London: Cosmonauts @ The Science Museum

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As you may remember from my post on the Vitkov Monument, I really like Soviet art.  I’m not sure why, because: a.) I’m not a communist, and b.) I hate a lot of mid-century stuff.  Like modernist furniture.  I can’t understand why people go nuts for it, because it is some of the ugliest crap I’ve ever seen.  But something about triumphant Soviet men and women engaging in honest Soviet labour just appeals to me (despite my own distaste for manual labour.  Maybe I’ve been too influenced by Laura Ingalls Wilder (DEFINITELY not a communist) and her glorification of farm work.  I blame a lot on my obsession with the Little House books).  So I happily went to see the Cosmonauts exhibition currently at the Science Museum, because I reckoned there would definitely be some stellar Space Age art there.

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I wasn’t wrong, but first, there were a couple confusing things about this exhibition I should mention.  It’s supposed to cost £14, but we were only charged £12.60.  So I’m not sure if there’s an optional donation that they don’t mention, or what the deal was (we also got the National Rail 2 for 1, as usual, so it was £25.20 in total for three people, which is not too bad.  £42 would have been way too much).  Also, even though the signs make it look like the exhibition is in the basement, it’s actually on the 1st floor (I briefly worked in the Science Museum cloakroom, so I know all too well that is the only thing in the basement on the that side of the museum, but it’s definitely not obvious otherwise).  Finally, although the man working at the entry to the exhibit told us no photography was allowed, one of the other visitors asked a guard about it while we were in there, and he said it was fine to take pictures without flash.  So I’m still not sure what their official policy is (nor do they, it would seem), but I have some pictures because we were explicitly told it was ok, and no one seemed to care.  I’m not being one of those people, I swear!

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Anyway, I’m glad we could take pictures (even though maybe we shouldn’t have), because there was lots of cool stuff in there, not least the art, including a pretty baller picture right when we walked in, of a bunch of Soviet workers being industrious under the moon (which I don’t have a photo of, because we weren’t sure if photography was allowed at that point.  Actually, I somehow ended up with very few pictures of the artwork, after all that). Yeah, I also love stuff with the moon on it (I blame my teenage dabbling in Wicca for that), so I thought all the paintings and posters in here were fantastic.

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The exhibit basically took you through the Soviet space programme in chronological order, starting with the 1920s, and these “crazy” futuristic sketches (that actually weren’t all that crazy relative to The Jetsons or Epcot), and a couple of guys who were apparently instrumental in creating the space programme (one of them was sent to a gulag for a while (because Stalin), and they had his uniform and cup, and the other one was almost deaf, so they had his homemade ear trumpet), and progressing through Sputnik, and the manned (and canined) space missions, and ending with Mir and the International Space Station.

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Now,  being American, I don’t actually know that much about the cosmonauts, what with the whole Cold War and everything.  (The Soviet Union had already pretty much broken down by the time I was of school age, but Americans still aren’t too keen on Russia generally.  Besides, the only famous person who ever attended my elementary school was this astronaut named Ron Sega, and he would come every year to do a talk, so our space education was pretty NASA-orientated.)  But I get the impression they were pretty popular in Britain, especially after once walking past some council estate in Clapham where all the buildings were named after Gagarin and his colleagues.  So I suppose this was a good opportunity to fill in some of the gaps in my knowledge, but I was more interested in tchotchkes like the Yuri Gagarin nesting dolls, and the mock-up of Laika’s space pod thingy, which even had a stuffed dog in it.  (I’m very partial to Laika, because I feel bad for her.  I also like Belka and Strelka, but at least they made it back.)

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They had a tonne of space capsules and satellites and junk here, though I was somewhat upset that the chick standing around with an angled mirror on a stick so you could see inside them disappeared just as we approached her.  I’m too short to see that high on my own!  But the designs of the things were cool enough that even just looking at them from the outside was ok, I guess (not gonna lie, I’m still kind of salty about not getting to use the mirror).

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There was a short video about the American space programme, but most of the focus here was definitely on the Soviets, as it should be, given the exhibition title (the Americans probably get enough attention, to be fair).  I thought all the souvenirs Yuri Gagarin was given were pretty neat, including a signed picture of the Queen and her family (dishy youngish Philip), and a little doll from Japan that was later taken into space by the first Japanese astronaut.  I was also fascinated by the various space suits worn on the International Space Station, especially the one with vacuum pumps to force blood into the legs, to equalise blood pressure upon re-entry.  It looked like something out of a ’50s Sci-Fi film, or maybe a bit like the wrong trousers from Wallace and Gromit (I hate that damn penguin, and Wallace is also a major jerk in that one.  Ugh).  I am also, of course, extremely interested in how cosmonauts poop (it’s discussed pretty thoroughly in Mary Roach’s excellent Packing for Mars, because she appears to be a lady who shares my interest in bodily functions), so I was glad there was a toilet from the space station here as well.  And the display of Russian space foods was also intriguing, especially because most of them sounded so gross (there was no Tang, sadly enough).

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The exhibition ended with a weird blue room that was kind of like a womb-regression experience, with soft music and ambient lighting, and a statue of a cosmonaut in a pod hanging out in the middle.  But right before it, there was this awesome triptych from the ’80s depicting a cosmonaut and his family, where the woman looks sad because her husband is leaving her behind, but the cosmonaut was, in their words, “raring to go.”  (And indeed I should say he was.  That was one saucy cosmonaut.  Rawr.)

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When we exited, I was thrilled anew when I spied the Cosmonauts shop.  Like, I need to mention how superlative it was.  I was just as impressed by the shop as anything in the exhibit itself (which is why I would have made a terrible communist).  There was a whole wall full of Soviet space art, and it wasn’t too badly priced either (a tenner for posters, £8 for an A4, though of course that doesn’t include frames, which is always the stupidly expensive bit, and why the two prints I bought are still just sitting on the floor of my flat instead of on the wall).  And they had magnets, postcards, coasters, mugs…almost anything you could want really.  Even a space-helmet-clad-Belka brooch for a fiver, which I obviously bought (it’s already on one of my coats).  And you got a free silver Yuri Gagarin tote bag if you spent at least 20 quid, which was not hard to do.  The only thing they were missing was astronaut ice cream (maybe cosmonauts don’t eat it?), but they have that in the shop downstairs if you’re really desperate, and they also had apple crumble in a tube from the Russian-themed cafe just outside, which I was too scared to try.  So it wasn’t great for my budget, but damn, I was impressed with the whole experience. Again, I don’t think it’s worth the full price (almost nothing is), but I probably got my money’s worth for what we paid.  The stuff in here was just really cool, especially as most of it had actually been in space at some point.  4/5.  It’s on until the 13th of March, so you’ve still got a bit of time to check it out, if you’re in London.

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London: Samuel Pepys; Plague, Fire, Revolution @ the National Maritime Museum


Certainly a Pepys exhibit was as good of an excuse as any to go eat churros visit Greenwich and the National Maritime Museum again.  I’d been avoiding the area for some months, as the last time I was there, the market was all tore up, and the Brazilian churro stand was nowhere to be seen.  Fortunately, I’m happy to report that Greenwich Market seems more or less back to normal, and the churro stand is back in its rightful spot every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.  Not that you HAVE to eat a churro if you go to Greenwich, but if the option to consume an oozing dulce de leche stuffed fried sugared pastry exists, why wouldn’t you choose it?!

Anyway, after getting the whole churro business out of the way (I’m obsessed! (and half hoping the owners read this and offer me free churros, but since they have no idea who the hell I am, that’s not likely)), we were free to pop over to the National Maritime Museum and see the Pepys thing.  Because in addition to churros, I also love Samuel Pepys, misogynistic philanderer though he was.  Admission with voluntary Gift Aid is £12, but you can drop it down to £10.80 if you decline the donation, or even better, £5.40 with a National Rail 2-for-1 and a friend (or in my case, partner, since I haven’t really got any friends).  Like all of the National Maritime Museum’s temporary exhibitions, it’s in the basement gallery, which is always bizarrely dark (I get the whole conservation thing, but it seems consistently dark, no matter what they’ve got in there.  You also can’t take pictures, perhaps because it’s so dark you couldn’t do it without a flash anyway), but reasonably spacious, so that they seem able to spread things out enough that people aren’t constantly on top of each other, which I appreciate.  We also visited on a Friday afternoon, which helped cut down on the crowds.  Basically, it was a far more pleasant experience than the Crime Museum exhibit all around, even if the material wasn’t quite as interesting.

Which is not to knock Pepys and his writing; he’s great, it was perhaps more that the information here was fairly basic, and given that I’ve spent a fair bit of time studying the latter half of the 17th century, there wasn’t very much to learn.  The exhibit tied together various historical events that happened during Pepys’s lifetime with his diary entries (or other writings, in the years after his diary finished).  But because Pepys journalled (is that a word?) from 1660-69, the bulk of the exhibition was devoted to London during those years.

The exhibit opened with the downfall of Charles I, explaining how a young Samuel Pepys was a witness to his execution, and including some Civil War artefacts.  It didn’t waste too much time on Cromwell and the Puritans, and why should it?  They were dreadful!  Good times were restored along with Charles II, and the exhibit went on to discuss the pleasures of Restoration-era life, including theatre, Charles II’s many mistresses (and Pepys’s fumbling attempts to fondle his maids and other female acquaintances), and the plague of 1665, followed by the Great Fire.  Everyone knows Pepys buried his Parmesan during the fire (one of the reasons I like him – hard Italian cheeses are my favourite, though I tend to favour pecorino over parmesan.  It’s saltier.  I would still happily nosh on a big ol’ wheel of parmesan though), but there were some lesser-known Pepys passages available here, especially in the interactive diary readers on the wall.  I was amused to read that he left Charles II’s coronation celebrations early, as he “needed a piss.”  Again, he’s a man after my own heart/small bladder.  Speaking of bladders, I briefly got excited when I saw a bladder stone on display here, hoping it was Pepys’s elusive one (which I’ve spent a good many hours trying to track down), but it was just there to show the approximate size his would have been (which probably means my research is correct, and Pepys’s stone is long-lost. It’s a shame, that).

There were some cool computery effects throughout, including a silhouettey performance of Macbeth, with Pepys’s comments on the play narrated over it (I liked the witches), a tracker that showed how many people died from plague over the course of 1665, and a bunch of flame effects in the Great Fire room, with a map that showed London being engulfed.  There were also a lot of genuinely neat artefacts – not so much from Pepys, as many of his possessions seem to have been destroyed, including the painting of Elizabeth that matched his own (poor, long-suffering Elizabeth.  Not only did she have to put up with all of Pepys’s crap, she died when she was only 29), but from the royals.  I loved the letter from Charles II to one of his mistresses (Louise de Kerouaille), who he called “Fubbs” because she had chubby cheeks (he even named his yacht Fubbs, after her).  I mean, the Fubbs thing was kind of charming, albeit mildly insulting, and he had fairly messy handwriting, which you probably wouldn’t expect from a king.  And there was a fantastic portrait of him leading the Navy as some kind of mer-creature, with lots of weird looking fish and things all around.  And one of James II wearing these spectacular sandals.

The exhibit moved on from 1660s London to the post-diary part of Pepys’s life, when he became Chief Secretary to the Admiralty, and was involved in all things naval, which is presumably why this exhibit was at the National Maritime Museum in the first place.  It also mentioned his interest in science, although in a backhanded way, as it stated he probably didn’t understand much of what was discussed at the Royal Society, despite being its president for a time.  (To be fair, Pepys himself admitted as much, but it still seemed a bit mean, as he was clearly a man who loved learning, even if some of the concepts were beyond him.)

Finally, it closed with the Glorious Revolution, which led to Pepys’s downfall in a way, as he was very close to James II, despite being Protestant himself.  He was accused of being a Catholic sympathiser and imprisoned for a time (there’s definitely a book out there that I’ve read about this,  but I can’t remember what it’s called).  Though his name was eventually cleared, it pretty much put an end to his career, especially as he was already in his late 50s at this point.  There were some excellent paintings of Pepys attending James’s coronation though, so at least something good came out of the whole fiasco.

I was asked to rate the exhibit (via computer survey, there wasn’t anyone there dying for my opinion or anything) immediately upon leaving, and gave it a 7/10, which translates to a 3.5/5 on my own rating system, and I think I’d like to stick with that assessment.  I didn’t learn very much that was new, but people who aren’t that knowledgeable about Pepys or Restoration London probably will learn a fair bit, and there were some fantastic paintings and letters here that everyone can enjoy.  Again, probably not a 12 quid exhibit, as it only takes about an hour (if that) to look through, but I definitely think the 2-for-1 price was more than fair.  I especially appreciated the lack of crowds.  Oh, and the posters advertising the exhibition are extremely excellent (pictured at the start); if they don’t sell you on going to see it, I’m not sure what will really.  Definitely worth a “Pepys,” this one (yes, I’ve used that joke before).

Croydon, UK: Croydon Airport Museum

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I’d been trying to visit the Croydon Airport Museum for months now, but because it’s only open on the first Sunday of the month, it seemed like something always came up to stop me.  Fortunately, at the start of January, I’d just come back from America, I was too jet-lagged for anything more ambitious, and the weather was terrible, so there was nothing better to do than sit in traffic for an hour on our way out to Croydon.

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The museum is free to visit, and there’s free parking out front, although spaces were hard to come by on the day we were there, apparently because there was an airplane enthusiasts’ convention taking place in the hotel next door, which was also part of the airport complex at one time (you had to pay to visit that, so I can’t report on the enthusiasts).  But, we managed to squeeze into a spot, and ran through the driving rain into the museum.  A tour was starting up right when we got there, which we joined because I was concerned we wouldn’t be able to view the upper levels of the museum without it (and judging by the signs on the door leading upstairs, that appears to be the case).  The “tour” mainly consisted of a man pointing out photos on the ground floor, and explaining a bit about the airport’s history, but once we got to the upper galleries, we were mercifully free to explore them at our leisure.

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Croydon Airport started life back in the 1910s as the Beddington Aerodrome and Waddon Aerodrome, which merged at the end of WWI to become Croydon Aerodrome (why do Brits say “aeroplane,” and “aerodrome,” but it’s still called an “airport?”  I seriously keep checking to make sure I’m spelling it right, and it’s definitely “airport.”)  In the 1920s, it became the first international airport in the world, serving as a base for Imperial Airways (they flew all over the Empire, as it then was, though it seemed rather pricey, with flights to Africa running 100+ pounds in 1940s money (which is apparently the equivalent of £5000 today.  That can’t be right.  Well, maybe for first class…)).  The airport played a major role in any number of historic events, including sheltering The Spirit of St Louis after Lindbergh’s famous flight, serving as the launching point for Amy Johnson’s flight to Australia (the first female solo flight there), developing the concept of air traffic control, and serving as a fighter station during the Battle of Britain.  However, by the 1950s, it couldn’t compete anymore with the other airfields that had popped up around London, and it closed in 1959, when much of it was re-purposed, and the rest destroyed.  Today, all that remains is the museum building, and the aforementioned hotel next door.

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There was a large model of the airport in its prime on the ground floor, but that was probably the highlight in this area.  Otherwise, it consisted of posters about Amy Johnson, and walls covered in pictures (and the Cloud 9 Cafe).  There were more pictures in the long hallway leading upstairs (we also passed a room where some women were busy chopping lots of onions, presumably for the bar at the back of the museum, which doesn’t actually appear to have anything to do with the museum, unlike the cafe), but save for the one of a young George VI after he completed his flight training, my interest wasn’t really piqued until we got to the caricatures on the stairs.

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I love a good caricature, and these were hilariously excellent, featuring various pilots and other airline staff, and usually some sort of pun on their surname. The upstairs gallery was just two small rooms (which were rather packed when the whole tour group arrived up there), but the outer room had loads of dressing-up boxes I was itching to get my hands on (you all know I also love an aviator jacket), though I couldn’t really because I was embarrassed to act like a four year old in front of so many people.

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So I settled for looking around the room next door, which contained mementos from the early days of aviation.  How comfy does that whimsically upholstered chair look?  That was an actual plane seat, an upgrade from the wicker chair next to it, which was used in even earlier passenger planes (I’d imagine you’d be sliding around, unless they bolted them to the floor).

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There was also a scale where you could weigh yourself and calculate which flight you would have made it on (they used to have to weigh each passenger to make sure the plane could carry them all, and then arrange the seating so the plane was properly balanced.  I don’t think they’d get away with that nowadays).  The funniest part was probably the helpful booklets directed at first time fliers back in the day; among other things, like on-board fashion advice, they were instructed that there was no need to lean when the plane was turning, as the plane could make it without their help!

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We also had the opportunity to go up in the old control tower, where there were a number of delightful activities.  I had fun calculating where a plane was coming from based on the degree of its approach to various airports (having fun with something involving math!  Imagine!), and quickly identifying planes based on their outlines.  There was a computer game flight simulator, but children were hogging that, so I didn’t get to try it.

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I did enjoy all the fabulous old airline posters (wish we still had those today, instead of obnoxious commercials with Jennifer Aniston advertising first class flights I’ll never be able to afford in my life).  I’d certainly head to the Channel Islands for a tenner, but that would be about 200 quid in modern money, so maybe not.  Damn inflation.  You could probably get Easyjet for less than that, if they even fly to Jersey.

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They had more Amy Johnson memorabilia up here as well, including the flight bag that was all that was recovered from her last flight, due to the unpleasant nature of her death.  Basically, she joined the ATA when war broke out, and she was flying over the Thames Estuary in 1941 when she was forced to bail out of her plane.  Her parachute came down over the water, which was extremely cold, and a nearby ship tried to save her, but they were unable to pull her aboard and she accidentally got sucked into the ship’s propeller when it got too close (not sure if she was still alive when she got sucked in, but I hope not!), which explains why they couldn’t recover her body.  But that felt (?) rendering of her is all kinds of adorable!

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Though we weren’t allowed in the actual control room part of the tower, which is behind glass, we could peer in through the windows and get a pretty good view.  It looks like it was still a fairly low-tech operation in the 1950s, with controllers having to make actual calculations by hand.  Pretty cool though.

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Though the museum didn’t quite live up to its potential, given all that happened here, I still enjoyed myself, and for a free museum, I can’t really complain.  I do definitely think they could do more with the gallery space downstairs, and maybe display some of the items in a manner that would make them easier to look at (not everything had a caption, and sometimes there was too much stuff in the cases), but it is volunteer run, and they’re dependent on donations, so I recognise they probably don’t have the kind of money to do everything they’d like.  It is a beautiful old building; the ground floor bears a distinct resemblance to an old-fashioned train station, and I would have loved to have been able to catch an actual flight here back in the day (though obviously that would never fly now (pun intended) with security regulations and all).  All in all, it was a nice little reminder of a more civilised time in aviation (when one wasn’t forced to sit behind an obnoxious man who insisted on reclining his seat all the way for the duration of the flight including meals and LANDING!  And then bouncing around in his seat so it kept bashing into my (short) legs all the while.  All while the man next to me incessantly cracked his knuckles.  Ugh, sorry, the memory of that hellacious flight is still far too recent), and a good way to kill an hour.  3/5.


Columbus, OH: Jubilee Museum and Catholic Cultural Center


This post is admittedly a tricky one for me to write, but I’m running short on blogging material, so it’ll have to be done.  As you all probably know by now, I have no religious or spiritual inclinations, at all, but at the same time, I don’t wish to insult those who do.  So I hope this post won’t come across as offensive, or overly blasphemous, but frankly, if I could walk into this museum without bursting into flames, I guess I don’t need to worry too much about blasphemy.

When I was back home for Christmas this year (well, last year now I guess), I was so busy doing Christmassy crap around my parents’ house (homemade pierogi are a lot of work) that I never really made it out to any museums.  (I did go see an exhibition of over 900 Nativity scenes at an historic Mormon compound (not my idea), which was…interesting, to say the least, but not really worth blogging about.)  So a couple days before I had to leave, my mother proposed a day trip to Columbus, because she thought I’d be able to find a new pair of boots in the enormous mall down there (because I’m just as picky about boots as I am about everything else, but I’m happy to report I found a pair of the Doc Martens I was looking for in the sale room of a department store. Score!).  Of course, I couldn’t make the trip without seeing a museum or two as well, so we planned to visit the Statehouse whilst we were down there, because I enjoyed the one in Texas, and the Map Room looked pretty cool.  Unfortunately, just as we were approaching the Statehouse, a fire truck pulled up and blocked the street, followed by about a million police cars.  Turns out someone had left a backpack in the bushes outside, and it was being treated as a potential bomb (it definitely wasn’t), so no one was allowed inside the Statehouse.


This was crappy, but I reckoned we could go get some food at this cool sounding market I’d read about, and maybe things would blow over by then.  Which is how we found ourselves at the North Market a few hours ahead of schedule, chowing down on excellent Liege-style waffles from Taste of Belgium (the brown smear is just sweet, delicious Nutella).

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The market is indeed pretty cool, kind of like a smaller, more upscale version of my beloved West Side Market, and I will definitely be heading back someday to eat another one of those waffles, and to try a gourmet pretzel from Brezel, and one of the giant doughnuts from Destination Donut (yay for carbs!).  Anyway, we swung by the Statehouse again after wandering the market for an hour, and the damn thing was still closed, so we had no choice but to find another museum.  Most of the other ones that sounded cool, like the Cartoon Museum and the Museum of Biological Diversity, were part of the OSU campus, and didn’t open until 1, or were prohibitively expensive, like the art museum (I mean, I find it hard to justify spending $14 on an art museum.  I could have got three waffles for that!).  What we were left with was the Jubilee Museum and Catholic Cultural Center.

Now, although I am not of a religious inclination, my mom is a practicing Catholic, so I assumed the place would at least have some appeal to her, even if I wasn’t into it.  But I don’t think either of us really realised what we were getting into.


We pulled up outside the building, which was pretty run down, with some boarded up windows, and hesitated for a minute before venturing inside, since neither one of us was sure exactly what to expect.  We were greeted inside by a young man, who asked if we wanted the tour.  Of course, my mother said yes (and I immediately asked her what the hell was she thinking as soon as the guy was out of earshot).  So we got the full tour, beginning with their “shop” where we were welcome to take home slightly damaged religious statues for a donation of whatever we thought they were worth.  Neither one of us took advantage of this offer.

Now, me, my mom, and my brother have an unfortunately tendency to come down with a laughing fit at inopportune times, usually when some combination of us are together.  One of us will start snickering, and it sets the other one(s) off, and then we usually all end up red-faced and in tears from struggling to hold the laughter back.  As soon as this guy pointed out the second donation box (recommended donation $10 per adult), my mother lost it, and I had to really struggle to keep a straight face and listen to what the guy was saying, with my mom snorting behind me.  I managed to keep it together, for the most part, but it was a challenge when she didn’t stop snickering for about ten minutes.  It was about this point when my mother tried to ditch the tour guide by taking a really long time to look at all the prints in their temporary exhibition (Bible-themed artwork by the Japanese artist Sadao Watanabe, who somehow made a miraculous recovery from TB right around the time Streptomycin was discovered (pardon my skepticism)).  It didn’t work.  He waited for us outside the room, and then resumed the tour as soon as we’d finished.


I’m not sure exactly what to say about our tour guide.  I don’t really like being mean about people on here (unless they deserve it), because I would feel horrible if I went on someone’s blog and discovered someone saying awful things about me.  And this guy was nice enough.  But he was very, um, earnest.  And perhaps overly enthusiastic.  And let’s face it, I get my snarkiness from somewhere, I have a snarky family.  So he was really no match for me and my mom, hence the snickering fit, but after that we tried to be polite, though we did frequently roll our eyes at each other when he wasn’t looking.  Which probably says more about what jerks we are than anything else.

And this tour was interminable.  I genuinely couldn’t believe how huge this place was, especially considering how it looked from the outside. The first floor was large enough, and then upstairs, we kept thinking there couldn’t be any more, and lo and behold, he would lead us into another room (most of them were named after priests or saints).  The tour guide did give us an extremely detailed history of the place, but I was trying not to laugh for most of it.  I do know it was started by the amusingly named Father Lutz, who I think is still alive(?) when an historic Columbus church was being destroyed, and he wanted to preserve some of the decorations.  It has grown into this behemoth, with probably thousands of pieces of Catholic art.  I mean, they had Bibles (including some pretty old ones), vestments, relics, altars, and bits and bobs I didn’t even know the names of.  I regret not taking more pictures, but I was afraid the tour might get extended if I showed an interest in something, so all the ones here are just from the entrance hall.  Really, this museum is massive.


Unfortunately, I didn’t really get to explore it as much as I would have liked, because we were dependent on the whims of our tour guide, and the stuff HE thought was interesting.  And by the time we finished the tour, we were both desperate to leave, so there was no way we were going to go back upstairs.  But some of the highlights included a room absolutely packed full of nun dolls, staring out at us from glass cases with their dead eyes; a cool skull robe thing in a room about funerals; a chalice featuring a massive amethyst that had allegedly belonged to Mary, Queen of Scots; Papal memorabilia; and a gruesome little array of relics (though all of them were just bone fragments or clothing fibres, rather than a whole actual head, like Catherine of Siena).  I also enjoyed the little “quiz” wherein we had to guess which saint a statue was depicting, and I got it right on my first try, simply because I thought it was funny that my irreverent ass nailed a religious question (I guess all those years of Sunday School paid off).

But yeah, I have no major quibble with the objects in this museum, really (aside from disagreeing with all the dogma, and I didn’t have a chance to read all the item descriptions, so there could be errors I didn’t notice), although the tour guide quite clearly assumed we were both Catholic (fair enough I suppose, because I can’t imagine many other people want to visit this place), and got a few historical details wrong.  I mean, obviously the museum pushes Catholicism, but at least that’s clear going into it.  The sheer quantity of stuff in here was pretty astounding, and I could definitely see some of it being interesting if I’d had the chance to look things over more.  As it was, we were in there for nearly two hours, and left fairly exhausted by the religious onslaught, but with plenty to talk about for the long drive home.  As much as I (and my mother, and she’s supposed to be the actual Catholic) enjoyed laughing at this place, I do respect the fact that they’re trying to preserve historical artefacts (so we did donate something, though not $10 each, or the extra $3 each they “suggested” for looking at their Dickensian village, which had a headless guy in it), even if I don’t agree with the religious sentiments behind it.  3/5 just for the massive amount of objects in here, and the amusement we got out of the experience after leaving, though I’m certainly not in any hurry to experience that tour again.

London: The Crime Museum Uncovered @ the Museum of London


A lot of places I’ve always wanted to visit seem to be popping up on here of late (I really must update that page one of these days), and the Black Museum is no exception.  I’ve wanted to see the Black Museum FOREVER, but unless I decided to become a London police officer, it seemed like that was never going to happen, seeing as how the Crime Museum (as the Black Museum is more properly known) has been closed to the general public for the entire 140 years of its existence.  Fortunately, they recently decided to do a collaboration with the Museum of London, called The Crime Museum Uncovered, wherein some of their less-sensitive objects (basically, stuff more than 40 years old) would go on display, open to everyone willing to part with the eye-watering £15 entry fee.

Well, ridiculous entry fee or not (and seriously, why are museums not offering me free tickets by now?  I really need to get my name out there), there was no way I could let this one slip by unvisited, thus, I headed out there with my boyfriend so we could at least take advantage of the National Rail 2-for-1 offer (and I strongly suggest you do the same.  Strangely, I can’t find it listed on their website, but you can pick up a booklet from any train station in London, and just fill out the voucher on your way there).  We managed to go on a weekday, hoping we could at least avoid some of the crowds that way.  How silly we were.

Though we didn’t have to queue to buy tickets, and we were allowed immediate entry, once we got downstairs to the exhibition, I could see it was virtual chaos.  The first three rooms of the exhibition were not very big, and people were positively packed into them.  Although they might limit the number of people allowed entry at any given time, clearly they don’t limit them enough.  And this was early afternoon on a weekday, so I can’t even imagine how hellish it gets at the weekend!

Anyway, my aversion to crowds aside, I was still super excited to see the exhibition.  Because of the nature of the artefacts on show, no pictures were allowed, except at the entrance, so you’ll have to use your imagination.  They did have a very nice free guide available, meant to look like a Victorian newspaper (though not completely accurately, as the front page of every 19th century newspaper I’ve seen was entirely devoted to advertisements), which was good as the captions in the first couple of exhibition rooms were extremely limited, and hard to read in the press of people regardless.

The actual first room simply contained a timeline of the Crime Museum’s history, but the next two rooms had a jumble of objects from the early days of the Crime Museum, including death masks, courtroom illustrations, and the ropes used to hang various criminals (which I was somewhat surprised by, as I’d read many hangmen used to sell the ropes as souvenirs to make a little extra money (or quite a lot of extra money, depending on the criminal), but perhaps there wasn’t as much of a market for ones from less notorious murderers, or else there were some scrupulous hangmen out there).  I was probably most excited to see Franz Muller’s death mask, having read Kate Colquhoun’s book on the first train murder, but my voracious reading of historical true crime books paid off through the whole exhibition, as I’d heard of many of the criminals mentioned here (not sure if that’s really something to brag about, but whatever).  I also enjoyed the Victorian mugshots, and some of the courtroom illustrations.  One of the criminals in the illustrations was rather handsome, so I was relieved he was only a forger, and not, you know, a wife murderer or something.

The main gallery was devoted to some of the most notorious murderers of the first century of the Crime Museum’s existence; it was essentially an illustrated guide to Gordon Honeycombe’s informative book Murders of the Black Museum, which I own and have consulted numerous times, so I was again familiar with almost all the featured criminals. However, this was the most crowded space yet, and would prove the source of my greatest annoyance.

Upon entering, there was a neat display case holding an executioner’s kit right in front of us (apparently ropes could be used a couple of times, which means that not all the hangmen were selling them off, as I speculated above. ETA: I just saw the excellent play Hangmen, which shed a further (humorous) light on the practices of mid-20th century  British executioners), but it took five minutes alone just to get a look at that, because there was a queue of people snaking through the entirety of the gallery, and it was not moving.  I could already spy the Crippen display, and I was stoked to see it, but there was no way I could get close through the masses of people (I was doing my usual impatient/annoying museum trick of forgoing the queue to stand right behind people in front of whatever I wanted to see, and darting in as soon as they moved, but even that wasn’t working, because these people literally would not move.  Just read it and move on!).  So I was forced to give the most interesting things the merest glance, and move on to the less-crowded cases, which obviously weren’t as cool.  I did dart back at the end to re-visit some of the displays, and found it not as busy, but I still couldn’t get right up to anything because people were constantly in the way.  I know I probably need to work on my impatience and hatred of crowds, but if I spend that kind of money to see something, I do expect to at least be able to look at the things I’m paying to see.  They REALLY REALLY need to limit the amount of people they let in for each time slot.

But yeah, the stuff that was here was clearly awesome, from Cora’s alleged hairs found in Crippen‘s basement, the flypaper arsenic samples used to convict Frederick Seddon, and the trunk John Robinson shoved Minnie Bonati’s dismembered corpse into, to the gallstones that were almost all that remained of the corpses in John Haigh’s acid tub. If I could actually get a good look at this stuff, I would have been over the moon.  As it stood, all that was really visible was the description of each person’s crime, which was almost identical to what was written in Honeycombe’s book, when really what I wanted to peek at were the artefacts themselves, which only had small labels that were difficult to read from a distance.  There was some other stuff in this gallery as well, like items used in forgeries or terrorist attacks in London (mostly IRA), but not too many people were looking at those, because they weren’t as grisly.  However, I was grateful that the case of autopsy tools had no one in front of it, because I got a good look at Sir Bernard Spilsbury’s evisceration knife, which was awesome (just to clarify, he was a pathologist rather than a murderer.  It was only corpses he was eviscerating!). The last room just contained a film that I didn’t take the time to watch, so annoyed was I by the crowds, and led into a small gift shop that contained a number of intriguing-looking crime related books, even a few I hadn’t read yet!

So, obviously the objects on display were all things I really wanted to see, but the experience was almost entirely spoilt by the number of people inside the damn exhibition.  I feel like the set-up could have been better, because all the murderers were packed along one wall, with the other glass cases on the other one.  If they’d alternated the murderers with the not-so-interesting cases of non-homicidal crime related stuff, I think people would have moved along a bit faster.  Or if they’d simply had more gallery space to devote to it.  I’m so glad I finally got to see some of the stuff from the Black Museum, but this was far from the ideal space to view it in.  The Museum of London really needs to step up their game, especially at the prices they charge for special exhibitions.  Still, if you’re as obsessed interested in true crime as I am, especially London-based historical crimes, you really do need to see this, just maybe try to get there right when the museum opens to beat the crowds a bit.  It runs until the 10th of April, 2016, so you’ve got plenty of time to get there.  4.5/5 for content, 2/5 for organisation and crowd control (or lack thereof), so about a 3.25/5 overall.



East Grinstead, Sussex: Standen House

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Another week, another Philip Webb designed Arts and Crafts house.  This was mainly coincidental…I wanted to go somewhere that was decorated for Christmas that we hadn’t been to before (read, NOT Polesden Lacey), and this was the nearest property to us that sounded appealing (especially because Waddesdon Manor was completely booked up for the entire Christmas season, despite this only being the last weekend in November, and my looking it up just a few weeks before, when there was no mention of their Christmas events on the terrible new National Trust website (seriously, you can’t even search for properties near your location anymore.  It’s the worst.  I hope they fired whoever designed it)).  Also, I really like Philip Webb after admiring his awesome chicken/rooster windows at Red House, so I confess I was hoping to see more of his animal art.

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Anyway, Standen House is a typically overpriced National Trust property that you shouldn’t bother visiting without membership (11.50, yikes!).  It was built for the Beale family (yeah, I have no idea who they are either), and every Christmas they do up the rooms with decorations corresponding to each decade the family lived in the house (1890s-1970s, though that obviously involved multiple generations).  This year, they also had a Zandra Rhodes (weirdo fashion designer) tree outside the house, and this was the ugliest tree I have ever seen.  It’s that bright pink monstrosity in the picture above.  Did anyone else read the Amelia Bedelia books when you were a kid?  The premise is basically that she’s a really stupid maid with no apparent grasp on reality, and every time the family she works for directs her to do something, she completely screws it up, but they continue to employ her because she makes a killer spice cake (blergh).  Anyway, the reason I’m bringing up Amelia Bedelia is because in the Christmas book, they tell her to decorate a Christmas tree and put a star on the top, and because she apparently doesn’t know what a star is, she instead hangs a mirror on the top with a little sign saying, “See the Star,” so everyone can be a star.  I have to wonder if Zandra Rhodes is an Amelia Bedelia fan, because this tree had hundreds of little mirrors dangling from the branches.  In addition to all the day-glo orange and pink tinsel.

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But enough about that bizarre tree that had no apparent connection to the rest of the house, which was all Arts and Craftsy fabulousness.  Because Philip Webb and William Morris were thick as thieves, most of the interior decoration came straight from Morris & Co.  Except, I would think, that charming rocking horse named “Dobbin,” shown above (he was no match for my beloved childhood rocking horse, Buckles, but still seemed like a perfectly nice horse).

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So yeah, there were a lot of Morris carpets, tapestries, and of course, wallpapers, including a repeating theme of Trellis in every hallway in the house.  I love Trellis, so I was completely cool with this.

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The Christmas decorations were quite nice too, for all that some of them bordered on the creepy, like those dolls underneath the tree (I overheard one of the volunteers admitting how scary that baby doll is).  They also had a board in each room explaining how Christmas differed in that particular decade compared to the decades that preceded it.

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The house was fairly sizable, even considering that there were a couple floors we weren’t allowed to see, and the room guides were reasonably extensive; for once, no one else seemed to be looking at them, so I didn’t have to impatiently wait whilst some jerk took their time flipping through every page.

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Of course, this being the National Trust, they had to cover a couple rooms in sheets so they could blab on about how much work conservation is (in what I always imagine is a ploy to get people to donate money, like admission isn’t enough as it is).  I guess I should cut them a break at Christmas time, but meh, I’m a scrooge.

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In addition to being partial to Philip Webb’s animals, I also love William de Morgan’s animal tiles, especially the dodo, which they had on display in one of the rooms in a cabinet of his own design.  The side of it was meant to look like a dragon, with a row of triangles representing a row of teeth (see if you can spot it in the picture above; the two sticky up bits are meant to be his eye and a curly bit on the top of his nose).

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William Morris and his cronies sure did like to stick together, so of course Edward Burne-Jones featured here too.  He not only did a few tapestries, and a whole room full of sketches (though those were probably added after the family moved out), he also painted an excellent desk showing St Agnes (I think?) taking her dragon for a walk, you know, as you do.

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Back on the subject of creepy Christmas decorations…we spied the creepiest thing of all resting on one of the beds upstairs.  It was a Santa costume, which wouldn’t have been so bad if it didn’t come with that terrifying mask (is the fact that most British people now refer to him as Santa rather than Father Christmas a sign of increasing Americanisation?).  A volunteer informed us that the house patriarch used to dress up in it every year to scare shitless delight his children, and one of his daughters carried on the tradition after he died (though I honestly think it would have been less scary to just stick the Santa cape, sans mask, on his corpse).

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After leaving the house proper, we encountered a smaller museum room telling the story of the servants who lived in the house (who apparently fared quite well thanks to the Beale’s progressive values, with “airy” attic bedrooms and a special servants’ hall for dining and entertainment purposes), including a butler who was relieved of his duties thanks to an incident involving the master’s whiskey.  And there was a tree where you could write down your Christmas traditions on a card, and tie it to the branches.  There was a working kitchen too, where you can sample some traditional fare on weekends; unfortunately, they gave away the last of the mulled cider to the people just ahead of us, but I did get to try a slightly dry piece of lemon drizzle cake (I think it needed more drizzle, though some cider to wet my throat would have helped too).

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It was very cold the day we visited, but we did explore the gardens a bit.  Philip Webb had created a cool rock garden thing in the back of the house, and there was a nice bench outside the conservatory (nice and cold, that is.  I probably risked piles by sitting on it).  The whole thing was arranged on a number of different levels, and we definitely didn’t have a chance to see it all, because we were muddy and freezing our asses off.

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We did stop to admire the chickens, however, since I quite like them (they were named after Beale women who lived in the house).  There was a small vegetable garden, and apparently an orchard, as there were some wormy old apples available for the taking, with donation (I somehow managed to resist.  I also resisted the gluten-free millionaire’s shortbread in the cafe, because why would you make something that is mostly flour gluten-free, and not have a normal version available as well?!).  All in all, it wasn’t a bad little property (though not worth the admission charge) for members to visit, and I did enjoy all the William Morris interiors, as well as the Christmas decorations, for all that I felt there could have been more of them (maybe more lights outside?).  3/5.

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London: Red House

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Well, here’s another William Morris related property (It’s been a while though!  I think all that leaves is Kelmscott Manor, which I’ll probably have to hit up the next time I’m near Gloucestershire).  Even though it’s still technically in Greater London (really only about 18 miles away from where I live), we’d been holding off on visiting because we’d have to drive from one end of South London to t’other to get there, which takes an annoyingly long time.  But on an unpleasant rainy weekend where we’d already spent the Saturday trapped inside, riding in the car on a Sunday seemed preferable to just sitting in the flat all day again, and at least we could explore a cool house when we got there.

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Red House is a National Trust property (I’ve been pretty good about not including those for a while, but I’ve got another one coming up next week.  I purposely didn’t write about a few smaller sites I visited to save you the boredom of reading about them.  You’re welcome), so we waltzed right in, otherwise it’s 8 quid, which I would be hesitant to pay, if I were in your shoes (also, the National Trust recently redesigned their website, and I hate it!  It’s a pain in the ass to navigate, and when you click on things, they just pop up over the same stupid screen instead of having their own address, so whenever I try clicking the back button, out of habit, it just takes me back to Google or whatever I was on before their website.  It’s awful).  Red House is a bit weird in that they offer guided tours until 1, and then after that (and only after that), you’re allowed to wander the property on your own.  So if you want to avoid a guided tour, show up at 1:30 or later, otherwise get there as early as possible to get your ass on a tour.

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I know I like to bitch about getting ignored by National Trust volunteers, but that was not the case here at all.  Someone greeted us as soon as we walked in the door and gave us a detailed tour of the entrance hall, and volunteers in other rooms were equally anxious to fill us in on all things William Morris.  (I’m not going to go into much background here, because I’ve done it before on other William Morris posts, but by all means look him up if you’re not familiar with his work.)  And this was during the “free flow” time!  The house was commissioned by William Morris, and designed by his friend Philip Webb to showcase Morris’s Arts and Crafts aesthetic.  It was completed in 1860, and Morris moved in with his wife, Janey, and proceeded to have two children here in short order, but moved out only five years later when the commute to London became too much (the surrounds being countryside at the time, in contrast to the ugly urban sprawl that exists today).

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Because Morris lived here for a relatively short time, much of the decor was left unfinished, like the ceilings that had pin pricks painstakingly marked out as a guide for painting patterns on them (alliteration), where only a small section ended up being painted (later owners filled in more of the design, but it’s still far from complete).  The walls are papered in Morris & Co prints, but that too was done by the later owners; Morris himself seemed more into painting the walls with his artist friends like Edward Burne-Jones and Lizzie Siddal (Pre-Raphaelite model and ill-fated wife of Rossetti).  There also isn’t much furniture, but thanks to all the small Morris-y details, these limitations aren’t terribly noticeable.

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The incredibly detailed room guides also help with that, as do the unusually effusive volunteers.  Even though the house isn’t that big, you can still spend a fair amount of time in each room just reading or listening.  And there’s a couple rooms with activities (if looking through wallpaper samples can be called an activity; I reckon it can.  That’s how I used to pass the long, boring hours trapped in home improvement stores with my parents.  What can I say, wallpaper samples are a hell of a lot more interesting that bathroom taps or cabinet handles). There’s also some Lego stuff, and some sketchbooks where you can share your William Morris inspired art; my boyfriend drew a crackin’ wombat, but failed to snap a picture.  Wombats are a recurring theme throughout the house; one was recently discovered inside one of the Burne-Jones paintings, and they even have Christmas workshops where you can make your own wombat ornament.

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There’s lots of delightful painted stained glass throughout the house (more on that later), but there are three main actual paintings here worth speaking about.  The first is a cabinet in the entryway, painted by Morris himself.  He was, by his own admission, pretty crap at painting people, especially his wife, but he still did a much, much better job than I could ever do, and the detailing on their clothing is beautiful (you can see it in the third picture in this post).  The second is a mural that was hidden behind a cabinet built by previous owners, and was only discovered in 2013.  So I think they may still be working on restoring it, but it is based on figures from Genesis (the book of the Bible, not the band, though I would think it was hilarious if someone had a Arts and Crafts style Phil Collins painted on their wall.  And I would totally get an Arts and Crafts Departure-era Steve Perry on mine), and though it’s very faded, you can make out some of the details, particularly the figure of Rachel, who is believed to have been painted by Lizzie Siddal, when she was staying with the Morrises for a time when she was ill (I guess with her laudanum addiction?).  The third is a sort of medieval banquet mural painted by Burne-Jones, and judging by the animals hidden throughout the picture, I suspect this is the one with the wombat in it.

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This latter mural was in a room with a cool little stage in it, built for Christmas plays, apparently, though I probably would have hauled a bunch of cushions up there and built some kind of a fort.  With books.  And candy.  Also upstairs is one of the few sections of the ceiling where Morris actually finished the painting; hidden in one corner is a little smiley face, which a volunteer showed us with her flashlight.  It’s neat to think it was painted over 150 years ago by Morris or one of his friends, since smiley faces seem like more of a modern thing (I like to think Philip Webb painted it; he’s my favourite).

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One of the guides made sure to point out to us that all of this was done when Morris was in his mid-20s, as were his friends, which really made us feel inadequate.  I mean, my boyfriend and I are both 30, and we can’t even afford to buy a house, let alone have one built for us in a style we invented, and hand-paint all the features inside it, all whilst running our own business.  So I suppose it is somewhat gratifying in a schadenfreude kind of way that Morris quickly became overwhelmed, and had to abandon the place to move to London (and never returned, as the sight of his dream home would have caused him too much pain).  On the other hand, it’s a shame he never got to finish it, because it really is a beautiful home (much as I tend to prefer the overly ornate style of Victorian architecture.  I want a house with a turret).  I’d kill for that staircase and balcony, or the bird windows downstairs.

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Yep, I’m a complete sucker for a chicken (I found these amazing chicken plates at Anthropologie a while back, but I didn’t buy them because I have enough trouble storing all my dishes as it is.  I still regret it).  I liked all the stained glass, but the chicken windows (actually, the one I really like is a rooster, I think) were my favourites by far (painted by Philip Webb, who was also responsible for drawing most of the animals in Morris’s wallpaper designs.  No wonder I’ve always loved Trellis and Strawberry Thief, which has particularly derpy birds in the pattern).

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The final room was a museum room, with a timeline of Morris’s life for the years he lived in Red House, some objects donated by Philip Webb, who outlived Morris by nearly twenty years (Morris “wore himself out,” apparently, and died in his 60s), and the awesome caricatures by Burne-Jones pictured above.  Webb’s possessions included Morris’s snuffbox, which was given to him in Morris’s will, and a pistol he carried everywhere with him.  I guess he was kind of paranoid in his old age?

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The property also includes a small garden, a shop, and a tearoom, which had a Christmas wombat peeking out of the kitchen window.  I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the house, given the small amount of furnishings, and the National Trust-ness.  It’s certainly not worth 8 quid, but if you’re a National Trust member, I think this is one worth checking out to see all the whimsical touches (seriously, I love that damn chicken/rooster. I even bought a postcard of it in the gift shop.  They also have stuffed wombats, though I resisted temptation in that case).  3.5/5.

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I also got to do something else I’ve been meaning to do for a long time, while we were sort of in the area: see the Pocahontas statue in Gravesend!  You see, after Pocahontas married John Rolfe, and returned to England with him for a visit, she (inevitably) picked up one of the many European diseases she hadn’t had a chance to build up an immunity to (possibly smallpox or TB) and died in Gravesend, en route to a ship back to Virginia.  She’s buried in St. George’s Church here, which has irregular opening hours that aren’t posted on their website, so we didn’t get to see the inside of the church, but we did get to see the statue next to it.  Gravesend is not really a nice place to visit, but the statue and church are pretty damn cool, and only about a 20 minute drive from Bexley.

Oh, and ’tis the season I guess, so Merry Christmas everybody!

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Cleveland, OH: The Dittrick Museum of Medical History

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I can’t believe I waited this long to visit the Dittrick Museum (or this long to post about it!  I went here in September, and I’m already back in NE Ohio again for the holidays!).  I mean, I lived in Cleveland for the first 23 years of my life, I love medical history, I spent a fair amount of time hanging around the other museums in University Circle, and I almost went to school at Case Western Reserve University (twice!  I was accepted both as an undergrad, and into their History of STEM Ph.D programme, but stupidly turned down both), so there is absolutely no reason I shouldn’t have been there before.  But I guess all that doesn’t matter, now that I’ve finally remedied the situation.

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The Dittrick Museum is located inside the Allen Memorial Medical Library on Case’s campus; I recommend parking in the University Hospital visitor’s garage a short distance away, because they offer free parking for the first two hours (more than enough time to see the museum) and the metered spots on Euclid Road are usually all full.  Once you find your way inside the building, it’s a little confusing, because the main staircase takes you up to the library on the second floor, with no apparent way to get up to the third floor.  So you need to take the shaky, slightly unsafe looking lift on the far left side of the ground floor up to the 3rd floor, as directed in the lift.  (We did find a staircase once we got up there that led to the toilets, but I’m not sure how you accessed it from the ground floor.  I think it went straight down to the basement.)  The museum is free, and though university professors have their offices in the hallways all around the museum, no one is actually working at it, so you can look around without anyone breathing down your neck, which is nice.

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The museum is actually larger than I expected, with a number of different galleries/areas.  The centrepiece of the collection is undoubtedly the museum of contraception, of which more later, but they also have a number of exhibits about local and general medical history.  There was also a temporary exhibition, which was about childbirth (to tie in with the whole contraception/women’s health thing), which includes some fine (albeit a bit full-on) anatomical models.  I have to say, some of the childbirth implements there, especially the historical dilators (although the display informed me that they still use them in modern medicine; they’re just made from softer materials) made me very glad that I live in an age where the option not to have children exists.

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Case Western has a very well-renowned medical school, and many fairly prominent doctors have trained in the Cleveland area.  One of the most famous was George Washington Crile, a surgeon who performed the first operation using a direct blood transfusion, and was one of the founders of the Cleveland Clinic. (Cleveland used to also be home to Crile Military Hospital, as I found out from one of my grandpa’s letters.  However, Crile didn’t actually work there as it opened a year after he died, it was just named after him.)  There’s a wax model of his hand in here, perhaps to show the fine touch that made him a gifted surgeon.  A more notorious doctor who trained in Cleveland was the creepy Dr. Crippen, of alleged wife-murdering fame.  Even though his eyes scare the crap out of me, I still think that’s pretty cool.

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The museum discussed a variety of medical topics like anaesthesia, dentistry, and polio (complete with an infant sized iron lung), but with a special Northeast Ohio focus that as a former Clevelander, I found most interesting.

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The Museum of Contraception was located in the back section of the main room, and this too was pretty damned interesting.  Ohio is generally nowadays more known for trying to restrict women’s reproductive rights, so it was nice to come to this bastion of common sense and freedom of choice.  The collection was started by Percy Skuy, former president of Ortho Pharmeceutical (appropriately enough, since they make Ortho-Tri-Cyclen and other birth control pills), and has received so many donations that it’s doubled in size since its arrival in the museum, to include over 1100 objects.

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It contains information on birth control throughout history (some of the early attempts being not only ineffective, but distinctly unpleasant, shades of the childbirth section again), the attempts of campaigners to educate women on effective methods of contraception, and how they faced extreme opposition, especially from the horrible shit-stain of a man, Anthony Comstock, who was responsible for the ridiculous Comstock Law that allowed distributors of anything deemed “lewd” (birth control among them) to be successfully prosecuted.  Seriously, he was the worst, and someone eventually clubbed him over the head, but it wasn’t enough to kill him (more’s the pity).

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This gallery also includes some delightful contraception related art, like a display of IUDs (or maybe that was just a normal display, but it looked cool), a pearl ship given to Margaret Sanger by the Japanese people in thanks for her efforts to make birth control available to all, and an American flag containing stars made out of birth control pills, which is also available as a free postcard from a table in the middle of the museum.

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There’s a little balcony area up some stairs at the side of the museum, containing a collection of medical instruments.  While not quite as interesting as the contraception stuff, I did enjoy looking at the range of early stethoscopes, tongue depressors, and other instruments.

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But that wasn’t all!  In addition to a small room at the back currently (well, at the time of my visit) housing a collection of anatomical drawings, there were also cases lining the walls on the outside of the museum, and these contained some of the most fascinating and hilarious artefacts of the whole collection.  Part of the display was about how you would have been treated if you’d been sick in various eras in history, and obviously the historical treatments weren’t pleasant (that enema plate though! If I owned it, and if I was the type to host dinner parties, I would so serve people something chocolately off of it, just to be gross.  Maybe like a warm chocolate fondant, or a brownie pudding.  Mmmmm).

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But there was also a case on forensics, and displays on the Cleveland smallpox epidemic of 1902, which was not something I knew much about, and was definitely keen to read up on, what with my love of infectious disease and all.  Cleveland also had a diphtheria problem, and there was information on that too.  Undoubtedly one of my favourite objects, just for nostalgia’s sake, was Juno the Transparent Woman, pictured at the start of the post.  Apparently she was built in Germany in the 1940s, and has resided in Cleveland since 1950, but I remember her still being a big deal when I was a kid in the ’80s and early ’90s (at least to me).  She used to live at the Cleveland Health Museum, which was my favourite museum in my youth, and perhaps where I got my love of medical history (they had fetuses in jars, a giant tooth you could climb through, and put on a special Where’s Waldo event one year that was really fun), where she stood in a darkened room, and told visitors all about her internal organs, lighting up each one as she talked about it.  The Health Museum eventually got pretty lame, due to lack of attendance I guess, and closed in 2006, so Juno was moved here, and I was glad to see her.

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There’s also a small display of venereal disease posters on the ground floor, which I only noticed because a torrential downpour had started when we were in the museum, and we were waiting for it to die down.  Overall, the museum was much better than I had anticipated, and made me kind of angry at myself for not doing that Ph.D, as I likely would have had the opportunity to do some work on it (but then I’d still be living in Clevo, so perhaps it’s for the best).  There were a surprising number of cool artefacts, a tonne of signage, and the museum of contraception was very neat indeed.  Cleveland really doesn’t have that many free museums, other than the Art Museum, so I’m extremely glad this exists, and wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone visiting Cleveland with any interest in medicine.  I’m just ashamed it took me so long to follow my own advice.  4/5.  And if you’re in the area, you’re also very near to Little Italy (Get the gnocchi al burro at Trattoria), and Lake View Cemetery, and are only a hop, skip, and a jump (though it admittedly involves a drive down the long and horrible Mayfield Road) from East Coast Custard (best frozen custard in NE Ohio, possibly the world).

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Dayton, Ohio: Wright-Dunbar Interpretive Center and the Wright Cycle Company

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So this is what we rushed out of the Air Force Museum to see.  There are actually five different NPS-run sites scattered around Dayton, and I think about six more aviation related sites partnered with them (the NPS website is a little confusing), so there was no way we were going to be able to see them all (though if you have more time, and you pick up a special passport in the gift shop, you can apparently get a free stuffed “Wil-bear” if you get it stamped at  seven of the historic sites.  Not sure if there’s a charge for the passport).  Therefore, we settled on one the Wright brothers had actually spent time in; the former Wright Cycle Company, and the Wright-Dunbar Interpretive Center next door.

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This too, was free to visit, and we began with the “interpretive center,” which I guess is just a fairly interactive museum?  I think we were probably meant to start upstairs, but being contrary, we walked through the ground floor first, which explained the mechanics of flight with the help of a variety of hands-on examples.

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Someone had taken the trouble to build quite a few little wooden models of planes, and you could do various things to them, like putting them in a mini wind tunnel, or tilting the body of the little figure strapped inside to see how it affects steering.  Here it was also explained why the Wright brothers chose to test out their plane in North Carolina, rather than give their home state of Ohio the glory (those smug North Carolinians with their “First in Flight” license plates).  Basically, they needed somewhere that was both windy and isolated, since they were paranoid someone else was going to steal their idea.  After scouting out a number of locations, it was found that Kitty Hawk best fitted the bill, particularly the “isolated” bit.  To get there around the turn of the century required travelling by train, boat, horse-drawn cart, and possibly automobile as well; I would imagine the trek alone would have been a powerful motivator for them to perfect their airplane!

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Upstairs, we got to learn more about the early life of the Wrights.  Although they did have some formal schooling, they never technically graduated from high school, and all their mechanical skills were essentially self-taught.  As young students, they turned their hands to printing, publishing a small newspaper with their friends, which gave them the know-how to later build their own printing press (no one could ever figure out quite how it worked, but it did!).

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The museum talked about their close-knit family life, including their sister Katharine, who travelled with them and helped them promote their flying machine (she was mentioned at the tiny International Women’s Air and Space Museum in Cleveland, but it was nice to learn more about her, since she seemed like a pretty cool lady.  She was far more personable than Orville and Wilbur, and was vital to making their reputations in aviation circles, which didn’t stop Orville from breaking off all contact with her when she decided to get married.  What an ass).  The museum also discussed the life of Paul Laurence Dunbar, an African-American poet who lived a few blocks away (you can visit his house as well) and was friends with the Wright brothers.  This seemed a bit out of place with all the aviation stuff, but I suppose Dayton doesn’t have that many famous people, so they reckoned they might as well combine them all in one museum.  Besides, they were friends, so at least there’s some sort of connection.

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Also upstairs was the National Parachute Museum, which was really just one small room, but I still learned more about parachutes than I ever wanted to.  There were interactive things in here too, to explain how parachutes worked, and you could feel all the different fabrics parachutes have been made from over the years.

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Finally, we headed over to the old Wright Cycle Company.  The building is apparently kept locked (at least at non-peak times) so we had to ask at the desk to be escorted over by a ranger.  He gave us a brief tour, and then stayed and very patiently answered all of my parents’ many, many questions (since we were the only people there).  He mostly talked about the Cycle Company, and the relevance of cycling to early flight, as the steering mechanisms in bikes and planes were similar.  Essentially, cycle manufacture was the perfect business for the Wrights to be in to give them a jump on aviation.  According to the ranger, without the Wright brothers, manned flight might not have happened for another decade, which would pretty much have changed the entire history of the world, especially the First World War.  I mean, obviously he was a Wright enthusiast, but it’s still something that’s interesting to think about.

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And speaking of the Wright’s cycles, they had some pretty luxe models.  Although factory-made bikes were well in the range of the middle class, and the Wrights did carry some of those, their bespoke models cost around $65, the equivalent of around $1500 today, which is probably not extortionate if you’re really into cycling, but that’s more than 5 times as much as I’ve ever spent on a bike.  And of course, the few that have survived today are probably worth millions, but they’re all in museums, including the one we saw at the US Air Force Museum earlier that day.

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I reckon the Wright-Dunbar Interpretive Center and Cycle Company, though much smaller, might have a more widespread appeal than the Air Force Museum (or maybe not, because it’s all aviation when you get down to it).  After all, everyone has heard of the Wright brothers, and it’s neat to see where they got their start (I feel like I must have been here before at some point, but probably when I was too young to remember it).  It’s also nice that it’s free, as are most of the other NPS aviation sites around town, and I could definitely see spending a day going around and visiting them all.  Worth a stop for any history buff in the Dayton area; although the museum isn’t terribly big, it is informative, and seeing the Wright brothers’ shop is undeniably cool.  3.5/5.


Dayton, Ohio: National Museum of the US Air Force

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After Texas, we headed up to Ohio to visit my family.  My parents wanted to take us on a day trip somewhere, so we eventually settled on Dayton, former home of the Wright brothers, and thus the epicentre of many aviation-related attractions.  I had been to the National Museum of the United States Air Force with my parents when I was a kid, but all I really remembered of it were loads of planes, and a rather splendid collection of painted WWII bomber jackets.  The main reason I was willing to revisit it, however, was because there was a semi-secret hangar there containing a collection of presidential planes, including the plane FDR took to Yalta.  And said hangar would be closing a few days after our planned visit, so this was the only time to see it in the old, pain-in-the-ass-to-access military base before the collection moved to a new, purpose-built gallery (it’ll be opening some time in 2016).

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After spending over three hours in the car, I was more than ready to stretch my legs, and the Air Force Museum offered a good opportunity to do that.  The complex is huge, mostly made up of vast hangars, and even the walk from the car park is a fairly lengthy one that takes you past a memorial park.  Happily, the museum is free.  Even the shuttle bus to see the presidential hangar was free, but you had to register for it at a desk off to one corner of the museum, run by several strict older ladies, who made quite a ceremony out of checking our government issued IDs and assigning us each a numbered wristband (woe betide you if you lost it, I would imagine).  We had to wait about an hour until our tour time rolled around, so we had a look round the pre-WW2 gallery first.

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This more than easily filled the hour, though we started at the wrong end, as we ended up going from 1940s planes to the birth of aviation.  However, most of this section was devoted to WWI, which was just fine with me, as I’ve spent the past year researching it for the history project I volunteer with.  I’ve been piecing together biographies for a large collection of local lads killed in the war, and I know I shouldn’t play favourites, but I confess to being partial to my pilots.  For one thing, pilots had to obtain a licence through the Royal Aero Club, which meant they had their picture taken, and it’s a lot easier to relate to someone if you know what they looked like.  For another, pilots were just more dashing than soldiers, especially back in the early days of aviation, and especially the ones with moustaches (most of them).  So I read everything in the WWI section with great interest.

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There were any number of neat artefacts here, though as usual, I tended to favour the smaller, more personal things over the actual planes.  For example, Quentin Roosevelt, youngest son of Theodore, was a pilot in the First World War.  He died when his plane was shot down on Bastille Day, 1918, but he was nonetheless given a funeral and proper burial by the Germans, who respected both his fighting skills, and the fact that he was the son of a former president.  The original wooden cross that adorned his grave is in the museum, as well as some of his uniform (presumably not the one he was wearing when he died).  There was also a stuffed pigeon called John Silver.  He was a messenger pigeon during the war; despite being hit by shrapnel during a battle, and losing a leg, he still managed to deliver his message, and was nursed back to health by his unit, becoming their mascot and living well past the end of the war (he died in 1935, which seems incredible! How long do pigeons normally live?).

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On a lighter note, one of my favourite cases in the museum held a collection of “blunder trophies;” dating from the 1910s to about the 1930s, they were awarded to pilots who made stupid mistakes during flight, but still managed to survive.  These trophies were made into rather punny shapes including a “dumb-bell,” a “horse’s ass,” and a pair of old bloomers (not sure what the pun is there).

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By the time we got to the Wright brothers stuff at the end of the gallery (including one of the bespoke bikes made by their cycle company, and one of the later editions of their plane, more on them in the next post), it was time for our tour, so we headed over to our meeting place in the auditorium.  Because the Presidential Hangar was on the Wright-Patterson Air Base, which is technically only open to military personnel, it was fairly high security, hence the constant checking of our IDs, and the warnings to not take any pictures on the base until we were in the museum, unless we wanted our cameras smashed.  After the security talk, we got loaded into an old school bus, and driven the short distance to the hangars.

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Although the process was admittedly a bit of a hassle, it was well worth it, because the hangar contained FOUR presidential planes (some with hilarious president mannequins), and you were allowed to walk through them all and take pictures.  Altogether, the hangar held FDR’s, Truman’s, Eisenhower’s, and Kennedy’s planes (and Kennedy’s plane was used by a few subsequent presidents as well), and a number of other government aircraft, including something that looked suspiciously like a flying saucer.

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I’m sure it will come as no surprise to anyone who’s read my blog ever, but FDR’s plane was obviously the one I was most excited about seeing.  Known as the “Sacred Cow,” because reporters weren’t allowed anywhere near it (allegedly to try to hide the special elevator shaft allowing FDR to board in his wheelchair with ease), the plane was only used once by Roosevelt on his way to Yalta, just a few months before he died.  Even if he hadn’t died, I could see why he wouldn’t be keen on using it again.  Everything in the plane is now enclosed behind glass, which probably doesn’t help, but even still, the plane was extremely narrow.  I mean, this was mainly because the seating areas were bigger and nicer than a normal plane, but it wasn’t that opulent, and I’m not sure how someone in a wheelchair would be able to navigate the aisle.

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The planes did get progressively nicer over the years, and by the time of Kennedy’s plane (the first to be known solely as Air Force One; earlier planes had actual names, like Truman’s Independence and Eisenhower’s Columbine), things were up to the sort of standard you might expect inside a presidential jet.  Kennedy’s is by far the most famous plane here, because of those unfortunate events in Dallas.  This is the plane that Johnson was sworn in as president on, and the plane that then transported Johnson, Jackie Kennedy, and JFK’s body back to Washington, so it was pretty cool to see something so historic, even if I couldn’t quite tell how they managed to squeeze all those people in there for that famous picture of Johnson’s swearing in.  I guess the seating arrangements were changed around for subsequent presidents (and some of the seats had to be removed to fit JFK’s coffin in).

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The hangar next to the presidential one was also part of the museum, and contained test planes and other experimental aircraft.  Not actually caring about test planes anywhere near as much as presidential history, I walked through there pretty quickly, but my boyfriend seemed to enjoy it, though he was most excited for the Blackbird, which turned out to be back inside the main museum building.

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So after an hour at the presidential and test hangars, we were bussed (securely) back to the main museum, where we headed back in to see the WW2 gallery.  I love all the pin-up girl adorned planes (in addition to the painted jackets) so these were fun to look at, even if we did pass through the gallery pretty quickly, as we were getting tired at this point.

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At first glance, it appeared that this was all there was to the museum (I say all there was, but even those two galleries made for a large museum), but down a narrow hallway, we discovered the Aviation Hall of Fame (which we unfortunately just did not have time to visit), and the rest of the galleries, including Korea, Vietnam, the Cold War, and Space.

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These got no more than a passing glance, however, because as I mentioned before, my boyfriend REALLY wanted to see the Blackbird, and also a space shuttle.  Well, the Blackbird evidently did not disappoint (apparently there’s also one inside the American Air Museum in Duxford, but I think that’s closed right now anyway).  However, it turned out there wasn’t an actual space shuttle in the museum, but they had the next best thing, in the form of a training shuttle.

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This was actually quite cool, because the sides were cut away, allowing you to see the cockpit and living quarters more clearly, including, much to my delight, an astronaut toilet.  Fortunately, the volunteer there was only too happy to explain exactly how it worked; a complicated system of straps, hoses, wet wipes, and bags that made me grateful for gravity.

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We didn’t really have time to look at anything else, because we wanted to see the Wright Brothers old shop and museum before it closed (this was the disadvantage of having to drive so long to get there), but to be honest, there is a limit to how long I can spend looking at non-presidential planes, so this was the perfect amount of time to spend there, in my eyes.  We did of course make a stop in the gift shop for astronaut ice cream (it comes in so many flavours now!  When I was a kid, you could only get neapolitan. I recommend the mint chocolate chip), and they appeared to have a number of cool other aviation themed items, even aviator jackets (though you’d have to paint them yourself, which is a skill I lack, as I learned in my punk days).  This museum is incredibly large, so I think it’s awesome that it’s free, and can definitely recommend it to anyone with an interest in aviation, though if you’re not big on it, or military history, you might be as bored by it as I was as a kid (fortunately, even though I’m still not that into aviation (aside from putting my butt where Damian Lewis’s butt was), my fascination with presidential history and WWI meant there was plenty of stuff to hold my attention).  4/5.