London: “The Joy of Bees” and “Through a Glass Darkly”

dsc07797This week, I wanted to tell you guys about two events I recently attended (despite always feeling kind of bad for reporting on events that were a one-off, because what’s the point if no one else can go?! Oh well), and given that it’s October, I couldn’t resist opening the post with a creepy blurry picture of Brompton Cemetery at night, even though I’m going to talk about the Joy of Bees first.

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So, the Joy of Bees.  I’ve attended a few of Bompas and Parr’s events over the years, with mixed results (I blogged about “Sensed Presence” a couple years ago), and at some point ended up on their mailing list, which means that if they mention anything interesting, I’m more inclined to go than I perhaps otherwise would be (especially because hearing about it before the general public means I’ve actually got a shot at booking tickets to most things).  I like bees, I like honey, and their description of the event, though pretentious (“an experiential art installation and gastronomic tasting of some of the rarest honeys in the world”), was nonetheless sufficiently intriguing for me to book tickets, despite the hefty £9 price tag.

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Knowing what I now know, I wish I’d kept that £9 and just bought a couple jars of nice honey.  I think the best way I can review this is by going through their descriptions of each level of the townhouse (it was in some random narrow building (maybe a former brothel?) in Soho), so you can see that although I can’t technically accuse them of lying, the grandiose promises didn’t quite match up to what was delivered.  First up, the “Observation Colony, containing 20,000 live bees” (seen in the picture on the left, above).  I didn’t count them, but I do believe that it contained that many bees.  The problem is that 20,000 bees don’t actually take up all that much room, so it wasn’t any more impressive than the bee display at the Geauga County Fair, and the Geauga County fair does free honey tastings free of pompous trappings.

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The 1st Floor contained “Hive Mind, an exposition of cultural contributions from artists for whom bees, hives, honey, and the visual language of beekeeping have provided a source of information.”  I don’t know about you, but when I hear the word “exposition,” I think of it as being more than three things.  Because that’s how many pieces of “art” were there.  3.  You’ve already seen two of them (the log looking things and the vase thing) and the other was much the same, just another thing made of honeycomb.  When I heard “honeycomb inspired modern art,” for some reason I was picturing maybe like a giant honeycombed hive you could walk through or something, not some unremarkable little vase in a glass case.  Anyway, this was lame, and the resident beekeeper who was allegedly on hand to answer questions was none too friendly either.

The 2nd Floor, shown on the left above (I’m running out of pictures here because there wasn’t much worth photographing), was “Pollenesia, a botanical paradise where you’ll meet the enigmatic, steely and magnificent Mellifera, Queen of Honey.”  Mellifera was quite clearly an aspiring actress who didn’t seem particularly interested in “bee-ing” there.  Her whole shtick consisted of asking us to smell the wildflowers and then do a shot of malic acid, which was meant to cleanse our palates for the honey tasting.  And man, that was not what I’d call a “botanical paradise.”  When I think of botanical paradise, I think of something like the inside of the big greenhouses in Kew, where you’re actually surrounded by plants.  Not some clumps of dirt on the floor with wildflowers stuck in them (and rather hilariously, the wildflowers were arranged in exactly the way the honey tasting ladies told us not to plant them; i.e. you should plant flowers of one type all together, so bees don’t have to exert themselves too much gathering pollen.  These were all mixed together).

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Finally, there was the honey tasting itself, or should I say the “Salon of Honey, a honeycombed haven where you’ll be guided through a taste of some of the rarest honeys in the world.”  This was by far the best part of the installation, because it’s hard to go wrong with tasting honey, though I was annoyed that they had a map posted everywhere showing the “29 honeys featured at the Joy of Bees,” yet we only tasted 5 honeys.  I realise it wouldn’t have been practical to taste THAT many honeys, but why advertise them then?  Because of that map, I’m not sure which honeys we actually tasted, as there was nothing to distinguish the tasting honeys from the 24 other featured honeys, and many of them were from the same countries as the ones we tasted.  But the honey was delicious, no complaints there, and I actually quite liked the apple chunks soaked in super-tart malic acid that we were given to cleanse our palates.  I also enjoyed the honey mocktail we were given afterwards, and the bonus honey on bread.  But really, none of it was worth £9.  I’m not much of a drinker, but if they would have dumped some booze in that “mocktail” at least I would have felt like I was getting my money’s worth.  The other main complaint, in addition to the general vibe of half-assedness that pervaded, was that the whole thing was sponsored by some hotel chain I’d never heard of, and the honey came from their hives, as we kept being reminded, to the extent that the whole thing felt like a big advert that they should have been paying us to listen to.  Very disappointing overall, and I think it’s going to be a long time before I risk another Bompas and Parr event, unless it’s something free.

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However, all was not lost, because later that evening we attended “Through a Glass Darkly” at Brompton Cemetery, part of London Month of the Dead. London Month of the Dead offer some of the few non-clubbing related Halloween events in London, and for this I am grateful.  It was £12 (and did come with an actual cocktail, although I didn’t drink it due to an unfortunate incident at a different Month of the Dead event last year where I desperately had to pee for the entire lecture after having the cocktail, and then had to frantically run to the men’s room at the back of the chapel, because the women’s toilet wasn’t unlocked), which I didn’t object that much to paying because it was a Halloween event (the things I’ll do for my favourite holiday), and also a chance to enter an awesome Victorian cemetery at night (and because some of the ticket price went to cemetery upkeep, of course).

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Anyway, after a bit of waiting around in the cold for someone to open the gates (I think every goth in town was there, and we all know I’m a goth at heart…), we all headed up to the chapel, which is a fair walk up the path between the graves, and the cemetery was good and dark, though the chapel was atmospherically illuminated with candlelight.  I realise I still haven’t explained what the event actually was (if you didn’t click the link and find out); it was advertised as a phantasmagoria, in other words, a creepy magic lantern show.  Ever since reading about a similar event held in a cemetery in Paris in the 19th century, I’ve been dying (not literally, though I guess it’s a pun) to attend one, so I couldn’t believe my luck when I saw this event on the Month of the Dead website.  Hence the need to snap up tickets.  It turned out to not exactly be a straightforward phantasmagoria, but it was so good that I didn’t mind.  What actually happened was that Professor Mervyn Heard, operator of the gloriously steampunk-looking magic lantern (it ran on electricity, but apparently they were originally powered by a volatile mix of gasses that blew up and killed several magic lantern operators), gave us a history of magic lantern shows, accompanied by some of his favourite slides, many of which were gothic in nature, although he provided amusing sound effects (he did comedy accents and everything), so not really scary.  There were a few ghost stories thrown in, and Professor Heard was extremely engaging, and infectiously passionate about magic lanterns (to the extent that I kind of want one of my own).  He was also very knowledgeable, which was nice after recently attending a couple of lectures where the speakers didn’t really seem to know their subject matter.

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My only problems with the event were that the people behind us talked through the whole damn thing (not Month of the Dead’s fault), and that it was hard to see the screen from where we were sitting because of all the heads in front of me (I had to lean to the side and got a crick in my neck), but I’m not really sure what could be done about that, other to let fewer people in, but then I might not have gotten to attend at all, and I would have rather had a sore neck than not seen it.  Professor Heard was fantastic; surprisingly funny, and he had an excellent collection of slides.  The second best part of the evening came when we left the cemetery; as the gates had been re-locked during the show, we had to all exit together so they could let us out.  After impatiently waiting for everyone to leave, we were rewarded when one of the event organisers strapped on a wind-up gramophone, and led us out of the cemetery whilst cranking out spooky music (I’ve got a video up on my Instagram, if you want to hear it).  It was hilarious, and the perfect end to the evening.  London Month of the Dead have got a few more events this month, though I think most of them are sold out (and I’d avoid the one about the architecture of cemeteries; we went last year and it was pretty lame), but I’d definitely recommend the magic lantern show if they do it again next year!  It even made up for the disappointment that was the Joy of Bees!



London: Keats House

DSC07487Do you remember that post from a couple of years ago where I went to the Keats-Shelley House in Rome?  Well, I suppose it was about damn time that I finally got around to visiting Keats House in London (though frankly, if it wasn’t for the nightmare that is the Italian immigration “queue,” it almost seems like less hassle to get to Rome than to Hampstead from where I live.  Plus Rome has better pizza).  (As you can probably tell from my attire, I’ve been hanging on to this post for a while…pretty sure my arms would fall off if I tried walking around outside in a tank top now.)

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Perhaps unsurprisingly, this visit was not spurred on by a sudden interest in Keats, or in going to Hampstead, but by the fact that Keats House is a National Art Pass property, so I could get in for free. Keats House is normally £6.50 though, which is more expensive than its 5 euro counterpart in Rome, even with the current lamentable exchange rate.  It is most easily accessed from Hampstead Heath Overground Station, though it’s quite easy to miss the little sign directing you to turn down the road it’s on if you don’t really know where you’re going.

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Although we were given a map of the house that told us what order to walk around in, I didn’t actually open the map until we were down in the basement watching the video on Keats’s life, so I had already screwed things up by not immediately looking around the ground floor.  I don’t think it really mattered that much though, especially as the video provided more background information on John Keats’s life than was available in the rest of the house, so it was quite useful to watch it first.  The basement also held the house’s kitchen, and a few little interactive things, like a dress-up box (hello tricorn hat!) and a station where you could draw a picture of a food you loved or hated and write a little poem.  I did one on how much I hate mayonnaise, but it was a poor effort mostly stolen from the excellent “Please No Mayonnaise” song from Shooting Stars, so I won’t show it to you.

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And so back to the ground floor.  The whole deal with Keats and this house is that before the tuberculosis and the fame, Keats was a young surgeon training at Guy’s Hospital, near London Bridge, who had a passion for poetry. There was a community of fellow poets living in Hampstead at that time (we’re talking Regency here) who Keats befriended, and they encouraged him in his writing.  He eventually realised he didn’t have time for both surgery and poetry, so gave up his surgical career to move to Hampstead with his brothers and pursue poetry full time.  Unfortunately, his older brother decided to move to America, and his younger brother died of TB soon after, so with nowhere better to go, Keats moved into this house (Wentworth Place) with his friend, Charles Brown, and the Dilke family, who were already living there, meaning Keats only had a study and a bedroom to himself.  The Brawne family later moved into the other side of the house, which is how  Keats met and fell in love with Fanny Brawne, and they got engaged.  However, Keats had by then begun to manifest serious symptoms of the tuberculosis that had killed his mother and brother, so only ended up living in the house for about 18 months before moving to Italy in hope that the climate there would help his condition.  It didn’t, and he died shortly after arriving, in the house that is now the Keats-Shelley Museum that I blogged about in 2014.

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Anyway, that’s the quick(ish) version of Keats’s relationship with Hampstead, and the study that he rented is on the ground floor, where you can still see it today (and replicate Keats’s pose in this portrait), though I don’t think most of the furniture is original to the house.  There were only labels on a few things in each room, and no binder full of additional information like you’ll find in other historic homes, so there wasn’t a lot to go on.  I did think the label on the couch was quite sad though…I can picture Keats just wasting away (in between violent coughing fits) whilst gazing upon his lady love in the garden (though I guess it would be creepy if his feelings weren’t reciprocated).

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There’s a “Shakespeare Trail” currently in the house to commemorate 400 years since Shakespeare’s death, which mainly just consisted of an additional insert in the map they gave us, and copies of Shakespeare’s plays with little labels saying how much Keats loved them (the whole Shakespeare thing seemed a bit forced, to be honest), but there was also this rather hideous inkwell featuring the Bard that apparently belonged to Keats’s older brother.  I tend to like gaudy things, but that inkwell was a bit much, even for me.

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The house seemed to be a mix of rooms decorated roughly as they would have been when Keats lived there (I suppose so anyway, like I said, there wasn’t much explanation of anything) and museum style cases holding artefacts relating to Keats’s life.  There were an inordinate amount of life and death masks in here. Honestly, it looked like the guy must have spent half his short life with his head encased in plaster (which probably didn’t help with the TB either; I can’t imagine plaster dust is great for the lungs).  There was even a case with Keats’s life and death masks side by side, and you had to guess which was which (they never actually told you, but I’d seen the death mask in Rome, so I had a pretty good idea).

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Upstairs, there was a small gallery about a walking trip from the Lakes District to Scotland that Keats took with his friend Charles Brown, and Brown reckoned they’d walked over 600 miles, which is damned impressive for someone in the early stages of TB.  I mean, I’m healthy, and there is no way I would walk that much in a summer without an epic amount of complaining, and probably my hips and my knees aching (seriously, I never thought I’d have this many aches and pains in my early 30s.  Aging sucks).  There was also a sketch made of Keats in Rome by his friend Joseph Severn, who accompanied him on that last, ill-fated trip…I sort of alluded to this in the other Keats post, but he looks damn fine in that sketch.  Far better than he did when he was healthy (first Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday in Tombstone, now consumptive Keats…I think I have a problem).

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Another room held items relating to Fanny Brawne, Keats’s fiancee.  There was a photograph of her when she was in her early 50s, and she was a very nice looking woman, not to mention well-preserved!  She could have easily passed for someone in their 30s.  There was also her engagement ring, which I actually quite liked (Laura Ingalls Wilder also had a garnet engagement ring, so maybe I just like garnet in a historical context.  Personally though, I’m not a big red person), and a pretty cool dress with no label on it at all (a re-creation of one of Fanny’s dresses?  Just a random Keats-themed dress?  No idea).

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Aside from Keats’s bedroom, which was on the first floor (climbing those stairs must have been a real effort after he got sick) and was where he coughed up the arterial blood after a coach trip that made him realise he was dying (thanks to his experience with TB and his training as a surgeon, he was under no illusions about his condition), that was more or less it for the house.  Though I enjoyed the dress-up and colouring opportunities (yes, I know they were probably aimed at children, but none were there), I think the rest of the house could have been improved with more information about Keats.  There was a fair amount about his poetry, and plenty of chances to read or listen to his poems at audio stations set up at several points throughout the house, but I still feel there could have been more details provided about the furniture and Keats’s life, short though it was.  So I’ll give it 3/5, because I don’t think it was anywhere near as informative, or as good of a value as the Keats-Shelley House in Rome.  Of course, if I was escaping into the house from crowded, hot, touristy Rome, instead of quiet, shady Hampstead, perhaps I would have liked it better.





Open House London 2016, Or; Endless Queues and the Perils of not Pre-Booking

img_20160917_152106444_hdrNow that Open House London has come and gone, it’s time for my yearly reflections/rant on the weekend. Or, if you’re not in the mood for relentless negativity, skip to the end of the post where I talk about Kilmorey Mausoleum.

I am neither stupid nor optimistic, so I can’t really explain why a part of me continues to get excited about Open House London every year.  I’ve experienced this event enough times to know precisely what it entails (and if you’re a long-time reader, probably so do you, because I repeat the same thing every year, but bear with me!).  Firstly, “Open House” isn’t exactly open.  About half the properties (and nearly all the really cool ones, or so it would seem) require pre-booking.  Which would be fine if there weren’t 8 million other people in London who always seem to manage to book before you do, even though you tried to make your bookings over a month before Open House.  By the time I remembered to look at the Open House website (in early August, mind, for mid-September), the only building I had even the vaguest interest in seeing that was still taking bookings was the London Library, so I hastily snagged a pair of tickets to that, but everything else we visited would have to accept visitors on the day. Which brings me to the problem of queues.

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To reiterate, London is a city of something like 8.6 million people, and to quote E.L. Konigsburg (who was talking about New York, but it also applies to London), if you’re thinking of doing something in London, “you can be certain that at least two thousand other people have the same thought.  And of the two thousand who do, about one thousand will be standing in line waiting to do it.”  Open House London is no exception to this rule.  I opened the post with a picture of a queue in central London, and you might think, “well, duh, of course there are loads of people in central London.”  But even well outside the centre, things were busy.  The first place we attempted to visit was the Southwark Integrated Waste Management Plant.  Yep, a dump.  And a dump kind of in the middle of nowhere at that (or as middle of nowhere as it gets in Zone 2 anyway, i.e. an industrial estate).  We arrived around noon and waited in a massive queue for a while, until word reached us that the tours were fully booked up until 4.  As we were due to tour the London Library at 2 (and there was no way I was coming back to Peckham after; it’s a bitch to get to!), we couldn’t do the tour, so now I guess I’ll never know how waste is turned into energy.

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So, we made our way up to Piccadilly (ish) to do the London Library tour, which was lovely, even though it made me saltier than ever that I’ll probably never be able to afford their £500-a-year subscription and have access to their amazing shelves full of one million delightfully musty-smelling books and absolutely pristine old newspapers (seriously, I don’t understand how they keep them so nice.  We have a bunch of old newspapers at the library where I volunteer, and even the ones from the 1970s are all crumbling and horrible, so I don’t understand how ones from 100 years ago were like new at the London Library.  I guess that’s what your £500 pays for).

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After our tour, I did sort of want to just wander around Westminster and see what other buildings were open, but of course the pre-booking/queues put a stop to that (I fully admit that a lot of my problems could be solved if I wasn’t so damn impatient, but that’s not going to change any time soon).  So we went to the Banqueting House, which could accommodate enough people at a time so that there was no queue.  Banqueting House is normally open to the public, but you have to pay when it’s not Open Weekend, which is why I had never been.  It was Charles I’s favourite palace (and, rather cruelly, where he was executed), and was where Inigo Jones put on his famous masques.  Only part of the palace survives, including the fabulous ceiling upstairs, but man, I was glad I did not pay £6 to visit it, because the whole palace nowadays consists of two halls that take all of ten minutes to see (nice toilets though!).  So I suppose that is one good thing about Open House London, but only for those properties where you don’t have to queue for an hour just to get inside.

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Our last stop on Saturday was the “Roman” Bath on the Strand, which is not Roman at all, nor was it initially a bath.  It was only built in the 1600s, and actually fed a grotto inside the old Somerset House and was eventually turned into a small bathhouse that Dahl’s Chickens, I mean Charles Dickens, wrote about in David Copperfield.  The annoying thing about the bath (well, really more about King’s) is that it is basically part of King’s College London’s campus; I got my Master’s at King’s, in Early Modern History (yeah, the exact period the bath was built), and not one person at the university thought to mention to me that this bath was located there.  So this was my first time seeing it, and it was neat, but again, I’m glad we only waited for about two minutes, because you are just looking at a stagnant pool of water with Dutch style tiles.

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Now, as for Sunday…I actually have something positive to say!  This was the first year that I was able to volunteer for Open House weekend, as I wasn’t sure if I would be in London on the last one, and prior to that, I had attempted to volunteer, only to be told I wasn’t needed at the last minute (grrr).  However, this year I successfully volunteered at the Kilmorey Mausoleum.  I picked it because I love cemeteries and tombs and all things gothy, and also because I had always wanted to see it but could never be bothered to make the trip to St. Margaret’s (across the river from Richmond), so I knew that if I volunteered there, I would have no choice but to trek out.

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The mausoleum is only open to the public on Open House Weekend (although this year, they are trying to open it on a few other days; December 11 is the next one), and it is freakin’ awesome.  It is hidden behind a wall with a low door in the middle; you cautiously creak it open to find yourself in the middle of a picturesquely overgrown (though not too overgrown, I hasten to add, having met the gardener) quiet garden, with a big ol’ tomb plunked down in the middle.  The 2nd Earl of Kilmorey was one of those fantastic Victorian eccentrics with more money than sense, and when he realised that his mistress Priscilla was dying from a heart condition (she was his ward, and he ran off with her when she was 20 and he was in his late 50s, ick), he commissioned a tomb for her in a fashionable Ancient Egyptian style, which cost £30,000 (and that’s in 1850s money).  It was originally in Brompton Cemetery, but he had it moved to his house in Chertsey, and then finally to this garden in St. Margaret’s, which was connected to his nearby house by a secret tunnel (sometimes the Earl would dress up in a shroud and sit in a coffin, and have his servants push him down the tunnel).  It has lots of pseudo-Egyptian symbols on the outside, and the inside has their crumbling coffins just sitting there; a carving of dead Priscilla being mourned by the Earl and their son, and these awesome yellow star-shaped skylights that shine bright to illuminate the tomb even even when the door is closed.  It is seriously the coolest mausoleum I’ve ever seen, and the volunteer giving the tours did a great job of making them both creepy AND full of salacious detail (I only had to count visitors and hand out leaflets, so I had plenty of time to talk to my fellow volunteers and learn more about the tomb.  And the Earl’s great-grandson, who lives in Australia, made a surprise visit, so that was pretty cool too!).

So you can see that my Open House Weekend was a very mixed bag (is the expression mixed bag referring to pick’n’mix sweets?  I feel like it should be, if it’s not. Let’s say there were some delicious strawberry fruit gums and soor plooms, and lots and lots of disgusting blackcurrant pastilles and horrible licorice allsorts).  Part of me feels bad for complaining every year about a free event, but a bigger part of me is angry enough about it to complain away, guilt-free.  Sure, I could just not attend, but then I’d risk missing out on a gem like the Kilmorey Mausoleum.  Properties like Kilmorey are the whole reason why I do still look forward to Open House weekend, despite its many flaws.  But central London on Open Weekend is just a mess, and I’m not even sure what could be done about it, except maybe to stop so many places from only taking pre-bookings, and perhaps institute a system everywhere else where you can show up, collect a ticket for a scheduled time, and come back later without queuing (I just really really hate queuing.  It’s the American in me).  Anyway, thus ends my annual rant, but I would definitely urge you to visit Kilmorey Mausoleum if you can on one of their open days, because there were no queues there, and it is rad.



London: House of Illustration

house of illustrationI wanted to blog about Open House London this week while it was still a relatively recent occurrence, but that post needs more editing than I’m in the mood to do today (I’ve been getting a lot of eye strain lately, might be time to get my eyes checked!) so it’ll have to wait for another week or two.  Instead, here’s one on the House of Illustration that I wrote a while ago (as you can probably tell, given that all the exhibits I talk about ended weeks ago). The House of Illustration is a fairly new museum (opened in 2014), and as far as I can tell, not terribly well publicised (the first I’d heard of it was when I was looking through the National Art Fund pass holders book for stuff to do around London).  It’s part of the whole King’s Cross regeneration deal (I don’t think I’d ever been in Granary Square before the regeneration, probably due to the reason why it needed to be “regenerated” in the first place, but it does seem pretty nice now), and was founded in part by Quentin Blake (illustrator extraordinaire, most memorably for many of Roald Dahl’s books).

Admission is normally £7; we only went because the National Art Pass got us half-price entry (and we hadn’t used the membership in a while, what with going to New Zealand and all). The House of Illustration did sort of seem like a work still-in-progress, as the Quentin Blake gallery had only just opened a few months ago, so they might be planning to add more to it, but as it stands now, there are two main galleries, with an extra little exhibition room off one of the galleries (the admission fee includes both galleries, which is not how it looks on their rather confusing website).  Oh, and they don’t allow photographs, so you’ll just have to use your imagination, which is frankly a bit crap when we’re talking about a “house of illustration” (that’s why I’ve inserted links to the illustrations I could find online. I know it’s a bit of a pain to click them, but I wasn’t sure of their copyright statuses, so I didn’t want to just copy them into the post).

I got the impression that all the exhibits here are temporary exhibits, but the main (largest) one on at the time of our visit (some months ago now, sorry, I was trying to finish up with Australia first) was “A New Childhood: Picture Books from Soviet Russia” which was on until September 11.  I was intrigued by this, because as you all know, I quite like Soviet art.  Basically, when Russia first became the Soviet Union, there was a brief flourishing of creativity in the world of children’s books.  Fairy tales were out, but animals were still acceptable, as were stories about everyday Soviet life, and some wonderful things were produced, including, for the first time in Russia, many Jewish children’s books, some illustrated by big name modernist artists like Marc Chagall, and a Soviet version of Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories.  However, this period only lasted from the 1920s to the early 1930s, when Stalin cracked down on creativity; from then on, books could only be about boring state-approved topics, like methods of production, Soviet workers, and the might of the Soviet empire.  Snooze central.

However, I really loved some of the books from the heyday of Soviet art; there were lots of farm animals (I really like chickens, I don’t know why.  Actually, scratch that: I think it’s because of the Feather Town books I owned as a child.  I loved Fran and Emma!) and for some reason, elephants, and even a story about a family of fleas, including a grandma flea clad in a babushka, which was kind of adorable.  They had a few English translation copies of picture books set out at the end of the exhibit that you could look through, and I especially took to Samuil Marshak and Vladimir Lebedev’s Ice Cream, which appeared to use a “fat man” eating ice cream as a stand-in for capitalist pigs; he ate all the ice cream that an ice cream cart was selling, so no one else could have any, but at the end, he began turning blue from eating so much ice cream, and eventually exploded, a la Mr. Creosote, only instead of spewing out partially masticated food over disgusted restaurant patrons, he magically turned into snow that covered the streets, much to the delight of children (personally, I would think they’d be pissed, as not only would they not get any ice cream, they now had to have snow during Russia’s brief summer, but it was still a great, and charmingly illustrated story).

The other main gallery is the Quentin Blake wing, which, true to its name, is all about Quentin Blake.  When we visited, it housed both “7 Kinds of Magic,” which included drawings from 7 children’s books about magic that Blake has illustrated (including The Witches, delightful!), and, in the larger room, “The BFG in Pictures,” which included some never-before-seen BFG art (I assume this is in response to that absolutely dreadful looking new movie.  Please stop ruining my favourite children’s books by making horrible movies out of them!).  I absolutely love Quentin Blake’s drawings, and in particular the BFG, who reminds me very much of my grandpa (must be the big ears…I tear up every time I read The BFG), though I suppose that wouldn’t have been the case if they’d gone with the original cruder illustrations, where the BFG wasn’t quite as gaunt and wrinkly.  But yes, I loved seeing new and different illustrations that didn’t make it into the books, and it was also a delight to look at the colour version of pictures that did (the scene where the BFG dines at Buckingham Palace is one of my favourites!).  I mean, I can’t complain about a bunch of Quentin Blake art.

But that’s not going to stop me from complaining about the museum as a whole!  I think £7 is extremely steep for the size of this museum, and was very glad we only paid half price.  Just thinking of all the museums you can see for free in London, it seems ridiculous to have to pay that much for something this small and rather out of the way of the rest of London’s tourist destinations, so I’d be interested to see how many visitors this museum gets.  I also wasn’t super keen about the no photography rule (maybe for copyright reasons, because otherwise it didn’t make sense?), and the fact that you had to keep your ticket handy (which was just a receipt) because the set-up of the museum means that galleries are through separate doors, both off the gift shop, and someone checks your ticket inside each of them (there must be a better way of doing things that doesn’t require every visitor to frantically dig round their pockets when entering).  That said, the gift shop had a rather excellent little collection of postcards and greeting cards that I probably spent too long looking at, and I did really enjoy the exhibits that the museum had, I just think there wasn’t quite enough of them to justify the admission fee.  So I’ll give it 3/5; most enjoyable content, particularly for Quentin Blake fans, but downgraded for price, size of museum, and rather odd layout.

London: Museum of Richmond

img_20160909_142253054There’s a very good reason why I had to drag all those New Zealand and Australia posts out for what probably seemed an interminable length of time.  In the nearly four months I’ve been back home, I’ve only gone to three museums, which is a remarkably low number for someone who blogs at least once a week.  Part of it was burn out from travelling, but mostly it was because we sold our car to help finance the trip, which means I can no longer easily get to destinations outside London, and except for special exhibitions (which cost money that I don’t really have) I feel I’ve exhausted most of what London has to offer.  Which leads me to the Museum of Richmond.

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Now, I have nothing against local museums, but sometimes it feels like when you’ve seen one local museum, you’ve seen ’em all.  Obviously that isn’t true, because many of them contain hidden treasures, as I’ve discussed in many, many past posts, but it’s hard to muster up the same kind of enthusiasm for a local museum as I would for say, a crime museum, or a medical museum.  Therefore, although I’ve been aware of the Museum of Richmond’s existence for a while, I wasn’t exactly chomping at the bit to get out there.  Actually, before visiting this museum, I don’t think I’d ever actually been in Richmond proper.  I’ve been to Kew Gardens and the National Archives a good few times, and I’ve (been) driven through the centre of Richmond en route to other places, but I’d never actually been to Richmond Station or walked up the high street.  And frankly, it’s so busy and full of traffic there that I’m not exactly in a hurry to go back, despite their surprisingly large Whole Foods (why doesn’t Wimbledon get a Whole Foods?  I want a Whole Foods!).  But enough filler, on to the museum!

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The museum is located on the second floor of the Old Town Hall, which meant it was quite hot and stuffy on the day of our visit (and, I suspect, much too cold in winter, in the way of poorly insulated British buildings. Says someone who lives in one).  Fortunately, it was free, and the volunteer at the desk was very friendly (some American guy happened to pass by as I was chatting with her, and commented that I “didn’t have an accent,” so I must be American, which led to all three of us discussing how many fewer regional American accents exist than British ones.  This conversation ran on for quite some time. And Richmond is apparently full of Americans.  Must be that Whole Foods).  At the time of our visit, there was a special exhibit on about Capability Brown (who I tend to refer to as “Bloody Stupid Johnson,” thanks to the late great Terry Pratchett), which consisted of a bunch of paintings of gardens he designed around Richmond.

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The permanent collections of the museum were fairly standard local museum fare (which I totally want to spell fayre in this context).  There were posters that gave the history of Richmond, which of course skipped neatly from Neolithic times to medieval, because clearly nothing in between was much worth talking about (I kid, I’m sure they mentioned the boring old Romans too), and from there led to Richmond Palace, which sounded awesome, but was destroyed by Oliver Hater-of-Fun Cromwell (or at least his followers.  I mean, I don’t think he personally wielded a smashing mallet or anything).  All that remains today is the gate, a few of the outbuildings, and a pair of awesome trumpeter statues; a replica of one of them is shown at the start of this post, because he was basically my favourite damn thing in the museum.

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Aside from that death’s head carving from Richmond Parish Church of course, because I am enough of a goth/punk to love me some skulls and bones.  In the way of all local museums, the Museum of Richmond had some cool knickknacks laying around the cases, but to get to them, you had to make your way through a veritable wall of text.  This was one wordy museum.  I mean, I’d rather have too much information than not enough, but there are limits to what even I will read through, and this museum was indeed taking me to the limit (and now I’ll have the Eagles stuck in my head all day, not that that’s a bad thing).

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But still, the artefacts.  Well, there was a model of Richmond Palace, and a couple of chunks of stained glass that were salvaged from it.  Other things that I thought were cool included some shoes found inside an 18th century house (put there for luck, and certainly better than the tradition of bricking up a live cat in the walls (and seriously, how would that bring luck?  All it does is make you some kind of psychopathic cat-torturer, and guarantee that if ghost cats are a thing, you’re going to have one running around your house.  Actually, I wouldn’t mind having a pet ghost cat, because I’m allergic to the real thing, but obviously it would have to be one that died of natural causes, because I’m not a psychopath)), a delightful Charlie Chaplin doll, and a really cool map that showed all the bombs that hit Richmond during the Blitz (not the map pictured below, I don’t seem to have a picture of the bomb map for some reason).

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It looked as though Richmond Park was bombed a shitload of times (I think some infantry were stationed there, but it was still a lot of bombings for a park). The museum had a lot of information on the history of Richmond Park (no surprises there, since they had A LOT of information on everything in the museum), which was quite interesting.  As I’m sure fellow Londoners know, Richmond Park is one of the Royal Parks, but it’s open to the public and a bunch of deer; however, that was not always the case (where the humans were concerned anyway; deer were always welcome for hunting purposes).  Charles I established it and decided to enclose it, which pissed everyone off, but he still allowed pedestrian access, so no one raised too much of a fuss.  However, in the mid-18th century, ownership passed to Princess Amelia, who was George II’s daughter.  She decided that only she and her friends would be allowed inside, and it was then that the local people took action.  A man called John Lewis (not affiliated with the department store, I don’t think) sued for pedestrian access to the park and won, becoming a local hero.  He is now commemorated on a small blue plaque inside the park, which I have never noticed, but Richmond Park is a big place, and I certainly haven’t walked the whole of it.

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In the end, the Museum of Richmond certainly wasn’t anything out of the ordinary as far as local museums go, but it was nice enough.  To be honest, the only reason I decided to trek out there in the first place was because I wanted to try an Icelandic soft serve place in Ravenscourt Park (will travel for soft serve, especially if you roll it in Daim chunks), and it only seemed logical to try to visit a museum along that arm of the District line at the same time, so Richmond it was (there is a real dearth of museums out Hammersmith way, or at least, everything that is out there was bizarrely closed for repairs this September), but the museum was decent enough that tubing all the way out there wasn’t quite the waste of time I’d imagined it would be.  I appreciated how nice the volunteer was, and the informativeness of the museum, but maybe they could have had some interactive things to break up all that text.  2.5/5.

Melbourne, Australia: Cooks’ Cottage

DSC07292And so this Antipodean Adventure at last comes to an end, with Cooks’ Cottage.  This is rather fitting because Cooks’ Cottage was built in England and shipped to Australia, so it’s a nice segue back to Britain.  Cooks’ Cottage is also, frankly, the most ridiculous attraction of the whole trip (a trip that included pancake rocks, Demolition World, a giant doughnut statue, a $59 Antarctic Centre, a steampunk themed art gallery, and a killer whale museum, so that’s really saying something).

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One of the reasons why Cooks’ Cottage is such a ludicrous tourist attraction is that Captain Cook never lived here.  The cottage was built in Great Ayton in Yorkshire in 1755, by Cook’s parents (which is why it is Cooks’ Cottage, rather than Cook’s Cottage).  Unfortunately, James Cook had left home ten years earlier at the age of 16, and never lived at home again, having joined the merchant navy after completing his schooling, followed by the Royal Navy.  I mean, he may have spent a night or two here during a visit, but it didn’t play any kind of important role in his life.  This didn’t stop the city of Melbourne from buying the cottage in 1934, and having it dissembled and shipped to this park, which rather hilariously makes it the oldest building in Australia (also, why Melbourne?  Cook never landed here.  It would have made more sense for Sydney to buy it, since he was along that coast).  The shitty thing about this (if Tony Horwitz is to be believed in Blue Latitudes) is that when a house that Cook actually DID live in was up for sale in the 1960s (the home in Wapping where he lived with his family during the brief stints when he wasn’t at sea), Melbourne, perhaps finally realising the bum deal they’d gotten with Cooks’ Cottage, declined to buy it, so it was demolished.  Though I guess that really reflects poorly on London for not valuing Cook more than the brewery that was built where the house once stood.

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Anyway, Cooks’ Cottage costs $6.20 to enter, which, whilst significantly cheaper than most Australian museums, I think anyone would agree is still a preposterous sum when they get a look at the cottage.  See those four pictures above?  Well, you’ve basically seen the entirety of the cottage.  It is all of two rooms (it used to be slightly bigger, but they had to chop it in half to accommodate a road, which just adds to the absurdity).  The only people visiting it were us, and a load of Chinese tourists.  But I had to do it, for Cook, and more importantly, for the statue of Cook outside that they cleverly placed behind the gates of the cottage so if you wanted a picture with it, you had to cough up the admission fee.

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No way was Cook that, er, sexily attired in real life, but I can roll with it (of course I felt up his thigh).  They also had a selection of Georgian-esque costumes you could dress up in; unfortunately, they were all being hogged by the other visitors, so I ended up with the dregs, hence my flood-skirt.

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There were also some Cook-related plants scattered around the garden, like scurvy grass and such, and a museum room at the back of the cottage (which we nearly missed) that talked about Cook’s voyages.  The cottage sort of lies by omission…it never explicitly states that Cook lived in the cottage, but it doesn’t mention that he didn’t, either.  I did, however, learn that Cook’s wife apparently moved to a house built on the site of Merton Priory for a little while after his death, which is interesting because I live not far from there, and it’s also quite near to where Nelson used to live with Emma Hamilton.

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So I think we can all agree that Cooks’ Cottage is quite lame, though the volunteers did try their best, and the only reason to see it is to snatch a picture with that well-endowed statue. 1/5. Fitzroy Gardens is also home to a random miniature Tudor Village (built by a Londoner, but meant to depict Stratford-upon-Avon, it was a gift from Lambeth because Melbourne sent food to Britain during WWII.  Because I’m sure a miniature Tudor village is just what they wanted) and a fairy tree, so there’s that too, as long as we’re seeing attractions that are faintly ridiculous.  Oh, and I’ve neglected to mention the ice cream in Australia (even though I ate some every day we were there), so I’ll tell you now that Gelato Messina was the best we had (handily, there are locations in Sydney and Australia, and their special flavours (which change weekly) are amazing).  And now I’ll leave you with what we wrote in the guest book at the cottage, because I’m really rather proud of my puns.


Melbourne, Australia: Old Melbourne Gaol

DSC07237(Warning: in case you couldn’t tell from the death mask right at the start, this post has a lot in it about hanging, and pictures of other death masks, so if you’re of a sensitive disposition, you might not want to read on.  Of course, if you’re a regular reader, you’re probably used to me and my macabre ways by now.)

There’s just something about museums that spell jail “gaol.”  They’re always a good time (though presumably not for the prisoners who were originally incarcerated in them), maybe because the “gaol” bit means they’re going to be old-timey.  Old Melbourne Gaol was of course no exception to this rule, despite it giving off the initial impression of being a huge tourist trap.  Fortunately, aside from the price, the Ned Kelly merch, and the slightly gimmicky Watch House “experience,” the gaol was a legitimate museum, with some decently informative displays.

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At $25, Melbourne Gaol is not cheap, not that you’d really expect something that bills itself as “Australia’s premiere award winning heritage attraction” to be (this phrase (and the price) is what made me initially think tourist trap).  And the admission fee does include the Police Watch House experience.  As one of these was set to begin about ten minutes after we got to the museum, we headed there first.

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We took a short walk down the street (there were signs) and queued up in front of the Watch House, feeling somewhat apprehensive as the brochure promised we would “experience a real life encounter of what it would feel like to be arrested and locked up,” and I was worried we were a) going to get yelled at and b) have to participate, both things I dread.  We were greeted by a police sergeant who ordered us to put away our phones and cameras and line up single file, with men along one wall, and women along another.  However, judging by the fact that small children were on the tour, I needn’t have been too worried; she did yell at us a bit, and made us show her our hands and bottoms of our shoes to make sure we weren’t concealing anything (museum visitors are spared a strip search), but it was obviously all done in a humorous way.  Only a few people were handed fake police reports and asked to give their “name” and offense; fortunately I wasn’t one of them, though Marcus was (poor guy, but I did laugh at his misfortune a bit), and then we were all herded into cells for a couple minutes before the “experience” part of the tour was over and we were free to wander around the jail, which only fell out of use in 1994.

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It’s probably worth going on the “experience” simply for the photo opportunities; they have a camera set up behind some bars to make it look like you’re in prison, and though you have to pay for those photos (I forgot to find out how much it was), you can take your own mug shots in front of the height chart for free.  I’m not sure why this is a good thing, but we were certainly all excited about it!  It was the 30th anniversary of the Russell Street Bombing this year, so there was a special exhibit about that in here; the story behind it is that some random criminals decided they wanted to kill as many police officers as possible (I guess in revenge?), so they planted a car bomb outside the Watch House which ripped through HQ and killed one policewoman and injured 22 others.  Three men were eventually convicted of the crime and sentenced to life imprisonment.

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After all this, we headed back to the main museum.  Melbourne Gaol looked grim (I mean, all prisons look grim, but this especially so), because it was built in the 1840s, which is right about when prison “reformers” were keen on the “separate system” famously used by Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia.  Prisoners spent their days in solitary confinement, and had to wear horrible constricting masks when leaving their cells so as not to have any contact with their fellow prisoners.  Prisoners who had committed minor offences, such as debtors, were allowed to stay in communal cells with other prisoners and go outside to work in the yards, but the solitary gang on the ground floor would have been driven to the brink of madness.

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As if life here wasn’t bad enough, the gaol also saw its fair share of hangings (133 to be exact), and all the cells in the ground floor were devoted to the stories of executed prisoners, each one containing an informative poster and a death mask.  The first people to be executed in Melbourne were two Aborigine men who were found guilty of murdering a couple of whalers; they were followed by a whole host of people, particularly during the Gold Rush, including several men from China and the Philippines who didn’t speak enough English to properly defend themselves.  There were also some people with obvious mental problems who never should have been executed (I mean, I’m opposed to capital punishment regardless, but there were clear miscarriages of justice here), as well as at least one man who was later proved to be innocent with the help of modern forensic techniques (Colin Ross, hanged in 1922, and posthumously pardoned in 2008, though a fat lot of good that’s done him).

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The middle floor carried on with the whole hanging theme, so we got to see the scaffold and read about some of the executioners who served at Melbourne Gaol throughout the years (they were often prisoners themselves, or shady looking characters at the very least).  The condemned cell was up here too, and also a few cells with dirty mattresses shoved in the corner so you could try out the whole prisoner experience for yourself.

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Though it is, of course, morbid, I found myself studying the snippets from A Handbook on Hanging (written after the long drop had been introduced; before that, you basically just strangled) to see how much of a drop it would have taken to kill me – I think it was something like 7.5 feet.  Of course, hangmen often miscalculated, so the victim was left either strangling like in the old days if the rope was too short, or they could be effectively decapitated if the rope was too long.

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The top floor contained the old whipping triangle, where they whipped male prisoners who misbehaved (again, the whipping was often done by fellow prisoners, or the executioner), and signage about women and children who were imprisoned here (some of the women were executed as well; many of them were “baby farmers” who killed the children left in their care).  This floor also had information about Melbourne Gaol during the war years….the gaol closed in 1924, but was reopened during WWII to house military prisoners, typically soldiers who had gone AWOL.  Their experiences were particularly unpleasant because most of them weren’t criminals, just soldiers who didn’t feel they’d been given enough leave for one reason or another (many of them were just desperate to visit their wives or mothers, and if their families lived on the other side of Australia, three days or even a week wasn’t enough time to get there and back in those days), yet here they were treated as prisoners; demoralised, kept in horrible conditions, etc, and many of them tried their best to block the experience from their minds, even years later.

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However, the most notorious prisoner to be housed and executed here was undoubtedly Ned Kelly, whose death mask is shown at the start of the post.  Ned Kelly is THE iconic Australian outlaw, and still apparently a folk hero to many, so there was a whole section of the ground floor devoted solely to him (we saw this last because there was a school group there when we first arrived).  It not only gave biographical information about his childhood and life up until the famous shootout at Glenrowan, but also contained artefacts from that final stand, even the gun he used during the shootout, with a chip in it where a shot from a policeman hit the butt and shattered Kelly’s little finger.  There is also a replica of his armour that you can try on, which I duly did (I don’t think it fit me properly, as it didn’t cover my chest, leaving my heart dangerously exposed. I’ve no doubt it fit Ned Kelly better), and a clip of a silent film from 1906 where the actor playing Kelly wore his actual armour (grainy footage, but very cool).

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Say what you will about the glorification of a criminal (though in fairness to Kelly, he did save another boy’s life when he was a kid.  It seems to be the death of his father in prison that set him on a bad course), but Ned Kelly also happened to be rather photogenic (with his quiff and big bushy beard, he kind of looks like the original hipster. Seriously, if you dropped him into Hackney or something, he would not look out of place), so much of the gift shop is devoted to Kelly memorabilia, and I confess I bought a t-shirt for my brother, and an apron for myself (it has a picture of Kelly and his last meal, which was apparently lamb, peas, and claret.  Not at all what I would choose).  So in that regard, I suppose it is quite touristy, but even with the hefty price tag, I still think the gaol was well worth the visit, as we managed to kill a couple of hours here, and I really enjoyed myself.  I love crime museums anyway, so getting to learn specific details about so many of the prisoners here was very interesting, and I suppose all the Ned Kelly stuff was just a bonus, since he is so famous in this part of the world.  I’ll give it 3.5/5.


Eden, NSW Australia: The Killer Whale Museum (and Wilsons Promontory)

DSC06619Even when I was a kid, I hated Sea World.  Not on grounds of animal cruelty, because I don’t think many children are particularly conscious of that, but because I didn’t really like killer whales (or dolphins, they’re smug, but that’s another story).  I’m not big on sea life in general I guess; it’s fine if it stays in the sea, where it belongs, but don’t be coming on land.  So the Killer Whale Museum wasn’t so appealing at first glance, until I learned it wasn’t really about killer whales so much as whaling.  You see, in Eden, the local whalers had a special relationship with the killer whales.  The whales would help herd right or sperm whales towards the shore, where they could be easily killed, and in return, the whalers would throw the killer whales the tongues of the right whales after the carcasses had been stripped of blubber and such.  Which is really pretty interesting, if a bit gruesome.

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We visited the Killer Whale Museum during a long day of driving when there wasn’t much else to see along the way, so we were glad of a chance to get out and stretch our legs for a bit, even though admission was $10.  The museum was on two floors, though only the top floor was really about whaling.  Without a doubt, the highlight of the collection was the skeleton of Old Tom, one of the whalers’ favourite whales.  Once, when a man was drowned crossing a river, and his body wasn’t immediately found, Old Tom went and swam next to the body, enabling the searchers to drag it onshore and bury it.  When Old Tom himself was dying, he swam up a river and died there, which is how they were able to collect his skeleton (he wasn’t killed or anything). He was just one of many orcas in the pod that assisted the whalers, and they were all given special names.  Orcas and whalers were downright cozy in Eden.

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I have to say, even though there was something a bit crap about this museum, it was still miles better than the one they’d put together at Butler Point, perhaps because someone in Eden appeared to have a sense of humour.  In addition to being full of the products made from whale parts, it also had a display on interesting whale-based “cures,” like the one shown above, for rheumatism, where holes were made in the side of a freshly killed whale, and sufferers (and they really would be suffering) were placed inside to bask in the whale’s remaining body heat until the carcass was considered sufficiently decomposed to let the patients out.  Amazingly, some people came back multiple times for this treatment, as they got so much benefit from it!  I can’t imagine.

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The museum also had its fair share of tall tales (though maybe some of them had some basis in fact), like the story of a real-life Jonah who was swallowed by a whale and found some time later in the whale’s stomach, after it had been killed.  His hair and skin had been bleached by the whale’s stomach acid, and he was almost blind, but he did eventually recover, though it took him some weeks (I vaguely recall reading this story elsewhere, which still doesn’t make it true).  Little quirky stories like this, and the charming, hand-painted signs gave the museum (at least the upper floor) the feeling of a less-commercialised Ripley’s Believe it or Not.

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Although this feeling subsided somewhat when we went into the movie room (which was ambitiously large), expecting to see a film about, well, whaling, only to be shown a weird tourism video for Eden (to be honest, it didn’t look like a particularly promising town) that went on for ages, so eventually we gave up and left.

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The downstairs area was more like a typical local museum, with some history of the area (illustrated in part by that frightening mannequin), both Aboriginal (I most enjoyed learning about mythical monsters, like bunyips and mindi) and European, and information about local industries other than whaling (which weren’t as interesting as whaling).  There was also a special gallery dedicated to local men who served in WWI, which was probably the most nicely-put together part of this downstairs area.  I really liked reading about the wartime experiences of some of the locals.

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There were also a few random things scattered about outside, like whale skulls and bits of boaty equipment, and a little lighthouse.  You weren’t allowed up the stairs of the lighthouse, but there was a small exhibit on the ground floor about lighthouse keepers that I found fascinating (mostly about the perils of living in such an isolated, weather-beaten environment, especially for men who brought their wives and children along) and wished it had a bit more information.

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Though I think some elements of the downstairs galleries could have used a bit of work to make them as interesting as the rest of it (there was just too much signage in the one room, and most of it was quite dull, about tools used in various industries), and $10 was probably a bit steep, I did genuinely enjoy the whaling galleries quite a bit more than those at the Whaling Museum at Butler Point, so I’ll give them 3/5 for that, although they need to sort out some of the other stuff, like that lame movie room.

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Because I don’t think it merits a whole post, but I wanted to share it with you, I’m going to talk about Wilsons Promontory a bit here as well.  It is the southernmost point of mainland Australia (and about a six hour drive from Eden…we went here the next day after lots more driving!) and had a variety of walks, but because we still had a lot of driving ahead of us (it is a LONG way from Sydney to Melbourne), we opted only to do the wildlife walk.  The problem with a wildlife walk in Australia is that many of the animals that live here are terrifying.  Case in point: emus.  I don’t know, I just don’t trust a bird that big.  Like, what are they up to that makes them have to be so big?  I’m not quite as scared of emus as I am of cassowaries (which fortunately don’t live anywhere near the parts of Australia we visited, though I did see a couple at the zoo), but I was still pretty freaked out to see a bunch of them just roaming around where we parked our car.  I definitely gave them plenty of space when heading to the trail.  However, it wasn’t just emus, or else I wouldn’t be telling you about it.  Nope, Wilsons Promontory also has kangaroos and wombats (and wallabies, though we didn’t see any).  The kangaroos were cute, and it was neat to see them in the wild (despite their stubborn refusal to actually hop about.  They were just doing a lazy walk where they put their front paws down and kind of dragged their legs behind them), but I was especially charmed by the wombats.  They are adorable fat little balls of fluff that waddle around and fart, and it was worth detouring here just to see them (we saw two different ones, I was pretty excited!), so I’d definitely recommend stopping here if you’re driving through Victoria!

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Kurnell, NSW Australia: Kamay Botany Bay National Park

DSC06568This isn’t the kind of thing I’d normally devote an entire post to, but I promised a while ago that there’d be more Captain Cook, and this is a pretty key Cook site. Botany Bay is where Cook first made landfall in Australia, and was thus the first point of contact between Europeans and Aborigines.  Unfortunately, the historical importance of the site wasn’t enough to stop the encroachment of the modern world, and whilst the landing site and a section of park around it have been preserved, the view from the bay is not so attractive, being mainly industrial plants belching smoke into the sky (it didn’t really look like water you’d want to swim in, even if there wasn’t the threat of jellyfish and/or sharks, this being Australia).

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Anyway, although you can just drive right into the park (after first navigating through quite a lot of ugly urban sprawl on the trip down from Sydney), you’re apparently meant to purchase a pass, which is $8 per car.  We did see the sign at the entrance warning us about the fee, but it wasn’t clear where we were meant to get the pass from.  There were also no signs by the visitor centre, so we just parked up and did the Cook walk.  It wasn’t until after we finished walking and used the toilets that we caught sight of a large sign (by the sinks!) warning of a $400 fine for non-payment, so we then hurriedly made our way inside the visitors’ centre and requested a pass from the rather unfriendly and bemused woman inside.  Moral of the story is: I don’t think they enforce the fine very well, but if you’re concerned, you can buy a pass from the visitors’ centre, and apparently from machines somewhere by the entrance, which aren’t very obvious, because we missed them entirely.

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The walk is self-guided, with the help of some arrows posted around the trail now and again; we followed the main trail, but apparently we should have been doing the wheelchair accessible trail, because we missed a whole bunch of stuff and had to backtrack to see it (unless we just followed the signs incorrectly, they did kind of peter out after a while).  I got the impression that the park was at one time way more Euro-centric, and they changed it within the last couple decades to embrace the Aborigines more, as some of the Aboriginal culture stuff felt kind of tacked-on, as though it were an afterthought.  There was a large stone structure at the start that told us more about first contact, and I guess was meant to represent the meeting of the two peoples, which was all well and good (though it did somewhat overstate what happened at the meeting.  It was definitely momentous, but the actual encounter was somewhat anticlimactic.  The Aborigines basically told the English to go away, and ignored them as best they could), but then we had to walk through an “Aborigine soundscape,” which was a little bizarre.  I kept hearing people talking, which creeped me out a little bit because we were quite obviously alone, but it turns out that was just the “soundscape.”

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But I was excited when the short walk (I think the whole trail was only 1.5 km) took us down to the bay, and I spied the giant Captain Cook memorial near the waterfront.  Just beyond it, on a rocky outcrop, is the actual landing place, though I get the feeling that they don’t really want people going out to it, because it’s not particularly accessible.  I only noticed it because it was marked on one of the maps – you have to climb up slippery rocks covered in sharp pointy oysters to get a look at it, and hop over about a two foot gap from one rock to the other, which I was not confident enough to do in jandals (and certainly not in bare feet, because of all those damn oysters), so I only walked up to the rock facing it, and my boyfriend hopped over and snagged a picture of the plaque for me.

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There’s also meant to be a buoy somewhere marking where the Endeavour was anchored whilst the men were onshore, but I didn’t see it.  Probably hidden amongst all those industrial plants.  The beach wasn’t great, but it was still pretty cool to stand right where Cook and his men (including that dishy Joseph Banks) did, and I enjoyed it, even though my feet stank like rotten clams for the rest of the day (they stink anyway, but it’s usually more of a Dorito-y smell).

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There was a pier where you could walk out over the bay, and this contained more information about first contact and the Aborigine tribes that lived in the area.  Until the mid-20th century, when it was made into a national park, it was a popular holiday spot for Aborigines, who would fish and gather the oysters that are clearly here in abundance.

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I was most excited about the Joseph Banks memorial, for obvious reasons, but it was something of a disappointment.  It must have been commissioned by a man, because he chose to use a portrait of Banks from when he was old and fat, rather than the dishy young Banks that would have come ashore here.  It also wasn’t built until the 1960s or something, so was clearly a bit of an afterthought as well.

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In addition to more signs about the native flora (including Banksia, named after, well, you know who) and fauna (both of which were in abundance, hence the name Botany Bay.  If Banks and Solander hadn’t had time to go ashore here and spend a few days gathering plants, it would probably today be known as “Tolerably Well-Sheltered Bay,” going by Cook’s initial diary entry on the place), there was also a grave marker erected to the first British person to die in Australia (one of Cook’s men, who had tuberculosis.  His name escapes me, and I can’t quite make it out in the photo) put up a century or two after his death (so the spot is presumably approximate).  Even though it was a beautiful day, we didn’t see anyone else there until we headed back up to the visitors’ centre, and we then came across two groups of schoolchildren playing some sort of game with the park rangers (I think this is the sort of place that every Australian schoolchild is required to visit, so I can understand why adults aren’t keen).

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Speaking of the visitors’ centre, there was a small museum-style display in there, including a scale replica of the Endeavour, and some information about Cook’s voyages and legacy. Botany Bay was meant to be the spot where the first transported convicts would be sent, as recommended by Joseph Banks (Cook was dead by this point) and others, but Cook and his men had been there during the autumn, when it appeared to have a pleasant climate, and plenty of natural resources.  The “First Fleet” arrived during summer, when there was a drought, and found there was no source of fresh water, and not enough of a harbour, so they moved a few miles up the coast to what would become Sydney instead.  If not for that, there would be a bustling city here today, instead of urban sprawl and a bit of parkland.

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My favourite part of the whole endeavour (see what I did there?) was the mural painted on the walls of the lecture theatre. I couldn’t help but sneak a cheeky selfie with their rendition of Banks, even though it wasn’t nearly as good as the portrait of him in the National Portrait Gallery.  All told, I enjoyed Botany Bay, but this was primarily because of the Cook connection rather than what was actually in the modern park (which could do with a bit of work; some of the plaques and stuff were so worn down, you could barely read them, and the visitor’s centre wasn’t great.  I wanted a Captain Cook t-shirt or something, and they didn’t even have postcards.  Not that I particularly wanted to buy them from the surly woman working there, but still…).  3/5, but only because of the history, rather than the National Parks’ lacklustre efforts.

Sydney, NSW: Justice and Police Museum

DSC06155Carrying on with the theme of, well, convicts, right after visiting the Hyde Park Barracks, we headed over to the Justice and Police Museum, which is just a short walk away (but be warned, you pass the Botanical Gardens on your walk, which are lovely, but full of what I call scare birds, because they’re so damn scary (they’re actually white ibis, but they look just like plague doctor masks brought to life, and freak me the hell out) and giant orb spiders.  The latter are not giant in the sense of huntsmen or something, but are still plenty big if you’re not keen on spiders).  For some reason, even though it’s not a tiny museum or anything, it’s only open on weekends, so plan accordingly.  Admission is $10, or if you’re visiting a couple of the Sydney Living Museums, you can buy that pass I mentioned in the last post and save a couple bucks.

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The museum is located, as these things so often are, in a former police station, with police courtrooms and a few jail cells at the back, so you can really get a taste of what it was like to be a criminal in Sydney (from the 1850s onward).  We were assured that the museum looped back around, so we could enter any way we wanted and see the whole museum; unfortunately, as I am wont to do, I ended up getting lost, so we had to awkwardly walk past the admissions desk again to see the last two rooms of the museum, but no big deal (except for when the chick at the admissions desk said goodbye to us, and I had to mumble, “We’re not leaving, we just went the wrong way.”).

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The first room we went into, one of the museum’s temporary exhibition rooms, featured an exhibit on mugshots.  Or more particularly, the very peculiar (and rather charming) mugshots that Sydney police stations specialised in.  A short video was playing when we walked in, so we had a seat and learned all about how Sydney refused to conform to the norm where early 20th century mugshots were concerned; instead of standing in front of the traditional height chart while holding up a sign with their name and other identifying information written on it, criminals were allowed to pose in their own clothes in front of various backdrops, pretty much however they wanted, and their names and details were written in later, on top the photographic plate.  We came in halfway through the video, so it was never really explained why they made this unusual “artistic” decision, but we did get to view many of these mugshots, with a wry narrator analysing the stance and expressions of the people in them (some of the people were surprisingly dapper, for, you know, hardened criminals).

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The second room contained biographies of some of the criminals in the mugshots we’d just looked at, including one poor girl who was basically turned into a drug smuggler by her mother (she had her mugshot taken in her ratty old fur coat, but was actually quite pretty, which probably helped get her a light sentence.  Plus the fact that she had a terrible mother didn’t hurt either).  Then, we were on to the old police courts, where up to 120 cases per day were heard while they were in use. The accused were made to sit in a caged area (that apparently they sometimes refused to leave, if the trial didn’t go their way. However, only minor offences were tried here, so the worst they would have been facing was a short spell in jail).  Though I of course posed for the obligatory cage picture (cage can be seen a  few paragraphs up, without me in it), I was most excited when I climbed up to the magistrate’s bench and found the chair pictured above.  In fact, I shouted, “it’s a hemorrhoid doughnut!” and started cackling, because I’m incredibly mature like that.  And then I sat on it, of course (still laughing hysterically, as you can probably tell from the other picture).

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I was, as usual, way more entertained by the confiscated weapons room than I should have been.  I mean, there were a lot of boring guns and such, but some of the more unusual weapons had terse labels explaining how they were used, and oh man, what kind of perseverance do you have to have to murder someone with a hammer?  I guess if you’re strong enough, you can probably smash someone’s skull in pretty quickly, but I imagine it’s more likely to be a case of multiple blows.  Brutal.

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There was a charge room, which was once the entrance to the police station, and had a small partitioned seat for women in the corner that was unfortunately located right across from the barred seat where they kept unruly drunks and other out-of-control criminals, which I’m sure resulted in an uncomfortable amount of ogling/heckling (the women would also have had to be slim, and only in there one at a time, because that seat was tiny).  We also went in some of the old cells that were still decked out to look as they would have in the 1890s; basically you got a hard bench that you had to share with up to 5 other people (up to 12 people could be kept in a cell at once).

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The other cells were full of exhibits, including one about Sydney police dogs (the taxidermied one shown here, and another who they trained to drive a small car, so she could perform at police benefits and such.  It was pretty adorable, but I still feel kind of bad for the dog), and another about bushrangers, who in the early days were simply convicts who slipped away into the outback to try to eke out a living there, but they became more like highwaymen or something, and preyed on travellers and legitimate settlers.  And presumably Aborigines too, but since they didn’t count as Australian citizens until 1967 (an appalling fact I learned at the museum), probably nobody cared if they were murdered.

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The most interesting room, as far as I was concerned, was the forensics room, which focused on a couple of high profile 20th century murder cases.  The first was the kidnapping and murder of Graeme Thorne in 1960.  Poor Graeme was an eight year old boy whose father had recently won the lottery, and he was initially kidnapped and held for ransom, but his kidnapper, Stephen Bradley, decided to kill him less than 24 hours after abducting him (it has been speculated that he initially meant to kidnap Graeme’s younger sister, as she was too young to identify him so she could have been safely released on payment on the ransom, but she was never away from her parents, so he had to kidnap Graeme instead, and then panicked when he realised the boy would be able to identify him.  Which is just dumb, because what the hell did he think he was going to happen if he abducted an eight year old without wearing a mask or anything?!).  One of the things that eventually led to Bradley’s arrest and successful prosecution was his very stupid looking dog, as seen above.  Hairs from the dog were found on the rug that Graeme’s body was wrapped in, and matched with Bradley’s actual dog (still alive at the time, obviously), which is why it has been so cunningly preserved here.  The other big case was the Pyjama Girl murder of 1934, where the body of a comely young woman wearing silk pajamas was found partially burnt on the side of a creek.  Although the case was initially unsolved, it was reopened ten years later; through dental records, the woman was determined to be Linda Agostini, and her husband eventually confessed to her murder (apparently there is still some controversy over this, because someone just wrote a book about it in 2004 claiming the body couldn’t have been Linda Agostini, as for one thing, her eyes were a different colour).  This captured a great deal of attention in its day, as not only was it a brutal murder, but the pajama girl was so young and stylish (in her pajamas) that it seemed especially horrific.

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The final rooms (the ones I had to go back past the entrance to see, after taking a wrong turn past the police court) contained temporary exhibits, including more in-depth biographies of interesting murderers (there was a female poisoner, which is my favourite kind of murderer to read about.  There’s usually an intriguing back story), complete with artefacts like death masks and weapons they actually used to commit their murders.  The final room had an exhibit on lockpickers and safecrackers, with a big safe plonked down in the middle of the room so you could learn more about their techniques.

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I always enjoy a crime museum, and this one was no exception (that’s why I chose it over the many, many other museums in Sydney we could have seen if we’d had the time.  I passed up a medical museum for this, people!).  I liked that it was housed in an actual police station, and the exhibitions were always interesting, and just the right amount of grisly to keep me satisfied. An all-around good effort.  3.5/5.