Avignon: Palais des Papes and Pont Saint-Benezet

And now for the Palace of the Popes, the reason we spent a night in a budget hotel in Avignon North, which as far as I can tell is basically just a giant retail park (containing an outlet of the hilariously named but revolting looking cafeteria-style restaurant chain Flunch (we were not desperate enough to eat there, but intrigued by the name, I read some of the Tripadvisor reviews of the Paris branch, which made me laugh until I cried)). I wish I could say that all those Renaissance history classes I took as an undergrad were finally paying off, but to be totally honest, I’ve forgotten most of what I learned (the Renaissance isn’t my favourite, so I wasn’t paying much attention anyway). I did have a vague recollection of the Schism of 1378 (which I had always thought of as the Great Schism, but apparently that term is more commonly applied to when the Orthodox Church split from Roman Catholicism), and the resulting anti-popes, but as I learned at the palace, Avignon wasn’t only home to two anti-popes – it was home to seven legitimate popes as well (though the “legitimacy” of medieval popes is always questionable at best anyway, since they didn’t tend to get the title based on merit). The building was originally constructed as a bishops’ palace, but after Clement V was elected pope, he refused to go to Rome, and moved the papacy to Avignon instead (he was a real piece of crap, by the way. He decided that Venetians should be sold into slavery because the Church was at war with Venice (considering they were Christian, this was shitty even by the standards of the time since white Christians were normally the only people exempt from slavery) in addition to executing a bunch of the Knights Templar and members of other fringe groups). So the palace was subsequently enlarged into what is now the largest Gothic palace in Europe, and apparently having the papacy contained beneath one giant roof really helped to consolidate the powers of the church (not that that was a good thing).

  

Nowadays, it is just a massive tourist attraction (one of the busiest in France), so we tried to get there as early as possible to avoid both crowds and sun (hence the grim stay in Avignon North. Staying in Avignon proper was really expensive). We were perturbed when driving into town to see a huge line for one of the parking lots, but we persevered and found signs to one with loads of spaces that was much closer to the palace. Turns out the one with all the queues was the free parking lot, whereas you had to pay for the one we found, but quite frankly, I think it was worth the 8 euros to avoid the hassle of queues and shuttle buses. Although there were already tour groups gathering outside the palace when we arrived, I think we were still early enough to avoid most of the crowds, since we were able to just walk right in and buy tickets (we had been warned that there might be large queues, but you can order online to avoid this). As there were also no modesty standards in place, since the palace is no longer a religious institution, it was already a much pleasanter experience than the Vatican (though I think I would probably have met the standards without trying, given that my sun survival technique that day was to cover as much flesh as possible without sweating to death).

  

Admission to the Palais des Popes was €12, but we opted for the combined ticket, which included Pont Saint-Benezet (of which more later) and was €14.50. Every ticket includes use of the “histopad;” basically an iPad with headphones that acted as an audio guide/interactive element that guided us around the building. It was actually quite useful thanks to its inclusion of a moving map, because the palace is big and kind of confusing. Each room contained a black box in the middle that you were meant to scan with your histopad in order to see the room as it would have looked back in the 14th century and open the audio commentary. There was also a treasure hunt game on the histopads where you had to find a hidden coin in each room, and this was probably my favourite part.

   

Even though I’m normally not keen on audio guides and the like, I did enjoy the histopads because they provided loads of information in English, the games were fun, and I also think they helped move traffic along because you only had to scan the boxes for a couple of seconds and then walk away with all the information you needed in your hands, rather than standing in front of an object label and blocking everyone’s view. There is a part of me that feels it somewhat detracted from the experience of actually being in the palace, because I spent most of the time staring at the histopad rather than actually looking at my surroundings, but most of the rooms were pretty blah, so it wasn’t as big of a deal as it may have been somewhere else. My only real beef with it was that I seemed to walk faster than it was intending me to, and sometimes I would unintentionally walk outside the zone of one of the rooms whilst the audio guide was still talking, which completely cut off the audio, and walking back into the room didn’t bring it back, so some way of at least being able to replay things you’d missed would be nice (maybe there was, but I couldn’t find it if so).

    

The rooms themselves are big, but not terribly impressive without the furnishings shown on the histopad, though a few do still have interesting painted walls or stone carvings. There were a handful of objects to look at in most rooms, but it seems like most of what was here is probably now in the hands of the Vatican, because the scale of the building itself was the most impressive part. To be honest, I kind of preferred this to the over-the-top opulence of the Vatican, since all that ostentation just made me resent the Church even more. The route took us all around and through the palace, and right up onto the roof (which was windy and hot simultaneously). We had to keep crisscrossing across the courtyard in the process, and I was surprised to see that it was filled with a stage and seats, apparently for some sort of music festival. While in theory I think it’s nice that these buildings are still put to some sort of practical use, in practice, the seats and scaffolding ruined the appearance of the courtyard (we would find this to be an issue in other sites in France as well), and I hate music festivals, so I don’t even feel like they were ruining the ambience for a good reason.

  

In the end, my favourite room was the one that featured treasured artefacts from local museums – there was some awesome stuff in here, from taxidermied animals and memento mori paintings, to that amazing set of doors painted with medieval monsters (they look like the sort of delightful creatures you sometimes find in marginalia). Other than that, as I’ve said, there wasn’t a tonne to look at, so it was probably good we had the histopads, because I can imagine this would have been a rather boring experience before they existed. I’ll give it 3/5, mainly because I feel like they did put some effort into trying to make it a positive visitor experience whilst working with the limitations of the inside of the palace in its present meh state (it’s impressive from the outside though!).

  

After we finished with the palace (and its multilevel gift shop), we headed over to Pont Saint-Benezet. This is a bridge across the Rhone (well, partly across the Rhone now), which its website bills as “the most famous bridge in the world;” surely one of the most egregious examples of hyperbole I’ve ever seen. Really, more famous than the Golden Gate Bridge? Or Tower Bridge? Or London Bridge, Brooklyn Bridge, the Charles Bridge in Prague or one of the other famous bridges around the world that I at least know by name? I had literally never heard of this bridge before we decided to go to Avignon, so I’m not sure what they’re talking about. Perhaps it’s more famous in Francophone countries because of the song “Sur le Pont d’Avignon” which I had also never heard of before visiting (and wasn’t terribly impressed with once I did listen to it. It is very repetitive and gets annoyingly stuck in your head).

  

At any rate, we turned up and were given a new set of audio guides, though these were the old-fashioned ones where you had to manually enter in each number and then hold it up to your ear whilst your arm fell asleep from holding it there, so it really paled in comparison to the wonders of the histopad. I ended up not really using the audio guide (it was way too long-winded) and just walking around the bridge, which, as you may have guessed, was built by Saint Benezet – according to legend he was a young shepherd who heard voices telling him to build a bridge (a sort of 12th century Field of Dreams I guess), but in reality he was probably just a local merchant. It was fairly useless as far as bridges go, since it was too narrow to admit carts, so could only be used by pedestrians and people on horseback, and thus wasn’t really suitable for the transport of goods. It only had that limited functionality until the 17th century, when a flood washed chunks of it away (Benezet’s body used to be kept in a chapel on the bridge, but apparently its alleged power to work miracles couldn’t prevent the flood, and it was moved to a safer location. Kind of a shame, as it would have been way more interesting with relics to look at). Today it only goes about halfway across the Rhone, which was a little unsettling. It’s a nice enough looking bridge (or half bridge) I guess, but I wish we hadn’t spent the extra €2.50 to see it and just bought some pain au chocolat with that money (not that we could have in Avignon, because once again, boulangeries were nigh on impossible to find, and only one of them was open (and didn’t sell pastries). We’d have probably had better luck with Flunch. Why have I been so misled about the prevalence of bakeries in France?), especially because it was so hot by that time I was desperate to get off the bridge and into shade. I can only give it 1.5/5, because I thought a bridge that doesn’t even span a river is “pont-less” (get it?), and the audio guides were pretty lame. If your time in Avignon is limited, I recommend skipping this and just going to the Palais des Papes, which at least offers some degree of entertainment and shade!

  

Advertisements

Arles to Saint-Remy-de-Provence: The Van Gogh Trail

I know that most people have a soft spot for Vincent Van Gogh, and I am certainly no exception. I’m staring at Cafe Terrace at Night, which hangs above my fireplace, as I type this, and my old bedroom at my parents’ house has a celestial theme, dominated by a huge copy of The Starry Night hanging above my bed. I named my life size poseable skeleton Vincent (and his pet skeleton cat is called Theo), and I can’t listen to that Don McLean song without tearing up (I completely lost it at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Like full on ugly crying in public). Hell, I even have one of his paintings tattooed on me, so I guess it’s fair to say that I take my fondness for Van Gogh further than most people, and one of the reasons I wanted to go to the south of France was to retrace his footsteps and see some of the places that inspired him.

  

Van Gogh moved down to Arles from Paris in 1888, hoping the climate would improve his health, and was deeply inspired by the Provencal landscape, entering a very prolific period of work. Unfortunately, when his friend Gauguin followed him down there, his mental health took a turn for the worse, and he ended up cutting off his own ear (probably, I think the jury’s still out on what exactly happened), requiring him to move into a hospital to recover. Today, Arles is home to a Van Gogh gallery of its own, but as far as I could tell, they don’t actually own any of his paintings – they just borrow some to put on their annual exhibition, which changes every year, and only contains a few of Van Gogh’s works (the rest being by other artists on a Van Gogh-inspired theme), so I decided to skip that in favour of the Van Gogh Walk, which is meant to take you past a number of Van Gogh related sites.

 

We drove into Arles, and obtained parking on the street. Because we hadn’t had much luck finding food that morning (I was holding out for panisse and chichi fregis from this village near Marseille, only it turned out that all the food stalls there were closed on Monday, so I ended up eating nothing), I was pretty cranky, and Arles would not improve my mood. To start with, very little was open here either, except for some super touristy cafes in the forum (everything in France appears to be shut on Sunday and Monday (and Tuesday in some cases)), so I ended up falling back on some not very nice crisps we’d bought the night before, in case of food emergency (the French do not excel in the art of the crisp, I have to say), and was still exceedingly cranky. This meant that I was unwilling to walk out to where he painted Starry Night over the Rhone (a different painting than the more famous The Starry Night), since it was far and I didn’t see much point in looking at it in broad daylight. Most of the other sites on the list also turned out to now look completely different from what Van Gogh painted, so weren’t even worth photographing. However, I was keen to see the yellow cafe portrayed in the aforementioned Cafe Terrace at Night, since I look at the painting every day.

  

This is still a cafe, but other than the colour, it looks very little like what Van Gogh painted, and has been turned into one of the super touristy cafes I just mentioned (it’s actually called Van Gogh Cafe), so it was quite a let down. In the end, we took a quick look at the outside of the Roman amphitheatre (which still hosts a form of bullfighting, gross) and hightailed it out of there, hoping nearby Saint-Remy-de-Provence would prove more fruitful.

  

Initial impressions of Saint-Remy weren’t great either, since I really had to pee by this time, and the only public toilets we could find were squat toilets that were absolutely filthy, and I was wearing sandals, so wasn’t willing to put my feet in there. I decided to hold it in until I could find somewhere more suitable (like a secluded tree), and we instead headed into the touristy centre of town to look for food. Fortunately, unlike Arles, there were appetising looking shops open, so we were able to at least get a baguette, and probably the most delicious pastry of the trip – a caramel and almond tart from a patisserie we stumbled across (and a very nice little financier type cake, but the tart was the highlight), so I was less hangry. Therefore, we decided to do the Van Gogh trail in Saint-Remy, which takes you from the centre of town up to the mental institution where Vincent voluntarily committed himself after his breakdown in Arles.

 

The trail itself was a bit lame, since it just consisted of pictures of Van Gogh’s work, with a brief explanation of each, plonked down at random intervals on the road to Vincent’s old hospital.  I think it would have been a lot better if the trail was actually through the places where those pictures had been painted, rather than just an ordinary street. Still, I loved seeing The Road Menders featured here, which is my favourite Van Gogh painting at the Cleveland Museum of Art, and reading the caption to Almond Blossom, which included a letter from Vincent to his mother explaining that he had painted it for his nephew, his brother Theo’s son, did make me a little choked up. This trail was mainly remarkable on account of the cicadas that are apparently everywhere in Provence, and were so noisy they actually hurt my ears (the sound also fills me with dread because it reminds me of the locust years in Cleveland, but these cicadas, whilst gross, weren’t quite as horrific, in that they didn’t actively attack my head like locusts do).

  

We arrived at the hospital, called Saint-Paul de Mausole and still used as a psychiatric hospital, and were asked to pay 5 euros for entry to the hospital and grounds, which of course we did, because I was most keen to see the recreation of Van Gogh’s bedroom (also I was hoping there’d be a toilet). We found this rather touching statue of Vincent holding drooping sunflowers just inside the grounds, and paid a brief visit to the hospital chapel, which contained an interesting small sound and light show in one corner that was activated after we deposited 20 cents in a box (we did it with no idea of what was actually going to happen. I was hoping for automata).

  

I then hightailed it out to the garden, as I had spotted a toilet sign, and indeed, there was a non-squat model out there (albeit lacking a seat and soap, but still); however, there was just one for everyone, so I had to queue for about ten minutes for my turn (with all women – I suspect the men did just find a suitable tree, like my original plan). Thus relieved, I was free to explore the gardens, which contained small patches of both lavender and sunflowers, so that I felt I was getting a bit of the Provencal experience at last (the good Provencal experience, rather than the squat toilets, cicadas, and extreme heat). Van Gogh painted the gardens here, and loved the local cypress trees, which feature in many of his paintings, like The Starry Night, which he also painted during his stay here.

  

Finally, we headed up to see Van Gogh’s re-created bedroom (I wasn’t clear on whether his bedroom was actually in this area of the hospital, or they’d just picked it for the re-creation because it was out of the way, but it would have been interesting to know, given that he painted variations of the view from his window twenty one times), which was filled with very wordy signs (with English translations) on what Van Gogh’s medical diagnosis may have been today (no real consensus, but possibly bipolarism). His bedroom was quite depressing, as you might expect (this wasn’t the one he famously painted, that was in Arles), and it was sort of a relief to head down into the shop, which contained a number of artworks done by current patients of the hospital in addition to the expected Van Gogh stuff (he was given a ground floor studio at the hospital, which is where he did the actual painting (he could only make sketches in his room), but I’m not sure if this is where the shop is now, or another area entirely). I think 5 euros was a little pricy for what we got (there was apparently meant to be a museum somewhere in the hospital about the period Van Gogh was living here, but we never found it if it was there. There was a small gallery near the entrance with some wooden sculptures in it, but there were no English captions and they were extremely abstract, so I’m not sure what they were meant to be), but the gardens were lovely, and I’m glad I got to see some of what Van Gogh would have experienced, so in the end it was worth it.

  

I don’t think the trail gave me any special insights into Van Gogh’s mental state, but seeing the cypresses and fields up close did help me better understand the composition of some of his paintings, and it’s always a pleasure to look at his work, even if it’s just mounted by the side of a busy road. It wasn’t as moving as the Van Gogh Museum was for me, but I still felt myself getting emotional at times, and I don’t regret doing it – I just wish Arles had been more fulfilling and less of a tourist trap (my advice if you have limited time would be to skip Arles and just head straight for Saint-Remy). To end on a more cheerful note, I’ll leave you with pictures of some dogs we encountered on the trail (I got really excited when the one on the left followed us for quite a while, thinking I had a new best friend, but it turned out he was just returning to his owner who worked on a building site).

  

Marseille: Mucem (Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations)

 

Even though it’s one of the easiest countries to get to from London, I have spent many years avoiding France based on the bad time I had in Paris over a decade ago (it was nothing terrible, like getting robbed or assaulted, more just a few unpleasant experiences and one or two potentially scary ones that I managed to get myself out of before anything happened). But Paris is not France any more than London is Britain (big cities tend to be more like each other rather than representative of the rest of the country), so I figured it was about time I gave it another chance. Why I decided to go to the south of France in the middle of July knowing how much I hate heat and sun is another matter altogether…let’s just say I took a temporary leave of my senses and convinced myself it wouldn’t be all that bad.

  

Turns out I was very, very wrong. The sun was unbelievably hot and horrible and strong, as I learned about three seconds after leaving Marseille airport. Therefore, as usual, museums would prove my salvation on this trip – even the ones that weren’t air conditioned were at least out of the sun! We spent the first night of our trip in Marseille (which also happened to be the day of the World Cup Final that France was playing in – yep, this trip was really not well thought through), and the one museum I really wanted to see there was Mucem, the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations, so we slathered on the sunscreen and headed out into the merciless glare outside.

  

The Mucem is a fairly new museum, having only opened in 2013, and they have a complete English version of their website, so I was sure they would have English translations in the museum and the all-important air conditioning, and I was partly right (fortunately, I was entirely right about the air conditioning, which was the thing I cared about most at the time). Admission was €9.50, which included all of the exhibitions except for the temporary immersive experience, as we would learn later on. The Mucem is spread over two sites (actually, according to their website there’s a third one I didn’t know about, but it sounds like it is primarily for storage and conservation) which are connected by an elevated footbridge, so we were initially pretty confused about where to enter, and ended up circling the Saint Jean site before we spotted an entrance at the J4 building (the one covered in metal webbing), and believe me, I could have done without the extra time in the sun. Even once we got into the J4 building, we were a little unsure about where to begin, as the lobby area provided entrance to quite a few different galleries, but in the end we found our way to “Ruralities,” which appeared to be the first gallery chronologically.

  

This was about the history of agriculture in the Mediterranean region, and I’m sure it was quite interesting, but unfortunately only the main signage had English translations. All the object labels and smaller signs were only in French, which is certainly their prerogative, but I didn’t have much idea of what was going on as a result (I did take seven years of French between high school and university, but thanks to a series of terrible teachers, my French was never that great, and is now very very rusty indeed). I would say probably 80% of the signage in the permanent galleries is in French only, and they do offer English audio guides, but they cost extra and I didn’t know how much English was inside before going in, so we declined them. There were still some pretty great objects to look at however, particularly the collection of shaped gingerbread hiding in the back of the exhibition, and “Jesus of the Grapes.”

  

From here we moved on to “Connectivities,” the other permanent exhibition, which profiled six different historical port cities around the Mediterranean, and four modern cities (including Marseille), and the history of trade between them. Again, I think I would have enjoyed this quite a bit had I been able to read more of it, but there were interesting artefacts nonetheless, even though I wasn’t always completely sure what I was looking at. It did crack me up that in the sections on foreign cities, like Venice and Seville, they translated the summaries (like three sentences) into the language of that region (e.g. Italian and Spanish), but literally nothing else in the museum was in those languages. It was like they thought foreign visitors would be pleased that they could read three sentences in the museum. It somehow seemed like more of an insult than just not bothering at all.

  

We then headed upstairs in the J4 building to view the two main temporary art exhibitions: “Gold” and Ai Weiwei’s “Fan-Tan,” the latter of which Marcus was quite excited about, so we went in there first. “Fan-Tan” had English translations on everything, which was much appreciated, and probably why I ended up enjoying this exhibition the most. Ai Weiwei did an exhibition here because Marseille was where his father first landed on his way over from China to attend university in Paris, so he felt a certain connection with the city, and the exhibition was meant to be loosely themed around his father, who was a poet. The centrepiece was “Colored House,” which dominated the first room of the exhibition, but there were cases lining the walls to show off smaller pieces of work, and a chandelier and sculptures of the animals of the Chinese Zodiac in the last room. I think most of the pieces here were older works, but Ai Weiwei did create two artworks made of Marseille soap specifically for it (which were honestly just meh, because soap). I’m not convinced about the “everyday” objects molded out of jade series (like the anal beads, though really, I’m not judging if that’s your thing, but I feel relatively confident that there aren’t many people who use anal beads on a quotidian basis), but I quite liked the death mask of his father (which was one of the few pieces that was obviously tied to his father. There were also old racist French cartoons showing how the Chinese were portrayed at the time his father was living in France), the Marcel Duchamp inspired shoes that were impossible to walk in, and his re-creation in Lego of the time he broke an ancient Chinese pot.

  

“Gold” was back to mostly French again, and I’m not the keenest on gold jewellery or anything anyway, but the giant nude sculptures cast in gold were pretty good, as was the giant gold thumb. After finishing up with this, we wandered outside to the ramps that looped around the building that would ultimately take us to the footbridge over to Saint Jean Fort (which may not be for acrophobics, though I’m not overly keen on heights and I was fine with it). The walkways around the building and the footbridge were probably one of the coolest parts of the experience (not literally; the footbridge was boiling, as you might expect an exposed surface made of metal to be), because you could view the sea and the port from in between the metal webbing, and the footbridge had great views of the city as well.

  

We were a little worried by the time we made it to Fort Saint Jean (which was built in 1660 by Louis XIV, and was used as a fort and prison through the Second World War), because it looked like there were a few exhibitions here as well and we wanted to grab dinner and get back to the hotel before the football ended in case of any craziness (it wasn’t as full on as Paris looked, but there were people driving around sitting on top of their cars waving French flags and honking their horns until like four in the morning, so it was probably for the best that we weren’t out), and it was already around five (the museum is open until eight pm). Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it), one of the exhibitions advertised in the catalogue wasn’t opening until a few days after our visit, and the immersive one wasn’t included in our ticket price (despite what the guy working there claimed, though if they were just going to immersively speak French to us, I wasn’t that bothered about it anyway since I wouldn’t understand most of it), so the only thing that was open to us was “Love from A to Z” which I thought was quite cute, despite it being almost entirely in French. I could easily figure out what thing was representing each letter, and some of the objects, like the miniature version of a love triangle and the French version of what appeared to be a Mystery Date style game, were downright adorable.

  

I was reluctant to leave this air conditioned gallery to go try to find food (we just ended up at a dingy small supermarket inside a mall that had almost nothing on its shelves (not even bread!) because it was Sunday and July and barely anything else was open, plus we were in a hurry), but needs must, so we made a brief trip back down through the museum gardens and out onto the cruel shadeless streets. I definitely appreciated the air conditioning in the museum, and I enjoyed what I was able to understand, but due to my lack of language skills (which is admittedly my own fault), I don’t feel I was able to get the most out of this museum. It’s a neat concept, and the buildings themselves are really cool, but I think I was hoping for a little more from such a new museum. 3/5, but I did really like “Fan-Tan,” and if you can understand French, you’ll probably like Mucem a lot!

  

London: BMoF’s Scoop: A Wonderful Ice Cream World

After that very weird honey experience a couple of years ago (it was just a honey tasting thing, lest you be picturing something worse!), I decided I wasn’t going to give in to the allure of Bompas and Parr events any more, no matter how appealing they might seem. And I was doing well, until they sent me an email about a potential pop up ice cream museum they were trying to obtain funding for. Well, I’m sure all my regular readers know about me and ice cream (I’m obsessed), and I’ve been wanting to go to the ice cream museum in America for some time (it sounds very overpriced but fun), so, hoping for something similar, my willpower gave way completely. Not only did I buy tickets, I also actually helped fund the damn thing (albeit at the lowest level that included tickets, so I wasn’t spending a massive amount or anything) so my name is on their wall of donors, which is a little embarrassing. Clearly my idiocy knows no bounds where ice cream is concerned.

  

So a couple weeks ago, shortly after “Scoop: A Wonderful Ice Cream World” (as they’re calling it) opened, I went to revel in my stupidity check it out. I couldn’t really have picked a better day for it (from an ice cream eating perspective; not so much a going outside one, because I do not like the sun), since it was pushing 90 degrees and I had the perfect excuse to wear my ice cream print sundress (not that I need an excuse, though I was disappointed that no one there seemed to realise I had coordinated my outfit with the museum).
  
We had booked a 12 o’clock slot (admission is £12 (plus booking fee), and they do take walk-ins if they’re not busy) but because it was hard to find (it is in the Granary Square area, but we went out the wrong entrance from King’s Cross, and ended up approaching it via a back route), we ended up arriving a bit late, so were asked to wait about 10 minutes until it was time for the next group to enter, which was fine, since it was our fault for being late. While we were waiting, a woman with a young child came in, and was persuaded to go inside despite her concerns about taking the child in, but the child ended up screaming her head off about three seconds after entering and they both quickly left, so I hope she was at least able to get her money back (take this as a word of warning if you’re going with young children, since it is a bit dark, which is apparently scary). I was actually surprised by how many children were there – everyone on our tour but us was with a couple of older children; obviously children like ice cream, but Bompas and Parr events are usually aimed at an adult audience, so I wasn’t expecting to feel so out of place.
  
When we were finally allowed to enter, we were ushered into a theatre that was showing a film about ice cream and was already about halfway through (you’d think if they were doing timed entry, they would make sure it was at the start for each new group). We swiftly progressed into the walk-in cooler, which in retrospect was the best damn part of the experience. Everyone else got out pretty quickly, but I hung out in there for a good few minutes, luxuriating in being a comfortable temperature for the first time in weeks (I used to hang out in the walk-in quite a lot when I managed an ice cream shop, although then it was mainly to hide and eat graham cracker ripple out of the pitcher. God, I loved that stuff. It was basically liquefied graham cracker that solidified when it hit ice cream, and tasted so much better than I’m making it sound).
  
After finally leaving the icy embrace of the cooler, I entered a museum-style room containing some antique ice cream moulds and some information about the Victorian “Queen of Ices” Agnes B. Marshall (the best part was that cartoon of the guy eating ice cream. Totally what I do when I eat ice cream). We were then asked to wait in a hallway with scent panels on the wall (which I did enjoy, because I like smelling stuff) before progressing into an ice cream making class wherein we made the world’s smallest amount of poorly flavoured ice cream in a shaker container. (For the record, Bompas and Parr described this lame activity as “Visitors will be encouraged to travel back in time with a performative interpretation of Victorian ‘Queen of Ices’ Agnes B Marshall’s Cookery School originally on Mortimer Street, where visitors will meet Ida Cooke, a fictional character who introduces herself as Agnes’s star pupil. Ida will share some of Agnes’s recipes and encourage guests to try tasty morsels of various iced concoctions. Each cone is topped-off with a sparkling garnish from SCOOP’s very own hundreds and thousands fountain – a world first invention by Bompas & Parr.” See below paragraph for how the fountain disappointed.)  I think they forgot to add sugar to the base and it was just milk and cream, because the finished product was pretty bland; even the granny smith apple flavouring we put in couldn’t save it (apple was one of the only non-gross flavouring choices – it was mainly things like smoky bacon and parmesan cheese (I don’t think the actual cheese would have been so bad, but the thought of artificial cheese flavouring makes me want to gag)).
  
The next room contained the hundreds and thousands fountain, which I was really excited about, even though obviously hundreds and thousands are nowhere near as good as sprinkles. As stated above, we were supposed to have a chance to use it to top our cones (presumably the Whippy cones, as the cookery school tasteless ice cream we just had to scrape out of the shaker with plastic spoons), but it may have been out of order, because no one mentioned it, and it wasn’t moving or anything (not very joyous). I liked the cheesy jokes written on giant popsicle sticks (best one: What do you call a metalhead who works in an ice cream shop? Alice Scooper!), and the collection of vintage postcards, but the “Dark Side of Ice Cream” adults only room about the Glasgow Ice Cream Wars was pretty crap, being just a video with one set of headphones, so Marcus and I couldn’t even watch it together (and there was a chair in there, but if you sat in it, you were much too low to watch the video, so I’m not sure what the point of it was).
  
We were given a teensy tiny sample of Ben and Jerry’s to eat while wearing a headset that was supposed to project your brain waves on the wall (obviously it was just reacting to your chewing), and seriously, could Ben and Jerry’s not spare more ice cream than that? It was like a tablespoon of ice cream. Finally, we were handed a very small (but not as small as the Ben and Jerry’s) Mr. Whippy, and sent into a “futuristic luminescent cave” where the ice cream was meant to glow in the dark. The “cave,” which I had eagerly anticipated, was literally just a darkish room with bare walls and some socks with cotton balls or similar in them hanging from the ceiling (I’ve half-assedly put together spider egg sacks for Halloween using that method that looked better than these), and the ice cream didn’t glow any more than any other white substance would when exposed to black light, so I think it was a sham. It did appear to be made from actual dairy products though, so at least it tasted better than your average Whippy.
  
And except for “Conehenge,” the delightfully named but ultimately disappointing ice cream shop at the un-air-conditioned entrance that you had to pay extra for (£3.99 for one small scoop of one of the five or so not very appealing flavours (including cucumber and water mint)), that was that. Given the bombastic description of it I was sent, this was yet another case of style over substance from Bompas and Parr (and not even much style, as some of the rooms looked a little unfinished, especially the cave, and the bloody fountain wasn’t working) that I was stupid enough to fall for yet again. They didn’t meet their funding target (I think they only raised like three thousand pounds out of a target of fifty thousand), and it definitely showed – maybe it would have been better just to cancel it rather than deliver such a lacklustre product. I hated it less than the honey thing, because my fellow visitors were not pretentious and at least we got very small amounts of free ice cream, but my god, it was a pathetic effort given all the hype. Never again Bompas and Parr, never again (unless they do some other food I love as part of their British Museum of Food project, but really, ice cream is the best thing, and they screwed that up, so I don’t know what would even have a chance of being better; or offer some kind of free ghostly experience that at least I’m not wasting money on, but even then, I’d probably still be wasting my time).  Another reason to be annoyed with Bompas and Parr is that it appears that most of their events rely heavily on volunteers rather than paid employees; as a volunteer manager myself, I get that volunteers are essential to most museums, including my own, but the vast majority of those museums are free to visit, and particularly in the case of smaller museums, don’t have much money – if you’re charging 12 pounds for admission, and turning a profit out of your business, you can at least pay people minimum wage, especially if you expect them to volunteer twenty days a month, which is essentially a full time job. 2/5, and it’s only getting that because of the delight I experienced in that walk-in freezer on such a hot day.
  

London: “Fashioned from Nature”@ the V&A

It’s been a while since I’ve visited a fashion exhibition at the V&A, so I thought I might as well pop along to see “Fashioned from Nature,”  especially since the Frida Kahlo exhibition was booked up the day we visited (actually, we were intending to see Frida that day, because it finishes first (in November), but I wanted to see “Fashioned from Nature” too, so I wasn’t just settling. I’m not a Frida superfan, like the women I saw there dressed up like her, but I like her well enough (and can relate to having a unibrow, though I’m not as brave as she was and pluck mine), so I’ll go back to check it out on a day when I’ve pre-booked!). Admission to “Fashioned from Nature” is normally £12, but you get half off with a National Art Pass or National Rail 2 for 1 (which I advise doing).

  

“Fashioned from Nature” (which runs until January) is located in the same fashion gallery where I saw “Undressed,” and had much the same layout (probably because those cases don’t really look like they’re moveable). It explored “the complex relationship between fashion and nature from 1600 to the present day,” and I have to say I much preferred the 1600-early 1900s part, which was the lower gallery. I was a little worried there would be things made of butterfly wings in here (given my lepidopterophobia), but aside from the framed butterflies you can see in the shop, the creepiest bug thing was the dress decorated with the iridescent wing cases of thousands of beetles (see below), and that was only creepy because I felt bad for all the beetles (their wing cases were admittedly beautiful though).

  

But plenty of other animals were horribly slaughtered to make these clothes, although there were a relatively small number of furs here, probably because it’s obvious that animals are killed for those. The exhibition preferred to focus on less well-known clothing materials. I knew about whalebone and its use in corsetry, of course, given my interest in the Victorians, but for some reason I’d always pictured it as more of a solid, bony substance (like, you know, the actual bones of a whale). I didn’t realise that whalebone actually refers to baleen, and it pulls apart in layers into flexible wire-like strands which can be used to line umbrellas or give hats shape. There were examples of bonnets and corsets here that had been x-rayed, so we could view the whalebone structure within. There was also information about how whole species of birds were going extinct due to the demand for feathers. In fact, when the RSPB was originally founded in 1889, it was called the Plumage League because its whole aim was to stop the feather trade. They conducted demonstrations in London of how feathers were harvested (I hope no birds were killed in those demonstrations, but they might have been!), and feathers eventually became unfashionable as a result, at least until synthetic imitations were invented (there was a Linley Sambourne cartoon (remember Linley Sambourne?) in here to show how women wearing feathers were caricatured as evil bird women, but I have to admit that it just made me want to wear some kind of awesome black feather cape so I could be a raven woman too, as long as the feathers were synthetic).
  
Fortunately, the exhibition wasn’t only full of things that animals were killed to make. It was also full of things made of natural materials like cotton where the harvesting and manufacturing processes led to lots of suffering for humans too (ok, yeah, still horrible)! It talked about the environmental impact of various industries and the grossest was probably the manufacturing of the dye used to make “turkey red” until they invented a synthetic version, as it involved blood, pee, AND poop (animal rather than human, but still). There’s a passage in Little House in the Big Woods where Pa threatens to buy Ma a “turkey red” piece of fabric for her new apron unless she picks a colour herself (she was protesting that she didn’t really need a new apron, and he wanted her to have it. He wasn’t being mean or anything), and now I see why that was enough to goad Ma into picking a more attractive fabric. It wasn’t just because of the colour! We tend to think of acid rain as more of a modern problem, but it has been a real issue since the Industrial Revolution because of all the smoke produced by the cotton mills. And of course this all had a human impact as well, in addition to just living with the effects of pollution, because the demand for cotton led to slavery in America and terrible working conditions for mill employees in England.
  
Therefore, the least depressing things here were the clothes that were merely patterned with things inspired by nature, like the charming waistcoat featuring crab-eating macaques, or the many gorgeous flower-patterned dresses (I particularly loved the banksia scarf, because it made me think of Joseph Banks, who banksia is named for), though probably slave labour was used to create the cloth in the first place, so really everything involved some kind of exploitation. I guess the good thing about this exhibition was that it made you realise that fashion comes at a cost beyond money.
  
I was less interested in the upstairs (and unfortunately, larger) gallery, which contained modern sustainable fabrics (it’s good they are sustainable, but the clothing they were used to make was way less beautiful than the antique pieces). The descriptions of how these fabrics were made were just too technical for me, and that’s what most of the text up here was about. I was intrigued by the leathers made from fungus and grapes, however, because they really did look pretty good, and obviously doesn’t harm animals. There was also a quiz where you could see what kind of sustainable fashion model you’d be likely to follow in the future (model as in a pattern of behaviour, not actual models), although it did seem to place a lot of emphasis on making your own clothing, which is not something I’m skilled at by any stretch of the imagination, so I’m picturing a future of me wearing a lot of ill-fitting potato sack dresses. There were loads of clothes up here, but the vintage fashions (particularly in the section showing unsustainable clothing of the past; I’m the worst, but how gorgeous is that leopard print gown?!) were really the only ones I found appealing (and those badass bird witch shoes, but there is no conceivable way a human could actually walk in those, so they’re basically useless). I mean, you can create cute retro styles from sustainable materials! It doesn’t all have to look gross and futuristic, just saying.
  

I complained about “Undressed” not being worth £12, and because “Fashioned from Nature” was in the same gallery, it wasn’t any bigger, so I also don’t feel this was worth paying full price, but £6 was OK. I did think all the information downstairs about historical clothing manufacture was fascinating, and I read some of the labels twice to make sure I understood everything, but I kind of skimmed over the upstairs gallery because it bored me. I am just way more interested in the past than the future and I would have been much happier with more historical fashions, but then I guess it wouldn’t have fit the exhibition’s brief of showing fashion to the present day (though a lot of it was about the future, something not mentioned in that blurb I quoted earlier). 3/5, but those more interested in fabric technology or science might get more out of it.

Brighton: Brighton Fishing Museum

My favourite thing about the Brighton Fishing Museum had to be the sign located on a hut opposite it, reading “Brighton Fishing Museum, Admission Free, ‘Just Opposite this Sign.'” I love that “Just Opposite this Sign” is in quotation marks, and enjoyed trying to figure out why. Is that the museum’s slogan? Did there used to be someone who actually stood inside the hut, directing traffic across to the museum, and it is quoting them? Do they just not know how to use quotation marks? Whatever the explanation, the sign is delightful.

   

Stumbling on this museum was actually a bit of a fluke (ha!), so maybe it’s good they had the sign. I’ve been to all the other museums in Brighton and Hove that I know about, except for the Old Police Cells (because you have to book a tour to those in advance, and they’re only offered at like 10 in the morning), so I wasn’t even planning on visiting a museum – I just wanted ice cream from Boho Gelato! But we were wandering along the beach, eating our ice creams (we actually went to Brighton twice in one week while we had the use of a car, so even though I did have a seagull steal my ice cream cone and eat it in front of me in what was a deeply traumatic experience that I mentioned in my last post, we went to this museum on our first visit when I was able to finish my ice cream unmolested by gulls (that White Chocolate Almond, oh my god)) when we found Brighton Fishing Museum, which I had heard about, but never really knew where it was. Turns out it is in one of the storefronts down on the beach (rather than on the pier), near a disturbing giant prawn statue that I made Marcus stand by for a photo, and once I found it, obviously I was going in, because I can’t resist a museum.
  
The museum itself is rather cute, but has a vague air of dust and abandonment about it. Admission is free, just as the sign promised, and there was no one there to have taken any money anyway, though there was a small museum shop in a hut nearby (a different hut than the one with the sign on it) with a cute dog inside, so I guess they could presumably run over in case of trouble (the human running the shop, not the dog). I’ve still never been to the Grimsby Fishing Heritage Centre (that is truly the dream, but I’m afraid to go because I know it will almost invariably disappoint), but I don’t think this museum was anything like on their level (certainly there were no changes in temperature or chances to experience seasickness), nor was it like the Time and Tide Museum or NAVIGO – it was most similar to the Hastings Fishermen’s Museum in both size and scope.
  
The museum consisted of one main room dominated by a fishing boat, with a small anteroom off to one side. It was mostly about the importance of fishing to Brighton, which, since Brighton became a resort town in the late 1700s, is something that is largely overlooked (and indeed, the rich people who flocked to Brighton after it became trendy were themselves not a fan of the fishermen, thinking them unforgivably crude and foul-mouthed, and their trade a smelly and disgusting one (though I’m willing to bet the rich and famous stuffed themselves stupid on fresh seafood whilst in Brighton)).
  
This was a very old fashioned museum, with nothing interactive about it at all, but if the information is interesting enough, sometimes that’s what you want (or expect, certainly). Unfortunately, that wasn’t really the case here. There were a few signs about the fisherman and their trade, and then a lot of old photos and paintings, and a few old wooden signs. I was interested in learning more about the traditional King Neptune celebrations that used to be held in Brighton (I know sailors used to dress up as Neptune and perform some sort of unpleasant initiation rites on their crew members who were crossing the equator for the first time, and I’m not sure whether these were related, or just also Neptune themed because after all, he is ruler of the sea), but they didn’t go into enough detail for my liking – I guess participants just wore themed costumes?
  
There were only a few display cases – most contained model ships, but there was one with a few pots and Staffordshire-esque figurines in it, which were mildly amusing. The boat inside the museum was named the Sussex Maid, but unlike at the Hastings Fishermen’s Museum, you couldn’t actually climb aboard, so it was minimally interesting. I was far more into Big Ron, the boat outside the museum, mainly because of the name!
  
I have to be frank – this really isn’t one of Brighton’s better museums (not that Brighton even has all that many museums, but the Brighton Museum and Booth Museum are both way nicer), and it’s not even one of the better fishing museums I’ve been to. It’s nice that they are trying to preserve this history, but it’s quite forlorn in its current location, and in need of a space that, I don’t know, at least has windows? The hut with the sign really is the best thing about it, but it was free, so at least I can’t complain about having wasted any money. 1.5/5.

He’s definitely plotting something…

This has absolutely no connection with fishing or Brighton, but I went to another event recently that doesn’t really fit in anywhere, and this post is a little short, so I’m going to take the liberty of sticking it in here. I happened to see Phobiarama listed in Time Out as part of the Lift Festival and was intrigued by the idea of a 40 minute ghost train (or laff-in-the-dark ride, as I like to call them. Blame a childhood spent poring over all those “Now-Defunct Amazing Looking Old-Timey Amusement Park” photo books (this is the sort of thing I mean, though not that actual title since it wasn’t published until 2005)), even though I was less keen on the whole political aspect of it (not because I thought I would disagree with the politics, more because I don’t think they really belong in a dark ride). Nonetheless, I booked Marcus and myself a pair of very expensive (£21 each!) tickets.

You get treated to this photo of me and a cowboy in Brighton, because I don’t have one of Phobiarama.

It is located in what appears to be a temporary purpose-built structure (I haven’t explored King’s Cross all that much since its regeneration, so I can’t say what exactly is normally there) in the Granary Square area, and we were asked to queue outside for about twenty minutes before our slot started. I don’t want to give too much away about the actual experience, in case anyone is going and wants to be surprised, but it’s a Dutch concept that was changed a bit for British audiences, I think mainly in terms of the news clips used. You are riding an actual ghost train style car along a track (cars fit two, so go with a friend or prepare to get friendly with a stranger, because they weren’t really all that big), and the ride uses live performers rather than animatronics or wax figures or something (which I might have preferred!). If you don’t like having things jump out at you in the dark (or clowns, or clowns that jump out at you in the dark), this probably isn’t the event for you, but I love it (well, not clowns, but I’m not so scared of them that I can’t deal), so I had a pretty good time, especially when the cars reversed direction and zipped really fast along the track, which was super fun. I thought the end was strange and it made me uncomfortable, since I felt bad for the performers, and the whole experience dragged on longer than it needed to, but overall I’m glad I went, though I think a tenner would have been a fairer price. Really the scariest part of the ride was when the clowns started blowing up balloons, because I hate balloons, but everything else was pretty tame (that said, some woman kept screaming, so maybe it depends on your tolerance). 3/5, maybe worth checking out if it comes to your city if you like this kind of stuff (I’d imagine London is probably booked up at this point).

Ditchling, East Sussex: Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft

I was apprehensive about visiting the Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft after learning about Eric Gill, who was an incestuous paedophile, at the Sussex Modernism exhibition at Two Temple Place last year.  Gill was part of the Ditchling group of artists, so I knew there was a good chance this museum would have some of his work, but I was hoping that because the Ditchling Museum hosts a number of temporary exhibitions, Gill’s work wouldn’t make up a significant part of what was on display.  I eventually just reckoned that because National Art Pass holders get free admission (normally £6.50), at least I wouldn’t be contributing any money to it if it was Gill-centric (other than what they get from the National Art Fund I guess), so on a recent trip to Brighton, we stopped off there on the way.

  
Despite my apprehensions about what its collection might contain, I have to admit that the Ditchling Museum itself could not have been in a more bucolic setting if it’d tried. You can certainly see why artists were drawn to this part of England (including the non-molester ones who were presumably less driven by being in a secluded environment to hide their goings-on). We parked out front next to a large pond that was home to ducks and no fewer than three terrapins (I was completely charmed by the terrapins, but much like the Ditchling artists’ group itself, all was not as it seemed on the surface, because apparently locals hate the terrapins (a non-native invasive species) because they eat the ducklings (they’re still cute though, but ducklings are cute too. Can’t they all just get along?)), and the museum was set into a hillside in front of a churchyard and pretty old church, with some tables out front for consuming things from the museum’s cafe (the cakes didn’t look half bad, but I had ice cream in Brighton in my sights).
  
So my first impressions of the museum were overall quite positive, especially when I got inside and saw “Belonging with Morag Myerscough,” which was essentially a big colourful swing set decorated with lots of images and signs (the wall you were meant to be staring at had images relating to different musical movements of the last few decades – I loved the pink skeleton). Not being one to turn down a swing, I had a good long sit on here (the scariest part was first sitting down in it, as the swings did tend to get away from you, but it was OK once you were ensconced). I also liked that the public toilet had a blackboard on the back of the door for doodling, even though touching the chalk was a bit gross (I did wash my hands after, and the toilet was far enough from the door that you couldn’t actually use it whilst you were on the toilet, but it was still kind of unsanitary, albeit fun if you didn’t think about it too much).
  
But then I went into the main gallery, and was met with lots of Gill’s artwork, accompanied by virtually no explanation of who Gill was, nor, most importantly, of the terrible things he had done. This seemed quite disingenuous to me, because context is everything in art history – even if Gill hadn’t been a horrible person, I still would have liked to have seen some biographical information so I could understand what inspired him – this felt like they were trying to keep your view on the art from being altered by the kind of man Gill was. This isn’t to say that I hated everything in this section – I liked some of the pieces by other Ditchling artists, especially the little wooden bear made for a man who had broken his leg, but they really needed to have some kind of background explanation on the community as well. After seeing two exhibitions on them, I still don’t fully understand their connection to Catholicism, but clearly there was some Catholic thread running through the artists’ group here, because much of their work was produced for churches, and the other displays here also had Catholic connections.
  
The temporary exhibition when I visited (which runs until 14 October) featured art by Corita Kent, who was an American printmaker active in the mid-20th century. The most interesting thing about Corita is that she was actually a nun for most of her career (she eventually left the convent in the 1970s, and died from cancer only about ten years later), but still managed to produce bold, fairly controversial work, especially her pieces protesting the Vietnam War (she wasn’t the only member of the clergy doing so (I don’t think nuns are technically clergy, but I forget what heading they do fall under and you know what I mean. They’re not laypeople anyway) – a number of priests were also arrested for their role in anti-war protests). There were actually a series of letters here between her archbishop and mother superior discussing how controversial her work was – basically, the church wanted her to knock it off, but her mother superior defended her, saying that although she didn’t agree with many of Corita’s pieces, she thought she had a real talent. It’s interesting that though we think of nuns as being quite conservative, historically, they have been a refuge for some very progressive women – even as late as the 1960s (or the 1990s, if you count Whoopi Goldberg in Sister Act. I’m going to choose to, because that’s seriously one of my favourite movies. I’m such a dork).
  
Her work ranged from the expected religion-inspired pieces to ones more secular in nature, especially on politics and consumerism. I loved “Enriched Bread” (which was a take on Holy Communion), and her circus letter pieces (which I’ve only just realised they cleverly used to spell out Ditchling) – her style in general was pretty cool, even in the pieces where I was less keen on the content. Her life story was also really interesting – in addition to the whole nun thing, she was responsible for the largest and smallest pieces of commissioned art in the US; the largest being a water tower in Boston (which no longer exists, but they saved the paint chips when they took it down, which are now considered their own works of art), and the smallest the Love stamp she designed for USPS. I was glad her pieces were here, because her bright and cheerful style really offset the creepiness of Gill.  There were also a couple of short films she made playing in a small movie room, but I didn’t watch them in their entirety.
  
The other room of the museum contained more Catholic-themed pieces: some cartoons by a priest (the snake in particular cracked me up, biblical reference and all), a delightful photograph of nuns riding camels, and some religious figurines worked in gold. There was also a small display on how printing presses worked, which made me wish there was one you could actually try out. I’d love to learn how to use a printing press – they look so cool, and there’s something magical about seeing your words come to life on a page.
  
This was quite a small museum, effectively being only two exhibition rooms (three if you count the one with the swing); in fact, Marcus looked through their brochure before we left because he was sure we must have missed something, but nope, that was all there was (it looked like there should have been more from the outside as well, as the museum was split between two buildings, but one of them was just the shop and cafe). It was fine because we got in for free, but had I paid £6.50, I think I would have been rather annoyed at the size and the fact that the museum only took about half an hour to see. I also found the lack of information on Gill’s very chequered past troubling, though I can obviously see why they chose to omit it. They should really have had more information on the Sussex modernists in general, because I still haven’t figured out what their ethos was (as I said in the Sussex modernism post). It’d be a lovely place to have a picnic (if you like eating outside – personally I hate it, and when a seagull stole my long-awaited ice cream in Brighton right out of my hand as I was eating it, I felt justified in my hatred of al fresco dining), and it made a perfectly fine pit stop on the way to Brighton, but I feel that such a new museum really has no excuse for shying away from controversy, and the admission fee is also a bit much (I also didn’t like how they essentially ignored us when we were looking around the shop, but fawned all over the older ladies who came in after us, asking them to do a visitors’ survey and everything. What, our opinion didn’t matter?). 2.5/5.
  

London: “Hope to Nope” @ the Design Museum

When fishing around for things to do, I came across “Hope to Nope: Graphics and Politics 2008-2018” at the Design Museum.  I’m normally not the biggest fan of graphic design (see my review of the graphic design exhibition at the Wellcome), but if there’s one thing I love, it is looking at unflattering caricatures of Trump, so I was intrigued.

  

Admission to the exhibition is normally £12, but National Art Pass holders get half off (ignore what the website says; they claim you only get £3 off, so just wait til you get to the museum to buy your tickets!). It’s even cheaper if you turn down the voluntary donation, but then you get the shame of having declined to donate printed across your ticket. “Hope to Nope” was in the same basement gallery where we saw “Imagine Moscow”, although the configuration of the space was slightly different, as it was split into three main areas rather than a bunch of smaller rooms – one each for power, protest, and personality.
  
As you can probably see, this was a very bold display, and the first thing that caught my eye was The Sun‘s Brexit version of the Bayeaux Tapestry. The Sun was decidedly pro-Brexit, and I am decidedly not, but it was still amusing, not least for its caricatures of leading Tories at the time. I was also quite taken (if that’s the right way to put it, considering how terribly they treat their citizens) with North Korea’s anti-American propaganda, some of which was quite Soviet in style, and even included things like stamps(!) that showed Kim Jong Un smashing the American flag (I guess I should be more offended by this, but really I just thought they were kind of funny because they were so campy). There is also an ongoing flow of balloon propaganda between North and South Korea, in which each side sends clear balloons filled with propaganda materials over the DMZ (this is not officially sanctioned by the government of South Korea). This is fairly controversial, because the South Korean government worries that North Koreans caught with these materials may be punished. At any rate, some of these balloons were here, so we could see how they worked. And there were some great Russian Pride posters that re-purposed all the old Soviet propaganda posters to great effect.

  

“Protest” was dominated by a giant rubber duck hanging from the ceiling, which was used to protest corruption in the Brazilian government and drive Dilma Rousseff out of power (I had a temp job at the Science Museum during the 2012 Olympics, and Dilma Rousseff actually came for a visit one day whilst I was attempting to sell guidebooks at the front of the museum, so I may have appeared on Brazilian (or British) TV, because there was a crew there filming everything. I’ve never seen it if so though). The centre of the room was filled with protest newspapers, and there was an entire wall re-creating the graffiti put up in the wake of the fire at Grenfell Towers. There were also sections devoted to the Women’s March following Trump’s inauguration, the “gay clown” version of Putin, and Occupy Wall Street.
  
But my favourite, favourite thing here (and the thing that made the price of admission completely worth it), was the All-Seeing Trump, located in the “Personality” room. In fact, I could hear him talking before I got there, and skipped past part of “Protest” initially in my haste to reach him (I knew he would be there, and watched a video of him before arriving, so I knew what joys awaited me). All-Seeing Trump is a Zoltar-style fortune telling machine that makes pronouncements (only slightly exaggerated for comic effect) on his proposals (you can watch one I filmed (poorly) here, or a better version here), or insults whoever pressed the button in classic Trumpian style. The machine totally nailed his voice and mannerisms, and I loved the MAGA-hatted eagle perched on his shoulder. The whole damn thing was hilarious perfection, and I pressed the button about ten times (and heard a different speech every time, so he clearly has quite a few of them. Probably more than the actual Trump, to be honest).
  
“Personality” had a lot of great things in it though, other than just All-Seeing Trump. There was an iPad game where you were Jeremy Corbyn trying to collect “donations” from bankers whilst avoiding Boris on a zipline, Theresa May hurling flags from a helicopter, and the ghost of Margaret Thatcher. There was a whole wall of magazine covers depicting Trump, including the fake TIME cover he had framed for his office. And there were cartoons of British political figures as well, though the voice of All-Seeing Trump did tend to pervade, as you might expect.
  
It was a rather small exhibition if you paid the full £12 (being just the three rooms), but for £6, I think it was well-worth my while (again, mainly because of the fabulous All-Seeing Trump). I can’t really say I learned very much, but I was entertained and I laughed a lot (admittedly in a kind of rueful way), and sometimes that’s all you need. 3.5/5.

London: Teeth @ the Wellcome Collection

I was both excited and apprehensive about seeing the Wellcome Collection’s latest exhibition: “Teeth.” Excited, because the publicity material they released before the exhibition made it look great; apprehensive, because despite my general love for all things gory and medical, historic dentistry creeps me out (even though I’m not really afraid of dentists. Orthodontists, yes (my orthodontist’s awfulness had to be experienced to be believed), but not really dentists. But if you are afraid of dentists, this may not be the post for you). But in the end excitement won out, and I strolled on over to the Wellcome after I visited Cook at the BL.

  

“Teeth” is in the same first floor gallery that “Ayurvedic Man” was in (“Somewhere in Between” is still in the main gallery), and was a big, open, inviting space, with display cases mainly along the walls to make room for historic dental equipment in the middle of the room. I seem to have a knack for finding George Washington’s dentures in various museums (really, more pairs of dentures than you would think the man would have owned), so of course I was immediately on the lookout for some here, and I wasn’t disappointed. Poor old George and his omnipresent dentures. The exhibition theorised that George may have always looked rather stern in portraits because he was straining to keep his mouth closed – upper and lower dentures used to be held together with springs, which would have required some powerful jaw muscles to close!
  
He wasn’t the only famous person whose dental apparatuses were here either. There was also Napoleon’s toothbrush, which is interesting, because there are widely conflicting reports of Napoleon’s dental hygiene out there. His biographer claimed he was fastidious about brushing his teeth and had a beautiful white smile, whereas his contemporaries said his teeth were black and rotting. The pristine state of his toothbrush leads me to believe that his contemporaries probably were correct. Even more intriguing than Napoleon’s toothbrush was the upper plate belonging to Edmund Burke, politician and philosopher. It seemed to indicate that he had a cleft palate, as there was an extra piece on top to fill in a gap in the mouth. Burke famously wrote an essay on beauty in which he claimed that imperfection could add to the beauty of something – perhaps this was something he had firsthand experience of?
  
Because the subject matter was teeth, which is something many people have anxieties about (the exhibition also discussed why this was, and a lot of it did probably have to do with the horrors of pre-20th century dentistry, but some of it is also just the nature of teeth. After all, they are the only part of the skeleton that is exposed during your lifetime (barring any horrific accidents)), obviously some of the objects here were going to be a bit, well, creepy. The creepiest by far were the phantom heads that dentistry students used for practice. I think they would have been less scary if they were actually just a skull, because something about the wooden block with real teeth in it is the stuff of nightmares (as is the even scarier face with metal jaws filled with real teeth, which you’ll see at the bottom of this post, if you’re brave enough!). The display about dentures was less overtly disturbing, but it explained how when cheaper, better looking dentures made of porcelain became available, they were so popular that some people used to get all their teeth pulled in their twenties to avoid the hassle and expense of dental care in their adult lives, which really gives me the willies (Roald Dahl was one of those, and though I dearly love his books, his dentures are always one of the first things to cross my mind when I think of him (much like with George Washington)).
  
Fortunately, my pal Binaca squirrel was there to lighten the mood (I’ve never used Binaca, but it makes me think of that episode of Seinfeld where Elaine sprays Joe Davola in the eyes with cherry Binaca to escape his apartment), as were the letters both to and from the tooth fairy. I must have had quite a good tooth fairy, because there was usually some kind of small gift to accompany the two shiny new 50 cent pieces (I seem to remember it usually being a Disney VHS when I was a kid, but I didn’t lose my last baby tooth until I was 13 and though the tooth fairy still came, it felt more half-assed, not that I blame her) and a note carefully written on heart-shaped construction paper that was folded up small enough to fit inside the little plastic treasure chest that held my tooth. Some of the other tooth fairies were slightly more droll than mine, and their letters had me cracking up (even though the thought of a tooth fairy accidentally removing all the teeth from children who slept with their heads under the pillow would have given me nightmares when I was a kid, so probably for the best my tooth fairy was of a kinder, gentler variety).
   
Other objects of note included an aluminum pair of dentures made by a WWII POW who’d had his good dentures smashed by a Japanese guard (I was relieved that he’d already had dentures, because I know they often just smashed out your actual teeth), a horrible wooden chair for strapping reluctant patients to (which, before anesthesia, was pretty much everyone (shown second photo in the post)), and a number of hilarious historic ads for dentists, toothpaste, etc.
  
And I have to say, I don’t know if the main intention of this exhibition was to promote modern dentistry, but it definitely made me want to make a preventative visit to the dentist (especially the poster describing in great detail exactly how decay takes your teeth if you don’t visit the dentist often enough), so much so that I booked an overdue appointment (only by six months or so, but still) a few days after seeing this. Some of the objects on display were pretty freaky, and if you’re already scared of dentists, this exhibition might not help (though surely at least seeing how much worse it used to be would give you some perspective), but I thought it was fascinating, even though I ended up compulsively running my tongue over my teeth the whole time I was in there (and I don’t think I was the only one doing it either). 4/5.

London: “James Cook: The Voyages” @ the British Library

Many’s the time I’ve spoken of my fascination with Captain Cook and his voyages, so I’m sure you can all guess that I was pretty excited to learn that Cook would be the subject of the BL’s latest exhibition. It’s the rare sort of exhibition I would have rushed out to see, but I was back in the States when it opened at the end of April, so I went to check it out on my first day off work after I got back (I don’t know why I always fly back the day before I need to go back to work; well, actually I do, because obviously I’m trying to maximise my time back home, but my first week back in London is always a big pile of jet lag, ennui, and homesickness).

Cook’s map of New Zealand, from          Wikipedia.

Admission is £14, but National Art Pass holders get 50% off. Although there were other visitors, it was pretty quiet by British Library standards and I didn’t have to queue to look at anything (huzzah!). The exhibit opened with a large map showing Cook’s voyages, and a small room about the Georgian age of exploration, and from there moved pretty quickly into Cook’s first, and most famous voyage, aboard the Endeavour (as always, no photos were allowed in here, so I’ve endeavoured (see what I did there?) to find some of the images online and available for reuse).  This is of course my personal favourite voyage, because of a certain dishy Joseph Banks, naturalist, botanist (more like hotanist, am I right?), rich guy, casanova, etc (I know I talk about Joseph Banks every time I talk about Cook, but I just love that Joshua Reynolds painting so much. And guess what? It was in the exhibition, so now I finally have an excuse to include it in a post, instead of just sneakily hiding the link somewhere).

Joseph Banks by Sir Joshua Reynolds, oil on canvas, 1771-1773.

As always, the BL excelled with the choice of objects – whilst some pieces were on loan from other London museums, a great deal of it was handwritten objects like diaries, letters, and maps that I had never seen before. I never realised Joseph Banks had such messy handwriting, whereas Cook’s, whilst lacking flourish like the man himself, was very neat and legible (which makes sense, when you think about it, since Cook attended a local school where the boys would have been trained to be clerks, where neat handwriting was an imperative, whereas wealthy Banks could have gotten away with any old messy scrawl).

Tupaia’s drawing of Joseph Banks bartering for a crawfish, c. 1769. Wikimedia Commons.

I’m also kind of in love with Tupaia’s drawings, many of which were included in this exhibition. Tupaia was a priest and navigator that the Endeavour voyagers befriended in Tahiti, and he agreed to travel onward with them and act as their interpreter (which worked well in Polynesia, as the languages all share a root, but was less successful in Australia because the Aboriginal language was completely different, though he still managed to communicate through hand signals). Sadly, Tupaia picked up a fever in Batavia which killed him and his servant as well as two dozen crew members. Honestly, I liked his drawings better than the ones by Sydney Parkinson (who also died en route home, and he only took over as artist after the expedition’s original artist, Alexander Buchan, died in Tahiti (but the expedition actually had a low mortality rate by 18th century standards!)) – they were way more full of character than Parkinson’s work (though I do love his sketches of kangaroos).

Tierra del Fuego by Alexander Buchan, Wikimedia Commons.

The exhibition definitely devoted the most time to the first voyage, which is fair enough, since it was the most iconic one, and the second and third ones got even more ethically murky and depressing, but the second and third voyages did each get a gallery, albeit smaller ones than Endeavour. I was particularly intrigued by a small display before the second voyage that explained why Joseph Banks didn’t end up going as intended (there was an argument about accommodation), and talked about how he went to Scotland and Iceland instead. This included a display of paintings from that trip, which was interesting because those are the artists that would have accompanied the Resolution if Banks had gone, so you could see how very different the images produced on the second voyage would have looked if things had gone just a bit differently (as it was, Banks’s artists did make some cracking paintings of geysers, which is pretty cool).

Drawing of a New Zealand War Canoe by Sydney Parkinson, Wikimedia Commons.

The second voyage was mostly Antarctic in nature, as Cook carried on with the futile search for the great southern continent that was meant to be hiding somewhere down there, and he did make it further south than any man had gone before, but obviously paintings of ice and snow are not as exciting as ones of previously unknown (to Europeans) people and places (though I’m not knocking polar exploration, because I love that too). They did visit Tahiti on this trip too, but it was more of a pick up provisions/reward the men for the awful time in the Antarctic type of thing than a trip of exploration.

Sea Horses by John Webber, David Rumsey Collection.

Of course, the third voyage is the most depressing of all, because this is when Cook’s personality began to change in weird ways to led to him getting killed by the Hawaiians at the end of it (he had become alarmingly hot-tempered, which led to a lot of rash decision making that pissed the Hawaiians off, and rightly so). Before that though, he did embark on another pointless search, this time for the Northwest Passage (like seriously, I’m not a fan of heat, but I would take pineapples over ice and snow any day. He should have stopped agreeing to do this shit), which resulted in some DELIGHTFUL paintings of walruses (walrii?), which they called “sea horses” and sea otters. There was a video at the end of this section that was meant to explain why Cook’s voyages are problematic today, but it seemed a little like an afterthought, which is interesting, because throughout the exhibit, I felt like the curators may have been holding back a little when writing the signage for fear of causing offence. The whole thing was just a little bland, and I think I would have preferred if they had just explained everything in more detail, and included more information from the perspective of the peoples Cook encountered to provide a fuller picture throughout, rather than dancing around cultural misunderstandings the whole time.

Sea Otter by S. Smith, after John Webber, Wikimedia Commons.

Because the start of the exhibition was just a rehash of things I already knew (which is understandable, because I know not everyone is as into Cook as I am), I was worried that it would prove a disappointment, which would have been a shame because of how excited I was to see it. In the end though, whilst I was familiar with most of the material covered here, the artefacts made it well worth my while. It’s not every day you get to see a drawing by Tupaia, or a log written in Cook’s own hand, and those things made it an enjoyable experience (I had also somehow forgotten or overlooked the fact that Botany Bay was originally called Stingray Bay due to the large number of them hanging around the ship. I am shitscared of stingrays, and never would have gone wading there had I known. Good thing (I guess) it looks pretty polluted these days, as it probably drove them all away). The Cook aficionado will find lots of fascinating artefacts here, and people who know less about him will learn something new, but not quite as much as they could have learned if the exhibition had been a bit more forthright. A large part of what makes Cook’s voyages so interesting was the clash of cultures and how Europeans reacted to the unknown (even though their reactions were often horrifically racist and contact ultimately led to governmental policies that were far more destructive than the voyages themselves); and really, by the standards of the time, Cook was a relatively enlightened man (except for on the last voyage) – without his efforts to understand the different societies he encountered, his voyages would not have been the rich source of information about the world that they were, which is worth mentioning (it seems like the exhibition dwelt more on his navigational skills, which in addition to being awesome, were also far less controversial). I’ll give the exhibition 3.5/5.