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!



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.


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

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)!




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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London: Osterley Park

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Many of you will no doubt be relieved to learn that Osterley Park was the “last hurrah” for my National Trust membership (at least until I travel to a different part of England that is rich enough in National Trust properties to justify the price of membership, because I’ve been to nearly every one in the Southeast).  And I think it was a good one, if for no other reason than because it’s so bloody expensive without a National Trust card.  Not only do they shake you down for £11.50 per adult, they demand an extra £6 for parking from non-members, which, for all that Osterley is part of Greater London, is difficult to avoid, since it’s a good mile and a half from Isleworth Station, which is longer than I wanted to walk on a day as cold as the one we visited, plus we would have ended up paying way more for train fare than gas. (And what’s up with Isleworth being pronounced “Eyes-el worth?”  I’ve learned to just not attempt to say any British place names unless I’ve heard a Brit pronounce them first, so I don’t sound like a moron).  And they check your pass not one, but THREE times.  They’re clearly super worried about people looking at their smelly duck pond without a ticket.

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It’s lucky then, that Osterley looks suitably impressive enough from the outside to sort of justify all the hassle.  Oh, speaking of hassle, this place has the wonkiest arrow signs I’ve ever seen.  The one directing you to the toilets would have cut across an open field to nowhere if you followed it, and the one to the house entrance was equally askew and confusing (oh, and speaking of the toilets…my heart sank when I saw the row of portapotties, but never fear, there are proper toilets just a short walk from those. Which were bizarrely off-puttingly missing soap, but at least they were warm and had running water). Disregarding the sign, we headed up the steps to the most logical house entrance, which fortunately turned out to be the correct one as well.

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And the entrance hall was pretty swanky, all Georgian grandeur and grisaille paintings (I made a special point to remember that term, because usually my knowledge of artistic styles is pretty limited).  The house was designed by Robert Adam, who I think is going to become one of my favourites, because it was very iconically Georgian, right down to the frequent use of arsenical green paint (presumably sans arsenic.  Actually, the green in here is closer to Paris Green than Scheele’s Green, which is more yellowy, but Paris Green was a regency invention, so I’m not sure what this shade is meant to be replicating.  I’m not really a colour expert, so I can’t say.  I just know what I like, and what I like is green paint in a Georgian interior).

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Anyway, Robert Adam was unusual for his time in that he planned out every element of a house, including the furniture, meaning the complete “Adam’s look” was incredibly expensive.  And if the furniture in here was selected by him, and is mostly original, he was big on Chinese chests and screens.  Lots o’ lacquer.  The upstairs rooms actually weren’t much to look at, as they were all undergoing “winter cleaning,” but it got better downstairs.

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We were offered the option of a free audio guide upon entry, but decided to take our chances with those much derided (by me) National Trust binders instead. We’d also read a couple reviews online that mentioned that the house volunteers here were overly chatty, but I didn’t get that at all.  Certainly they were less taciturn than at many other National Trust properties, but that was welcome after the usual awkward silences I encounter in them.  If anything, a few of them could have volunteered more information, especially after they watched me reading the room binders, but maybe it’s not fair of me to expect that, especially when my demeanor often doesn’t invite conversation (I can’t say “demeanor” without picturing Uncle Leo in Seinfeld with his painted-on eyebrows all askew).

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But yeah, the interiors were pretty swell, even if I don’t share the Child family’s love for Oriental art (aside from that urn-dog, below.  He rocks).  The pink and the green of several of the rooms was kind of a weird combination, but I think it worked.  There was also a big emphasis on symmetry, to the extent that the house included false doors in places to balance things out.

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And I am super envious of the Long Gallery.  I work out a lot, always at home, both because I can’t afford a gym, and I have a complex about working out in front of people even if I could, and I couldn’t stop thinking about what I could do if I had all that space.  I mean, I could Prancercise in my very own home without strangers laughing at me (yes, it does look stupid, but I’ve tried it a couple times when there was no one in sight, and it is really fun).

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But the very best thing of all (does anyone else automatically fill in “there’s a counter on this ball” after that, or am I dating myself as a Skip-it owning child of the early ’90s?  I had the purple one, which was a total bitch to find, because I was am a spoiled brat) was this game in the Long Gallery, I think called Jesters and a Devil(?) (or something to that effect).  It was a table with wooden pegs lined up on it, and you launched a top (not as easy as it looked) and tried to knock down as many as possible, each peg being worth a different amount of points.  Fortunately, there were no children in sight, so I got to try it out, but only once, as all the other adults visiting were also queued up to use it.  It was that good.  I need to figure out what it was actually called, and if people still make them for a reasonable price, because I want one (even though I don’t have the space for it, not having a long gallery and all).

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My other favourite thing, at least in the upstairs part of the house, was the Etruscan Room, because I can’t get enough of that hand-stencilled wallpaper.  So gorgeous.  The Tapestry Room, as seen below, was also impressive, in a very busy kind of way, but I prefer the cleaner lines and sphinx-like figures of the Etruscan stuff.  They were both part of the wishfully made royal suite that none of the royals ever visited, both because George III was too busy wrestling with his sanity (and those pesky American colonies), and the royals didn’t really travel around the country leeching off the hospitality of their nobles as much as they used to by that point.

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We eventually made our way to the basement, and I was grateful it was much warmer than the rest of the house, as I was freezing my ass off in there (I put gloves on AFTER entering the house).  The basement also somehow seemed bigger than the rest of the house; it just kept going, and was very maze-like (and again suffered from those crappy directional arrows).

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There were quite a few kitcheny rooms, and some slightly swanky offices for the housekeeper, but after having seen the sign for the “Wig and Bum Shop,” I was just biding my time until we made it there.

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Now, the wigs are self-explanatory, but the “bums” are pads that were worn over the backside, so that your derriere puffed out attractively in dresses.  You can see me helpfully demonstrating one in the first picture, above.  There was also a delightful array of wigs to try on (if you don’t mind risking lice, though fingers crossed, my head seems fine so far), and I was waiting impatiently for a teenage girl to leave the room so I could try one on without her judgmental gaze (I do not need young people glaring at me.  I don’t care if I look like a dork, but her blank stare was unnerving).  Eventually I just picked one up, and my obvious uncoolness scared her off, so I was free to pose with wig and bum.  Does it suit me?

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We reluctantly left the relative warmth of the basement for a very quick stroll through the gardens (after having our cards scanned yet again, can’t have anyone sneaking in to see those half-dead winter plants, obviously).

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If the map was to be believed, there were any number of individual gardens out here, from a Tudor walled garden, to an “American garden” featuring American plants which weren’t in bloom in mid-winter, and the “winter garden” which was in bloom, though filled with cameras to catch potential plant thieves (why would you steal a plant, and what exactly would you do with it once you did?  Just walk out of there with a bunch of dirty old roots hanging out of your pocket?!).

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However, it was way too cold and muddy to take the long walk around, so I settled for peering inside this neat little building that turned out to be a kind of “temple” dedicated to Pan.  If anything, the garden could have benefited from more follies.  I mean, surely that’s what any Georgian garden needs to make it REALLY impressive.

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There were also some stables and things with shops in them, and that aforementioned duck pond with a variety of smelly ducks (not knocking water fowl in general, because swans are the only birds I actively dislike, but they really did stink), but the house was most definitely the highlight of the experience.  And it actually did offer up more information than many National Trust properties (plus I didn’t take the audio guide, so there might have been even more available), but I was genuinely too impressed with most of the glorious Georgian interiors to even care that much.  Give me that Jesters and Devil game, and a few wigs to try on, and I’m a happy camper (I have never literally been a happy camper though.  Camping is the worst).  3.5/5, but I have to say it, like I do for every National Trust property: it is way too expensive if you’re not a member, especially with the parking charge thrown in, so please bear that in mind.

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London: Anaesthesia Heritage Centre


This is a shortish post, so let’s just consider this part of a medical twosome, to go with the Army Medical Museum from last week.  If nothing else, it’s really emphasised to me that British medical words are hard to spell.  There’s always an extra “a” or “o” or something in there to trip you up.  Maybe I should just give up on the Anglicised spellings, and revert to pure American, to match my uncompromisingly American accent and vocabulary (sorry, but trousers will always be pants to me!).  Anyway, the Anaesthesia (extra “a”) Heritage Centre was one of the few non-appointment only museums on this London medical museum website I hadn’t made it to, so I finally got around to venturing up there the other day (to be honest, all those Harley Street-esque premises intimidate me, so I waited until my boyfriend could come with me (it’s only open on weekdays) so I wouldn’t have to brave it alone).


The website says you should contact them before your visit, but you really don’t have to.  There’s just a normal receptionist there who will have someone from the museum take you downstairs, so there’s no need to make an appointment or anything, no matter what they tell you.  The museum is free, which is good because it’s super teeny (that panorama above shows pretty much the whole of it, and the perspective probably makes it look bigger than it is), as I have learned is generally the case for museums based in some kind of medical association (like the BDA Dental Museum).  I will say that they do manage to cram an awful lot of text in there, so at least it takes a bit longer than the Dental Museum to look around if you read everything.


I already knew a fair bit about the history of anaesthesia (that damn “a”) just on account of being a medical history nerd, and we also saw some of the first general anaesthestic related instruments at the Warren Anatomical Museum in Boston, Boston being a kind of anaesthesia hub in the 19th century, so there wasn’t a whole lot that was new or particularly impressive in this museum, save for some instruments belonging to Dr. John Snow of cholera fame, and a machine that was used when George VI was operated on for lung cancer, but the collection of disturbingly long spinal needles was certainly suitably terrifying (I think I’m more scared of having a needle jammed in my spine than most other medical procedures.  I’m not generally bothered by needles, hence the tattoos and multiple ear piercings, but seriously, do not put one of those things near my spine.  Though I guess if I ever had to go through childbirth, I might change my mind right quick).


The main draw of the museum was meant to be this WWI exhibit, the second in a series of four stretching from 2014-2018 (maybe they change them in August, or November?), on “The Riddle of Shock,” but man, this shit was lame.  The “exhibit” turned out to be two posters in a corner of the museum.  I mean, the information therein was interesting, basically on how they discovered shock was common because the men were normally dehydrated and chilled when they went into battle anyway, and getting wounded on top of that was more than the body could take, so they were able to develop ways to treat it based on warming and rehydrating the body (no coffee enemas for me though, thanks).  But I really would not call two posters an exhibit.  A display, maybe?  If they’d called it a display, I don’t think I’d have been as disappointed.


There’s also a small library there, which you apparently DO need an appointment to use, and I discovered another display case inside the empty restaurant (though it was even less impressive than the stuff in the museum).  And their toilets are quite nice, which is maybe worth remarking on due to the scarcity of public loos in this part of London (who hasn’t popped into the M&S on Oxford Street just to use their toilets?!), though as you have to sign in and everything, it probably wouldn’t be advisable to stop in just for that.  But the fact that I’ve just wasted that much space talking about their toilets (with fancy soaps!) shows how little there is in the museum worth discussing.  Good if you need a primer on the history of anaesthesia, not really worth the trip for much else.  2/5.


Aldershot, Hampshire: Army Medical Services Museum

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Wow. I knew the Army Medical Services Museum was at Keogh Barracks in Aldershot (despite having no idea how to pronounce “Keogh”), but somehow I wasn’t expecting it to be so scary official.  I found out about this place a long time ago, but its opening hours (9:30-3:30 on weekdays, closed weekends) and inaccessibility by public transport kept me from visiting it until now.  I wouldn’t recommend unemployment, but it sure has freed up a lot of time for me and my boyfriend to do stuff like this (too bad most of it has to be free.  There’s always a catch, isn’t there?).  Well, the museum is free, but clearly I didn’t read their website thoroughly enough, because I didn’t realise I’d have to go through a full-on ID-flashing security check in order to get in.

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The museum building is actually IN the barracks, as in, it’s part of this big military compound, so you have to go past a checkpoint staffed by a number of armed soldiers to visit it.  And I don’t generally carry a picture ID on me (because I don’t drive and I’m hella old, so there’s usually no need, at least in the UK), so I was frantically riffling through my wallet to find something to give the unsmiling guard.  All I came up with was a bank card, which he fortunately accepted, since we’d driven almost an hour to get there.  A few questions later (dunno why he asked my boyfriend what his job was but not me…sexist much?), we were deemed no danger and granted passes to see the museum.  After all that, I was pleasantly surprised that the museum staff seemed pretty laid-back (and not bothered about us taking pictures).  We were the only visitors, other than some people doing research in the library (open to anyone if you make an appointment first).

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The building didn’t look all that big from the outside, but the galleries wrapped around in such a way that they managed to fit a whole lot in there (and plenty of delightful mannequin-filled dioramas).  It covered the history of army medicine from the English Civil War to the present day, although the largest displays were devoted to the Napoleonic Wars and World Wars 1 and 2.  And oh man, did they have some cool stuff in here.

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An English doctor tended to Napoleon when he was in exile on St. Helena (I have a weird desire to visit St. Helena; something about isolated places appeals to me enormously, though I could not actually live somewhere without a steady supply of Belgian milk chocolate, pecorino cheese, and books), and he brought back a razor used on Ol’ Boney, and a dental kit used to remove a couple of his wisdom teeth.  (Apparently Napoleon insisted on having his teeth pulled whilst he was seated on the floor, which made an already difficult job even tougher.  I’m just glad I got knocked out when I had my wisdom teeth out.  The thought of someone cracking my teeth in half while I was conscious gives me the creeps.)

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If a soldier deserted back in the day (during peacetime, I would assume, since usually they just executed you in wartime), he would be branded with a letter “D,” so everyone would know and thus punish him more harshly for any future infractions.  They also had a “B” and a “C” for bad conduct (which I would probably have ended up with; not sure if they gave you the “B” and the “C” or just one or the other).  Rather than an actual brand, or a proper tattoo though (which wouldn’t have been so bad, the tattoo anyway), they would use this device with a bunch of thick needles in the shape of the needed letter, jam that into your skin all at once, and then rub India ink into the wound.  In addition to the needles they used, they had an actual piece of skin here taken from a (dead) soldier, so you could see what it looked like.  I don’t know how long the soldier lived with that tattoo for, but that ink sure stayed black (being located under the armpit probably helped, since it wouldn’t see much sun).

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Around the time of the Boer Wars, soldiers would swallow half pennies (ha’pennies) to try to get out of active duty (not sure how that would get you out of anything anyway, I would think shooting off a toe would be more effective), so the army doctors devised a hook device to reach down the throat and fish them out.  Having once had a singularly unpleasant nasal scope (and that was with a soft flexible tube that only went down my throat, rather than a metal hook to the stomach), I think I would have rather just taken my chances on the front lines.

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Oh, they had a bunch of Florence Nightingale stuff here too, including sketches of the hospital in Scutari, and the medal the nurses that served with her were given (at her insistence, Victoria was all for awarding only Florence).

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There was a whole separate gallery for the WWI artefacts, which I was pretty keen on after spending so much time researching various soldiers for the Carved in Stone project I volunteer on (not a medic among my bunch, unfortunately, though I do have some pretty interesting guys nonetheless), but there wasn’t a whole lot in here.

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More promising was the WWI section in the main gallery, and the whole wall about facial reconstruction in the last gallery.  There were any number of poignant objects on display, including a violin covered with the signatures of a soldier’s dead comrades, and a soldier doll + letter that were rescued from an incinerator.

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WWII got its own gallery (well, corridor) as well, and it was surprisingly full of teeth, thanks to the Royal Army Dental Corps collection being in here too. (The RADC didn’t form until 1921, although there was obviously a need for it well beforehand, and dental officers began to be commissioned during WWI).  Rudolf Hess was originally held prisoner in a house nearby before being shipped off to Spandau Prison, so they had some of his dentures, as well as a mould taken of his teeth (they were nasty looking specimens too).  Also, in one of the Japanese prison camps, they apparently went along the line of POWs knocking out the front teeth of each soldier with a rifle butt, so the poor men had to fashion dentures from whatever was lying around the camps, and those were in here too (this museum is not for the faint-hearted, in case you haven’t figured that out by now).

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And I musn’t forget about the Royal Army Veterinary Corps, whose collections are also included here.  The museum had a huge case full of medals (lots of Victoria crosses, which I learned are all made from the same lump of metal. They even had the first one, which was given to Queen Victoria herself), which included medals given to army dogs for their valuable service in bomb detection.  And there was a pretty cool shoe intended for a camel (not sure how well putting it on him would have gone down.  Camels are feisty).

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The galleries finished with some cases about army medicine in modern conflicts (the Falklands, Afghanistan, etc), and a cool display about tropical diseases which included a giant tsetse fly.  I have to say, I was very impressed with the offerings here.  I wasn’t expecting much, going by their website, but they had legitimately fascinating and important historical objects in here, and lots of them at that!  Their opening hours and the whole entry procedure is kind of a pain, but it’s worth the effort (the guard when we were leaving was much friendlier (perhaps because we were no longer seen as a potential threat), and pointed out the rough location of the Rudolf Hess house out to us).  I love medical history, and though I usually prefer medical museums with jarred specimens, there’s just something about army medicine that captures my interest (probably the sheer severity of the injuries, which is why I have a particular fascination with the pioneering reconstructive surgeries done during WWI), and this place does a great job of showing the evolution of the AMS from the 1600s to the present day.  4/5.

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