London: The Heath Robinson Museum

Heath Robinson Museum is on the right, the building on the left is a cafe.

I don’t remember where I found out about the Heath Robinson Museum, but I filed it away (mentally, I don’t have an actual file) under places that looked interesting, but realistically would only be visited in the case of blogging desperation, because it was all the way in Pinner. I know I often complain about how long it takes to get around London, but I’m not even sure if Pinner is technically London. It’s on the Metropolitan Line (zone 5!), and is only a few stops away from places like Chesham and Amersham, which certainly aren’t London. In fact, it takes so long to get to Pinner that by the time I arrived, I wasn’t entirely surprised to see that it was downright bucolic, at least the area around the Heath Robinson Museum (there was a big Sainsbury’s right across from the station, which did spoil the effect somewhat).

  

So after sitting on a train for an hour and a half, we had a lovely stroll through some gardens with a duck pond and fountain to reach the museum. Parting with £6 each to see the museum was somewhat less pleasant, given its obvious small size, but a necessary evil. The museum consists of two rooms, with an additional gallery for temporary exhibitions. The museum was obviously fairly new, and indeed, it turns out it was only opened about a year ago, in October 2016. It was busier than I imagined it would be (because who goes to Pinner?!), perhaps because of the park and extremely busy cafe located next door, but “busier than I expected” in a museum this specialised still only amounted to a handful of people, so there was plenty of space to look around without people breathing down your neck (except in the temporary gallery, as I’ll get to later).

  

I admit that when I first heard of this museum, I had no idea who Heath Robinson was. I only had a flash of recognition when I started reading descriptions of some of his drawings. It turns out that he was an artist and illustrator who lived from 1872-1944, presumably at least some of that time in Pinner, though I don’t remember the museum explicitly stating such (according to their website, he moved out there after he was married), who is most famous for his drawings of strange gadgets and contraptions (he’s basically the British equivalent of Rube Goldberg, and interestingly, they were contemporaries, so I’m not actually sure who started drawing these things first, because the Heath Robinson Museum eschews all mention of his American counterpart. Which is probably also why I didn’t recognise the name at first, because Americans refer to those sort of fanciful machines as Rube Goldberg devices, rather than Heath Robinson devices like Brits do) and his illustrations of the “butterfly effect” (one of his drawings actually illustrates what happens when a butterfly decides to fly through a moving bridge, but other illustrations demonstrate the effects of chaos theory in a less literal manner). Basically, if you saw them, you’d probably know them, and happily, we can test that theory throughout this post using the photos.

  

The main room had a timeline running all along the walls at about waist height with detailed information about the different phases of Robinson’s career: he started out as an illustrator, and did editions of some major works, including A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Edgar Allan Poe’s poems, and some of Kipling’s stories. He then became a cartoonist, and made some quite funny cartoons during WWI, and moved on to drawing the unusual gadgets that his name would become synonymous with (at least in Britain). He also took up watercolour painting later in life, and returned to gentle lampooning during WWII until his death in 1944.

  

The timeline was accompanied all along, naturally enough, by Robinson’s cartoons and illustrations, and these were truly the highlight of the museum. Some of his drawings were downright hilarious. I particularly liked some of his promotional cartoons for companies like Thomas and Green Paper Makers, as shown above.

  

I also liked the physical versions of some of his contraptions which were scattered throughout the room (made by other people, because Robinson himself almost never made actual prototypes), although one of them (on the left, above) didn’t appear to be working, as two ladies were trying to fix it throughout the duration of our visit. The one on the right is a model of the apartment block illustrated in his book How to Live in a Flat, a copy of which was helpfully provided next to the model, and very funny it was too, especially if you actually do live in a smallish flat, as I do (I liked the drawing of a man holding a cat in a cage, demonstrating that there was indeed room to “swing a cat” in his tiny flat). There was also a model of an automated house that Robinson described, and it lit up and the machines moved when you inserted a pound, which was probably worth the extra expense.

  

The other room was seemingly aimed more at children, containing as it did a bunch of hands-on activities, but as there were no kids around, I plopped myself right down and turned my hand to one of Robinson’s drawing tutorials that were played on radio in the 1920s. You had to follow instructions using a grid, and mine did look like a house in the end, but it was distinctly less structurally sound than the sample drawing (and the less said of the man I had to draw living in it, the better). You could also trace one of Robinson’s drawings using a light box, and there was a rad drawing bike, which was meant to draw a picture as you pedalled (I think it was a sort of spirograph thing) though sadly that too didn’t appear to be working on the day of my visit.

  

The temporary exhibit when I visited (no longer there, now there’s one on “The Water-Babies”) was called “Rejuvenated Junk,” inspired by a series of drawings Robinson did in 1935 that were used to illustrate an article for Strand Magazine called “At Home with Heath Robinson,” in which he envisioned alternative uses for worn-out household objects (such as converting an old tennis racket into a “mirror for large-ish ladies” or using old LPs to make various fashion accessories ranging from hats to parasols and purses). The objects showcased in the exhibition were somewhat less fanciful, being quite cool and innovative ways that artists around the world created something out of junk.

  

I zoomed right in on the chickens made from plastic bags (I think I’d like to figure out how to do it and make some myself, though with supermarkets charging 5p for a bag these days, it wouldn’t exactly be making something from junk. It could actually get rather expensive!), but there was a lot of cool stuff in here like a dress made from Doritos packets, purses made from toothpaste tubes, and lamps made from old tins.  I also learned that Worcestershire sauce is apparently called “Savoury Spice” in South Africa, at least Colman’s version of it (don’t know if the actual Lea and Perrins stuff is still Worcestershire sauce).

  

The only problem with this section was that there was a group of extremely chatty ladies in here who would not take a hint and move out of the way. Not only was their inane chatter (about what to cook for a lunch party, I think) distracting when I was trying to read the captions, the most annoying thing was that they parked themselves in front of one of the displays and would not budge, even though they clearly weren’t even looking at it, being quite absorbed in their conversation. Why pay £6 to visit a museum, and then just chat amongst yourselves the whole damn time?! They could have done that in the cafe next door! Rather irritatingly as well, given the long train journey, there was only a disabled toilet available in the museum, and though I suppose I could have used one in the cafe, it was so busy that I ended up just going to the Sainsbury’s by the station (it also came in handy for a much needed snack for the journey home, so I guess I shouldn’t knock it).

  

As far as Heath Robinson goes, if his drawings are anything to go by, the man was a delight. I really loved looking at them, and getting to learn a bit about him, though I did feel that the information in the museum was a very pared down biography, and they could have offered additional information and examples of his illustrations for people who were interested (they did have a touchscreen that might have had additional drawings on it, but there was only one in the whole museum, and another visitor was waiting to use it, so I didn’t want to monopolise it). To be honest, I was quite happy with the old-school activities as opposed to more modern interactive elements, I just wish all of them had been working when I visited (especially in a museum that new). I’m very much a fan of Robinson’s work now, but the museum didn’t quite live up to his standards; for the £6 admission price, I would have liked to see more in it. But I did enjoy my visit overall, and perhaps they’ll improve more with time; despite the trek getting there, I’m glad I came and saw Robinson’s very funny work, and the temporary exhibit (nonwithstanding the annoying luncheon club (isn’t luncheon a gross word?)) was actually very well done, in fact, I think the quality of the labels there was a bit higher than in the main part of the museum. 3.5/5.

 

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London: The Imperial War Museum

I blogged about the First World War gallery at the Imperial War Museum almost three years ago, and genuinely had every intention of returning soon after to blog about the rest of the museum…but somehow I’ve only just got around to making that return visit, I guess because Lambeth isn’t really somewhere I frequent (I’ve only been in the vicinity a handful of times since moving away from Elephant and Castle eight years ago).  Although some of the surrounding streets aren’t overly salubrious, the IWM itself is housed in a superb building, as you can probably see. Actually, the building is particularly interesting, because it used to be Bethlem Royal Hospital aka Bedlam, the most infamous psychiatric hospital of them all.  In medieval times, Bedlam was located close to what would become Liverpool Street, but by the early 19th century, space in the City was at a premium, so the hospital moved out to this purpose-built building in Lambeth, and there it remained until 1930, when it moved again to its current home in Beckenham. They knocked down the wings (which is where the wards were), and opened the central administrative hall as the Imperial War Museum in 1936. I don’t know about you, but I would be terrified enough if I was being committed even without being brought to a building this imposing, so I think it works much better as a museum, though its past does admittedly give it a creepy touch that I enjoy.

  

Like all of London’s major museums, the IWM is free and huge. It actually is still really imposing on the inside, even though it’s obviously been redesigned a few times since the ’30s (most recently just a few years ago).  I think the concept of a “war museum” itself is really interesting, because it’s genuinely not a military museum; you’ll find very little about battles and such in here. It’s more about how war impacts society (mainly World Wars 1 and 2, though there is a bit in here on more recent conflicts).

  

Because I already blogged about the First World War gallery, and the museum is so extensive, I decided to skip that section entirely this time around, and start with WWII (I’ll refer you to my earlier post if you’d like to read about their WWI collection). I’d enjoyed their WWI stuff so much that my hopes were high for WWII. Unfortunately, the galleries just didn’t measure up to expectations.

  

The main Second World War gallery was called “Turning Points: 1934-1945” and its intention is to “explore key moments of the Second World War through the connections between people’s lives and the objects on display,” which sounds like it could be a really interesting idea, but somehow it just didn’t work out that way. For starters, the objects were meant to be grouped together in themes like “War on the Way” and “Shifting Sands,” which translated to a few big things, like planes or cars, all displayed together, and then further on, a few more motorcycles or cars or whatever. The themes didn’t really come across very well at all. Another issue was that someone had made the (stupid) decision to make all the object labels in this gallery stickers stuck to the OUTSIDE of the cases.  Well, as you can probably guess, visitors had picked at the edges, because they could (I don’t necessarily think it was malicious or even intentional, because I’m totally the sort of person that will pick at the peeling edges of something without even thinking about it, and other people are probably the same), and some of them were so worn down that whole words were missing from the captions. They only redid this section three or four years ago, and you’d think they would have aimed for labels with more longevity than that. It’s fine if they wanted to use stickers because they were planning on moving objects around a lot, so it would be easy to change the labels, but why not at least stick them on the inside of the case where people couldn’t get at them? It made everything look kind of grubby and cheap.  It was also weird that almost nothing in here was interactive, given how much of the WWI gallery is. I think it would have really benefited from offering something hands-on, because it’s rather boring as is.

 

There were a few interesting objects in here, like a map Rommel had personally plotted military campaigns on, and Montgomery’s car, but I didn’t really get a sense of how the war affected British society except in a little exhibition off in a side gallery, called “A Family in Wartime.” This followed the Allpress family, who originally lived in Southwark (I think) but moved to Wimbledon because of the Blitz. They were fairly lucky in that both of their sons who were old enough to fight made it back home safely, but unlucky in that two of their daughters had congenital heart conditions and died as teenagers (I think they had nine children in total). I enjoyed learning about their family and how the war affected their lives, and particularly liked the doll house version of their Southwark house, made by one of their sons-in-law. They didn’t really seem to have any possessions actually belonging to the family, but they did have objects that were representative of a middle class family at that time, including a litterbug made to look like Hitler (because being wasteful helped the Nazis) that I personally think was way too cute. I get the idea of improving morale by making Hitler look ridiculous, but c’mon, that bug is kind of adorable, and Hitler was pure evil.

  

I was pretty excited for the “Secret War” gallery about espionage, because I am way fonder of old James Bond movies than I should be, given how sexist and racist most of them are (I think it’s because I grew up watching them with my family, and they’re one of the few things we’ll still all sit around and watch together), but this too was disappointing. There was way too much text in here, and actually, too many objects too. I just got sick of looking at them all, and thus probably missed some cool stuff in some of the cases. I did notice there was a letter from Noor Inayat Khan here, however, who you might remember if you read my post on Beaulieu. She was an incredibly brave British spy during WWII who was eventually captured and executed by the Nazis, and her letter was to another female spy back at HQ.

  

“Peace and Security: 1945-2014” had a similar layout to the WWII gallery, only it was dealing with more recent conflicts. I thought some of the objects here were really cool, in particular a suit of armour made by an artist to symbolise the conflict in Northern Ireland, a mosaic of Saddam Hussein that was torn down after his fall from power, a mannequin representing what a victim of a nuclear explosion would look like, and a big chunk of the Twin Towers, but I think the signage overall was again a little lacking.

  

The floor above all this (I think we were only up to the 4th floor at this point) held a few temporary photographic exhibitions that I actually really enjoyed. Two of them were on the conflict in Syria, and some of the photos of everyday life were excellent. There was also an exhibition on Guantanamo Bay, which I thought had the potential to be really interesting, were it not for the relatively poor labels that were both confusing and difficult to locate.

  

I was intrigued by the “Curiosities of War” exhibit, because any time I hear the word “curiosities” I think cabinet of curiosities and my interest is piqued, but this exhibition seemed to be something of an afterthought. To begin with, the layout was really bizarre; because the museum is arranged around an atrium, there is a lot of wasted space, and it was really apparent by the time we got up to this level. There were two super skinny passageways leading off from the gallery space on one end, and they weren’t connected on the other end. So to see “Curiosities of War,” you had to walk all the way down one hallway, come all the way back, walk down the other, and come all the way back again. And because they were so narrow, you literally couldn’t pass someone without making body contact, so if someone was coming the other way, you had to duck into an alcove to let them through. Also, it looked as though the person who made the signs did not arrange the artefacts, because at one point there was a sign about a wooden training horse from WWI, which I had noticed on the complete opposite side (catty corner) of the exhibition, shoved in next to a plane wheel, even though it was presumably supposed to be next to the sign about it where there was indeed plenty of space for it. I’m not sure how they even pulled that one off, but it was pretty lame.

  

The top floor was just home to a gallery about various Victoria Cross and George Cross holders, which was fine (there was a clip from an old movie about spies and some objects made by POWs that I thought were neat), although I think they tried to cram too many people in there, and it was overwhelming to read about them all. I get wanting to honour as many people as possible (even though it wasn’t a complete listing of VCs or George Cross holders as it was; I think only 250 people were featured), but I think the layout could have been better.

And now for the Holocaust gallery. We saved it for last, which was probably a mistake, because it was intense. Not that I thought it wouldn’t be, but I was unprepared for quite this level of intensity (or immersion. Most Holocaust exhibits I’ve seen were relatively small, but this one was on two levels, and we were in there for over an hour).  You couldn’t take photos, for obvious reasons, but it’s the kind of thing that stuck with me nonetheless. This was by far the most comprehensive Holocaust gallery I’ve ever been in, and I’ve been to quite a few over the years. It covered the whole appalling story, from the history of antisemitism in Europe, Hitler’s rise to power (which was unpleasantly reminiscent of recent events in America), and the beginnings of euthanasia of so-called “mental defectives” to the “Final Solution.” Throughout the way, the horror was really driven home by the inclusion of stories of people killed in the Holocaust, including their final letters to family members, which were terribly poignant to read. As if that wasn’t heart-rending enough, there were also toys belonging to children who were killed or who managed to survive through hiding; one boy spent 5 years concealed in a cupboard so small it gave him bone deformities, with only a few toys to play with in the dark (his piano teacher brought him food). There was a scale model of Auschwitz that described in chilling detail exactly what happened to people when they arrived, and a dissection table that came from one of the “hospitals” where they euthanised people. But the two things that disturbed me the most were actually bits of information taken from the signs in here: first, that the Final Solution probably came about as a result of various Nazi officials trying to outdo each other to impress Hitler, and secondly, that the crews of people forced to cremate bodies in Auschwitz were themselves changed over and killed off every four months, so that (in theory) no one would live to tell the world what the Nazis had done. I was taught about the Holocaust in school, of course, and although I remember it affecting me really intensely and giving me nightmares at the time, I think it’s also important to learn about it as an adult, because you do forgot details over time, and I think it affects you in a different way as an adult, when you understand that atrocities aren’t consigned to the past – genocide still happens. I genuinely think everyone should have to confront the horrors of the Holocaust in some way, because I can’t understand how anyone would think it’s OK to go around waving Nazi flags after seeing something like this.

  

So clearly, the IWM is a very mixed bag indeed. The Holocaust and WWI galleries are excellent, the photography exhibits were quite good, and everything else could really use some improvement – more interactivity for a start. It’s great that it’s free, but the level of neglect in some of the areas of the museum was really unfortunate, especially with something as inexpensive and easy to fix as a sticker, and the resulting inconsistencies in the quality of the galleries are too glaring to ignore. My other complaint is that the only toilets in the whole, six story museum are on Floor 0, other than disabled toilets/baby changing stations on most of the other floors. I’m glad that they at least offer those, but I didn’t feel comfortable using them when someone might have needed them more, which meant I had to hold in my pee for a very long time indeed (because I was too lazy to go all the way down and then all the way back up again). I don’t know why a museum this big couldn’t have at least two sets of toilets for everyone, especially when one of the floors was taken up by a big platform under the atrium with nothing in it (seriously, put at least a couple toilet stalls in there). There were odd things going on with the layout of this whole museum, but this was the worst thing for someone with a bladder as small as mine. Anyway, I’d definitely recommend visiting for at least for the Holocaust and WWI galleries, and the others are certainly worth seeing, but if your time is limited, then those two are the ones I’d make a priority, because you could easily spend an entire day or two here if you wanted to see everything in the museum. 4.5/5 for the Holocaust and WWI galleries, but 3/5 for the museum as a whole.

Stockholm Mop-Up Post

I visited a few more museums in Stockholm (believe it or not), but for various reasons, none of them merited a post of their own, so I’m going to briefly discuss each here. The first was the Nobel Museum, which we rushed out to see shortly after arriving in Stockholm, because it offers free entry on Tuesday evenings from 5-8 (and is 120 SEK, or about 11 pounds the rest of the time, so you’re saving a substantial amount of money). I was actually pretty excited about seeing this, because it sounded really cool, and I was interested to learn more about Alfred Nobel and all the Nobel prize winners over the years, but it ended up just being a terrible experience all around.

  

To start with, we had to queue for a while in a square to gain entry whilst some sort of demonstration (as in protest) was taking place right next to us (not sure what, because all their signs were in Swedish, but judging by the flags, it had something to do with Cuba). And when we finally got inside, man, what a disappointment!  The “museum” was really small, consisting of a sort of grand entrance hall, a smaller hallway off to one side, and a couple lecture theatre-type spaces showing short films. Almost all the “artefacts” in the main hall were re-creations, and there weren’t even many of those, the museum mainly being composed of posters and videos, and it was way too crowded in there to read or watch any of them properly, not that they looked all that interesting in the first place (they seemed to have only very basic information on them). There were a few actual artefacts in the smaller hall, but we were completely crammed in (don’t be deceived by the photo, the smaller hall was about 10x more crowded than the main one), and I don’t do well with crowds (I’m not actually agoraphobic or anything, I just don’t like people), so I gave them only a brief glance. We were in and out of the place in under half an hour (not counting the queueing time), and I’m so glad we didn’t waste 11 quid each on this! The highlight was seriously the gift shop with its postcards featuring extremely obscure Nobel prize winners which I found (probably inappropriately) hilarious.  If, despite my negativity, you still want to see the museum, I would definitely just suck it up and brave the crowds and come on a Tuesday evening, because no way is this place worth what they’re charging. 1/5.

  

Though we didn’t want to pay to go in the Royal Palace (it wasn’t only cheapness in this case; it’s just that Stockholm’s looked like a fairly standard issue royal palace (god, that makes me sound like an awful snob), and I thought I’d rather spend time seeing museums unique to Stockholm), we did see a couple of the free museums attached to the Palace. The first of these was the Royal Armoury or Livrustkammaren (I love the Swedish word for it, since it contains “rust,” which could accurately describe old unloved armour). Most of the object labels were in Swedish only, but there were signs in English on the walls explaining what was in each room, so I managed well enough.

  

Though there wasn’t as much actual armour in here as there is in some armouries, I still thought it was alright. They had a collection of clothing belonging to the Swedish royal family through the centuries, and some child-size armour as well. They also had a random exhibition about samurai swords.

  

My main complaint (other than the number of people in there, particularly this one weird American couple who kept following us around and taking pictures of whatever we were taking pictures of, which was super annoying) was that the different sections of the museum weren’t connected, so after reaching the end of the main hall, and discovering that the upper floor was the children’s space (which wasn’t marked anywhere in English til after we went up, so I took a cheeky picture in the dressing-up throne since I was already there), we had to walk back through all the galleries (a not insubstantial number of them) to go down into the basement to see the carriage house. It definitely wasn’t the greatest armoury I’ve ever been to (that honour probably goes to the Royal Armouries in Leeds, because it’s so much more than just an armoury), but it wasn’t awful either, particularly because it was free. 2.5/5.

  

The final museum is the Royal Coin Cabinet. I’m gonna be honest; the only reason we visited this is because their brochure said they had the world’s largest coin, which visitors could try to lift (you can see me doing just that, above). So we barely even looked at what was in the museum, and made a beeline for the coin, which was a rectangular slab that weighed 19 kg (not all that hard to lift for an adult, but it was tied down, so you could only lift it a couple inches in the air anyway). I did stop to admire some of the designs of Weimer-era, heavily inflated German notes (check out that moon!), but I don’t feel that I can even give this one a score because I really didn’t take the time to read anything. It is another free way to kill some time though, which is pretty much exactly what we were doing before our flight home.

 

However, visiting museums wasn’t the only thing we did in Stockholm (though it was probably how we spent 80% of our non-sleeping/watching TV in our hotel room (I learned that minigolf is a televised sport in Sweden, which is kind of awesome) time there). We also strolled around a bit and explored the city, and thus got to see some cool statues and things. I love the poor beggar fox statue because it reminds me of Disney’s Robin Hood (I think it was supposed to be making me think about the plight of the homeless, but he was just so darn cute). And you may be able to spot some lady bits on the side of that building, beneath the guy’s head (don’t ask me why).

  

I’m guessing that lions are one of the symbols of Stockholm, because they were EVERYWHERE in Stockholm – on buildings, on statues, and even serving as adorable traffic bollards at the ends of pedestrianised streets. We found one with a cone on his head down the street from our hotel, on one of the main shopping streets, but the island I refer to as “Hipster Island” was the only place I saw female lions too, and they were pretty great.

  

We only ate in a restaurant once, because Sweden is not cheap, and except for the sweets (not counting licorice, because barf), Swedish food didn’t sound particularly appealing (actually we don’t eat out much on holiday generally unless we’re in a country with a particularly delicious nonmeaty national cuisine, because restaurant food every day can get expensive anywhere, plus my vegetarianism and general picky eating make restaurants tricky in some countries. I’m kind of the worst); the rest of the time we resorted to good ol’ bread, hummus, and crisps from the supermarket. So what did I choose to eat on our one restaurant visit? Yep, a big old bowl of hummus (with falafel balls and amazing deep fried halloumi) from FLFL on “Hipster Island,” because I can’t pass up falafel, and their hummus was about 10x better than the supermarket stuff, so I have no regrets. I supplemented my hummusy diet with frequent stops at bakeries for kanelbuller (cinnamon buns), ice cream (the Swedes seem particularly partial to soft serve with sprinkles, as am I (the real stuff, made with actual milk and available as chocolate/vanilla twist, unlike the shitty disgusting unflavoured Mr. Whippy you get in the UK) so I was as happy as a sandboy), and of course Daim bars, which are probably my favourite candy bar, so it was nice to be in their homeland (and I loved the special edition orange ones, which I’ve never seen in the UK).

   

I actually wasn’t too sure how I would feel about Stockholm when we booked the trip, because I didn’t particularly enjoy either Copenhagen or Malmo when we visited a few years ago, and I thought all of Scandinavia would be similar, so I’m happy to report that I was proven wrong!  Stockholm is a beautiful city, and each island has a distinct character, which made it an interesting place to explore. I also liked that it felt fairly hip (though not overly so, except maybe on “Hipster Island”) and there were so many museums there that I barely even scratched the surface (just means I’ll have to return some day!). It was fairly easy to get around via public transport, mainly trams and buses, though we did take a ferry once just for the hell of it (they also have a metro system, but we never ended up using it) – we purchased a travel card for the duration of our stay which meant we didn’t have to worry about the cost of individual trips; my only complaint is that a lot of the buses only came twice an hour, so you had a lengthy wait if you missed one (I might just be spoiled by TfL though)!  Be forewarned that Stockholm is as expensive as everyone says it is, but by not eating out much (ice cream doesn’t count), and getting a deal on our hotel + flight, our trip as a whole wasn’t any more expensive than anywhere else in Europe. Also be aware that Stockholm is practically a cashless city; we didn’t bother to exchange any money before we left, and ended up not using cash at all during our stay. Even market stalls and ice cream carts there take cards, and a lot of the museums don’t accept cash at all, so definitely bring a card with a decent exchange rate and no foreign transaction fees.  So yeah, that’s Stockholm – a city that I’d happily return to despite all the crowds of peak tourist season, and I can’t really give a place a better endorsement than that!

 

Stockholm: Medieval Museum (Medeltidsmuseet)

After visiting the Swedish History Museum and enjoying their excellent historical timeline galleries, I found it difficult to believe that another, smaller museum would be able to cover medieval Sweden as well as they did, so I was happy to skip the Medieval Museum, which we had originally planned on visiting. However, by the last day of our trip, we decided that we’d spent enough money (probably my fault; I was eating like three ice creams a day, but thinking about it now makes me feel a little ill since I’ve been working through the remains of my birthday ice cream pie all week and have been in pretty much a constant state of bloat as a result. (Yes Jessica, nice subtle way to sneak your birthday in there. And actually, who am I kidding, I’d eat an ice cream right now if you put it in front of me)), but we had about 5 hours to kill before our flight home and the Medieval Museum was free, so we found ourselves there anyway.

  

It is located right by the Royal Palace in “Old Town Island” (Gamla Stan), so I also found myself back in Old Town, even though I vowed not to go there again after fighting my way through the hordes of tourists one too many times, but it ended up being OK because the entrance was in a fairly secluded area by a small pier, so we didn’t have to force a path through the crowded, narrow shopping streets, and we got to see an unexpected changing of the guard as they paraded by (with a jolly band!) whilst we were waiting for the museum to open. Because the museum opens quite late, at noon, even though we got what we thought was a late start, we still had to hang around for a bit until they unlocked the doors (and we weren’t the only ones waiting!).

  

The museum is built around some ruins of medieval Stockholm that were excavated in the 1970s when they were trying to turn the site into a parking garage (obviously that fell through when they found the ruins), including an old wall, and a medieval churchyard (though I think they moved the human remains elsewhere, so it’s really only the wall left). The museum consists of a tunnel leading into a small entryway room, and one larger room where the ruins and most of the museum content was located.

  

Almost every label in the museum was written in Swedish and English, which was the case at all of Stockholm’s museums (or the ones we visited, anyway). There was a short introductory video at the start of the tunnel about how the ruins were discovered, and the opening gallery attempted to “introduce” us to some of the people who would have lived in the medieval city; though I love wax figures, these ones were a bit odd because they kept them in a darkened nook behind glass, only intermittently shining a light on them. I guess maybe it was supposed to give them a ghostly effect, but really it just made them hard to see.

  

The main room was a little better, as I could instantly tell upon walking in and seeing a wax figure of an alleged plague victim sitting there (but with no sign of buboes, I’m not sure I trust their diagnosis. I suppose she could have had pneumonic plague, which would explain the blood on her handkerchief, but TB would have been my first guess). There was also a small reconstructed village, complete with graveyard and gallows hill (which was obviously my favourite bit), and the ruins of the medieval wall were down the centre of the room (though apparently some of the wall was built in 1530, which is really early modern rather than medieval (putting my MA to use right there)).

  

To be honest with you, a lot of the information in this gallery seemed outdated…for example, in the section about food, it was mentioned that medieval people ate heavily spiced food to kill the taste of rotten meat, but I’m pretty sure that for a while now the consensus amongst historians has been that people ate heavily spiced food both as a sign of prestige, and simply because they liked the taste. After all, most meat was slaughtered as needed, so it was very fresh, and, then as now, people weren’t going to eat rotten food unless it was a starvation situation, in which case they certainly wouldn’t have been able to afford expensive spices!

  

And though I definitely enjoyed the mannequins (even the iffy plague victim), you could only go into a couple of the reconstructed buildings, and they didn’t have much in them (most of the mannequins are from street scenes). One building simply had a room full of long tables, with signs saying that you weren’t allowed to eat or drink there (which spoiled the atmosphere somewhat; also, it seemed like kind of a waste of space, since there was literally nothing else in that boring room), and another contained samples of cloth and a video showing how medieval women would have gotten dressed (interesting, but they didn’t really have to show her lacing up the whole damn kirtle. They could have just skipped ahead after the first set of laces).  There was also a mock-up of a church with a statue of St. George in it, and reading his story just annoyed me (I mean, I knew it involved a dragon, obviously, but I wasn’t aware of all the irritating details). So, this town had to sacrifice someone to a dragon like every week so he didn’t destroy them all, but it wasn’t until a princess was about to be sacrificed that George stepped in and killed the dragon. Why didn’t he just do that as soon as the dragon started demanding human sacrifices? I guess the ordinary people weren’t worthy of being saved?! What a jerk! I wish the dragon had killed George’s ass instead.

  

But as far as the museum goes, although I shouldn’t complain too much about a free museum (I probably still have though), it was something of a disappointment. I learned far more about medieval Stockholm at the Swedish History Museum, and there were way more interactive elements there too!  Except for a handful of video screens and a small display that opened in 2015 about archaeological findings from Slussen (a juncture in Stockholm that connects Sodermalm with Stadsholmen), and despite their claims to have undergone a renovation in 2010, it feels like the content of the museum (certainly the text) hasn’t really been updated since the museum opened in 1986. It was a perfectly acceptable way to kill some time without spending any money, but it’s not one of Stockholm’s better museums, and I regret not just coughing up the damn krona and visiting the Nordic Museum instead, as it sounds really good, and really, how often am I going to be in Stockholm?  I guess I’ll consider missing out my penance for cheapness. 2.5/5 for the Medieval Museum.

  

Stockholm: The Swedish History Museum (Historiska Museet)

After dropping an absolute fortune on museums on the first full day of our trip (we saw ABBA the Museum, the Vasa Museum, and Skansen all on the same day), we decided to save some money on the next day by visiting some free museums (so we could spend that money on ice cream, Daim, and cinnamon buns instead, of course). So that’s why we opted to check out Historiska, the Swedish History Museum, which is free, over the Nordic Museum, which is not.

  

It was not located on what I call “Museum Island,” but was on the same island that we were staying on, which appears to be the centre of Stockholm. I think this helped cut down on the crowds, because compared to Skansen and the Vasa Museum, it was almost empty.  We started our visit in the famed “Gold Room” in the basement, which held lots of prehistoric and Viking gold. Unfortunately, I’m not really that interested in prehistory or the Vikings (though I did read Michael Pye’s The Edge of the World, about the history of the North Sea, prior to this trip, and it wasn’t that bad (despite his irritating habit of beginning sentences with “More,” when he meant “moreover” or “additionally,” either of which would have sounded less awkward)), so I could take or leave the gold (I mean, I’ll take gold if anyone’s offering, but I’m not so keen on looking at it).

  

That said, there was a temporary exhibit in here that I did enjoy, even though it took me a little while to understand what was going on. There was a video in one room that featured refugees telling their stories, except there was a big gold square over their faces. In another room, I found a display of precious objects that the refugees had managed to bring with them; for example, one Syrian woman had brought her high school diploma, because her dream was to get a Ph.D, but her education was interrupted by the war, so she hoped that by holding on to her diploma, she’d be able to attend university someday. So then I realised that the video and objects were tied together, and I guess the gold square was the way of tying them into the Gold Room, but it was an odd artistic choice, and I think unnecessary, when they simply could have said something like: “these objects are as precious to them as gold was to the Vikings.”

  

We then headed up to the main galleries, where the sensible thing to do would probably have been to start with prehistory, and work our way up to more modern times, but due to my aforementioned lack of keenness on prehistory, we headed straight upstairs instead to walk through a series of 11 “scenes” representing the 11th-21st centuries. This ended up being my favourite part of the museum; I knew I would like it when they promised a “sensory experience,” which always means there’ll be stuff to smell (maybe even authentic smells), and sure enough, there was a row of spice jars to sniff in the 18th century room.

   

But that wasn’t the only fun to be had in here! You followed a timeline in the floor marking key dates in Swedish history through all the sections, and along the way there were neat artefacts, games, stuff to touch, short videos, and even a quiz to find out whether you were a witch or not (I definitely am, which was not at all a surprise)!  And I learned a lot about Swedish history, which was nice, because I knew next to nothing before visiting.

  

After getting to the 21st century, the gallery led into an art installation about the eugenics movement in Sweden at the start of the 20th century, and all the racist ways other cultures had been represented at museums and universities around the city. This included a huge word map on one wall showing all the people who were propagating these horrible ideas, and the institutions they worked for (this wasn’t a public shaming so much as historical record though, since they’re all dead now), as well as mannequins taken from various old anthropological displays (the kind that still exist in some old museums).

  

There was also a gallery about the Battle of Gotland in 1361, which I had never even heard of before, but it was basically a massacre where Swedish farmers tried to defend themselves against the Danish army, and were slaughtered mercilessly (or so the Swedes say anyway, I’d be interested to know if the Danes see it differently). Their bodies ended up in mass graves, which were excavated in the 1920s, and now many of their remains reside in the museum, which is probably not what they would have wanted (well, they probably would have preferred to not be killed in the first place, so it’s probably a little late to worry about that), but damned if it’s not really cool. They even had videos showing how exactly some of the people were killed or fatally injured (using animation and no blood, so not as gruesome as it sounds) based on the marks in their bones, which I thought was fascinating!

  

Following that, there was a large exhibit containing religious artefacts taken from medieval churches, which I would normally be pretty meh about, but the Swedes didn’t disappoint here either. Some of the altarpieces were amazingly intricate, and my absolute favourite scene is the one on the left, above, which shows people calmly waiting to enter the dragon’s mouth that leads to Hell, with a couple demons acting as bouncers (Hell is apparently the hottest (literally) nightclub in town). There was also a fabulous head of John the Baptist, and a really comfy couch where you could curl up and listen to recordings of medieval organs being played, which were delightfully melancholy sounding.

  

There was a room at the end of this floor explaining how the curators choose the objects that go into the museum, and how they arrange them. I was very interested to see that they had a Buddha that I had just been reading about in that North Sea book in there!  It was also interesting learning about how modern curators feel limited by the 19th century cataloguing system that is still in place at Historiska, and are thus trying to digitise and recategorise all the items so they can tell different kinds of stories.

  

We then headed downstairs to the Viking gallery. I did enjoy the quiz before we entered where we found out which Norse god we were (I’m Odin, the quiz is here if you want to take it too!), but the gallery was more or less what I was expecting. It was undoubtedly well-done, but didn’t really win me over to the Vikings (maybe if there was a pooping Viking, like the one at Jorvik Viking Centre…). It was also really the only crowded part of the museum (they had a range of Viking clothes to try on, but there were way too many kids for me to even get near it), so I moved through here pretty quickly.

  

And straight into prehistory, because we were doing the museum backwards. This actually surprised me by being better than I thought…unlike the usual approach of just having case after case of primitive tools, rocks, bones, or what have you, they made the first section (well, second section if I had walked through correctly) into something inspired by an airport departure lounge (not the one in Stockholm, which was godawful, but a nice one). You went to different “gates” to learn about different topics, and they tied prehistoric civilisations to the modern world by grouping things by themes, such as families, homes, travel, etc, and showing how ancient peoples mirrored the world today.

  

The second part was somewhat more traditional, but had some cool facial reconstructions based on ancient skeletons, and little doors hidden near the bottom of each room that made animal sounds (they were definitely meant for children, but I still bent down and opened every one) that were meant to show what kind of animals prehistoric Swedes would have kept. Most of this section (unlike the rest of the museum) did not offer English translations, except for a brief object guide in each room, so we went pretty quickly through here too.

  

On the whole though, I really liked this museum. It felt very interactive and modern, which they managed to achieve without dumbing anything down or getting rid of actual artefacts (take note NAM!), and I learned a lot!  It also helped that it was one of the least crowded museums we visited, which is surprising, given that it was free and pretty large (but it wasn’t near any other tourist attractions, so a lot of people probably didn’t know about it). I think this was actually my favourite museum out of all the ones we visited in Stockholm (and not just because it was free, though that certainly didn’t hurt). 4.5/5.

 

Stockholm: Skansen

Built in 1891, Skansen is apparently not only the first open air museum in Sweden, it is “the world’s oldest open air museum” (I assume they mean the oldest one still in operation, because it was based on an earlier open air museum in Denmark). It is located on what I’m calling “Museum Island” and we initially weren’t sure if we wanted to visit it, having passed it on the search for a supermarket earlier in the day and seen the queues of people waiting to get in. But, when we returned at mid-afternoon, the crowds had mostly dispersed, so after a fortifying ice cream from one of the stands out front (with rainbow sprinkles, or “strossel” as they’re called in Swedish (which is fun to say)), we decided to take the plunge and check it out.

   

Admission was 180 SEK (nearly 17 pounds), which was another reason for our initial hesitation, but the park is huge. Too big, actually, at least for us at the end of a long day of museuming, because it is built on the side of a hill, and walking around got really tiring really fast. The sun had also decided to make an appearance, and it felt much stronger in Sweden than it is in England, so we had to stop and slather on sunscreen pretty sharpish after entering.

  

Anyway, Skansen was originally built because Artur Hazelius, Swedish folklorist and founder of the nearby Nordic Museum (which we sadly didn’t have time to visit), was concerned that the old way of life was dying out due to industrialisation, and he wanted to preserve some of the traditional trades and buildings while he could. This includes the snus industry, which has a small museum dedicated to it inside the park. In case you don’t know what snus is (are?), because I sure didn’t, it is a kind of moist tobacco that you stick under your upper lip (but is apparently different than dip), and was extremely popular in Sweden until relatively recently, despite the high rates of mouth cancer that occurred as a result. Even though I’m pretty sure the tobacco is flavoured (like something other than tobacco), it still sounds absolutely disgusting to me (and I used to smoke the occasional cigarette, so I’m not completely immune to tobacco’s lure).

   

The museum was not very big, but it had some interesting objects in it (and some excellent mannequins, as you may have noticed). I really liked the collection of “snus dog” boxes, and the surprisingly graphic “erotic” boxes (and I’m not exaggerating the graphicness…definitely don’t enlarge the picture below if you’re at work or something), which were kind of hidden in a case off to the side. I was also interested to learn that snus were a big industry in Chicago, due to the large Swedish population there, and there was even a mock-up of a snus shop in Chicago in the basement.

  

I didn’t notice any snus for sale in the actual museum shop though, which was probably a good thing, though they do still grow tobacco on the premises, and you can even take home a tobacco plant of your very own. All too soon for my liking though, we had to leave the pleasing darkness of the museum, and venture out into the rest of the park (especially bad because I thought I lost my sunglasses at the ABBA Museum, and there was nowhere to buy a new pair on Museum Island, so I had to wait until we got back to “Shopping Island” to get a cheap pair. And of course, about an hour after buying them, I found my old sunglasses buried in the bottom of my bag, so now I have two pairs. But my point is that the sun was really bright, and my eyes were killing me by the end of the day because I thought I didn’t have sunglasses).

  

Fortunately, there was an escalator to take us up into the part of Skansen where all the historic buildings were, so we didn’t actually have to hike up the steepest part of the hill ourselves. I spotted a bakery almost immediately, and I am not one to resist cinnamon buns, old timey or otherwise, so I ended up buying one and also a sugar-coated roll shaped like a pretzel (yeah, I know I had just eaten an ice cream, but we skipped breakfast that day so I was hungry (and hangry)!). Not as good as the oat crunchies at Blists Hill, but still pretty alright. (They had more food stalls in the middle of the park, but they were mainly selling carnival type food, like popcorn, cotton candy, and the ubiquitous Scandinavian hot dogs (ick) and nothing of any real nutritional value (not that cinnamon buns are nutritious, but they are fairly filling).)

  

Unfortunately, the rest of the historical village was just weird, quite frankly. In all my experience of living history museums (which includes the awful summer I did an internship at one), the whole point seems to be, you know, “living” history, in that there are actual people there in costumes to show you how candle dippin’ and wool spinnin’ and things were done. Aside from the bakery, the church, and one of the farm buildings, almost none of the buildings were open, so not only could you not see the interiors, you weren’t “living” anything, because there was no one there to tell you about anything.

  

We seriously wandered around for about an hour, with me pointing out buildings that looked cool, only to find that every single door was padlocked when we got close to them. If the buildings aren’t open at the height of tourist season, then when exactly are they open?

  

Happily, there were a few animal enclosures, because although I’m not crazy about the idea of wild animals being kept in zoos, I do admittedly like looking at them, and they were the high point of the whole experience. We saw lynx, bears, eagle owls, and moose (and looked for the buffalo in vain, but they were being penned up somewhere whilst their enclosure was being cleaned), but my favourites were definitely the reindeer, because there were so many of them, and the babies were pretty damn cute (not so much the adults, who appeared to be molting).

  

After seeing the animals, I was ready to leave, but we still had to wander through more of the park just to get out, and yep, those buildings were all closed too!  We did miss a few sections, because I was so tired of walking around that I couldn’t be bothered anymore, but I highly doubt they were any more interesting than the stuff we did see. From the sheer size of it (and had we gone first thing in the morning, when we had more energy) and all the neat looking buildings there, Skansen had the potential to be really cool, but due to virtually everything being shut, it was actually incredibly boring. I like historical buildings as much as (actually, probably more than) the next person, but most of the fun is in getting to go inside and see how people actually lived in them, instead of just staring at a bunch of exteriors. I enjoyed seeing the reindeer (and eating a cinnamon bun), and the snus museum was OK, but everything else was pretty lame (and their bathrooms were super gross, as you can probably tell from my face. Actually, that face sums up my feelings on Skansen generally), and 17 quid is a lot to spend to essentially just look at a few animals (they did have a few activities available, like carriage rides and a funicular, but you had to pay extra for those, and we’d already wasted enough money). 2/5.

  

 

Stockholm: The Vasa Museum (Vasa Museet)

Stockholm is spread out over something like 17 islands, each with their own distinct character, so, as I hinted at in my last post, I started giving them names to reflect that (different than the Swedish names they already have, because apparently I’m like some kind of jerk Victorian explorer or something). The island that ABBA the Museum shares with Skansen, the Nordic Museum, the Biological Museum, et al, naturally became “Museum Island” (though there are other islands with museums on them, it’s not the same concentration as here). Sadly, because “Museum Island” contains so many popular tourist attractions, it is extremely busy, meaning that our experience at what is arguably Stockholm’s most famous museum was never going to be an entirely pleasant one.

 

The Vasa Museum is built around a ship, the Vasa, which sunk in 1628 only 1300 metres off the coast of Stockholm on what was meant to be its maiden voyage (probably due to being top-heavy). After laying underwater for over three centuries, it was finally raised from the sea in 1961, preserved, which took decades, and eventually became the centrepiece of this museum, which opened in 1990. If you read my post on the Mary Rose a few years ago, this is probably all sounding awfully familiar, and indeed the museums are very similar, which is why I can’t help but compare them throughout.

  

There were long queues just to buy a ticket at the Vasa Museum, but by using the ticket machines, we were able to bypass them. Admission is 130 SEK, or about 12 pounds, which is cheaper than the Historic Dockyard in Portsmouth where the Mary Rose is kept, but you get to see other ships and museums at the Historic Dockyard too (including Nelson’s Victory), so you probably get more for your money there. Anyway, the Vasa Museum is basically just one huge room with the Vasa itself as the centrepiece, with various levels where you can get a view of the ship from different angles and heights and look at some exhibits.

  

The Vasa is in a much better state of preservation than the Mary Rose (the Vasa is about 100 years younger), though this has the unfortunate side effect of meaning you can’t really see inside the ship, other than what you can spy through the gun ports on the lower levels. It’s so fabulous on the outside that I wish I could have seen the inside too, and although they have re-created the officers’ quarters and one of the gun decks upstairs, it’s not as good as getting to see the whole of the interior.

  

As far as the exhibits themselves went, I think they would have been decent enough (but not great) had the museum been less crowded. The main floor contained a splendid collection of figureheads that I think were meant to be replicas of ones on the ship, though I couldn’t actually get close enough through the hordes to see for sure (everything was in Swedish and English, so that wasn’t an issue).

  

There was also a small set of tableaux off to one side re-creating scenes in the history of the ship, which were exactly the kind of thing I love, or would have loved, if again, there weren’t so many damn people that I couldn’t even wriggle in and get a picture with that gawping woman (I think she was watching the ship sink) without someone blocking me.

  

I was actually kind of fascinated by the section about how the ship was re-discovered and salvaged, simply because I hadn’t realised that people still used those kind of creepy old-school diving suits in the 1960s (though I guess I should have known, because there’s that scary claw suit guy in For Your Eyes Only, and that was in the ’80s. Apparently they’re still used for some things, but made of more modern materials). I also didn’t know that diving bells had been invented by the mid-17th century, when they were used to bring Vasa‘s cannons up to the surface.

  

One of the upper levels contained some objects that had been found on the ship, though there didn’t appear to be quite as many as were on the Mary Rose, or at least, they weren’t discussed in as much detail.  I remember the Mary Rose Museum had a lot of quotidian objects, and they talked about the sort of people they would have belonged to, which was really interesting, but the Vasa Museum seemed to have mostly weapons and stuff, and not as many personal items.  However, the Mary Rose had been in service for 34 years before sinking, whereas the Vasa didn’t even really make it out of port, so there probably wasn’t as much stuff accumulated on board.

  

Another one of the levels was about what was happening in Sweden at the time of the Vasa, and included some most excellent portraits. One of them showed a Polish nobleman from that time, and explained that one of the carvings on the ship was of a Polish man being crushed under the boot of a Swede, and that they could tell he was meant to be Polish on account of his distinctive mustache and eyebrows (I’ve got a fair bit of Polish ancestry, and though I don’t have the mustache (yet, anyway), I do pretty much have the unibrow if I stop plucking, so maybe they weren’t just being racist?). I learned that Sweden and Poland were at war a lot in the 17th century (my knowledge of most continental European history is abysmal (I know a bit about Western Europe, but almost nothing about Eastern Europe or Scandinavia)), and the Poles were even blamed for the sinking of the Vasa.

  

I have to admit that one of the highlights of the museum for me was a video that was definitely intended for children, about a piglet called Lindbom, apparently based on a children’s book. Lindbom ends up on board the Vasa, where he is about to be eaten, but manages to escape in the end, aided by the ship sinking. I literally stood there for ten minutes watching this video, just to make sure Piglet Lindbom was OK (he was very cute).

  

The other highlight was the osteoarchaeology section, which included the bones of some of the people who died aboard the ship, along with explanations of who they might have been and what conditions they were suffering from, and facial reconstructions of some of them. I took an online course in osteoarchaeology last year, and while I am definitely no expert (osteoarchaeology is hard!), it was nice to review some of what I’d learned. Plus skeletons are just cool, and facial reconstructions always crack me up.

  

Other than the people they’d done reconstructions for (ten people, including one woman and one person of indeterminate sex who may have been a woman), I felt like there wasn’t that much information about the people who might have been on board the ship, which is a shame, because that was what I loved most about the Mary Rose Museum, though maybe this was partly because only 30 people died aboard the Vasa, whereas almost everyone on the Mary Rose died, so there wasn’t as much osteoarchaeological evidence available for the Vasa.

  

Also, while there was definitely a pretty good explanation of the techniques they used to conserve the wood on the ship, Marcus mentioned that he thought they didn’t really seem to say how the ship was actually repaired, because it can’t have been as intact as it is now when they found it. For example, they mentioned that all the bolts in the ship had to be replaced, but didn’t say how they actually did it, just what the new bolts were made from.  They did attempt to explain how the ship was originally built, back in the 17th century, but even that wasn’t very clear to me, since they seemed to skip some steps.

  

So we both thought that the content was somewhat lacking (while there were some explanations provided, we both wanted more), and the crowds really did have a detrimental effect on our experience, as many of the people were particularly annoying about not moving out of the way (one guy was standing there for five minutes taking pictures of the same small section of the ship, even though we were clearly standing there waiting to get closer). I feel like the Mary Rose Museum went into a lot more detail about both the people on board the ship, and the ship itself, while the Vasa Museum only skimmed the surface of its fascinating story (though part of the problem (in addition to the factors already mentioned) could be that I know WAY more about British history, so maybe they had the same amount of historical background, I just needed a lot more about Sweden because I don’t know much about it). But the ship is absolutely fantastic, no doubt about that, it’s just that the museum doesn’t quite match the Vasa‘s glory. 3/5.

 

Stockholm, Sweden: ABBA The Museum

After spending most of an unusually hot summer working in an even hotter brewery (on days when we had the mash kettle heating and the pasteurisation tanks on, it got up to nearly 100 degrees Fahrenheit in there (37 Celsius)), boy, was I ready for a holiday (actually, I quit my awful job so now every day’s a holiday until I find something new, which hopefully won’t take as long as it took to find that job)!  And preferably, a holiday somewhere relatively cool, because I really do not cope well with heat, which pretty much left out everything south of Scandinavia and the Baltic states. I initially quite liked the idea of Estonia and Finland, but we couldn’t find any flight deals, so Stockholm it was!  Which actually worked out perfectly, because the weather was pleasingly cool (in the shade, almost too cold without a jacket), and it meant I got to visit one of my dream destinations: ABBA The Museum!

  

You might think I’m being sarcastic, because maybe I don’t really seem like the sort of person who would love ABBA, but I genuinely do (I’m also way more into Eurovision than I should be, which is probably also ABBA’s fault). And though I knew that ABBA The Museum would be super overpriced (I mean, c’mon, you can tell from the name alone), I didn’t even care. If I was going to Stockholm, nothing was going to stop me from seeing it.

  

Based on the crowds I’d seen the night before when we walked around the Old Town, I knew July was prime tourist season, and I wanted to ensure that other tourists didn’t ruin my ABBA experience, so we got there right after it opened, even though we had to skip the free breakfast at the hotel to do so (and they had Swedish pancakes on that buffet, so it was a sacrifice, though I made up for it by eating obnoxious amounts of them the next two mornings). This was a smart move, because there were only a handful of visitors in the museum, and we didn’t have to wait for any of the activities, but by the time we left, there was already a queue to get in (it’s located on the same island as a bunch of other museums, so it attracts loads of visitors). And boy, was it ever expensive!  250 SEK, which is about 22 quid. A LOT more than I’d normally drop on a museum, but when in Stockholm…

  

Since the entire museum was in Swedish and English, we did not rent audio guides, but simply headed into the museum, which began on the floor below the admissions hall with an exhibition about Eurovision, including an array of famous costumes worn at the competition from Sweden and beyond (most notably the hideous tutu/blazer combo Celine Dion wore when she won it for Switzerland in 1988). There was also a Eurovision quiz, a chance to sing along with some Eurovision hits in front of everyone (which I was way too embarrassed to do), and some screens where you could watch videos of seemingly all the Eurovision grand final competitors, maybe since the competition started(?). I was too eager to get to the actual ABBA bit to find out how far back their Eurovision archives went, but I did stay to watch one of my favourite Eurovision contestants in recent memory – Sunstroke Project and their infamous thrusting saxophonist, representing Moldova. They originally competed in 2010 (video here), and though they didn’t come close to winning, they were such a fan favourite that they came back again this year, much to my delight!

  

After getting my fill of terrible Moldovan music, I ran down another flight of stairs into the museum proper, and it was pretty much an instant ABBA assault (as I was hoping). It opened with a giant semi-circular movie screen showing clips of all ABBA’s hits, and there were TV screens in pretty much every room blasting out more ABBA. The first gallery was really the only traditional museum room with lots of text. There was a biography for each member of ABBA before they all got together, as well as a few key ABBA artefacts, like the guitar Bjorn used when they won Eurovision in 1974 (which is what really put ABBA on the map).

  

The next room, in addition to containing a ’70s style crime against wallpaper, held the infamous ABBA phone. Supposedly, only the members of ABBA have the number, so if it ever rings and you pick it up, you will be talking to either Agnetha, Bjorn, Benny, or Frida, but somehow I highly doubt that it has ever actually rung. And if it had when I was there, I imagine it would have been a very awkward conversation, because what the hell am I going to say to ABBA anyway?

  

It was the next section where things really started to get fun. In addition to ABBA’s recording studio (either a replica, or they dismantled the whole damn thing and reassembled it, I didn’t really pay attention), it had three main interactive stations. The clever thing about this museum is that you had to keep hold of your ticket the whole time, and scan it for access to the activities, meaning everyone only got one try at everything and they couldn’t stand there hogging things all day!  Also, everything you did was recorded and loaded onto your own personal private page on the museum website, accessed by entering in your ticket number, which made for cringe-worthy viewing after we left. The first activity was simply to mix one of ABBA’s songs, and try to make it sound as good as the actual version, which was not easy.

  

Then, there were karaoke booths where you could sing along with ABBA songs to see if you had the chops to become the fifth member of ABBA (though not really, because they’re broken up). Fortunately, these were fairly private booths with a curtain that closed behind you, so I felt free to belt it out. As much as I would love to be the fifth member of ABBA (we would be called JABBA, obviously), my singing voice is terrible and I know it, so I don’t see it happening. I made up for my disappointment by going on to the next activity, which scanned my face and then “dressed” me in some of ABBA’s most famous outfits. I don’t think I can pull off Agnetha’s number, but I genuinely quite like Frida’s dress and hair on me (on the right, above). Maybe it’s time for a new hairstyle?

  

After walking past a hall of more ABBA-artefacts, we entered a rather confusing room which was dark and contained a stage. I think we were supposed to get up on the stage and dance around with ABBA holograms or something, but there was a women who worked there who was standing in the corner, ignoring us and staring at her phone, and since I didn’t really know what to do, and didn’t particularly want her watching me while I did whatever it was, we skipped it and moved on to the next section.

   

Which somewhat made up for missing the holograms (or whatever), because we got to be in an ABBA music video (we picked “Chiquitita” solely because of the creepy snowman in the background). And let me tell you, watching the video of us halfheartedly dancing around is way more cringing than listening to the karaoke, even (see above for evidence of my dancing ability, or lack thereof). Still fun though.

  

There was also an ABBA quiz, wax figures of ABBA, and some creepy ABBA puppets that came from some music video I’ve never seen before. The ABBA part of the museum concluded with a gallery of the actual costumes they wore on stage, and though many of them were remarkably ugly, I did dig the fox dress and of course the cat outfits, which were for sale in t-shirt version in the gift shop; and finally, there was a brief acknowledgement that the group had indeed broken up (and gotten divorced) long ago, though this clearly wasn’t something the museum was trying to dwell on (I guess ABBA lives forever in here).

  

The museum also contained a temporary exhibition about the musical artists that have performed at Grona Lund over the years (an amusement park that is literally next door to the museum), but as I have never been to Grona Lund (it was expensive just to get in, and then you had to pay for rides on top of it), I wasn’t terribly interested. I should also note that the museum contained the only clean public toilets that I encountered in Sweden, possibly because I was one of the first people to use them that day, but still, take advantage if you need to, because the other options on Museum Island are grim.

  

The gift shop felt more like a merch table at a concert than a museum gift shop, with prices to match, but they did have some excellent ABBA shirts, and I splurged and bought myself one of the aforementioned cat shirts (Frida’s version, simply because the yellow cat was derpier than the blue one, and thus obviously superior). So counting the shirt, I ended up spending about 50 quid here (not counting Marcus’s ticket), which is definitely a lot of money, but relative to what we paid to see some of the other museums in Stockholm, I can’t really complain too much (and at least I left with a wearable souvenir!). It might be light on content, but the interactive elements genuinely were a blast (except for the one I skipped on account of the unhelpful employee), and if you’re an ABBA fan, I think this is a must!  Non-fans can of course skip it, because you probably won’t get much out of it, though even Marcus admitted that he had fun here, just maybe not 22 quid’s worth of fun. I’m so happy I finally got to go though, and it did very much live up to expectations (including the overpriced part, but at least I was expecting it, so I wasn’t that bothered). 4/5.

 

London: Death in the Ice @ the National Maritime Museum

Yeah, that’s my butt.  Just so you don’t think I’ve gone full-on Tina Belcher and am posting pictures of strangers’ butts.

Unless you’re brand new to my blog (in which case, welcome!), I’m sure you all know by now how interested I am in the grim history of polar exploration. John Franklin’s final expedition was perhaps the grimmest of them all (not only did everyone die, but there is also evidence that the last people left alive ate the bodies of their dead fellow crew members), so when I heard last year that there would be a Franklin exhibition at the National Maritime Museum in summer 2017, I was pretty excited. And now here we are, less than a fortnight after the exhibition opened, and I’ve already been to see it!

“Death in the Ice: The Shocking Story of Franklin’s Final Expedition” costs £12, and is located in the basement gallery of the National Maritime Museum. As usual, I balked at paying that much, so I went with Marcus so we could take advantage of the National Rail 2-for-1. There was initially a bit of confusion going into the exhibit because there was a sign at the top of the stairs saying that no “rucksacks” were allowed in the exhibition, so Marcus went to drop his off at the cloakroom, only to find there was a £1 charge (which I know is not that much, but still). The guy working there said that he could in fact take it into the exhibition, he just might have to carry it in front of him, which was fine. So we went down, only for the woman at the entrance to tell him to put his backpack in what she claimed was the “free cloakroom.” Fortunately, after we asked if he could just carry it instead, she did allow him to bring it in, which saved us a trip up the stairs (and a pound), but it did show that there is a lack of communication amongst the staff about official museum policies. One thing there is no confusion about, however, is their policy on photography in their special exhibit gallery. It’s never allowed, and this exhibit was no exception.

The exhibit space was dark and atmospheric, which I quite liked, but it clearly wasn’t a hit with everyone, because I immediately noticed a woman there who was standing right on top of all the labels, and using the flashlight on her phone to read them, despite the large print guides that were available (I did hear a security guard offer her one, but she apparently preferred her method, other visitors be damned). The first two galleries provided a bit of background on the history of British polar exploration generally, starting with Martin Frobisher, and some background on Franklin’s expedition specifically.  However, it paled in comparison to the excellent and comprehensive history available at the Polar Museum in Cambridge, and I think that if you didn’t know much about Franklin going in, it was probably a little lacking. Because I don’t want to repeat the museum’s mistakes, let me give you a little background on Franklin and his expedition here:

John Franklin was a Royal Navy officer with extensive experience of surveying the Arctic. However, though he had mapped much of the Canadian coast, he still hadn’t uncovered the fabled Northwest Passage (a common belief for centuries was that there was open water at the North Pole, and if you could just find an entrance to it, you could cut journey times to the other side of the world in half), so agreed to undertake one final voyage in 1845 to try to find it. He took two ships, the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, crewed by 105 men and 23 officers, including Francis Crozier, who captained the Terror. Both ships had been used on a previous Arctic expedition, but to keep up with the latest technology, were now outfitted with steam engines and propellers in addition to reinforced bows and iron rudders (which added a lot of extra weight). Unfortunately, the work had been done in a hurry, and wasn’t of the best quality. In addition, Franklin, though experienced, was quite old to be undertaking this kind of voyage (59 in 1845, which I know is not that old by modern standards (just look at Ranulph Fiennes!), but Franklin wasn’t exactly fighting fit), and like most Europeans, was disdainful of Inuit ways, which might have helped the men survive after they abandoned ship. No one is entirely sure exactly what happened on the voyage, which is what makes Franklin’s expedition so intriguing even to this day, but it is certain that they all died, some while they were still on the ships, and many more in camps on land as they tried in vain to reach civilisation, and some recent discoveries (as discussed later in the post), might eventually help shed more light on it.  Now, back to the exhibition!

The third, and largest gallery was meant to be roughly the dimensions of the lower deck of the Erebus, Franklin’s flagship (I’m guessing they specifically arranged it that way, but perhaps it was just a happy coincidence), and this gallery had sort of sailory audio effects, with the sounds of men mumbling and coughing, and boards creaking all around us. I liked that this helped me imagine a bit what it would have been like inside the ship, and to further the effect, they had seats in there the size of a ship’s chest, which would have been shared by two men, in which they would have kept all their personal belongings (they weren’t very big). The downside of Franklin’s expedition being a complete and utter disaster (besides everyone dying, of course), is that aside from some letters mailed from Greenland, before Erebus and Terror set out for Nunavut, and a note found inside a cache (more on that later), there is virtually no information about what happened on board the ships – no diaries, logs, or unmailed letters have survived, so the museum didn’t really have a lot to say about ship life, other than using Franklin’s previous Arctic voyages, and other voyages around that time to infer what might have happened. Thus there was a display of games (used to keep up morale), accounts of the plays men often performed in on these kinds of voyages (again, morale), and a cat o’nine tails in a display about discipline, and not a whole lot else.

Anyway, because there wasn’t much to be said about the expedition itself, the exhibition quickly moved on to the search efforts. The expedition had been supplied for three years, so nobody thought too much of it when a couple years went by without hearing word from Franklin. Typically, ships would get frozen into the pack ice, and were then trapped until the summer thaw, which didn’t happen some years, so they’d have to spend another year trapped in the ice (more than one other expedition met disaster that way, though not to the extent that Franklin’s did). But when 1848 rolled around and nobody had heard anything, people, especially Jane, Franklin’s wife, began to get concerned, and the Royal Navy sent out some search parties, in addition to offering a £10,000 reward to anyone who discovered the fate of the ships (which was a lot of money back then. Hell, it’s still a decent chunk of cash now!). My favourite of these search parties was led by Dr. John Rae, a Scottish surgeon who befriended many of the Inuit and was a successful explorer because he used their survival techniques and lived off the land. Rae was the one who got closest to the truth, again, because he listened to the Inuit, which is why many people in Britain hated him, not least Jane Franklin, and when he dared to say that there was evidence that the men had resorted to cannibalism, his reputation was ruined.  (There was a letter here from Charles Dickens to a newspaper saying that he thought the stories of cannibalism were just the Inuit trying to cover their tracks, because they probably murdered and ate the men themselves, because you can’t trust an Inuit (his words). It made me hate him even more than I already did.)

Sadly, John Rae only rated about a paragraph in this exhibit, though a little more space was given to some of the other search parties, and some of the artefacts they’d left behind in the Arctic (including a metal food box with polar bear tooth marks in it!). But the main artefacts I was there to see were from the Erebus and Terror themselves. Yes, after over 160 years, the ships were discovered at the bottom of a bay off the coast of King William Island. The Erebus was found in 2014, and the Terror even more recently, in September 2016, hence the timing of the exhibition. There was a video of scuba divers exploring the wrecks, which was pretty cool, and some neat stuff that they’d dredged up from the deep, including the ship’s bell, various metal bits and pieces, and even a bit of cloth from a uniform. There were also artefacts found in the camp of the last men to die (it’s thought about 30 or 40 men made it to the northern coast of mainland Canada. Inuit actually encountered some of them, but they didn’t help them because the Inuit themselves were starving that year, and had no food to spare), and these were really neat, including a hymnbook, a small beaded purse, a pair of mittens with hearts stitched into the palms, and a few pieces of silverware with one of the officers’ family crests on them which had initials crudely scratched into them, so it’s thought that the crew might have shared out the officers’ possessions after they died and discipline broke down.

Speaking of artefacts, there was also the aforementioned letter left by some of the officers in a cache, initially in 1846 when the voyage was still going relatively well, saying that they’d wintered on Beechey Island, where three crew members had died, and then again in 1848 after the boats sank and Franklin had died (he died in June 1847, probably well before most of his men. As I’ve said, he was not in the best of shape, so the voyage would have been quite taxing even without starvation and frostbite and everything else) along with 9 officers and 15 men.  I saw a facsimile of this at the Polar Museum, and was excited to see the real thing, but unfortunately, the real thing was all ripped and stained, and harder to read than the facsimile!  The same could be said of Jane Franklin’s letters to her husband, sent when she thought he was still alive (obviously, he never got them, and they were returned to her), not because the condition was poor, but because she had absolutely appalling handwriting.

My absolute favourite part of this exhibition was the medical section. In one room, they had very clear photographs of the bodies of three men (William Braine, John Hartnell, and John Torrington) who had been buried at the first camp on Beechey Island and exhumed in the 1980s. They were still remarkably well preserved on account of the cold, and it might have been a little grisly for some, but I loved reading accounts of their injuries and what diseases they might have been suffering from whilst getting to look at their actual remains (and I wasn’t the only one…there was a child in there asking his mother which corpse was her favourite. I don’t much like kids, but this was a child after my own heart!). There was also a display on what might have killed the men of the Terror and Erebus, because starvation alone apparently doesn’t explain all the deaths, especially because a cache of food was found near some of the bodies. Theories range from botulism, scurvy, tuberculosis, hypothermia, lead poisoning (the food for the expedition was prepared in a hurry, and some lead solder contaminated it during the canning process, plus the ship had a water distillation system that also leached lead), and others, but none of those conditions provides a complete explanation (it was probably a variety of causes of death that did them all in), and the exhibit explained why, as well as offering a helpful interactive screen showing a breakdown of exactly how men did die on other naval expeditions of that period. The interactives in this exhibit were generally quite good, with a few that played short videos of Inuit oral testimony that explained what they witnessed happening to Franklin’s men and ships (recorded by modern Inuit people, from oral traditions that had been passed down), maps of the probable expedition route, and a 3D virtual model of the wreck of the Erebus that you could “explore.” Because it wasn’t too crowded when we visited, I actually got a good look at all of them, though of course the disease one was my favourite.

Although it was exciting getting to see some of the artefacts from Franklin’s final expedition, something about this exhibit just felt rushed to me…perhaps they wanted to get it out quickly in order to capitalise on interest about the discovery of the Terror? They mentioned how much time it takes to preserve artefacts that have been left underwater, and it seems to me like they hurried to get some out in time for the exhibition, when it might have been better if they’d held off for a year or two til there was more to look at, and maybe some conclusions could have been drawn from the ruins to tell us more about what went wrong. I also felt the content was a little lacking…I read Anthony Brandt’s The Man Who Ate His Boots (mainly about Franklin) a while back, and while the book wasn’t perfect, it was quite interesting because it pieced together what might have happened on the voyage from accounts given by Rae, other search parties, the Inuit, and modern historians. This exhibition really didn’t do that, perhaps because they didn’t want to use speculation rather than fact, but trying to tell more of a story about Franklin’s voyage would have made it a more cohesive exhibition, rather than it skipping abruptly from the interiors of the ships to search parties. It was interesting enough, it just didn’t give the complete picture (unlike their Emma Hamilton exhibition, which was excellently comprehensive). I’m glad we only paid £6, as it didn’t take that long to see it, and I don’t think it was worth £12. It runs until the 7th of January 2018, so you’ve got plenty of time to go visit, which I would do if you’re as keen on polar exploration as I am; otherwise, I think you can safely give this a miss and wait for their next special exhibition instead. 3/5.

Hove, East Sussex: Hove Museum and Art Gallery

I’ve been to Brighton quite a few times over the years, and except for the Old Police Cells Museum, which I’m never around at the right time of day to visit (it’s by pre-booked guided tour only, and the only tour time is 10:30 in the morning), I feel I’ve pretty well exhausted its limited museum options at this point.  So on this trip to the coast (which turned out to be much colder than London, so not a good seaside day after all), I turned to its smaller neighbouring town of Hove, and the Hove Museum and Art Gallery, which was rumoured to have a nice collection of magic lantern slides.

  

The Hove Museum falls under the authority of Brighton Museums, which makes sense, because it is very similar in feel to the larger Brighton Museum.  Fortunately, admission to the Hove Museum is free to all, and not just residents of Brighton and Hove, like the Brighton Museum is. At the time of my visit, there was a special exhibit about puppets on the ground floor, so that’s where I began.

  

I’d be the first to admit that a lot of puppets are kind of menacing, but most of these ones were actually quite charming. I particularly liked the ones of Miss Fox and Miss Cat (above previous paragraph), and of Bluebeard, Bluebeard’s wife, and the ghost of one of his previous wives (not pictured, because I don’t have a photo for some reason). There was a woman in there at the same time as me who was apparently one of the creators of a Rikki-Tikki-Tavi puppet theatre, and she was explaining how she made it to some other woman, but I was too distracted by her pronunciation of “Tavi” to pay attention. I’ve always said “taa-vee,” but this woman kept saying “tah-vee.” I guess it’s one of those British/American English divides…I just asked Marcus how to phonetically spell the “aaa” noise I make in “Tavi” and “apple” and he couldn’t do it because it’s not even a noise English people make. Just picture a sort of annoying nasally “a” noise.

  

The bulk of the museum was located on the first floor, and as I was keen to see the magic lantern stuff (Professor Heard from that Brompton Cemetery event last year fired up my enthusiasm for the medium), I headed to the film gallery first. This turned out to be two small rooms, plus a neat little cinema (I loved the wall decor) where you could watch short films starring puppets (dunno if this was connected to the puppet exhibit, or if they show them all the time).

  

The slides turned out to be all mounted together in a large panel that you could press a switch to illuminate. I think my favourites are the dog and cat in the fourth row from the bottom (they’re a little hard to see, but they’re dressed in people clothes, and the cat is reading a book), but there were enough entertaining slides that I stood there studying them for a good long while (longer than the light stayed on for anyway, I had to press it again). There were also a few thaumatrope and flipbook type things to play with, and some early silent films of the Brighton area to enjoy.

  

Next was a small room devoted to the history of Hove, which segued into an equally pint-sized art gallery. I didn’t spend too much time in the local history section, which was a bit wordy, even for me (plus I’m just not that interested in the history of Hove), but it seems like Hove was built up during the Regency period, same as Brighton. Also, Edward VII apparently liked to hang out in Hove when he was still the Prince of Wales. The art gallery had a few paintings in it that I quite liked (which is impressive, given that there were only about ten paintings in there), including a whole wall with a giant monkey painting.

  

The “Wizard’s Attic,” which was presumably aimed at children (though they’d have to be fairly brave children, as you’ll see once you get a look at some of the toys there), was without question my favourite gallery in the museum. The premise was that a wizard (pictured above) lived there (you had to be quiet so as not to wake him up), and he liked to collect and repair old toys. So the room was chock-full of Pollock’s Toy Museum style cases of antique toys of varying degrees of disturbing. I have to admit that I quite liked those George V, Queen Mary, and young Edward VIII (in his pre-Nazi sympathiser days) dolls, even if they were a bit creepy.

  

But their creepiness was nothing compared to those clown dolls pictured above. I’m positive if you let them into your house, they would kill everyone you cared about in the night, and wait until you woke up and saw what they had done before they killed you too. It’s a good thing the sensible Wizard has them contained behind glass. Tricycle boy there is a bit unsettling too…to be honest, there were a lot of shit-scary toys here. I’m not sure how much children would actually like this terrifying collection, but I loved it. It was like being in an episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark? or something (god, I used to love that show, but I had no idea it ran until 2000!  I must have stopped watching at some point in the mid-’90s).

  

The final gallery was devoted to different crafts and how they were produced – I’m not terribly interested in crafts, but a few objects did catch my eye, like the figure of Lucretia stabbing herself, above, a pumpkin teapot (which you may be able to spot in the photo on the above left), and some cute little monster dolls (below left).

 

I ended up spending less than an hour at this museum, which is fine because it was free, but it definitely felt like Brighton Museum’s less impressive little sister (which is kind of funny, because apparently Hove likes to think of itself as being posher than Brighton). It matched Brighton Museum’s eclecticism, just on a reduced scale (there was even a pavilion-y structure outside the museum that I think was some sort of war memorial). I really enjoyed the magic lantern slides, and the toy gallery, but the rest was a little hit-and-miss. I think it’s worth a visit if, like me, you’ve been to the area a lot and want something new to see, but if you’re only in this part of Sussex for a day or two, I’d just stay in Brighton and see the Royal Pavilion and Brighton Museum instead (and eat some ice cream! Scoop and Crumb or Boho Gelato are both good options), or maybe go for a walk at Devil’s Dyke (and then get ice cream!). I’d even recommend the Booth Museum over this one (if you’re into taxidermy), just because it’s so gloriously old fashioned. 2.5/5 for the Hove Museum.