite as attention-grabbing as I would have liked.

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I think there were a few small galleries we didn’t have the chance to see, but I feel like I got to experience most of the museum, and have a much better appreciation of what the big remodel has done for the CMA.  Although the historic 1916 exterior is still hidden within the atrium, you do get excellent views of it from inside the atrium (you frequently have to go out on the balconies to move between galleries, so you get lots of chances to admire it) and it is a gorgeous space.  I can imagine that with Cleveland’s long and crappy winters that it is also nice to have a place to walk around and get some sunlight without trekking through ice and slush.  I have indeed completely revised my previous opinion, and can say that the remodelling process, though very irritating in the last few years I was actually living in Cleveland and wasn’t able to visit the Art Museum, was a good thing in the long run, and the museum has eventually emerged all the better for it.  4.5/5, and unquestionably the most spectacular museum Cleveland has to offer.

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London: Opus Anglicanum @ the V&A

Sorry, I seem to be blogging about a lot of temporary exhibits lately where photography isn’t allowed, and this is yet another one.  I always think not including pictures is especially obnoxious when the exhibition is based around a type of art (rather than objects, though I suppose all museum displays are primarily visual in nature), but my hands are tied by the V&A’s policy and the guard in constant rotation around the exhibit to enforce it.  Anyway “Opus Anglicanum” (literally “English Work”) is an exhibition the Victoria and Albert Museum has on until 5 February 2017, and is all about medieval English embroidery.  Which probably doesn’t sound terribly thrilling (especially without any visuals, but bear with me).

First, the practicalities. Opus Anglicanum costs £12; I only went because they offer half-price admission to National Art Pass holders, so I got in for £6.  It also may be advisable to book online, as the V&A tends to always be busy, and it seems like they don’t release very many tickets per time slot (though there were still enough people in there to make it unpleasantly crowded at times); fortunately, unlike most other museums, they don’t charge a booking fee, you can book on the day of your visit, and they include all the discounts and concessions available as options when booking, so it’s quite easy to do so, and it means you don’t have to queue in the ticket line when you get to the museum.

Although the V&A is one of those vast institutions where if you take a wrong turn you’ll probably find yourself in a room you’ve never seen before, even if you’ve been there like 20 times, there are large signs pointing the way to Opus Anglicanum, so it is easy to find your way there, but the only indication that you’ve arrived is the ticket booth outside, because the Opus Anglicanum sign is hidden inside the doors to the exhibit.  The exhibition space was (probably by necessity, we are talking old, old fabrics here) quite dark, with the embroidered pieces (mostly copes, chasubles, and panels) inside glass cases lining the walls. By the way, in case you’re wondering (I know I was!) copes and chasubles are both types of religious vestment, sort of cloaky/poncho-y things.  You can see some examples on the exhibition page that I linked to in the first paragraph (and please do look at them since I have no photos to show you!).

As I said, it was fairly crowded; not crazy Museum of London crowded, where you actually have to queue to look at anything, but crowded enough that I sometimes had to crane my neck to look over the shoulders of people to read captions.  This wasn’t helped by how annoying some of my fellow visitors were, especially a group of what appeared to be university students who were jotting down notes as some woman lectured in front of a case, all of them completely oblivious to the fact that they were blocking the case for everyone else, and weren’t even looking at the objects within the case themselves!  Why they couldn’t have listened to a lecture on the benches provided or in the open centre space away from the exhibits, I do not know.  Fortunately, most of the people were congregated in the first and last rooms, so I was able to move along the middle section with ease.

Now, about the embroideries themselves: as the V&A say on their exhibition website, “from the 12th to the 15th centuries, England enjoyed an international reputation for the quality of its luxury embroideries.”  This was an attempt to showcase some surviving examples, there not being many of them, because as you can imagine, cloth doesn’t hold up particularly well centuries on.  Also, many of the ones that were located in England were destroyed during the Reformation.  Bearing that in mind, it’s rather incredible that they had as many examples as they did (I can’t even keep clothes hole-free from one year to the next unless I double-bag them in plastic, thanks to my impossible-to-get-rid-of moth infestation).  And most of the pieces they did have, despite being largely religious in nature, were very enjoyable indeed.

In addition to having a fondness for the way medieval artists rendered faces, I also like the way they depicted animals (and the unicorn just chillin’ out in a depiction of the Garden of Eden was another bonus), and there was lots of those embroidered on these objects.  I was also unexpectedly partial to the many, many depictions of the martyrdom of various saints.  Perhaps surprisingly, given how many years I was forced to attend Sunday School, I know very little about how saints were martyred.  For some reason they didn’t teach us that there, which is a shame, because that is the one part of religious education I could have actually derived some enjoyment from, given my fondness for both the macabre and memorising useless facts.  There was one panel in particular that showed the martyrdom of nine different saints that I was completely fascinated by.  One of them (Bartholomew, I looked it up after I got home) was being flayed alive, another (Hippolytus) was being pulled apart by horses, and another (Stephen I think) was being stoned to death, yet the saints had calm expressions, with only slightly sad down-turned mouths to hint at any kind of distress, which I found hilarious in a grim way.  Also, there was another scene that was apparently depicting the conversion of St. Paul, but it looked like someone was sticking something up his butt, more like a martyrdom a la Edward II (not that he’s a saint, but you know what I mean) than anything.  I’ve tried looking it up, but can’t make sense of it, so if anyone else knows the story behind (ha!) this please do let me know!

The “Jesse Tree” also seems to have bee a popular motif, as there were about ten depictions of it here (still not entirely sure what a Jesse Tree is, but my friend who attended Catholic school used to call me that as a child, which pissed me off because I hate being called Jessie), and lots of Holy Family scenes. There was also a shirt belonging to Edward the Black Prince, some splendid brass rubbings of knights that were drawn in almost an Edward Gorey-esque style (or more likely, Edward Gorey copied that style), loads of items sewn with gold and silver thread, which is why they had survived so long, and a few pieces of stained glass with amusing angel designs.  In addition, I loved the illuminated manuscript depicting the Garden of Eden (with the aforementioned unicorn), and I thought it was awesome that they had a surviving embroidery needle in one of the cases! But unsurprisingly, my favourite piece there was entirely secular in nature: The Fishmongers’ Pall, commissioned in the 16th century by the Fishmongers’ Guild and used to cover guild member’s coffins (I think up to the present day!), was a magnificent piece of embroidery from the last years of English dominance of the art, and was covered in delightful merpeople.  The end of English embroidery came about shortly after the mid-16th century, largely because of Henry VIII (the man has a lot to answer for), as elaborate gold-and-silver embroidery wasn’t much in demand in Protestant churches, and in the secular world had somewhat gone out of fashion amongst the nobility as well.

I think the exhibit did an adequate job of explaining the rise and fall of English embroidery, although I would have appreciated more context on some of the saint martyrdom pieces, since they looked so interesting (read: gory) and I really had no idea what was going on in most of them!  Same goes for some of the other less well-known religious images as well; for example, all the Jesse Tree pieces had captions saying that Jesse was asleep at the bottom, but who was Jesse, why was he asleep, and most importantly, why the hell was there a tree growing out of his head?! Also, although it was large enough to justify £6, there ain’t no way this was a £12 exhibition, but the V&A’s exhibition prices tend to be rather high, so it wasn’t unexpected (it is in Kensington after all, must pay the bills somehow!).  The embroideries themselves are very enjoyable, and well worth seeing just for the animals (lions with eyebrows!  I was glad to see that I’m not the only person that draws eyebrows on animals (eyebrows add personality, I think)) and the facial expressions on some of the embroidered people, but don’t expect to spend a lot of time here, because the captions are fairly short and there’s nothing interactive. 3.5/5.

London: The Wallace Collection

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I feel almost certain that the Wallace Collection doesn’t spend enough time advertising the fact that they have an armoury, otherwise I definitely would have visited before this.  Here I was, labouring under the impression that it was just a bunch of boring old Dutch art, when they had this fabulous armoury hidden away in there the whole time!  But then again, to be honest, I’d never really given that much thought to the Wallace Collection one way or another (Dutch art or otherwise) until I realised just how dire my blogging situation is becoming (London’s a big city with loads of museums, but after almost four years of blogging, I’ve been to nearly every one of them.  I’m seriously worried I’m going to run out of blogging material!) and was desperately searching for any museum in London I hadn’t visited, regardless of how boring and unappealing it sounded.

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Although the Wallace Collection is free, which always wins a museum points in my book, it wasn’t doing anything to change my mind about the whole “boring and unappealing” theory at first glance. It was one of those places with a very hushed atmosphere, where you’re afraid to make any noise, and unfortunately, I happened to be wearing some unintentionally jangly boots (they have a little buckle on the back which jingled every time I took a step, which I definitely don’t remember them doing to that extent last year.  Must remember to try to remedy that before wearing them again), so I had to do a very weird walk where I stepped very slowly whilst barely raising my feet off the ground.  (Side note, I went to see Half a Sixpence after going to the Wallace Collection, and it has a song with the repeated lyric, “clanga janga ringa janga,” (it’s not quite as stupid as it sounds, I swear!) so it might have been appropriate that I wore those boots after all.  Side note within a side note: I actually really loved Half a Sixpence!  It was cheesy, but that’s kind of what I want from a musical, and the songs were catchy as hell. Like this one.)

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It was also the sort of place where there was a guard in every room who would follow you around the room with their beady eyes (or maybe just me on account of my annoyingly loud boots), which makes me really super uncomfortable.  I always feel like they’re going to kick me out if I don’t look up to scratch (for the record, I’ve never been kicked out of a museum, but I did get kicked out of malls several times as a teenager on account of looking like a weirdo who was unsettling the normies, and I think it’s given me a complex), and my boots definitely weren’t helping.

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In addition, as you may have noticed, the whole place was done up in an opulent-but-ugly Louis “Various Roman Numerals” style (I’m assuming either XIV, XV, or XVI, but I don’t know enough about faux-French interiors to tell the difference), which made me feel really out of place.  I was basically just walking through the rooms as quickly as I could (bearing in mind I was trying not to make any noise) so I could say I’d visited it and could blog about it, until I saw a delightful sign hanging over some steps reading, “To the Armouries.”

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So I descended into the gloom, feeling glad to be free from the horrors of Louis whatever, only to be met with this magnificent sight at the bottom of the staircase.  They really weren’t exaggerating, this was a proper armoury!  I’m pretty sure my fondness for armour has been well-documented, but yeah, for a pacifist who isn’t particularly interested in modern instruments of war, I really like armour.  I almost did my Master’s in Medieval History instead of Early Modern History based solely on how much I like the bubonic plague and armour, but ended up going Early Modern instead because the programme convenor sounded nicer on the phone than the medieval lady (probably a wise choice in the end, as the Georgians are much more my speed than medieval people. I’m also a big fan of the Victorians…if there was a Master’s programme that combined the Georgians and Victorians, that would have been ideal).  Needless to say, I don’t know how an armoury of this calibre in London could have escaped my attention for all these years.

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The halls of armour were fabulous, and appeared to be arranged around a “secret” restaurant (I don’t think it’s actually secret, because they mention it on the website, but I didn’t see how you would enter it.  Not that I really cared, because museum restaurants aren’t really my scene and we were planning on going to the hole-in-the-wall producing delicious food that is the Roti King later that evening anyway. Roti canai is the best), so they basically took up almost an entire floor of the not-insubstantial building.  I also really liked that many of the pieces of armour (not all) had captions; even though I didn’t have time to read them all, it was nice to see after places like the armoury in Graz that had no signage whatsoever, in either German or English.

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It wasn’t only armour down here though; there was also an assortment of medieval jewels, religious carvings, and neat things made out of silver, like this ostrich eating horseshoes, which I think may have been a symbol featured on the Wallace coat of arms.  I assume this had something to do with the old myth that ostriches could digest metal (I don’t know where the idea came from, but they had an ostrich at the Tower of London back when it housed a menagerie (we’re talking 18th century here), and visitors would feed it nails, presumably until it died, but come to think of it, I’m not entirely sure what ended up happening to that poor ostrich).  I guess I haven’t really mentioned the Wallace of the collection until now, but yeah, Sir Richard Wallace was a late 19th century Marquess of Hertford who expanded on the collection started by four of his ancestors, and after he died, his widow bequeathed it to the nation.  Which explains both why it is both eclectic, and free.

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It also wasn’t just medieval or early modern European armour here; there was a whole room of Eastern armour, which was pretty cool too, although I guess it doesn’t get as much attention as the European stuff because it doesn’t tend to have helmets and face plates made with ridiculous moustaches attached.

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After the glorious respite that the armoury provided, I reluctantly headed back upstairs to what I had come to think of as the “stuffy bit” to see the rest of the art.  We had reached the long gallery, ubiquitous in stately homes, which was indeed quite long and full of more art.

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However, this art was better than most of the crap in the other rooms, because they had the Laughing Cavalier, which I’m pretty sure is famous, and also that rather splendid portrait of George IV (I assume from his Prince of Wales or Regent years, because he was way more enormous by the time he became king).

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Aside from that though, the art here was fairly unmemorable, which is why I haven’t talked about it much.  Oh sure, there were a surprising number of paintings of chickens (which I love) and also a rather good cow picture downstairs, but most of it was just portraits of various low-level aristocrats, or still lifes of dead animals, and other similarly horrible and uninspiring stuff.  Basically, if I hadn’t seen the armouries, I wouldn’t be recommending this place to anyone.  But I did, and so I will!

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Though in my (very inexpert) opinion, there are only a few pieces of art here worth seeing (let’s be honest, the main attraction of the upstairs rooms is marvelling in how they managed to find curtains hideous enough to match the wallpaper), the armouries are splendid, and clearly a bit of a hidden gem.  For that reason alone, the Wallace Collection is definitely worth a look if you’re passing through the Marylebone/Bond Street area, and I felt that it was possibly even worth braving Oxford Street in December (the things I do for this blog)!  3/5 as a whole, but I’d rate the armouries higher.

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London: “Bedlam: The Asylum and Beyond” @ the Wellcome Collection

wellcome2Since blogging about Forensics early in 2015, I hadn’t returned to the Wellcome Collection for a proper look around (confession: I have used their toilets when I’m in the area, because it’s better than paying 20 or 30p for the gross ones at Euston Station), having skipped the last couple of special exhibits mainly because it seemed like they were always super crowded (and one of them involved walking through a room where you apparently couldn’t really see anything. Bumping into strangers is not my cup of tea), so I thought I might as well catch the latest one, even though their no photography policy doesn’t make for very visually appealing posts.

“Bedlam: The Asylum and Beyond,” runs until 15th January 2017, and is free, like everything in the Wellcome. It was done in partnership with the Bethlem Museum of the Mind; some of you may have read my guest post on These Bones of Mine about the Bethlem Museum, and recall that I wasn’t too impressed with it. Unfortunately, it was a similar story with the Bedlam exhibit at the Wellcome; if it had been at another museum, I would have thought it was perfectly fine, but based on the previous high standards of the Wellcome, it seemed a little lacking.

The exhibit was meant to be divided into “scenes from Bedlam,” however, I didn’t really get the whole “scene” concept, as there didn’t seem to be a unique theme for each room because the exhibit had been mostly arranged chronologically rather than thematically. The first room appeared to be some kind of art installation relating to people’s experiences of psychiatric institutions, and then the exhibit began talking about the history of “Bedlam” itself (the nickname for Bethlem Hospital, which gradually seeped into the lexicon as a synonym for chaos), which was founded in the 13th century, and inhabited a number of different buildings around London before moving to Beckenham, where it is still located today. As you might expect, standards of care varied widely over the centuries, with the 18th century seen as a particularly appalling time: Georgians would pay admission to view the “lunatics” as a “fun” diversion, and many of the patients were kept chained at all times, like one poor man named James Norris, whose story was detailed here. James (who was described as an “insane American”) was kept chained by his neck to a post, with a metal cage over his upper arms so he couldn’t raise them, for over 14 years! The most appalling thing is that apparently no one could remember the initial reason he had been chained up, they just left him like that as it was the way it had always been done, despite the fact that he wasn’t violent, and was capable of rational conversation.  There were also a range of books and plays from this period that showed how madness was portrayed in popular culture, but overall, this section wasn’t terribly engaging.

The 19th century saw a move to slightly more humane treatment of patients, though some doctors still insisted that keeping the patients chained or straitjacketed was the best thing for them (by contrast, late 19th century Broadmoor (of all places!) seems to have been remarkably humane.  I’ve recently read The Wicked Boy by Kate Summerscale, which has detailed descriptions of life there (and is generally a pretty interesting book)). This section of the exhibit was located under a dome; I suppose it was meant to mirror the dome of the Victorian Bethlem, which is the current location of the Imperial War Museum (and very dome-y it is indeed), but the main benefit was that the two concentric circles the displays were arranged in left more room for people to look around than the Wellcome’s normal configuration. There was actually a lot of wonderful art created by patients in this section (sorry, “scene”), but probably the most interesting thing of all was a set of samplers made by a woman who believed she’d been confined unfairly. Her stitching was partly an artistic outlet, of course, but the samplers were also basically rambling letters to Queen Victoria pleading for her release, which I think she attempted to mail to the Queen.  The whole story was very sad. There was a movie room off to the right of this section, which was showing a strange German film called Caligari and the Sleepwalker, based on The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, in which a man who believed he was an extraterrestrial entered an extremely odd institution run by a bearded and bespectacled doctor, who was constantly chomping on gum and communicated with the patient via chalkboard. I could only take about five minutes of this before I had to leave; it was just too damn bizarre.

There was a fairly unmemorable room about how the discovery of diazepam and similar drugs changed the treatment of mental illness (thankfully, there was only a brief mention of electroshock, because that freaks me out bad); the only thing of note in here was a series of drawings by Ugo Guarino that showed the negative side of psychiatric treatments in the 1970s, and helped lead to the closing of outdated hospitals in Italy, and the opening of modern mental health centres instead.

The final room contained current psychiatric patients’ ideas of what would make for an ideal hospital; their ideas sounded lovely, like having treehouses they could retreat to when they wanted to be alone, a kitten petting room, and really comfy sofas and beds so they could just spend the whole day reading and watching TV, but it did raise some interesting questions for me, in that this ideal hospital sounds much nicer than the real world, so I’m not sure how well it would equip people to deal with the demands of the outside world.  I think it’s a tricky balance to strike, between giving people a calm, safe, and caring environment, but also an environment that will help them integrate successfully back into mainstream society, which can be a scary place for all of us (certainly us introverts anyway).

I wasn’t overly impressed with the exhibit as a whole, as most of the artefacts just seemed to be old books open to title pages or not particularly interesting-looking passages.  There were a few tablets laying out, but to be honest, I’m far less likely to pick up some random tablet that has been slung on a table seemingly as an afterthought than I am to engage with a normal interactive touchscreen that’s more clearly part of a display, so they didn’t really enhance the interactivity for me. The best part was definitely the art produced by psychiatric patients, which was poignant and insightful, but Bethlem Museum of the Mind had way more of that sort of thing, and I still didn’t think that museum was terribly good, so the same goes for the Wellcome. A rare dud. 3/5.

wellcome1“Making Nature: How we see Animals” is another temporary exhibit at the Wellcome that happened to open on the day of my visit. This is located in the smaller exhibition space on the first floor, so it was only two rooms. However, it did contain some interesting stuff, most notably information on the building of the Natural History Museum (designed by Richard Owen, the pioneering, yet controversial 19th century paleontologist and zoologist), where I learned that until the 1920s, the design included a statue of Adam that was meant to show man’s dominion over the animal kingdom (not surprising because Richard Owen seemed to be quite religious); as well as information about the creation of the hilarious Crystal Palace dinosaurs (again, designed by Richard Owen. In many cases, the dinosaurs look a bit off because Owen was simply going off the best theories available at the time, which have since been proven wrong (although apparently even he thought the Iguanodon looked a bit ridiculous), but that’s part of what makes them such a delight. Crystal Palace is a bitch to get to, but perhaps I should go back one of these days so I can blog about it!). Because the exhibit was largely about how nature is portrayed in museums, there was a bit of taxidermy: a delightful tableau from 1876 showing fox cubs at play, and even better, one of the elusive pieces from Walter Potter’s museum, with anthropomorphic squirrels playing cards. I’m still angry at myself for missing the Potter Museum auction (even though I doubt I could have afforded anything anyway), so I’m always delighted to see his pieces pop up somewhere.

Also on the first floor, hiding in the corner next to the nifty spiral staircase, was a “Spirit Booth” meant to capture your “psychic transparency,” whatever the hell that is. Basically, it was a free photo booth that would insert a sort-of ghost in your photo, so I was all for it. Mine ended up with a skeleton “spirit” which is so me; the only bad part is that my photograph will now apparently appear online (update: just found it, so you can see it for yourself), and let me tell you, there was some unfortunate lighting in that booth. Oh well, I guess the skeleton makes up for it…? But yeah, if you go to the Wellcome in the near future (“Making Nature” runs until May), definitely go up to the first floor to check out the exhibit and get your photo taken, since to be honest, I enjoyed that part of the museum more than “Bedlam.”