Brighton, East Sussex: Brighton Museum

DSC01928The Royal Pavilion shares the Pavilion Gardens with the Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, so it made sense to pop over there directly after visiting the Royal Pavilion, especially as it is another National Art Fund friendly property, so we got free entry (£5.20 otherwise, but it is free for Brighton and Hove residents with proof of address).  Although it may appear that the Brighton Museum was originally part of the Royal Pavilion (because of the similarity in architectural styles), it was actually purpose-built in the 1870s, presumably to match the Eastern-influenced appearance of the Pavilion.  I’ve been to the museum a few times over the years, so this was a slightly speedy visit where I basically just passed through to snap some photos (or point to things so my boyfriend takes a photo of them, as is usually the way) and make sure things were more or less as I remembered them.

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Like many local museums, the Brighton Museum is an eclectic mix of galleries, but it’s larger than your typical local museum, and pulls off the strange mix more skillfully than others, perhaps because it’s in keeping with the character of Brighton itself.  The museum opens with a hall of interior design, which features, among other things, a baseball mitt couch inspired by Joe DiMaggio, one of the famous (THE famous? Is there more than one?) Mae West Lips sofas, by Salvador Dali, and one of Grayson Perry’s vases.

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Carrying on from the design gallery, you’ll come upon the Ancient Egyptian nook (this is the kind of eclecticism I was talking about).  It’s got your usual Egyptian stuff: some canopic jars, a few sarcophagi, etc, and also a mildly entertaining computer game (aimed at children) where you get to choose the tools needed to embalm a body, and then stuff the organs in their appropriate jars (harder than it should have been).

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Because it is the Brighton Museum, there are of course a couple galleries devoted to local history, detailing how Brighton became a fashionable seaside resort town, info about life in Brighton during the war years, and also how Brighton came to be one of the most LGBT friendly places in the UK.  There were some nice seasidey touches in here, like one of those boards you stick your head through so it looks like you have the body of an Edwardian bather, and a couple penny arcade machines, though it was unclear whether you could actually use them or not (my guess is no, since they probably took old school pennies, but they were just kind of sitting out, practically begging you to try them).

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I am kind of a nerd about old ceramics, so the “Willett’s Popular Pottery” gallery is definitely my favourite.  There are so many wonderful things in here, but the best had to be the “Red Barn Murder” figurines (I’ve tried to get my hands on a set before, but these are super rare and mega expensive.  This is the first set I’ve seen in person), featuring Maria Marten and her murderer William Corder, both as a smiling, newlywed couple, and then in front of the infamous barn, with William luring the innocent Maria inside to her horrible demise.  With a cow complacently chewing cud off to one side, which really makes it perfect.  This was just one small part of the crime-related pottery section (told you it’s an excellent gallery!), which also had figurines of Dick Turpin and one of his less-famous highwayman friends, among others.

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I want to show you all the things, but I realise that others probably don’t share my level of interest in historical ceramic figurines.  But there was lots of great stuff here; not only slightly misshapen animals, but those Georgian mugs with cartoons printed right on them, and some of those old-school royalty mugs (before official photographs or portraits were used, and somebody just crappily hand-painted a generic looking bewigged man on them).

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Although this was not my first visit to the museum, I think I’d somehow missed going upstairs in the past, because I did not remember these galleries at all (and I definitely would have if I’ve seen them).  The first was the Performance Gallery, which contained puppets and costumes from all over the world.  My two favourites are pictured above.  Poor George IV.  The guy just can’t catch a break.

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Then there was the Ocean Blues Gallery, which I have to mention just so I can show you pictures of that sad shark and albatross chick (the chick was bigger than the adults they had on display, not sure how that works, especially when you look at the size of the egg it came out of.  Maybe there’s just a lot of downy fluff involved?).  I want to take that shark home and give him a hug, the poor thing.  This gallery mainly discussed pollution and its impact on the oceans, so it’s probably appropriate that the shark looked so lonely and upset.

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The fashion gallery contained one of Fatboy Slim’s shirts, which my boyfriend was kind of excited about for some reason (I could never get into Fatboy Slim, maybe it’s one of those inexplicable British things?  I’m not even that sure who he actually is, since his videos seemed to only have other people in them (I’m thinking of that “Praise You” song that was big in the late ’90s, which come to think of it, is the only Fatboy Slim song I know of)).  It also had a cool naval coat, and some adorable albeit probably uncomfortable bathing costumes, but the strangest part was the collection of clothing associated with ’80s movements, like punk, skinhead, and goth outfits (fair enough), but also a queer-fetish-techno-punk outfit from 1998, which I didn’t even realise was a subgenre.  Where I come from, we just called them ravers.

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Unfortunately, that amazing doorway no longer leads into a zoology gallery, but rather, the art galleries.  Since it’s mainly modern art in here, I would have preferred zoology (especially because that probably means taxidermy), but what can you do.  One of the canvases in here was literally just beige, and some guy was admiring it like it was the greatest thing since sliced bread.  I will never understand that kind of modern art.

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Back downstairs, I found another gallery I’d missed previously hiding in the corner, which was about different cultures from around the world, containing some cool objects from each of them (I liked all the Inuit stuff, though I don’t have a picture; I guess I didn’t point to it vigorously enough), and for some inexplicable reason, a foosball table (some family was already using it, but I didn’t mind so much because I am extremely terrible at foosball.  Give me an air hockey table or Skeeball over it any day).

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I think the Brighton Museum is one of those rare places that I actually wouldn’t have minded paying for (though I’m not complaining that I got in free!).  I remember really liking it the first time I went (many years ago, before I even moved to the UK; it was the summer when I was backpacking through Europe and I spent a day in Brighton because I decided I hated London and I needed to get away. It’s funny how life turns out sometimes), and I still like it.  It’s not enormous or anything, but it’s big enough to kill a couple hours in, and varied enough that there’s something for everyone, especially if you like ceramic cats (don’t miss the giant one in the cafe!).  3.5/5.

 

Brighton, East Sussex: The Royal Pavilion

DSC01923_stitchThe Royal Pavilion is an amazing, confused conglomeration of excess, built for the notoriously dissipated Prince Regent (who became George IV) in the 1810s.  It’s probably the most recognisable building in Brighton, with its distinctive Indian-inspired exterior, and its even crazier Chinese-influenced interior.  And despite having visited Brighton a fair number of times over the years, the first time I ventured inside this behemoth was just a few short weeks ago.

For you see, admission to the Royal Pavilion is normally a princely £12.30, but it is a National Art Fund partner, so members get free access (even though they don’t advertise it anywhere in the building or online, which gave me a bit of a scare, but they honour it in person with no trouble), so this is the first time myself and my wallet were inclined to venture within.  Also, I was a bit worried it would be excessively touristy, but even on a Sunday, it wasn’t too terribly crowded.  I mean, we walked right in, and had no trouble strolling around the place relatively unimpeded (though it was unseasonably cold on the day of our visit, meaning most people wouldn’t choose to visit a seaside town, so your mileage may vary in nicer weather).

Now, although the Royal Pavilion has one of the most incredible interiors I’ve ever seen, and I’m anxious to share it with you all, they do not allow photography inside.  I get that they’ve done a lot of restoration work over the years, but I still feel like they could let you snap a few shots in the most impressive downstairs rooms without doing any damage, but eurgh, I don’t know.  Maybe it’s to encourage you to tell your friends to come see it for themselves, since you’ll have no pictures to show off (actually, after poking about on their website, apparently it’s the Queen’s fault.  I knew I was opposed to the monarchy for a reason).  An amble around the internet didn’t reveal any good photographs available for free use (just some drawings and copies of old postcards), so please click this link to the Royal Pavilion’s website where you can click room by room to check them all out, making sure to focus on the Music Room and Banqueting Room, which I will talk about below, because they are the best.

They offered us an audio guide when we entered, but I’m so used to declining things that I just said no, without even asking if it cost extra.  Judging by the number of people who had audio guides (i.e. everyone except us), it might not, but you still all know what my position on audio guides usually is.  Unfortunately, there wasn’t a tonne to read on the ground floor of the house, generally just a small sign per room, so I probably missed out on learning about the interior.  Fortunately, this was remedied to some extent with the help of the video room, wherein I learned that the Pavilion was built by Henry Holland on something of a budget, as George was still just a prince at the time, and his daddy had his finger on the purse strings.  However, once George III descended into madness for the final time, and Georgie Jr was made Prince Regent, he decided to expand and embellish with the help of John Nash, and went for this totally crazy British-Empire-meets-the-Orient design, inspired by his love of the Far East.  Later (skipping over William IV, who wasn’t around for long anyway), the staid Victoria rejected the palace as too louche for family living, and had everything stripped out of it and mostly transferred to Buckingham Palace, while she was busy lording it up at Osborne House.  When Brighton later decided to open the palace to the public, Victoria (to her credit) returned most of the furnishings, and sort-of-shoddy reconstructions were done to make up the rest of the interiors (they had some examples in there, they were pretty craptastic).  During WWI, the Pavilion went on to serve as a hospital for Indian soldiers and later, soldiers missing limbs, and then was finally properly restored after the war years, save for some minor setbacks in the 1970s and ’80s when there was an arson attack, and then one of the minarets collapsed, which destroyed the Music Room, but it is now back in all its glory.

And the Music Room was probably the best damn room in the whole place, save for maybe the Banqueting Room (actually, I did prefer the Music Room, because snakes).  Oh man, it was incredible.  Snakes and dragons all over the damn place (not real ones, obviously), crawling up the wallpaper, serving as curtain rods, and just generally awesomely slithering around.  The Banqueting Room was pretty baller too though, especially the chandelier, which weighs a tonne (literally), and is suspended from a large winged dragon.  Also of note was the Great Kitchen, which had fake palm tree columns, and a menu from one of the Careme catered banquets George hosted (also available on their website, but it’s too small to read on there), featuring an epic 68 dishes, plus 8 edible confectionery centrepieces (all the meaty stuff sounded pretty foul (sometimes fowl), but I would definitely tuck into a “great nougat, in the French style.”  Bring one to me now).

Even the Long Gallery, which we got to pass through several times on the way upstairs and downstairs, and back through George’s personal apartments (the whole thing was quite maze-like, and we only went the right way with the help of the ropes stretched all over the place), was neat.  It was full of creepily lifelike Chinese figurines and (guess what?) more dragons.

I realise it’s probably not possible with the way the place is set up, but they should probably make you see the downstairs rooms last, because I felt a little bit like Homer when he was given a tour of Mr. Burns’s house that ended in the basement (Homer: “Gee, it’s not as nice as the other rooms.”  Mr. Burns: “Yes, I really should stop ending the tour with it.”).  The upstairs rooms fairly paled in comparison to the splendours downstairs, but I did enjoy the museum-y rooms where I learned more about the restoration of the palace, and its time as a war hospital, and there was also a room full of caricatures of George IV, which were brilliant.  Victoria’s boringly restrained apartments were up here too, and according to their website, there was also a special bed with a tipping mechanism made for George when he was at his morbidly obese/gouty stage so he could get up more easily, but I somehow missed that detail when we were there (actually, that bed was downstairs, because if George could barely get out of bed, he certainly couldn’t climb stairs, but I still don’t remember seeing it).  Guess I paid the price for not taking the audio guide.

The palace also featured an enormous gift shop (not really anything in it I wanted to buy, but it was for sure big), and not one, but TWO cafes (probably technically a cafe and a tea room), but I didn’t see any millionaire’s shortbread (Brighton’s got too many good bakeries for me to want to eat in a museum cafe anyway), plus my stomach was already all set for some ice cream from Scoop and Crumb (it was a bit icier than usual, probably because it was still the off-season, but it didn’t stop me from eating three large scoops and promptly getting a stomachache). I don’t know if I’d still be as keen if I’d paid £12.30 for the Royal Pavilion (maybe if I’d had the audio guide.  If I’d paid, I’d definitely have taken the audio guide), since we walked through in under an hour, but for free, this was a fabulous outing.  I think this probably had my favourite interior out of any palace I’ve visited (which probably means I’m as gaudy and tasteless as George IV, but so be it), at least where the main downstairs rooms were concerned, and it was definitely worth seeing, at long last.  Still salty about my inability to photograph it (I should say Marcus’s inability to photograph it, because I never voluntarily take pictures) though.  4/5.

London: Undressed; a Brief History of Underwear @ the V&A

Man, this exhibit was pants. Well, not actually (truthfully,”pants” is not even a slang term I’d use in that sense, not being British), but the subject matter of this exhibit is ripe for punning. The V&A do it themselves in the exhibit title, as you may have noticed.

Undressed just started a few weeks ago, and is running at the V&A until March 2017, so I’ve left you plenty of time to see it for once, as of the time of publication.  Full price admission is £12, but you can get in for £6 with a National Art Fund Pass, or a National Rail 2-for-1, which I highly recommend doing, because there ain’t no way a bunch of undies are worth 12 quid.  The exhibit is inside the “fashion temporary exhibit space,” which I genuinely don’t think I’d ever been inside before (to be honest, this might be the first temporary exhibit I’ve paid to see at the V&A, though I’ve enjoyed their permanent (free) galleries on many an occasion).  It’s hidden inside the middle of the British fashion through history hall (or whatever it’s actually called) which itself is an area of the museum I’ve only been in once or twice.  I guess I tend to spend most of my time in the early modern galleries or over in the India section gazing at the excellent Tipu’s Tiger (I have a Staffordshire knock-off of a knock-off version of it, but it’s nowhere near as impressive as the original).

Anyway, in terms of crowding, which is always a concern with these temporary exhibitions, it wasn’t too bad.  We were allowed immediate entry with the timed tickets, and though it was pretty busy inside, generally people seemed to move along so you weren’t straining to read captions over shoulders the whole time.  Of course, this was about 2 o’clock on a Wednesday, so I would imagine weekends are a whole other experience altogether.  You probably have to buy tickets early in the day then to even have a hope of getting in without extreme crowds. The exhibit is set up on two floors, which did help some, as the upstairs was more spread out, and therefore not as crowded, and the downstairs space was set up into two concentric circles, so we were able to do the least busy loop first and then head back around once the other side had cleared out a bit, so bra-vo to the V&A for decent organisation (see what I did there?).

No pictures were allowed, which is why you get this very boring, text heavy post, but there was some bra-illiant undies in here.  I suppose the exhibit was trying to trace historical developments in underthings, but it wasn’t strictly in chronological order; at least, the middle circle was kind of all over the place.  There was of course much emphasis on corsetry and other uncomfortable innovations in women’s underwear, right up to the present day, including this horrible butt-lifting device that went around each cheek and came to a thong down the middle (I mean, really, it looked so hideously uncomfortable. You’d be better off just doing some squats so your butt is actually lifted, if you’re concerned enough about it to wear torture device undergarments).  I wouldn’t say I’m part of the anti-bra brigade or anything (I mean, I never wear them when I’m just sitting around my house (or jeans or anything. My jimjams go on the second I walk in the door) but sometimes I need the support.  Mainly when working out), but my primary concern is comfort, and I can’t really understand why people would do these things to themselves.  And, it’s not just women, they also had a selection of male girdles (popular with Regency-era dandies),and weird crotch-bulge enhancing boxers (not sure of the point of those.  If your pants are tight enough that people can see the outline of your junk, surely they’re too tight to wear underwear at all.  I mean, I’m pretty confident all those rock stars in the ’70s weren’t wearing a whole lot under their jeans.

I was actually quite into the ’30s fashions.  Getting to wear pajamas on the beach might actually convince me to go to the beach (see my aforementioned devotion to pjs), and there was a beautiful nightgown embroidered with a pair of turtle doves and accompanied with an ostrich feather wrap that I would totally wear outside.  They also had some lingerie inspired dresses worn by famous people, but most of them were hella ugly.  Speaking of famous people, there was a corset worn by Queen Victoria’s mother (she was a hell of a lot slimmer than Victoria), and a bunch of Queen Alexandra’s stockings and such, which was good because famous historical figures are of far more interest to me than celebrities.

It was definitely a female-centric exhibition (both in terms of the people attending the exhibit, and in the underwear on display, though my boyfriend happily accompanied me to it, which is fortunate, since I don’t really have any female friends here), but they did have a few display cases on Y-fronts and these charming pink Disney themed boxers that were apparently all the rage in the gay community in the ’60s.  I guess women’s underwear has just changed more dramatically over time, plus there’s all the drama of deformed organs and bones that you get with corsetry and the other more restrictive forms of undergarments. They even included X-rays of women wearing corsets, so you could see the damage they did (the stereoscopic images of women passing out because of their corsets were delightful as well.  I also liked all the cartoons featuring skeletons, because tightly laced corsets mean death!).

Overall, I think we were in there for about forty minutes, which was plenty of time to see and read everything (nothing interactive here, but the cartoons provided a touch of whimsy), which to me, is not worth 12 quid, so I was happy we’d only paid half price.  I do think £6 was probably ok, because it was very well put together, and fairly interesting.  I used to go to fashion exhibitions pretty regularly growing up (the Western Reserve Historical Society had a fashion gallery, with constantly changing exhibitions), but it’s been a while since I’ve been to one as an adult (probably not since I went to the Kent State Fashion Museum a couple years ago), probably due to the aforementioned lack of female friends (not to stereotype, but it definitely does seem like a more female-centric activity, probably in large part because most men’s clothing is boring.  Except spats and two-tone shoes), and it was nice to have a poke around the world of Victorian fashion again, perils of corsets and crinolines and all (I definitely have a soft spot for hoop skirts and bustles because of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her detailed descriptions of her clothing in These Happy Golden Years). The captions were informative and just long (john) enough, and I think in general, it was a nicely put-together exhibit, just not quite worth the admission price.  3.5/5.

Oh, and as a side note, I’ll be travelling around New Zealand and Australia for the next month or so (pretty cool, right?!), so if I take longer than usual to approve or respond to your comments, that is the reason why.  I’ll of course be posting about all my adventures eventually (and have scheduled weekly posts like this one to go up whilst I’m away), but in the meantime, you can follow me on Instagram @jsajovie (or just click the link in the sidebar) where I’ll be regularly posting photos from my travels!

Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire: River and Rowing Museum

IMG_20160410_131126794_HDRAt last, a museum with riparian entertainments, as Hyacinth Bucket (that’s pronounced Bouquet!) would say.  Actually, though I like rivers just fine to look at, I’m not really a fan of any of the “riparian entertainments” like rowing, canoeing (ugh, especially not canoeing), kayaking, etc.  Which is not to say that I have anything against boats; I think I might enjoy boating if I wasn’t expected to power it myself, but I don’t give a hoot about rowing, especially in the context of the Oxbridge races and the Henley Regatta, which seem like one of those odd, unnecessarily elitist British traditions I’ll never fully understand. But the rowing stuff was only one gallery of the museum, so it still seemed worth a visit.

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Especially because it was another one of those partners with the National Art Fund, so woohoo, free entry for us!  Otherwise it’s £11, and I’m sure you can guess what I’ll say about that. Yep, it’s kind of steep, though maybe not quite as bad as I was expecting taking into consideration how large the museum ended up being (but still, I think 6 or 7 quid would be more fair).  They had a temporary Hockney exhibition on when we were there, and I really don’t have strong feelings about Hockney one way or the other.  I mean, he looks just like Bubbles from Trailer Park Boys (I HATE that show, but my boyfriend loves it and has made me watch it), and he draws a lot of penises (penii?) which I really don’t have a problem with, so I liked the exhibition well enough, or I would have if there wasn’t this security guard giving me the evil eye from the corner the whole time (two mean security guards in two weeks, what did I do to deserve this?).  It was really uncomfortable for me to walk around with him glaring daggers at me for no apparent reason (I did loudly make fun of Tracey Emin, maybe he was a fan?), but once I got to the other side of the room where I couldn’t see him anymore, it was fine.

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Once we got to the permanent galleries upstairs, we were directed by a sign on the door to start with the rowing gallery, so we did.  Even though, as I said, rowing holds no interest for me, this actually ended up being more interesting than the river gallery on account of the not-particularly-child-friendly interactive things.  This of course didn’t stop children from playing on them, even though there were signs specifically telling parents to supervise their children, because when someone with short legs tries to use a rowing machine, guess what happens?  They fall off and get hurt, which is exactly what happened to some little girl whose parents let her run amuck (I know this well, because I used to play around on my mother’s rowing machine when I was a kid even though she told me not to, and I usually ended up hurting myself somehow).  But, now that my legs are of an adult-length (or as close as they’re gonna get, I do kind of have stumpy legs), I enjoyed using the rowing machines, which told you what capacity you were working at (compared to a professional rower, I guess).  And the old Greek ship replica, and the machine where you had to try to row in sync with the computer, which I was really bad at, while a woman’s voice loudly urged us to stroke faster and harder in an embarrassing way.

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While I was interested in the parts about the history of other boats, like whale boats, and about how flagrantly the Victorians cheated at boat races, I skimmed over a lot of the stuff about the Regatta and other “rowing traditions.”  They did have Steve Redgrave’s boat though, and a bunch of other Olympic artefacts, as well as what I think was the first boat to win the Oxford-Cambridge boat race, if that appeals to you.  There was also a section about some endurance race tackled by a bunch of wounded soldiers which seemed kind of cool.

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There was another temporary gallery upstairs, this one hidden between the river and rowing galleries (I think the only way you could access it was by first going in the rowing gallery), but it just appeared to be pictures of “hair art,” as in, really bizarre hairstyles, so I didn’t spend a lot of time in here.  I instead headed for the river section, which was apparently more child-friendly than the rowing bit, at least judging by the children running back and forth between the length of the gallery, completely ignoring the colouring section and other interactive parts that were directed at them (I know I’m old and grumpy, and I don’t care).

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This was, I suppose, more about the ecology of the river than its history, though there was some of that as well.  The whole first section was devoted to child-orientated displays with different animals that live around rivers, followed by sections about flooding and water conservation.  There was a case about the history of locks and lock keepers that caught my attention.  I quite like the idea of being a lock keeper, just sitting in your cottage somewhere and only emerging to work when a boat arrives, but I hate being outside, so I’d probably loathe it, in reality.

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After discovering Father Thames, I really only had eyes for him.  They had a whole display of river-themed prints, and I liked most of them, but Father Thames is the only one I feel I need to own.  They didn’t have any in the museum gift shop though, and it was a numbered print, so it was probably limited edition, and therefore, expensive.

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The river gallery turned into a “bridge gallery” that actually went over the river (points for incorporating the Thames into the museum design), and mainly contained a big mural that I guess was supposed to depict the river, but was mostly just blobs of colour unless you stood really far back (I can see the boats now in the photo of it, but they were hard to make out in person, especially with the sun reflecting off of it).  This led into the Henley-on-Thames history gallery.  It didn’t get off to a great start, as the first few cases were cram-jammed full of local history artefacts with really small labels, so it was hard to appreciate the objects individually (though I did notice that the sausage box was on loan from another museum, and it amused me that an old sausage box would be in such high demand).

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Farther on the gallery opened up more though, so I could get a better look at things.  There was a whole case devoted to Mary Blandy, who I’d definitely heard of before, though I can’t quite remember where (I read way too many books about murderers).  She was a local woman who slowly poisoned her father with arsenic, allegedly at the instigation of her bigamous husband, and was ultimately hanged for it.  Speaking of hangings, they also had a part of a tree that Prince Rupert hanged a Parliamentarian from during the English Civil War.  Oh, and this cool time capsule buried in the 18th century by this guy who said he hoped that if “curious posterity should examine this old rubbish, it may find something to give pleasure, and perhaps profit since some arts are dying out,” which cracked me up.  The capsule was full of old pottery and glass shards.

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Kenneth Grahame also lived in the area at one point, and so there was a whole Wind in the Willows gallery. I must confess that at the time I visited this museum, I had never read nor watched Wind in the Willows, so I had no idea what was going on in here.  In fact, I kept referring to Toad as a frog, because that’s what he looked like, being green and all (he looks more like a toad in the original black and white illustrations).  But I am happy to report that I have since remedied the situation, immediately checking Wind in the Willows out from the library when it opened the next day, and it really is a delightful little book, though I’m still not sure how big the animals are supposed to be in proportion to the people for Toad to be able to pass as a washerwoman and to drive cars and such, but to also be able to hang out in burrows.  It was confusing.  Also, toads don’t have hair, Kenneth Grahame, and I’m not sure I would refer to their hands as “paws” either, but still, delightful.  “Poop-poop!”

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That said, even though I didn’t know what was going on when I walked through this gallery, I still said it was “magical,” which turns out to be exactly how the museum describes it on their website, so I guess it had the desired effect on me.  It’s basically just a dark cave-like room that you walk through and look at scenes (life-size?  Well, maybe, if I could figure out how big the animals are actually meant to be) from the book (or maybe the TV show, it seemed like there was a bigger emphasis on the weasels in here than there was in the book), but it helped that we were the only ones in there, and that there were buttons to press that made some of the tableaux move.

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So I have to give them credit where credit’s due, and say that despite the high admission price, and the out-of-control children (not the museum’s fault), it really was a fun museum, and I definitely enjoyed myself far more than I was expecting, given the emphasis on rowing and all.  3.5/5.

Also in the area (well, about a twenty minute drive away) is this thing called the Maharajah’s Well, in the village of Stoke Row, which was built by a 19th century maharajah who was friends with the Lieutenant Governor of India’s North West Provinces.  The Governor (who happened to come from Stoke Row) told the maharajah that his village often suffered from droughts, so the maharajah chose to endow them with a well so the poor people of the village could have free water.  So it is very India-in-the-age-of-Empire looking, with a gold elephant on top, and is pretty cool.  You basically just rock up, park across the street, and take a few pictures, no big deal, but it was neat to see so I’m glad we made the slight extra effort while we were in the area.  Oh, and this Steve Redgrave (and rowing partner, whatever he was called) statue back at the museum kind of creeped me out, so enjoy this large image of it!

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London: Chiswick House

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Yes, I’m back to historic homes again, but it is in the blog’s tagline after all, so I suppose there’s no escaping it.  We actually parked at Chiswick House back when we visited Hogarth’s House some years ago, but we didn’t go in because it was winter and only the gardens were open. (Even in the summer, the house is only open from Sundays-Wednesdays; perhaps they rent it out at weekends?)  The gardens are free to enter, but the house’ll cost ya £6.30, unless you’re an English Heritage member, or have a National Art Pass, in which case it’s free (because why else would I be going, right?).

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The house was built for the third Earl of Burlington (I’d never heard of him either) in the first half of the 18th century by William Kent, and is supposed to be a good example of neo-Palladianism, which means very little to me, other than that it is symmetrical, Georgian-y, and has a classical revival thing going on.  And there’s a lot of sphinxes.  Unusually bosomy sphinxes, which may have been appreciated by the “bachelor” Duke who later lived here.

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The house was cold and damp feeling inside, and didn’t allow photography, hence all the exterior shots.  They enforced this by having a stern woman clomping around the upstairs rooms, “fixing” the room guides after we apparently didn’t place them back in their slots exactly right, and just generally glaring silently at us. I was afraid to put a foot wrong.  There was no one working in the downstairs section of the house (except the admissions desk guy), but there wasn’t much else down there either, save for a video and some posters about the house.  There were a lot of corridors that just kept going, with some crumbling statues at the end of one, and a wine cellar in the basement, but there wasn’t really a whole lot to see.

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Even the upstairs rooms (accessed by a uneven winding stone staircase), which were decorated, still felt rather sparse and chilly.  Despite the elaborately painted ceilings and velvet wallpaper in many of the rooms, they felt empty, probably because most of them didn’t have much furniture.  Standing under the rotunda was cool, simply because it reached so high up, and I enjoyed some of the creepier saint paintings (there was a St. Lucy who had her eyes gouged out, only for them to “miraculously” grow back, so she was painted with her eyeballs on a plate.  Apparently some squeamish person a century or two ago had them painted out, but they were restored when the painting was cleaned), but that’s pretty much it.

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Fortunately for us, the sudden torrential downpour that had started up when we were in the house had subsided by the time we were finished, so we were able to look around the gardens.  It was a good thing, too, because the gardens were the best part of the experience.  Georgians did love their follies, and though this place didn’t have anything really cool like a grotto or a hedge maze (I mentioned the lack of a hedge maze to my boyfriend when we were there and he went, “No hedge maze!  Well, you’ll probably only give this place one star now.”), it did have a Greek temple, a waterfall, a bridge, and a bunch of random obelisks, to say nothing of the many awesome crumbling statues and busts (seriously unfortunate looking busts, like the one shown above the previous two paragraphs.  I’m not sure who it was supposed to be, but I think we can assume he was famous for his mind, rather than his looks.  Or they just caught the poor guy on a really bad day, and now he has to bear centuries of mockery).

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Unfortunately, you’re apparently only allowed in the temple on special occasions, so we could only gaze at it from afar (to be honest, it was a little tricky even doing that, as there were a lot of fences in this place.  Presumably to keep dogs out, as there were also a lot of dogs (with their owners, not just random strays or anything).  One of them was even wearing red long johns (they went over all four legs, I’ve never seen that before!)).

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But Mr. Derps-a-lot the lion, and crumbly nose dude probably made up for that.  Plus, you know, all the bosomy sphinxes that were apparently re-creations of the originals, which were made of lead that flaked off.  There was an original just-as-top-heavy sphinx inside the house, so we could see the difference.

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They had signs up telling us how great the camellias inside the conservatory were, so we also went to check those out.  I think most of them were on the turn, though there were a few nice individual flowers that hadn’t yet turned to brown wiltiness.  There’s a camellia plant inside that only exists there and in one place in New Zealand (if that’s the kind of thing that impresses you), and apparently some other rare specimens as well.  The conservatory was bombed during the war, and the collection was subsequently so neglected that everything was half dead in the ’80s, though they managed to revive it in the years since (or so they say; like I said, they were past their prime when we were there, so it was hard to tell whether they’d been brought back from the brink of death or not).

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We also learned inside that the Beatles had shot a couple music videos at Chiswick House, including in front of the Italian garden just outside the conservatory.  I tried to get my boyfriend to do his best Beatles pose next to one of the urns in the garden, but he wasn’t having it.  I think he was afraid of looking like Ringo.

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As far as Chiswick House as a whole goes, I have to say that this was the rare property where I enjoyed the gardens much more than the house.  Not as much as I would have enjoyed them had there been a hedge maze, but I liked that there were so many statues and outbuildings to discover around the property, and also that there wasn’t an unsmiling woman trailing me to make sure I didn’t touch anything (seriously, the lack of volunteers or other friendly people in the house was bizarre and off-putting).  I wouldn’t pay for this one, but the gardens are probably worth walking around if you live nearby and want a bit of exercise (which is clearly what many people do), however, none of it is worth any kind of special trip, even if you can justify stopping at Outsider Tart for a Snickers blondie as part of the excursion.  I won’t quite give it as low of a score as my boyfriend suggested, but it won’t be particularly high either.  2/5.

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London: The Horniman Museum

DSC01643I’ve never blogged about the Horniman before, which is a bit of an oversight on my part.  Not only does it have a hilarious name, it’s also a pretty cool museum.  I mean, just look at that walrus, who is the Horniman’s unofficial mascot.  He’s seen better days, obviously, but that’s a large part of his charm.  So, the Horniman is also in Dulwich, but it’s a fair walk away from the Dulwich Picture Gallery from the last post.  We cut through Dulwich Park, and it took over half an hour to get there (probably a bit longer because I stopped and tried out all the “exercise” equipment in the park (I don’t think the “waist twister” really does anything, but it sure is fun). Also they have these adorable cottages by the park gates that I totally want to live in and become the official witch of Dulwich or something, and grow herbs in the back and yell at people who walk on my lawn, but that’s another story).

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The Horniman is free, except for any temporary exhibits and the aquarium, but our National Art Pass got us into those for free as well (I think it was about 7 quid otherwise).  The current temporary exhibition about dinosaur families was quite obviously aimed at children, with two large play areas and a truly epic amount of prams parked outside the exhibit, but I enjoyed it nonetheless mainly because of the paintings they had in there.  I mean, we all know dinosaurs are pretty cool, but these made dinosaurs look awesome.  The dinosaur sitting on her nest looks like she’s doing dino-yoga or something. Also, the dinosaur babies were all kinds of adorable, though I don’t doubt the carnivorous ones would eat my face if they could.  Still, it definitely wasn’t worth paying that much extra for, so if you don’t have kids, I wouldn’t bother with it if you can’t get in for free.

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The aquarium is also not really worth paying for, unless maybe you have small children who have never seen fish before, as it’s rather crappy and unimpressive.  There’s really only a handful of tanks in there, and aside from maybe the seahorses and the jellyfish, nothing seemed particularly exotic.  I guess everyone loves sticklebacks after that whole business with Spineless Si on Springwatch last year, but most of the other native British fish are just not all that captivating.

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Anyway, let’s move on to the Horniman’s permanent (and free) collections.  The museum was started by Frederick John Horniman, one of those excellent eccentric Victorian collectors who amassed a hell of a lot of crap on his tea-trading exhibitions around the world.  It was originally inside his house, and I have to say that it looked super awesome, though undoubtedly the captions on the anthropological stuff were pretty racist (as was the style at the time.  Because the 1800s were only awesome if you were a rich white male).  I like rooms that are really packed full o’ shit (as anyone who’s been to my flat can attest to).  His collection eventually grew to the point that it made more sense to have a dedicated museum building, which was similarly eclectic in design and opened in 1901.

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In my opinion, the centenary gallery is the best part of the whole museum.  Not only does it give you the history of the Horniman collection, I think it is also the closest you’re going to get to the pleasantly cluttered feel of the original museum.  It’s a dark, fairly deserted gallery (mercifully, probably because it’s not really child friendly, unlike most of the rest of the museum) full of wonderful anthropological specimens from around the world.  I absolutely love its randomness, plus how cute is that cobra?  (Never mind that Kali is standing on top of that guy, about to rip out his heart or something.  Cue my best Mola Ram impression.)

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The music gallery, also downstairs, is similarly dark, and filled with a lot of instruments that don’t even really look like instruments, which is what makes it so cool. I love how many of the instruments are shaped like demons, though I’d probably be wary of playing any of them, in case I accidentally summoned something up.

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There’s also a splendid African art gallery, of which the most noteworthy object is probably the lion right by the entrance.  Love his “rawr” face!  But there’s also an Egyptian section in the back, a lot of cool tribal masks, and a selection of voodoo shrines, which I am not including a picture of in case there is a curse attached (just kidding, sort of.  If you believe in curses, a lot of the stuff in this museum will probably make you nervous, though Horniman himself lived to a decent age, and didn’t appear to have any particular evil befall him, so you’ll probably be ok), though I did think it was pretty funny that one of the shrines included the stuffed head of that annoying baby on that Dinosaurs show (does anyone else remember that show?  It kind of freaked me out when I was a kid, but I watched it anyway).

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There’s an upper level that overlooks the African gallery below, and this is currently full of photographs of an Indonesian performance troupe, and some Romanian clothing and handicrafts.  I quite like seeing the different traditional dress of various countries, and it was also interesting to learn that in Soviet Romania, traditional dress was standardised, so that a particular outfit was associated with a particular region, and that’s what they had to wear to events and public gatherings.  Dolls wearing each costume were also produced for the tourist trade, and they were on display too.

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The main thing the Horniman is known for though, outside of the anthropology collections, is the hall of natural history, which you’ll probably come to right when you walk in, if you don’t go through the museum backwards like we did.  I’ve already shown you the famous walrus, who is back in pride of place after being loaned out for several years, but there’s lots of other great taxidermy on display as well.

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The display of various dog heads was a bit much, even for me (I would have felt better about it if they’d included the whole dog, rather than just a head, as I’m quite partial to Balto), but the birds and sadly derpy monkeys made up for it.  And of course the kangaroo and some of George Stubbs’ magnificent paintings of the wildlife of Australia.  I love hearing about Cook’s voyages (especially when they mention that dishy Joseph Banks).  (I have a problem – I think that’s about the fourth time I’ve linked to that picture.)

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The Horniman also includes some special hands on rooms for children, which I did not go into, and some gardens, but it was too cold on the day we visited for me to be bothered going around them.  The Horniman is an excellently quirky museum, but it’s a bit too family orientated for it to become one of my favourites.  I like quiet, and that’s just not what the Horniman is all about.  Fortunately, the small children do largely seem to be contained to the special kids’ galleries, the natural history section, and the aquarium, so I was free to peruse the anthropological galleries with a minimum of interruption (but I do wish the anthropology stuff still had its own building, like back in the old days).  Nevertheless, I think the Horniman deserves a 3.5/5, because it’s free and there’s lots of neat stuff to be seen (and the name still makes me snicker), but it is kind of a bitch to get to, and can get very crowded and noisy, even (especially?) on weekdays.

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London: Dulwich Picture Gallery

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If you’ve heard of the Dulwich Picture Gallery, it’s probably in the context of it being “the world’s first purpose-built public art gallery.”  I mean, that’s their tagline when you google it and everything, and it pops up in a little “did you know?” header on their website.  It was indeed designed and built as an art gallery, by the famous Sir John Soane (of the John Soane Museum.  I haven’t blogged about it (yet), but it’s worth a visit) in the early 19th century, opening in 1817.  And yes, the interior is very attractive, complete with a mausoleum, as you might expect from the delightful Soane.  But this was still my first time visiting it, because I find it hard to justify spending £5 on a small art museum when the big ol’ National Gallery and the Tates are free (plus it’s not like I even go to those very often. I’m just not that arty).  And Dulwich can be kind of a pain to get to (though I’ve discovered it’s not that bad from where I live if I manage to time it right; the trains are pretty quick (if you live in South London), but they only come every half an hour).  However, I mentioned some weeks ago that we joined the National Art Fund this year, and the only time I’d yet managed to take advantage of the card was at the Jewish Museum, so why not start putting it to more use?  Hence the Dulwich Picture Gallery, to which Art Fund members get free access to the permanent exhibits, though we still have to pay for the temporary ones.

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The temporary exhibit at the time of my visit was on Nikolai Astrup, apparently some Norwegian artist, but I had no idea who he was, so I wasn’t real motivated to pay £7 to see his stuff, though the painting on the exhibition poster did look pretty cool.  I reckoned just seeing the permanent collections would be enough on my first visit, especially as we were planning on heading to the Horniman that afternoon (post coming up next week).  They did have a painting on loan from the National Gallery when we were there, which I’d never seen before, because, like I said, I barely ever go to the National Gallery.  It was Van Dyck’s last self-portrait, and they also had a self-portrait by Mark Wallinger (who I’d never heard of) so you could compare the difference in style between an early modern master and a contemporary artist.  I have to say, I much preferred Van Dyck’s effort; though there was a revolving painting of one of the Renaissance popes by Wallinger which was pretty cool, Wallinger’s self portrait was just a big sculpture of the letter “I,” which was way too modern-arty for my tastes.  It almost felt like a Sesame Street joke or something.

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The rest of the collection seemed to be heavy on Renaissance and early modern art, especially of an Italian and religious persuasion, which is not so much my cup of tea, though I did think it was kind of funny that one of the highlights of their collection is a painting of the Bucintoro and the whole “marriage of the sea” ceremony in Venice.  (Warning: long, pointless Jessica-digression ahead.) When I was an undergrad, I took an Italian history class, and we had an essay question on one of our exams about the “marriage of the sea.”  Well, I’ve always had a really short attention span where lectures are concerned, so basically if something wasn’t in the reading, I wouldn’t know it, because I instantly started daydreaming the second the professor opened their mouth.  So I scrabbled together some answer about how the “marriage of the sea” was that famous painting by Botticelli with a woman emerging from a seashell.  I may have gotten that question horribly, horribly wrong, but I will always now remember what the Birth of Venus, and the “marriage of the sea” are as a result, and I have to laugh at myself any time I see either of those things referenced.

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There are meant to be about 600 pieces in the collection, though I have to say it didn’t feel like anywhere near that many, with the permanent galleries only consisting of about five small rooms, plus gift shop.  Perhaps they rotate the paintings?  I suppose there could have been 600; I didn’t actually count them or anything, it just seemed like fewer.  Mainly, I was annoyed that a ticket to the permanent collections apparently didn’t contain access to the mausoleum.  It was roped off from the main galleries, although I saw people in there because you had to cut through that way to get from one side of the temporary exhibit to the other.  It didn’t seem fair that only people seeing the temporary exhibit got to look inside (although you could peek at the entrance if you stood right by the rope and risked dirty looks from the staff), and I think they should have mentioned that somewhere by the admissions desk (I’m sure I still wouldn’t have paid to see Astrup’s paintings, but it would have been nice to know so I wasn’t disappointed when I got inside).

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Although the collection was fairly small, and most of the pieces were too religious for my tastes, there were a few paintings I really enjoyed.  There were quite a few paintings of farm animals, including a delightful characterful ox that we didn’t manage to get a picture of as some guy was standing right in front of it.  There was also the sort of memento mori thing pictured above, which I totally dug, and the young man on the right, who at first glance probably doesn’t seem like anything special, but there was a quote from George III included in the painting description, which cracked me right up.  Someone showed it to him in an attempt to demonstrate the talent of Thomas Lawrence, but upon viewing it, he could only cry, “Ah! Ah! Why doesn’t the blockhead have his hair cut?!” Despite being American, I find it very hard to dislike George III, and this is one of the reasons why.

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It didn’t take us very long to look around the museum at all, which made me glad it was free; although it was a very attractive gallery space, I think I definitely would have been ticked off if I’d spent a fiver, considering how very little I care about most art (that’s not painted by James Ensor, Van Gogh, or Henri Rousseau (the latter’s tiger at the Cleveland Museum of Art was always one of my favourites)).  They also had some paintings of English kings and such hidden in the gift shop, which was weirdly actually in the middle of the museum, rather than by the entrance, so you can’t just pop in and buy something without buying a ticket (though the cafe and toilets are in a separate building, so I guess anyone can use those).  I’d feel better about it if I’d had the chance to go inside the mausoleum, but I don’t think I would have enjoyed the Norwegian art exhibit enough to justify it, at least judging from what I could see of it when the door opened (I think they used the best painting for the posters).  I appreciate the history of the building, and it’s a very nice space, but most of the art inside was just not for me, and even if it had been, there wasn’t enough content to quite justify the price of admission, had I not had a National Art Pass.  2.5/5.

Oh, and speaking of art, I recently went to look at that painting of a nude Donald Trump, and some guy from VICE interviewed me, which you can find here (probably NSFW, since we’re all discussing micropenises) if you would just please ignore the picture of me, which is the worst picture of me ever taken ever. I look like some kind of bumpkin, and they cut everything I said about being American (I guess to make room for more penis-talk). They interviewed my boyfriend too (his picture looks fine though)!

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Bath, Somerset: Herschel Museum of Astronomy

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In all fairness, I probably shouldn’t have come here in the first place.  The Herschel Museum was most definitely a plan B, maybe even a plan C.  Initially, we were planning on seeing Glenside Museum and the death exhibit in Bristol, and then proceeding on to the SS Great Britain, until I found out it was £14, and I couldn’t find a 2-for-1 deal anywhere.  So then we decided to go to Bath after the other museums instead, and see the American Museum in Britain, mainly because I was intrigued by the actual Americanness of their “American style cookies and cakes” (I think I’m a pretty good baker, and I’m always skeptical about British attempts to re-create American baked goods.  They usually don’t put enough sugar in.  Or peanut butter.  Or oreos).  But that turned out to be closed until the middle of March (and was also quite expensive).  So we ended up settling on the Herschel Museum, in large part because I still find Uranus far funnier than I should.

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The Herschel Museum also charged for admission, though it was only £6.50, which seemed reasonable relative to the SS Great Britain, but was not so great considering the size of the museum.  I guess I just expect more bang for my buck (pound) these days.  So William Herschel is best known as the discoverer of Uranus, which as I said above, was really my only reasoning behind going to this place (and I insist on pronouncing it Your-Anus, because why wouldn’t you?).  I took astronomy back in high school, and we had to make models of the planets, so me and my friend chose to do Uranus (of course).  There we were, attempting to spray paint styrofoam balls in her unventilated garage, only we didn’t realise that spray paint melts styrofoam.  And having accidentally inhaled a fair bit of paint fumes, we pretty much thought the melting “moons” were the funniest thing ever.  To this day, melting the moons of Uranus remains one of my fondest memories.  So I was extraordinarily pleased by some of the cartoons in this museum, which made ample use of similarly juvenile humour, as comets were consistently depicted as farts issuing from the rear of one or another prominent Georgian.

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Unfortunately, they would prove to be the highlight.  The house was indeed on three levels, as we were promised, there just wasn’t a whole lot on any one of the levels.  We were directed to the basement first to watch an introductory video about the life of William Herschel and his sister Caroline.  William and Caroline were both German, and Caroline appears to have been kind of a Cinderella figure, in that her mother and other brother hated her, and whipped her and made her do all the housework.  She also had scarlet fever and smallpox when she was young, and only grew to about 4’3″. Despite these misfortunes, her life changed for the better when William moved to England to pursue a career in music, and he invited her to join him.  There, he taught her about science and mathematics, and she developed a passion for astronomy to match his, discovering a number of comets herself (she ended up living well into her 90s).  The video also talked about the special telescope he developed that allowed him to make these discoveries, though I wasn’t totally clear on why he switched to astronomy instead of music (the video was narrated by Sir Patrick Moore, and the audio was a little too quiet for me to understand everything he was saying.  He was kind of, um, jowly sounding).

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Also in the basement was an exit to the garden (which didn’t really have anything in it), a ye olde kitchen, and a little workshop showing the tools Herschel would have used to create his telescope.  He eventually built a massive one, which was apparently a big attraction for the royal family, who all came out to see it.

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There were two small museum rooms upstairs, with re-created furnishings, and some objects that actually belonged to the Herschels, as well as various letters written amongst themselves and to various royals.  However, only some of the artefacts had captions on them, and there was no synopsis or transcription provided for the letters, so you actually had to stand there and read through them (Herschel’s handwriting was beautifully clear, and he wrote in English rather than his native German, so it wasn’t really a problem, they just weren’t that interesting, and I wish I didn’t have to read all the way through them to learn that).  For some reason, I thought there’d be more rooms up the other flight of stairs we saw, but it turned out those were roped off, and the “third” floor of the museum was actually the ground floor gift shop/dining room level we’d come in on, which I thought was slightly disingenuous.

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The ground floor exhibits were just a small dining room, with some more cartoons, and a corner of the gift shop containing a replica of one of Herschel’s telescopes.  Lame.  There was a group of Americans looking around the museum whilst we were in there, and apparently one of them was famous (no one I recognised, though she was wearing a silly hat, so I guess she had to be famous.  It was a sillier hat than a normal person would wear anyway), because the admissions desk man was kind of fawning over her, and asked to take her picture in front of the replica telescope.  I am not famous, but I posed with the telescope too, just for the hell of it.  I don’t know why I’m mentioning this, other than I was sort of annoyed by how much more attention she got than us, and also because she said she’d been there before, and I can’t imagine why anyone would go back.  It wasn’t the sort of museum there would be any reason to return to, since it was tiny and had no temporary displays or anything.  Weird.

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I think it’s obvious I was distinctly unimpressed with this museum.  If I’d only paid maybe 2-3 quid, I’d have been fine with it, but no way was it worth £6.50, and I feel that the museum slightly misrepresented its size on its website.  If I’d known how lame it would be, I’d have just sucked it up and paid the extra 7 quid to see Brunel’s Great Britain, because I like maritime history, and Brunel’s pretty cool, so I imagine I would have enjoyed myself quite a bit more there.  There wasn’t even anything funny about Uranus in the museum; honestly, there was far more about comets (thanks to the cartoons) than anything to do with Herschel discovering Uranus (which they sadly pronounced in the unfunny/correct(?) way anyway).  I think you can probably give this one a miss, unless you’re some kind of huge Herschel fan (do those exist?).  1.5/5.

Bristol: death: the human experience @ Bristol Museum + Bonus Taxidermy

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A brief, but only mildly irritated rant, because I feel some explanation is needed: I know you can’t tell, because the title text on my blog shows up in all capitals, but the name of this exhibit is written in all lower case letters, both on the museum’s website, and at the exhibition itself (and you’ll probably notice that I reluctantly follow their model when I talk about it later in this paragraph, hence the need for an explanation).  I don’t know if they’re playing around with being e e cummings or what, but c’mon now, things are capitalised for a reason.  I’d sooner go back to the rather charming Georgian (Germanic?) habit of capitalising most nouns than lose it altogether.  That aside, death: the human experience was my main motivation for going down to Bristol in the first place, because I am a morbid individual who’s into shit like that.  Although I did take my time in getting down there, in hopes of slightly warmer weather, the exhibit ended on the 13th of March (sorry for not getting this post up while it was still on), so there came a point when I couldn’t wait any longer, and we just had to be cool with driving through sleet.

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The neat thing about the exhibit is that it was operating under a pay what you can afford/what you think it’s worth system, which was convenient as I can currently afford very little, and tend to think most exhibits are way overpriced.  The Bristol Museum itself is free anyway, so although we did choose to donate something, it wasn’t strictly necessary (if you weren’t bothered about supporting the museum), as the donation box was in a fairly low-pressure environment (there was a staff member standing nearby, but she wasn’t right on top of you, and didn’t seem to be paying much attention to whether people were donating or not).  I actually really liked the opening section of this exhibit, which was a long, dimly lit gallery filled with objects that make people think of death, like skeletons and vultures.  I liked it less when a shitload of students piled in the door right after we arrived and were breathing down my neck, but fortunately the woman working there saw my obvious irritation (I did sigh loudly and make a comment about all the young people.  I’m kind of a jerk) and instructed half of them to go around the exhibit in the opposite direction, which greatly eased traffic and earned my gratitude.

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However, the rest of the exhibit wasn’t really anything remarkable.  It consisted of about five other small galleries, each dealing with a different aspect of death, from different cultural funerary practices, to death throughout history, and the various ways people die.  I reckon if I hadn’t seen SMRT in Prague, and the National Museum of Funeral History in Houston last year, I might have been more impressed with Bristol’s effort, but it did pale in comparison.  For example, they had one of the Ghanaian fantasy coffins in the Bristol Museum, which was cool, but there was a whole room full of them in Houston.  And the National Museum in Prague devoted a whole large gallery to ancient burial practices, whereas here there was only room for one small case.  I’m not knocking it; they did the best they could with the space they had available, it was just on a much smaller scale than the other museums.

Which is not to say I didn’t learn anything or enjoy myself – I thought the description of the objects that members of the museum staff buried their relatives with was very sweet (someone buried their grandfather with mint imperials, because he always had a bag to hand, which reminded me of my grandma, who we buried with a pack of Dentyne gum, as she was constantly chewing it (oddly, although Dentyne is not sugar-free, she kept almost all of her teeth, so maybe there’s something to be said for it?)).  For some reason, learning that people in the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland are given a piece of chocolate to take the bitter taste of the poison out of their mouths depressed me more than anything else in the museum.  Not that there’s anything depressing about Swiss chocolate (though I do prefer Belgian), I think it just made me picture the process of assisted suicide too vividly.  I also liked that there was a sort of “decompression” room at the end that was full of pamphlets about death, including one to help you plan your funeral arrangements.  I suppose I’m not at an age where most people start to worry about these things, but I’ve always felt hyper-conscious of my own mortality, and I definitely think death shouldn’t be a taboo subject, so I’m glad that the museum was encouraging people to talk about these things.  I liked their message, and the content, I just wish there could have been more of it, but like I said, I might just be spoiled by visiting a lot of exhibits of this nature.  3/5 for death: the human experience.

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But, since I don’t know when I’ll be back in Bristol, I might as well talk about the rest of the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery.  Typical of the museums in many smaller cities, where there’s not dedicated ones for art and natural history and all that jazz, the Bristol Museum was kind of a mishmash that included local history, an art gallery, the Ancient Egyptians, and a good bit of natural history in the form of taxidermy.  If anyone remembers the Irish Natural History Museum from way back at the start of my blog, when I wasn’t yet in the habit of including many pictures, you will know how much I love derpy taxidermy.  (I mean, I definitely talk about how much I love taxidermy in many other posts too, but that was probably the first time.)  This wasn’t quite on the level on the National Museum of Ireland, which is like a Victorian wonderland of bad taxidermy, but there were still some prime specimens here.

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The museum’s mascot appears to be a gorilla called Alfred who lived in the Bristol Zoo during the Second World War, and apparently hated men with beards, among a number of other things.  Well, the poor thing got stuffed after he died, and ended up here, with beardy men staring at him all day long (my boyfriend included).

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The aye-aye was probably my personal favourite, just because I reckon it’s the closest you can get to a Sumatran Rat Monkey in real life (warning, that rat monkey link is fairly gory, in a claymation kind of way, but aren’t Lionel and Paquita adorable together?  I love Braindead.  It’s gotta be in my top five favourite movies), but I am also partial to that handsome bird with the pompadour hairdo.  I am probably fonder of taxidermy than a vegetarian has any right to be, but I comfort myself with the fact that most of the stuff in museums has been sitting around for a while, so it’s not like these animals were killed recently or anything.

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I love dried bats, because they pretty much just turn into adorable little balls of fluff with papery wings, but the award for derpiest animal has to go to that otter.  Or possibly the fox, though his natural regal fox-bearing probably saves him from looking quite as dim as the otter.  Ok, I should probably stop talking about the taxidermy now, I just love it so damn much.

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The rest of the museum really wasn’t much to speak of: a bit of modern art, a decent Egyptian section, a Banksy near the entrance, and a handsome mustachioed aviator hovering over it all, but I feel I do need to mention the toilets, just to see if anyone else thinks this is as weird as I do.  I’m guessing the toilets were still semi-Victorian in nature; if not the actual fixtures, then certainly the stalls themselves.  The bottom half of the stalls were wood, no problems there, but the top halves had glass panels in them. Between the stalls.  Not frosted glass, mind, just normal, sort of patterned glass, that meant you couldn’t see through them super clearly, but could nonetheless get a pretty good view of the person in the stall next to you’s face, at a time when you really don’t want to be making eye contact with a stranger.  The panels were probably a bit above waist level when you were standing, which meant you could just see from head level when seated on the loo, but even that is weird (I mean, I know men just pee out in the open, but they’re used to it).  I definitely did a double take when I walked in and realised I could see the people next to me going about their business (and they could see me doing mine), but I really had to pee, so I rolled with it.  It still weirds me out though.  I don’t care if they’re Victorian or not, you could at least replace the glass with more wood or something.  All this is to say that using the toilets here may not be ideal if you’re shy about these things.  So to recap, fairly normal, albeit slightly generic museum, very strange toilets.  2.5/5.

 

Bristol: Glenside Hospital Museum

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It’s appropriate that this post falls near my third blogging anniversary (which was last Sunday, by the way!), because this is Bristol: Take 2, wherein I finally visit the Glenside Museum that I mentioned three long years ago.  In that post, I said it was open on Wednesdays and Fridays, but either I had it wrong, or they’ve changed their opening hours, because it is actually open from 10-12:30 on Wednesdays and Saturdays.  The museum is part of the campus of the University of the West of England (catchy name), and is housed in what was the hospital’s chapel, a rather imposing grey Victorian building.

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Though there is a parking lot right next to the museum, the museum says on their website that they don’t offer parking, so I’m assuming it was only for students and faculty of the university, or else museum volunteers.  However, we easily found parking on the street right around the corner from the museum (we visited on the Wednesday though, it may well be more crowded on Saturdays), so it wasn’t a major issue or anything.  Upon entering the museum, the first thing that hit me was the whiff of authentic smells.  I somehow doubt they were intentionally piped in, I think these were AUTHENTIC authentic smells, if you get my drift.  The second thing I noticed was the mannequin guarding the door, which initially freaked me out as I thought it was a real person (not because she looked particularly realistic, just because when you briefly glance at a person-shaped object, you assume it’s a person.  I’m not yet as bad as my poor mother, who once said, “excuse me sir,” when she bumped into a department store mannequin. My brother and I will never let her live it down).  Terrible awesome mannequins would be a hallmark of this museum.

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The museum is run on a donation only basis, and as there was no one at the front desk, it was very much a no-pressure arrangement.  While I appreciated that aspect of it, I did find it odd that none of the staff/volunteers acknowledged our presence at any point, despite there being a considerable number of them running around the building, and apparently making very smelly food for lunch (separate from the authentic smells, this was some kind of revolting meat-stink).  I don’t want someone following me around the whole time, or watching my every move, but it might have been nice if someone had at least greeted us and maybe gave a brief overview of the museum or something. The only encounter I did have with the people working there is when one of them pushed past us to show someone else something in one of the cases (from what I overheard, it sounded like the guy might have been staging a play version of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and wanted some ECT related props to use in it), which was just a bit rude, as they were talking loudly and pretended we weren’t there.  That was really the only off-putting aspect of Glenside though.

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Because, the museum was far bigger than I had been anticipating, and packed with lots of cool old medical stuff.  Glenside was originally called the Bristol Lunatic Asylum when it opened in 1861, and it remained a psychiatric hospital (though the name eventually evolved into the less-offensive Glenside) throughout its 130 year history, until it closed in 1994 (that’s minus the three years it served as a war hospital during WWI).  The first gallery of the museum was a bit too text-heavy when explaining the history of the hospital, but that gave way to a corridor with lots of smaller rooms full of psychiatric stuff of varying degrees of creepiness.  For example, I really liked the set of cards depicting various types of mental illness; a lengthy explanation was provided, but I think the gist of it was that they were made so illiterate people in India had a pictorial representation of the symptoms, in case their family members displayed any of them.  And those vintage light-up brain diagrams were right up my alley (and they still worked!).

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But I was super creeped out by the lobotomy/electroshock therapy room (apparently in the UK, lobotomies are called leucotomies, which doesn’t make them sound any better).  I can’t even watch the aforementioned One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (I had to see it once for a psychology class, and never again), and I’ve mentioned before how reading The Bell Jar at a formative age imbued me with a complete and lasting terror of ECT.  I also know there’s books on the history of lobotomies out there, and despite my fascination with almost every other gruesome aspect of medical history, I just can’t bring myself to read them.  So yeah, though I still looked at the ice pick that was jammed into someone’s brain, and some mannequin dioramas depicting lobotomies, I tried not to think about them too much, and I was relieved to leave that room behind me.

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Not that Victorian straitjackets and padded cells were much cheerier, but at least it didn’t involve someone excising vital chunks of the brain.  And I was actually really interested in the display of drugs used historically to treat mental illness.  And the display of bedpans, because that was very much back on weirdo-Jessica territory.

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I should mention that aside from the first room, with its text overload, captions were otherwise fairly sparse in the museum, so it didn’t take a tonne of time to look around all the other rooms.  To be honest, it was still longer than I was imagining we would spend there; going by the website, I was somehow picturing the exhibits to be smaller and crappier than they actually were.

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In addition to the macabre bits, there were also aspects of this museum that were poignant, as you would expect from a Victorian mental institution.  There were photographs and biographies of some of the patients, as well as recollections of the hospital from some 20th century patients (one just remembered it smelling of urine, which maybe explains the authentic smells aspect).  I was also struck by the account of a hairdresser at the hospital who commented on how overjoyed some of the patients were to have their hair styled, simply because they weren’t used to anyone taking care of them, or making them feel like a person, including one woman who always requested a golden rinse for her white hair to make it blonde (I was kind of picturing Betty White in her Golden Girls era when I read that).

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I mentioned earlier how Glenside also took in injured soldiers during WWI, when it was known as Beaufort War Hospital.  They also had displays relating to the war years, including what I believe was a temporary display on postcards (with children’s activities) and what they meant to soldiers.  They had also done profiles of some of the soldiers who stayed in the hospital, which were quite interesting to me as they were very similar to the work I’ve been doing on the WWI project I volunteer with.

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The building was maybe a wee bit odd in that it still had all the accoutrements of a church up, but with displays all in front of them.  There was even a display right in front of the altar, of art made by various museum volunteers, and this stuff was surprisingly good.  I say surprisingly because if someone asked me to produce a piece of art, it would look like a non-artistically-inclined 5 year old made it (I was that 5 year old, and things haven’t improved much in adulthood. All my friends and family know better than to ask me to help with any craft projects, unless they don’t mind wonky scissor work).  But their work was alright, and I especially liked the tapestry showing the history of medicine in Bristol, with a square devoted to the first cholera outbreak.

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Aside from the rather cold (well, more non-existent) reception, I really enjoyed this museum.  I don’t know if it was necessarily worth the three year wait, but I am glad I eventually got around to seeing it, because those mannequins were just as menacing as I was hoping, and the museum ended up having a fair bit to offer beyond them.  Even if psychiatry freaks me out more than other branches of medicine, there were still some very cool objects here, although I will concede they could perhaps be better organised or displayed in a more appealing manner (for me, that dated look (and the mannequins!) is a large part of the appeal, but I know I’m in the minority).  Still, for a free museum (with dismayingly limited opening hours), it was A-OK.  Not quite up to the standard of Dr. Guislain’s, by which all psychiatric museums are measured (by me), but then few things are.  3.5/5.

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