Canton, OH: The Pan-American Exposition @ the McKinley Museum

I blogged about the McKinley Museum about four and a half years ago, back when this blog was all shiny and new, and that post was based on a visit from 2011 (I was anxious to get a lot of posts up quickly when I started blogging, so I covered pretty much everything I’d visited in the relatively recent past). I’ve been to the McKinley Museum a few times since that post (and yet I still don’t have a better picture of the monument than the one I used in my initial post, as you may notice), because I think it’s actually pretty entertaining (see the vacuum chair, street of yesteryear, spinny thing, and interactive science displays from my original post), but this is the first time I’ve seen a temporary exhibition there that I thought made it worth blogging about again. So here we are.

  

Admission to the temporary exhibition (which runs until February 2018) is included with general museum admission, which is $10 (I think it was only $8 on my first visit, but things haven’t really gotten any better for museums in the intervening years, so I can’t begrudge them the extra $2 too much). I was visiting with my mom, and of course we walked around the rest of the museum as well, which was much as I remembered it. The upstairs part is still the history floor, with a timeline of Canton’s history, illustrated by many fun and interactive objects, and the picture of a young McKinley inside one of the displays gave me the chance to show my mother a young Rutherford B. Hayes, who unlike McKinley (who was sadly never attractive) was straight-up smoking hot until he got old and beardy (I also think he could have done better than ol’ Lemonade Lucy, who frankly seemed like kind of a dud). The street of yesteryear is still amazing (and I am still too damn scared to slide down that fireman’s pole), and of course, the McKinley room is still there, with animatronic William and Ida McKinley (they’re real blurry in that picture because they’re in motion). This time, there was actually a guide in the McKinley room as well, and he told us many fascinating things about the objects in the room, even going so far as to take my mom’s camera behind the velvet rope so he could take pictures of McKinley’s presidential desk from the front, which is the side the public doesn’t normally get to see (sadly, I forgot to get the photos from my mom, so I can’t show them to you). He also told us a story about how McKinley’s barber’s great-grandson came to the museum one time and talked about how his great-grandfather was killed under mysterious circumstances – he went out one day for a walk and never came back, and the family thinks it may have been because McKinley told him presidential secrets that someone didn’t want to get out (maybe Marcus Hanna was responsible…? I’ve been unable to verify the barber story, but it’s still intriguing). Anyway, he was an interesting guy, and clearly very keen on McKinley, and it was nice to see that kind of enthusiasm in a museum.

  

But onto the Pan-American Exposition exhibition (wow, that’s hard to say). The museum’s special exhibition space is simply one smallish room (I remember it being full of antique ornaments when I visited around Christmas), and most of the exhibition was in the form of blue and white posters on the walls, but they did have a few cases full of relevant artefacts as well.

  

The Pan-American Exposition, held in Buffalo, New York in 1901, is primarily famous for being the place where McKinley was assassinated. The assassination tends to overshadow the exposition itself, which is unfortunate, because from what I learned in this exhibit, it sounded amazing! Just look at some of the attractions: A Trip to the Moon, which I picture as being like an interactive version of that creepy Georges Melies film which freaks me out so much that I can barely watch the Smashing Pumpkins’ video for “Tonight, Tonight” (Billy Corgan doesn’t help matters); the Upside Down House, which was a fully furnished Victorian mansion, flipped upside down; Venice in America, which was a gondola ride through the whole damn park (they had a film taken on the ride, and it looked rad); and Darkness and Dawn, which followed the journey of a “departed spirit” from hell to heaven. Of course, this being turn-of-the-century America, there were some hella racist exhibitions too, like a mock-up of an old Southern plantation and lots of “happy” slaves, and some offensive stuff involving Native Americans.

  

Like all World’s Fair type events, many things were created specifically for the exposition, including, apparently, Ohio’s unusual state flag (we’re the only state to use a pennant or “burgee” shape), which I feel is something I’d learned about during Ohio History in 4th grade, and then promptly forgotten; and of course, a most enticing range of souvenirs, many adorned with buffalo. They erected a number of buildings for the event, though the only one that survives is the New York State Building, which is now the Buffalo History Museum. It also was an opportunity for inventors to showcase new technologies, like the x-ray machine, and incubators for premature babies. Interestingly, the fair started in May 1901 and ran until November, despite McKinley being assassinated there in September, so even though his death is all people know about the expo today (if they know anything about it at all), it wasn’t even enough to close it down at the time.

  

Of course, this being the McKinley Museum, they talked a lot about the assassination too – when the anarchist Leon Czolgosz (who lived in Cleveland for a while) queued to shake McKinley’s hand, and then shot him twice in the stomach. There was video footage of McKinley’s last speech, which took place just a couple of hours before he was shot, as well as the last photo ever taken of him. But the most interesting thing had to be the many ironies of McKinley’s treatment, which were covered here. In a place showcasing new technology, including, as I mentioned, the x-ray machine, and electric light bulbs, McKinley’s treatment was primitive. His doctors refused to use the x-ray machine on him, as they didn’t trust the technology, and the operating theatre at the exposition hospital didn’t have electric light, even though the outside of the building was covered in light bulbs!  He was operated on by a gynecologist, as he was the only doctor available (the official exposition surgeon was operating on another patient at the time, and refused to leave mid-surgery, which was kind of a shame as he was actually a really good surgeon for the time, and had previously saved the life of a woman with gunshot wounds almost identical to McKinley’s). McKinley rallied at first, but gangrene set in and he died a week later from what would today be a highly survivable wound with proper treatment.

  

To illustrate all this, the museum had copies of a number of telegrams between his doctors discussing McKinley’s condition, so we could see that at first he was expected to make a full recovery (Teddy Roosevelt, McKinley’s vice president, who was on holiday when McKinley was shot, actually returned to his holiday because he thought McKinley would be fine), and then he rapidly declined. Although it was small, it was a very interesting exhibition, and I’m glad I got to see it, because there doesn’t seem to be a lot of information about what the exposition actually contained out there on the internet, and it was nice to see photographs, souvenirs, and descriptions of the attractions, even though it made me wish more than ever that I could go to some kind of excellent Victorian exposition of this nature (why don’t we still have things like this? I mean, sure, there’s health and safety regulations, and people aren’t likely to be all that impressed by light bulbs, but I would still be extremely happy with an upside down Victorian house and a dark ride to the moon).

  

We finished our visit to the museum by checking out the basement science gallery again (which still has animatronic dinosaurs and a collection of small (live) animals like frogs and snakes, but did seem to have been rearranged a bit since my last visit) and playing with all the excellent interactive science games, which also appeared to include a few new machines I didn’t remember, like a green screen where you could choose a natural disaster background and pretend to be a meteorologist reporting in front of it (we had a lot of fun with that one, and played around with it for a good fifteen minutes). (I had to also throw in a couple pictures of the new mannequins in the street of yesteryear, above, because I loved them so much.) And of course, no visit to Canton is complete without a stop at Taggart’s for ice cream (it’s right down the road from the museum) – I went for the chocolate chip ice cream pie with caramel sauce, which was most delicious, and I think Tina Belcher may have sat at our booth at one point, because it had the word “butts” carved into it.

I’d still give the museum 4/5 for sure, just for its eclectic mishmash of anything and everything Canton (plus dinosaurs), and the Pan-American Exposition exhibition, though on the small side, was actually very informative and well-worth seeing, so I’ll give that 3.5/5, and I’ve no doubt I’ll be back to this museum again within the next couple of years!

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Akron, OH: Perkins Stone Mansion and John Brown House

Despite attending the University of Akron for four years, there are still a surprising amount of museums in Akron that I haven’t visited until recently, and the Perkins Stone Mansion is one of them.  It’s usually closed for the season by the time I’m home for Christmas, so I wanted to make sure and squeeze in a visit while I was there in September. It is a stone house (as you may have guessed from the name) built in the 1830s by Colonel Simon Perkins, the son of the founder of Akron. The area was once known as Mutton Hill because Perkins kept sheep, which is where John Brown (of Harpers Ferry/Bleeding Kansas fame) comes into the picture, as he was hired to manage the flocks and was given the house across the street to live in while he did so, from 1844 to the early 1850s. Both houses are included on the tour, but let’s begin with the Perkins Mansion, shown above.

  

Just like at Sherman House, we arrived just as a tour was starting, so we simply paid our $6 admission and joined the tour, without having time to watch the introductory video. We ended up watching it at the end of the tour instead, but I kind of wish we’d gotten to watch it beforehand, because the tour might have made more sense. My mother has been there a few times before, and commented that the quality of the tour varied dramatically depending on what tour guide you get. Unfortunately, I don’t think we ended up with one of the better ones. She was perfectly nice, but said off the bat that her degree was in architecture, not history, so she couldn’t tell us much about the history of the house, and she wasn’t joking. She made some pretty glaring errors both about the type of furnishings that would have been common in a house at that time, and just general historical ones; for example, she stated that John Brown was captured by the Confederate Army, which is odd, since the raid on Harpers Ferry took place two years before the Confederacy was founded (he was actually captured by U.S. Marines, though many officers who would later become prominent in the Confederacy were involved, like Robert E. Lee and J.E.B. Stuart). I didn’t say anything about it at the time, so as not to embarrass her, but I’m mentioning it here because it would be one thing if she was new, but she said she had been working there for over a year, and I would hope that the historical society equips its employees/volunteers with at least a basic grasp of the historical facts relating to the property in the future.

 

But I digress…we did indeed begin with the Perkins Stone Mansion, and she did at least give us some background on the architecture, including the unusual inclusion of the widow’s walk, which is far more common in New England, where, you know, you can actually look out to sea (I guess in Cleveland you could at least look out over Lake Erie, but you’d be hard-pressed to see it 40 miles away in Akron). It was probably there because the Perkins family was originally from Connecticut, which, like I mentioned in the Sherman House post, was pretty common, because NE Ohio was originally part of the Western Reserve given to Connecticut after the Revolutionary War.

   

Also like Sherman House, it was a fairly standard historic home tour, with even less to distinguish it, because unlike William Tecumseh Sherman, the Perkins family isn’t particularly well-known, even locally (hell, I studied history at U of Akron, and except for a few things named after them on campus, I’d barely heard of them either). Unfortunately, most of the furnishings aren’t original to the house, so except for a few portraits and things, we were mostly looking at random Victorian (or American equivalent) crap (well, not crap maybe, but nothing terribly memorable aside from that clock above the previous paragraph). Once again, we played the “guess the ye olde implement” game in the kitchen, and I was kind of shocked when our guide couldn’t identify wool carders, given that they were prominently displayed and labelled over in the John Brown House (they weren’t part of the game, but the other people on our tour spotted them and asked what they were).

 

To be fair to our guide, she was giving us information about the Perkins family the whole time, but because I hadn’t watched the video, I had no idea who the hell the various family members were that she kept referencing (but I’d like to know who the guy in that middle portrait above is. He almost looks like Andrew Jackson, but with a ridiculous expression). Not only did they found Akron, but the Perkins family also had a lot to do with its growth. Apparently one of the women founded a children’s home that later became the Akron Children’s Hospital, and one of the men (maybe Simon?) convinced BF Goodrich to come to Akron, which is part of the reason why Akron became such a big rubber town (there’s also Goodyear and Firestone there).  The guide also told us some story about how one of the daughters came back to live in the house after she was married because her father didn’t want to lose her “feminine touch,” so he gave her and her husband a couple of rooms there, but it confused me because I thought she mentioned that one of the other daughters remained unmarried and lived in the house her whole life, so there would have already been a woman living there. She did kind of blur successive generations of the family together, so maybe I’m mistaken about who was actually living there at any given time.

  

After we finished with the Perkins house, we headed over to John Brown House, which is located across a busy street. To get there, we passed the field where sheep are kept in the summer, to stay true to the house’s heritage (though sadly, they were already gone at the time of my visit), and a nice wooded area on the grounds (which used to include most of Akron, but are now limited to a few acres), including the tree shown above left, which she said was planted by the Perkins family, and might be a poplar. I don’t know much about trees, but I’m not convinced by poplar. If anyone can identify it, please let me know! The house also has a couple of outbuildings, namely an office and a laundry/pool house, but they weren’t open to the public when we visited, so we couldn’t see inside either.  There was also once a pool on the grounds (hence the pool house), but the Summit County Historical Society decided to cover it up when they took over so they didn’t have to pay for upkeep, so instead of a lovely pool area there is just a grassy rectangle.

  

John Brown House was more interesting, both because of the John Brown connection (he actually lived in Ohio for 35 years, spending time in Kent, Richfield, and Hudson) and because there was actual signage in here to tell us about John Brown’s life (I love the cartoon version of him, above). I didn’t know that he had travelled to London whilst working for Simon Perkins to attempt to sell their wool, and although Perkins wasn’t publicly involved with abolitionism, there is evidence that he may have donated money to Brown at some point to help his cause. Although Brown comes across as kind of a flake about everything except abolition, he was actually a pretty diligent shepherd, even staying up all night with the sheep during lambing season. Unfortunately, his business sense didn’t match his shepherding skills, and he was eventually fired when the business failed, and they got kicked out of the house, which was a pity for his family because his long-suffering wife (2nd wife, actually) said it was the nicest house she’d ever lived in (they moved up to North Elba in New York, to the cabin that I blogged about some years ago with the incredibly nice and knowledgeable ranger working there who really put this tour guide to shame).

  

We watched the video when we returned to the visitors’ centre, which did clear up some of the confusion I had about the Perkins family, and told me a lot more about their sheep business. I also appreciated all the sheep themed merchandise in the museum shop, because I’m kind of a sucker for farm animals (we went there right after visiting the Howe Meadow Farmers’ Market, which is very nice and was where I was able to procure an excellent shirt with Ohio turned into a chicken on the front). Although the Perkins House isn’t terribly interesting in and of itself, John Brown House does have a fascinating history (mainly because of John Brown), and I was glad to see it at last. However, I think they really need to do something about the training of their guides, because the quality is evidently vastly inconsistent (my mother says she once had a guy who was actually from the area, and he was awesome, but the others have not been from around there and don’t seem to know much about Akron or the house). I’m not blaming the guides themselves so much as whoever is training them (or not, as the case may be)…if it was free, it’d be one thing, but a paid attraction should aim to provide a consistent experience. So I’ll give them 2/5, and hope that they improve in the future. I’d be willing to try it again with a different guide just to see how the experience changes.

London: Cabinet of Curiosities @ the National Archives

I should start by saying that me and the National Archives are not exactly friends. Though I like the idea of archives in principle – in practice, I’m not a great one for following the rules, and man, most archives have a LOT of rules. I’ve had to go to the National Archives a few times over the years to do historical research (for some reason, though the surviving attestation papers for servicemen in WWI have been digitised, the service records for officers have not, so you have to go there in person to look at them), and after my last experience there, when one of their employees literally snapped my pencil in half for the “crime” of having an eraser on it (instead of just, you know, telling me I couldn’t have an eraser, and letting me go find another pencil), I was quite happy to just let my reader’s pass lapse.  But then Halloween rolled around this year, and I saw that the National Archives was hosting a special late event as part of the Museums at Night series that takes place in London a couple of times a year. And the event was Edwardian themed, with promises of stories of spiritualism and Egyptology, so I sucked it up and parted with 20 quid for a ticket (which in itself is insane, even without my dislike of the National Archives). But I was unconvinced that ending my unofficial boycott of the National Archives would prove to be a wise decision.

I was admittedly not in the best mood to start with, having not gotten home from work until 11:30 the night before after offering to help with a spooky walk given by my museum’s young persons’ group (I won’t be reviewing it for obvious reasons), so I wasn’t particularly keen on going out yet again after work when all I wanted to do was go home, eat, and go to bed, but it was really my own fault for booking tickets, so I ignored my grumbling stomach and caught a bus out to Kew.  The staff were all dressed in Edwardian outfits for the event with big roses pinned to their lapels so you could identify them, and though they had encouraged attendees to dress up, very few had (I wasn’t strictly speaking specially dressed up, since I just wore what I’d been wearing all day at work, but I have kind of an office-goth vibe going on most days anyway, so it did sort of look as though I’d made an effort). Though Eventbrite (with whom I’d booked the tickets) had promised to send over a schedule of events earlier in the week, they never did, so I only got a look at the programme after arriving. When I initially booked, I had to choose a time slot to watch the “mummy unwrapping,” and opted for the earlier slot in case the event was so lame that I didn’t want to hang around til the late one, which meant we were handed a colour coded sticker when we arrived to gain entrance to the earlier showing. Unfortunately, it also served as a kind of beacon for certain staff members to try to dictate to us how we should spend our time.

Since we had about half an hour before the unwrapping, we first tried to view the Keeper’s Gallery, as the programme promised it held special oddities, only to be turned away at the door because I was still carrying my purse (I was evidently going to steal something, despite everything in the exhibit being behind glass). So I duly stowed it away in a locker, and returned, only to realise it was just the same crap in the Keeper’s Gallery that’s always there, and in fact nothing special had been put out for this event. So we instead headed for the Case Studies room, which was meant to have materials relating to spiritualism, only to be turned away there too, because apparently “we might not be able to get upstairs to the mummy unveiling in time.” I realise they were probably just trying to be helpful, but c’mon – I’m a grown-ass woman, and I really dislike being bossed around at an event that I paid a bundle to attend. I had plenty of time to see the handful of ephemera in that room and get upstairs when I needed to, and I’m perfectly capable of doing my own time-keeping, thanks. I mean, it wasn’t like you were only allowed in once – if I didn’t have time to see everything then, I could have come back later. And it turned out that the mummy unwrapping ended up starting late, so we definitely would have had plenty of time to look around the Case Studies room beforehand. As it was, we just stood around the outside of the room where the mummy unwrapping was due to take place like idiots for twenty minutes. I guess the only positive was that it gave me time to take a stupid photo in their Egyptian background with one of the straw boaters that were provided for some reason.

So, the mummy unwrapping then. Though my expectations at this point were not high, it was actually better than expected. It was a presentation by Odette Toilette, who does various scent-themed immersive experiences around London, and some man who professed to be an Egyptologist (it wasn’t really clear if he actually was one in real life, or was just an actor, since he did seem to know a lot about mummies). It was based on actual mummy unwrappings that took place in Victorian England, where people would gather to watch an archaeologist basically desecrate a mummy (after they were unwrapped, they were either sold to be turned into medicine or made into paint, mummy brown apparently being a popular colour with the Pre-Raphaelites), though obviously this event did not involve a real mummy. They took us through the process of unwrapping a “mummy” by removing a few layers of bandages and describing the scents that would have arisen during the process, and we were duly given scent cards for each one, so we could smell along. These were not as gross as you might have expected, and included things like juniper, pine resin, beeswax, and myrrh. They actually gave quite a good performance; especially the poor “mummy” who came very close to having his skull cracked open (I was really impressed that he managed to lay perfectly still for so long, especially with people touching his hands and feet!), and I left feeling slightly less pissy at the National Archives.

Because of the way the talks were scheduled, you really only had time to attend two lectures in addition to the mummy unwrapping. Despite the Edwardian theme, we actually had a choice of talks on medieval witchcraft, the second Pendle witch craze (17th century), female Egyptologists, and the alleged curse of Tutankamun (1920s), which was fine, because those are all things I’m interested in, but I feel like there was enough spooky stuff going on in Edwardian Britain for them to have stuck to the theme, especially since they were the ones who chose it, and it was all people working for the National Archives who gave the lectures. I believe there were also lectures by the Cemetery Club, as noted on a sign inside the archives, but for some reason they weren’t listed on the programme, so I’m not sure if they actually took place.

We had about forty minutes to kill before the first lecture started (having missed the first round of lectures during the mummy unwrapping) so we headed back to the stupid Case Studies room that we were initially denied access to, and surprise surprise, it only took about five minutes to see it (not that I’m salty or anything). It was just a collection of documents relating primarily to prosecutions of Edwardian fortune tellers (for fraud) and Arthur Conan Doyle’s belief in spiritualism and many letters in defense of it. And if you dared to try to turn one of the pages, someone came up and yelled at you and made a show of doing it for you with gloves (I didn’t dare touch anything after my pencil experience, but I saw someone else being shamed). I understand wanting to protect the documents, but then either have them behind glass, or have a sign out saying not to touch them, because scolding people for showing an interest is not a good way to change people’s perceptions of archives, and the documents were just sitting out on tables like normal books, so it wasn’t obvious that you weren’t allowed to turn the pages if you weren’t familiar with the ways of archives. Since we finished with that so quickly, we went to claim our free drinks (fortunately, the choices included semi-fancy soda, because I would have fallen asleep on the spot if I’d had alcohol), and then kind of just milled about listening to some Cockney old-timey style band (who complimented my tights, so they were alright with me!), and attempting to play a ball throwing game that was harder than it looked.

We chose to attend the lectures on medieval witchcraft and Tutankamun’s curse, and they were actually pretty good, especially the witchcraft one. I took an online course on medieval witchcraft a couple of months ago, so I wasn’t expecting to learn much here, but the lecturer told us about specific trials for witchcraft that I hadn’t heard of before (one involved a hand of glory, and the man’s “confession” is thought to be the first short story written in modern English), most of which involved trying to kill the king, which is why the people were prosecuted in the first place (witchcraft wasn’t necessarily frowned upon in the Middle Ages if you weren’t actually trying to harm anyone; for example, some men allegedly summoned a spirit and used it to find the location of some treasure, and the authorities were angry not on account of the necromancy, but because they didn’t declare the treasure once they’d found it. Their penalty was only a fine, rather than execution or something as you’d expect in the early modern period). He also chose some pretty good images to illustrate his talk, and I left feeling pleased with it.

The Tutankamun talk was somewhat less successful, mainly because the lecturer spent the talk trying to debunk the notion of a curse, which isn’t much fun around Halloween (I’d much rather hear about using the parts of a dead man to work magic). She was interesting enough, it just wasn’t really what I wanted to hear, I guess. But still, after my experience at that awful robot event last year, I’m glad I got to attend both talks, because the programme warned us that the lecture theatres had limited capacities and I was worried enough about it to show up early to both lecture rooms (I suppose the 20 quid entry fee helped keep numbers down, but it is London, and tickets had sold out, so I think the National Archives actually did place a reasonable limit on the number of tickets sold instead of being greedy). The witchcraft talk was completely full, but the Tutankamun one had lots of empty seats, probably because it was at the end of the night, and a lot of people had already gone home.

Even though the staff weren’t overly welcoming when we arrived, they seemed to mellow out a bit as the night went on, and I was pleased with the quality of the talks and presentations overall, though I really don’t think it was 20 pound’s worth of entertainment, and I definitely think they could have done a much better job of sticking with an Edwardian theme if they were going to bother to give it a theme at all. Why not some talks on spiritualism (as there was clearly material in the archives relating to this), or Edwardian murder cases (like creepy Crippen)? I also think there could have been more entertainment provided between talks, because the Cockney performers were more just background noise than something you’d actually sit there and watch, and though there was a magician, he was kind of hidden over in a corner rather than front and centre putting on a show. It just wasn’t enough considering how much we’d paid. If it had only been a tenner, I’d have left feeling reasonably satisfied with the evening, but it sure wasn’t worth twice that. I also think they could have had better props in the “photo booths” and maybe got a professional photographer in to offer actual prints for a reasonable fee, because I love that kind of thing, and it would have been better than relying on my own poor efforts. And it was completely freezing in there the whole time, like they had the air conditioning on or something (I get that archival materials probably have to be kept in a specific environment, but they could have at least turned to heat on in the lecture rooms) so I had to cling desperately to my jacket the entire night, which I was only able to get away with because it was a hoodie, as they apparently frown on jackets as well for security purposes (turn the heat on then!).  3/5 for the event overall, but I wish it could have been Halloweenier, better themed, and that some (though not all, one of the stewards was really nice) of the staff could have been friendlier.

Hever, Kent: Hever Castle

I promised more Halloween posts, and at first glance, Hever Castle might not seem to fit that category, but hear me out. First of all, it bills itself as the “childhood home of Anne Boleyn” and we all know what happened to Anne Boleyn, as well as various other members of the Boleyn clan, so it has a very high potential for being haunted (if ghosts were real, of course). Secondly, it is also home to “700 years of history,” including a room full of torture implements (I suspect they’re not original to the house, but still, they might have souls attached to them or something), so lots more opportunities for ghosts there. Finally, every year during October half-term (it’s just a week-long break from school, but because pretty much all schools do it, it’s like an actual thing here that even people without kids (like me) notice on account of the resulting lack of traffic which means I can catch the bus to work twenty minutes later than normal that week), they do a special Halloween event, and I braved the hordes of children (and their parents) this year to check it out.

  

This was actually more of an undertaking than just dealing with crowds, as we had to rent a car to get down there, and then pay £15.90 each to get inside (we saved a whole measly pound by booking online the night before), but I was a woman on a mission. You see, I went to Hever Castle some years ago, well before I had this blog, and while we were sitting in the tearoom, having just enjoyed a slice of cake, a man emerged from the kitchen bearing a tray of ghost cupcakes, which he grandly set down on the cake table. I can’t remember exactly why I didn’t end up with a ghost cupcake that day (certainly not because I’d already had cake – there’s always room for more cake!); I think at the time the cafe may have been cash only, and we’d spent all we had on the non-ghost cake and tea. At any rate, the memory of the ghost cupcake that got away has haunted me (ha) through the intervening years, and I reckoned that visiting during Halloween half-term was the best chance I had of putting it right.

  

I could leave you in suspense until the end of the post, but I’m telling this visit like it was, and the truth is that I made a beeline for the cafe as soon as we got inside the grounds. And was rewarded, as you can probably see, with not only a ghost cupcake, but a tombstone one as well. Unfortunately, it was very much not worth the wait. The cake was a bit heavy, and the stuff underneath the fondant ghost was not frosting, as I’d assumed (and hoped), but a marshmallow!  I’m not keen on marshmallow at the best of times, and certainly not when I was anticipating frosting. I mean, I ate it, because I pretty much had to after making such a stink about the damn ghost cupcakes, but it was cloyingly sweet (even for me), and would have greatly benefited from actual buttercream and maybe some jam to cut the sweetness (I guess they were intended for children, but I honestly think I was looking forward to that ghost cupcake way more than any child was). I probably should have gone for the tombstone one, as Marcus tells me the tombstone was an After Eight.  Anyway, with that disappointment out of the way early, we headed off to explore the gardens.

  

The gardens were not as disappointing as the ghost cupcakes, at least not the Italianate one, which was bestrewn with Halloween decorations (lame, half-assed British ones, but still), but there was still some measure of disappointment because there was some kind of scavenger hunt for children where if they spotted all the terracotta pumpkins, they could collect candy at the end, and of course there was no equivalent scavenger hunt for adults. Frankly, they didn’t even have to give me candy or anything, I just would have enjoyed the hunt, though if one of the terracotta pumpkins was on offer as a prize, I certainly wouldn’t have turned it down. (I was upset that the terracotta pumpkins weren’t even for sale in any of the many, many gift shops, as I was quite taken with them.)

  

I guess now is a good time to cantankerously say a word about the way the British celebrate Halloween, which I still find perplexing after living here for the best part of a decade. Halloween is becoming more of a thing here, which is good, because it was still pretty low-key when I first moved here, but I have to say that in my opinion, something just ain’t right with Halloween in England. It is really strange to me that children get dressed up to go wander around a stately home – where I come from, your costume was special – something you spent months planning and really put some effort into (admittedly, I was a vampire like three years in a row because I REALLY liked vampires, but I had a different vampire look each year, and I did genuinely stress about picking a costume. I’d have nightmares where it was Halloween night, and I didn’t have a costume, so I couldn’t go trick or treating), and you pretty much saved it just for Halloween itself, unless you got invited to a costume party or something. Here, it seems like people slap on “fancy dress,” as they call it (confusingly), for any old occasion, and there’s a complete lack of effort with their Halloween costumes. Every kid just wears these awful generic costumes that came direct from Tesco or something, and there’s no creativity on show at all.  And the most annoying thing is that aside from Halloween dance parties at clubs (big old nope from me) and a few late night events at museums (and that very unspooky pet cemetery walk), pretty much everything is aimed at children, which is why I had to awkwardly show up to Hever Castle during half-term when we were basically the only childless couple there aside from a couple of groups of foreign tourists. Trick or treating may just be for children (though I actually do quite like passing out candy, not that I’ve gotten to do it in years), but Halloween is for everyone, and I wish Halloween events in Britain would reflect that.

  

OK, rant over (at least that rant, there may be more). So, despite my displeasure at being excluded from Halloween fun, at least I could enjoy the decorations and all the unintentionally creepy statues that lived in the garden (like Pan there, yikes!). And Hever Castle is also home to a couple mazes. I did not get to go in the water one, which I remembered from my earlier visit, because it was entirely full of children running around while their parents looked on, and I would have felt like a creep going in there (and not in the Halloween sense, but in the weird pervert sense), but I did go in the yew maze, which was just a bit too easy. I wasn’t even sick of wandering around yet when I inadvertently found my way out.

  

The gardens were also home to some children’s activities that looked like a lot of fun (archery aiming at targets with headless knights painted on them and a repel your own vampire kit that involved planting a bulb of garlic in a pot that you then sprinkled with “holy water”) that were yet again a no-go for adults, so I gave up and we made our way over to the castle itself.

  

Though I didn’t remember being particularly impressed by the castle on my first visit, this time it ended up being the best part of the day, mainly on account of the vampire questions and answers that someone had placed in each room of the house. I’m still not sure exactly how vampires relate to Hever Castle (ghosts would have made more sense, for the reasons stated at the start of the post), but I’m not complaining, because these were delightful, and full of lame little jokes and puns that I just loved.

  

I suppose the interiors weren’t half bad either, even without the vampire facts. Though the house was owned by the Boleyn family in the Tudor period, by the early 20th century, it had been purchased by the Astors (of Waldorf Hotel fame), namely William Waldorf Astor, who also owned the splendid Two Temple Place in London, which I’ve blogged about a couple of times. I’d say that the man had taste, except that the rooms he decorated in Hever Castle were my overriding memory of the house on my first visit, and the reason that I wasn’t particularly impressed by it. They would have been fine in an Edwardian mansion, but the style of the Astor rooms just doesn’t seem to fit inside a 13th century castle (with Tudor additions).

  

But I did love the more Tudory rooms, especially the ones that told the story of Anne’s life, illustrated by wax figure tableaux.

   

I dressed up like Anne Boleyn for Halloween some years ago, and I’ve always felt bad for her, because she might have been ambitious or even calculating (though it’s hard to say if she actually was, given the way women were treated at the time, and the slurs thrown at her after her death), but really, once Henry took an interest, what was she supposed to do? She had to essentially choose whether to prostitute herself, or hold out for what seemed like the better option of marriage, and she definitely didn’t deserve to be beheaded. The castle holds a few of Anne’s personal possessions, like a Book of Hours she wrote in, and copies of letters sent between her and Henry, the last letter she ever wrote him being especially sad (she basically offered to sacrifice herself so that her brother’s and friends’ lives would be spared, but of course Henry, being an enormous asshole, executed the lot of them).

  

The room full of torture implements that I mentioned earlier is also depressing, and kind of scary (I like creepy stuff, but the scolds’ masks are a bridge too far even for me. For some reason those freak me out more than actual maiming devices), but never fear, the castle also contains stuff like a random case full of derpy dog figurines to lighten the mood. There’s also a few rooms about the Astor family and their ownership of the house, including the almost obligatory room about life “belowstairs,” which was actually not completely uninteresting, especially, for some reason, the room assignment charts for when the Astors had parties – maybe because I couldn’t imagine having that many house guests every weekend (but then, I’ve never lived in a house that had actual separate wings and I also hate having guests, unless I know them well enough that I don’t have to change out of jimjams).

 

After seeing the inside of the castle, we still weren’t done, because the estate is vast. We wandered past some splendid animal topiaries, and were en route to a regimental museum when I got side-tracked by an ice cream hut (not the first one I’d seen that day, but the first one that was actually open).  After wolfing down a few scoops (much better than the cupcake, though I have to admit that I was surprised that chocolate chip turned out to be chocolate ice cream, because chocolate chip is normally vanilla with chocolate chips in it. I guess that explains why I’ve never had chocolate chip in Britain before) we resumed the search for the Kent and Sharpshooters Yeomanry Museum, which is rather well hidden. I didn’t even realise it existed on our first visit, and wouldn’t have this time either if I hadn’t seen it mentioned on the website when we booked the tickets. There are no signs pointing to it once you’re in the grounds, though it is marked on the map they hand you when you walk in, but you really have to be looking for it.

  

After visiting it, I can kind of see why they don’t publicise it more. It’s not awful, but it’s not particularly impressive, being one long hut where you wind your way through reading posters (or mainly skipping them in my case, as they were overly wordy and not that interesting) with a few display cases. The only real object of note, other than a couple wax figures, was the ceramic figure of the regiment’s desert fox mascot, who is very cute. I do feel bad that no one seems to visit the museum though – at least, we were the only people inside, even though everywhere else on the estate was rammed.

  

After the KSY Museum, we headed over to one of the gift shops that also housed a collection of miniature houses, which I adore. They had Tudor, Stuart, and Georgian houses, as well as a few scenes from a Victorian household at Christmas, and they were all pretty charming, especially the Georgian one, which I would totally live in if it were real. Apparently one of the sons was a redcoat home from fighting those pesky Americans, and you could see him telling his parents all about it in the drawing room (yes, they were that detailed).

  

Aside from some fruitless searching for those terracotta jack o’lanterns in the shops, that was pretty much it for our visit, and we strolled back to the carpark (on the other side of the estate) through the water garden, which was very soothing (especially after having my nerves jangled by children running about and shrieking all day). There wasn’t really anything else Halloweeny of note, though I guess I should be grateful that there was even as much as there was, albeit not even aimed at adults, because the vampire facts + activities (that I couldn’t participate in) + Halloween decorations in the garden + ghost cupcakes is about as festive as England ever gets for Halloween.

  

Hever Castle is undoubtedly really, really expensive, but you do get more or less a full day out for your money, so that’s something. If you’re not bothered about Halloween decorations, I highly recommend coming when it’s not half-term, unless you have kids. The estate itself is pretty nice (and obviously quite photogenic), but I just can’t get over my disappointment at British Halloween events (and I’ll be blogging about another next week), even though I really should know better by now, and Hever Castle admittedly makes more of an effort than most. 3.5/5.

 

 

London: The Secret Pet Cemetery of Hyde Park

 

How’s that for a good October post title?!  I have a couple more Ohio posts coming eventually, but you all know that I pretty much live for Halloween, so I can’t resist sharing a couple creepy posts while it’s still October. I have wanted to visit this Victorian pet cemetery ever since I found out about its existence during London Month of the Dead a few years ago, but the tour offered that year was already booked up by the time I saw it (I’ve since learned my lesson and book all my Halloween events in August. Stupid populous London). Last year, I was ready and waiting, but the pet cemetery tours never appeared on the London Month of the Dead website. But this year, this year, I got in. Seems like the Royal Parks finally got smart, and now offer about a dozen tours over the course of October, instead of just one (at the time of writing this post, it looked like one of them even still had some availability).

  

Since the tour is run by the Royal Parks (or their Friends, perhaps) it wasn’t simply a tour of the pet cemetery, but of Hyde Park more generally, so we had to meet by Speakers’ Corner. Good thing there was a guy with a Royal Parks jacket and a clipboard standing there, because otherwise I don’t think I would have spotted our fellow walkers. Unlike most London Month of the Dead events, where most of the attendees are, well, like me, if not much more overtly gothy, because this one was primarily a Royal Parks event, almost everyone else there were older “Friends of the Royal Parks” looking types, all ready to go in their waterproof autumn walking gear. Which probably also explains why the walk wasn’t quite as creepy as I was hoping it would be.

  

We began our tour with the nearby “Animals in War” memorial, which I had somehow never seen before, but it is absolutely lovely. We heard more about the role of animals in WWI, including the guide’s wife’s grandfather’s story, as he had worked with pack animals transporting ammunition to the Front, and this was all very well and good – I like animals and WWI, but it was far more poignant than scary.

  

We proceeded to the area where Tyburn used to be (now Marble Arch), and as he started telling us that over 100,000 people were executed in the seven centuries it was in operation (which, if true, is an absolutely appalling number, but I haven’t found that figure listed anywhere else in my admittedly limited research for this post), I thought, “now this is more like it!” Unfortunately, apart from a brief mention of the “Tyburn Tree,” a triangular gallows that could hang twenty-four people at a time (this was before the long-drop, mind, so it could take up to 20 minutes of slow strangulation for a person to die, with their limbs jerking ghoulishly all the while), the grisliness ended there. Instead, he told us the story of Jack Sheppard, which is interesting, but like anyone who is fascinated by the macabre, I’d heard it about twenty times before, so I do wish he could have shared a less well-known story with us (though perhaps it was new to the respectable types who were on the tour with us).

  

Thenceforth to the monument to the Reformers’ Tree, which was burnt down in 1866 during the Reform League protests. I’d never seen this monument either (I don’t come to Hyde Park much, as I mentioned in the Grayson Perry at the Serpentine post), and I was interested in hearing more about this plaque and what it symbolised, but apart from telling us why they were protesting (men’s voting rights, or rather, the lack thereof for working class men), the guide didn’t say much about it. We then went on to a more wooded area of Hyde Park and heard about stag beetles and their life cycle, which I suppose was rather creepy only because I think stag beetles are gross, but not in a Halloweeny kind of way.

 

But then, we finally came to the part I’d been waiting for. Hiding behind a secret gate next to a very unassuming looking maintenance building, was the pet cemetery. It was started in 1881 by the gatekeeper at the time, a Mr. Winbridge, who allowed some of his friends to bury their beloved dog “Cherry” in his garden (I hope he lived in the most excellent “lodge” (which actually looks like it could be an amazing witch’s cottage) a short distance away which I’ll show you a picture of at the end of the post, but if the graves were in his backyard, it’s more likely that there was some other building there before the ugly maintenance one), and it grew from there to include over 300 graves, including the Duke of Cambridge’s dog, who was run over by a carriage (the Victorian Duke of Cambridge that is, who was a cousin of Queen Victoria. Not the current one). Which is kind of amazing given how small it is (I know pet bodies aren’t as big as human ones, but still. I also think it’s kind of obnoxious that poor Mr. Winbridge had to give up the whole of his tiny garden to accommodate animal bodies, what with the rest of Hyde Park just sitting right there, but maybe he was into that kind of thing. Having a cemetery in his garden, that is, not necrophiliac bestiality).

  

It’s not a scary kind of Pet Sematary pet cemetery, but is actually rather sweet and quaint, and I enjoyed reading the heartfelt epitaphs on many of the tiny graves. The guide made sure to point out the “murder victim” to us, poor Balu, who was “poisoned by a cruel Swiss.” I think the grave inscriptions are pretty interesting, so I’ll include some here so you can read them for yourselves (see my Instagram for even more!). I have to wonder if poor “Tubby” actually was overweight, because he seems to be buried all by himself, even though space was at a premium.  They’re not all dogs or cats either; see if you can spot the monkey and crocodile!

  

  

  

  

So did the pet cemetery live up to expectations? Absolutely! I thought it was fantastic, though I’m still not sure if it was worth the 15 quid it cost to go on the tour. Perhaps if the rest of the walk had measured up to it, I would have felt that it was better value, but though our guide was certainly competent, the content of the walk was utterly lacking the scare factor I would have liked from a cemetery tour. What with Tyburn being right there, and with the park itself dating back to Henry VIII’s reign, I’m sure there must be plenty of murders and ghost stories associated with it that the guide could have told us, instead of the not at all spooky subject matter he offered us. I might have been reasonably satisfied with it at another time of year (actually, that’s a lie; for me, eerieness never goes out of season), but not as an October walk!  I suppose it was worth doing just to see the cemetery, but I think the price is high for what you actually get (though I suspect the majority of the other people on our tour were probably perfectly satisfied with the tour’s lack of creepiness).  3/5 for the walk, but the cemetery itself is practically perfect. Oh, and here’s the “witch cottage” I mentioned earlier; I’d be very happy to move in and tend the pet cemetery and scare children away if they need someone to do that kind of thing.

Lancaster, OH: Sherman House Museum

I’ve been dying to see more presidential sites in Ohio, but none of them are anywhere near where my parents live. So, knowing we’d be in Columbus, I was googling attractions down there, hoping to find some previously overlooked presidential site (Taft’s house is the dream, but it’s all the way in Cincinnati), and I found what I guess is the next best thing: the childhood home of another famous Ohioan, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman, which contained furniture once owned by the Grant family (as in Ulysses S). Granted, it was in Lancaster, which is about 30 miles south of Columbus, but 30 miles is nothing in America, and if we’d come that far south, why not go a bit farther?

Like the more famous Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Lancaster, Ohio appears to be mostly a farming community (judging by all the cornfields), but going by the lack of buggies, I don’t think the farmers here are Amish (Ohio’s Amish communities mostly live further north). I did guess that Lancaster’s downtown would be historic and adorable, and I was not wrong. This included Sherman’s house, easily identifiable by the cannon mounted out front.

  

Unfortunately, I don’t have many pictures to show you because when we walked in, there was a tour already in progress (with only one other couple on it), which we joined immediately after paying ($6, or $10 if you want to see the nearby Georgian Museum (which was confusingly built in 1832) too, but we only had time for the Sherman House), so we weren’t sure whether you could take pictures or not until we got to the museum space upstairs, so we didn’t (but as we were leaving, I spotted a sign that said non-flash photography was fine, so turns out we could have after all). The house is only viewable via guided tour, which I was initially fine with despite our tight schedule (we had to meet my uncle for happy hour in Columbus that afternoon), because I didn’t possibly think it could take more than an hour. How wrong I was.

  

Anyway, our tour guide was affable enough, showing us around and pointing out any special features of the rooms, but it felt more like any generic historic home tour until we got to the Sherman Museum upstairs. He did talk a bit about Sherman’s family, but because I didn’t know a whole lot about Sherman’s background, I didn’t really know who he was talking about until I saw the family tree quilt in the museum. But apparently, like most families who emigrated to Ohio when it was still the Western Reserve, Cump’s parents (Cump was Sherman’s childhood nickname, apparently derived from the Tecumseh bit of his name (itself taken from the Shawnee Chief Tecumseh, who Cump’s father admired), and I like it, so I’m going to use it) came out from Connecticut in the 1810s and lived a pioneer lifestyle for a while until Ohio began to develop and grow, and they were able to double the size of their house. However, with eleven children, it would still have been quite a small house, and after Cump’s father died middle-aged and in debt (he was a lawyer who served on the Ohio Supreme Court, but had apparently loaned out money to tax collectors who worked for him who had yet to repay him), his mother was forced to allow most of her children to be raised by family and friends, including Cump, who was taken in by wealthy neighbour Thomas Ewing, as Cump was reputedly the most intelligent child.

  

Cump grew up to attend West Point Academy, where he excelled but had a lax attitude towards the rules, which prevented him from graduating at the top of his class. He married Ewing’s daughter Ellen, his foster sister, and they seem to have had a somewhat acrimonious marriage as all Ellen wanted to do was move back to her hometown of Lancaster, whereas it seemed Sherman couldn’t get the hell away from the place quickly enough. After serving in the Second Seminole War, he was denied the chance to see active duty in the Mexican-American War, which left him so salty that he resigned his commission and became a banker in San Francisco instead. The bank failed in the financial panic of 1857, and he subsequently became the head of a military academy in Louisiana, which he was happy enough doing, but then the Civil War happened.

This is where the story of Cump gets kind of shady (if fighting in “Indian Wars” wasn’t shady enough). He wasn’t actually opposed to slavery at all; in fact, he offered to buy Ellen slaves when they moved to Louisiana, but she refused because she didn’t think it was a good business transaction, bringing her white servants from the North with her instead. He only fought on the side of the North because he believed so damn much (to hear our tour guide tell it) in the Union, and he didn’t think the South had the right to secede. So yeah, he would have totally been a slave owner if his wife hadn’t opposed it on financial grounds. He’s not exactly an abolitionist hero or anything. His whole famous Union Army career followed, including the March to the Sea, etc. etc. – it’s all detailed here in the small museum, right down to the replica of his army tent, which included a writing desk and chest that actually belonged to him.

  

The most interesting thing in the museum, for me, was the picture of Sherman with Father Pierre De Smet, because I am a huge Laura Ingalls Wilder nerd, and the town she lived in in Dakota Territory was named De Smet for this priest. Cump met him in his post-war career, which included more “Indian Wars” out west (of course, because I guess being named after a Native American means you should kill as many of them as possible. One of his “brilliant” ideas was to kill all the buffalo so that the tribes would starve. Ugh). After he’d had his fill of killin’ he moved to New York, and was the person responsible for deciding that the Statue of Liberty should be placed on what became Liberty Island. This was also where he acquired the Grant’s parlour furniture, which is indeed in Sherman House’s parlour – probably the most interesting room in the house itself, containing as it does photographs of the family using the furniture, the last portrait of Sherman painted from life, and a partial set of Shakespeare themed chairs that Sherman had made for his home in New York (it sounded pretty swanky). The rest of the house was fairly standard historic home, as I said, with the obligatory “guess what this old-timey object was” game in the kitchen, and stenciled walls in one of the bedrooms upstairs in which a mistake had deliberately been made in the print, to show that “no one is perfect except God.” Our guide was fine (except for a few odd, slightly sexist jokes, like when he said I should cover my ears so I wouldn’t be shocked when I “learned” that poor people in the 1800s only owned one pair of shoes), but very talkative, especially at the end of the tour, when he talked for about half an hour to give us the entire rundown of Cump’s life story (which is probably the same thing I’ve done in the post, sorry about that), which meant we were late meeting my uncle, but it wasn’t really the guide’s fault since we didn’t say we were in a hurry or anything, and he was just trying to be informative, which he certainly was…just a little TOO informative.

  

So I basically learned that Sherman was a fairly terrible human being who only fought on the side of the North because he loved the Union more than practically anything, but I guess by the standards of the time, he was fairly normal, and certainly better than some, because despite his personal views on slavery, he did help win the Civil War (but then killed a bunch of Native Americans…OK, he was mostly terrible). Despite his many, many flaws, it was neat getting to see the house he grew up in, because I am quite interested in the American Civil War from a social history perspective, though it did seem like all his personal possessions were in the museum rooms or the front parlour, and everything else was either stuff owned by his parents (which was fine) or just items from the right time period that had been donated. Surprisingly, for a town this size, Lancaster does have a genuine museum “district” which in addition to Sherman House and the aforementioned Georgian House also includes the Ohio Glass Museum and the Decorative Arts Center of Ohio, which was free and hosting an exhibition on Victorian photography that I would have loved to visit if we hadn’t already been running extremely late, so I think this town is well worth a visit (via my uncle’s partner, I also found out that they have a very tasty looking doughnut shop, which I unfortunately didn’t learn until it was too late). Sherman House was an interesting experience, albeit not quite what I was expecting….just make sure you leave yourself plenty of time if you’re planning a visit. Lancaster is quite near to Hocking Hills, which I still haven’t been to (and wasn’t visiting on this trip, hiking in 90+ degrees Fahrenheit?! No thanks!), but it’s an area pretty well known for being gorgeous, so you can probably do an extended trip and see all this stuff if you fancy it. 3/5 for Sherman House.

 

Columbus, OH: Thurber House

Despite what I said in the last post about being happy it’s finally autumn, the truth is a little more complex. Even though I do love it, fall is always a difficult season for me because spending it in the UK just makes me homesick for fall in the US. Since I hadn’t made it home in October for a couple years, I was planning on going this year…until I received a job offer. Though I was excited and grateful for the opportunity, I was feeling down about not being able to go home, until I realised that I had two weeks before I had to start, so I booked an extremely last minute (but surprisingly cheap) flight to Cleveland, and settled for being there in the latter half of September instead of October. Which was basically fine, except for the weather, which climbed above 90° Fahrenheit for all except the last few days of my trip. I do not cope well with heat. Nonetheless, I had a lovely time (thankfully, everywhere in Ohio has air conditioning, except my brother’s car, as we discovered to our dismay one extremely hot day), and even managed to visit some new-to-me historic homes and museums. The first of these is Thurber House, in Columbus.

  

I find myself stopping by Columbus pretty much every trip home now in order to visit my uncle and his partner and their two adorable dogs (and eat frozen custard with them at Whit’s), so I’m starting to get a good idea of the museum scene down there, and this time decided to finally visit Thurber House, because it’s closed during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, which is exactly when I’m normally visiting Ohio, so I don’t usually get the opportunity. James Thurber was an American writer, illustrator, and humourist in the first half of the 20th century, and although he was nationally famous in the 1930s and ’40s (he wrote for the New Yorker, and is the author of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”) I’m not sure how well known his work is these days outside Ohio. I definitely remember reading some of James Thurber’s pieces at school, though I recall his illustrations more vividly than the stories themselves. Even though he was blind in one eye as the result of a childhood accident involving an arrow (ouch!), and went blind in the other one later in life, he created the most charming illustrations (especially of dogs) to accompany his humorous stories, some of which are brought to life in statue form in the garden.

  

Thurber House is where James Thurber lived with his family between 1913-1917, while he attended OSU, and it is open daily between 1-4. They offer guided tours for a small fee on Sundays, but the rest of the time the house is free to visit via self-guided tour, with the use of a detailed brochure to help you along. Not that you really need it, because the house isn’t terribly big, but there is a lot to read inside, particularly on the ground floor. There was also an exhibition of Funky Winkerbean comic strips when I was there, which despite its stupid name, is one of the most depressing comic strips ever, but its creator, Tom Batiuk, is from Ohio (Akron, actually), which is probably why they were there.

  

Anyway, the signs in one room contained information about Thurber’s life, and the house (it’s even been visited by ghost hunters, who claimed they verified Thurber’s somewhat facetious belief that there was a ghost in the house (see Thurber’s story “The Night the Ghost Got In” for details (but be aware that the link goes to a pdf, as that was the only place I could find the story for free))), as well as copies of some of Thurber’s best-loved short stories. I’m particularly partial to the one about “Muggs, the Dog That Bit People” mainly on account of Thurber’s drawing of Muggs, which was also available in t-shirt form in the gift shop.

  

Upstairs was a little odd. Some of the rooms were done up roughly as they would have been when the Thurbers lived there, but others were now office space, and there were people sitting inside them working (Thurber House is also a non-profit literary centre). Though we were encouraged by the woman at admissions to go inside the offices and look around, and even ask questions of the people working there if we wanted to, I felt awkward doing that, so I just peered inside as discreetly as I could, and then headed for the rooms without people in them, which included a room full of Thurber memorabilia: manuscripts, illustrations, etc.

  

I also liked Thurber’s old bedroom, which is fortunately not an office either. It had some of his old class pictures in it, and the closet was special too, because it was filled with the signatures of visiting authors. I only saw a few names that I recognised, but the sign telling visitors not to autograph it unless they are asked made me want to develop a professional writing career simply so I can put my name in there when I return. Apparently some of the writers have even spent the night in James Thurber’s bed! The Thurber House also supports a writer-in-residence; the top floor of the house has been turned into an apartment so writers can stay and work there, which I think is pretty cool (even (especially?) if there is a ghost living up there). I spent some time looking at the walls next to the stairs and in the upstairs bathroom, which were covered with photographs of famous visitors to the house, including Burgess Meredith (who was from Cleveland!), who I think was adorable because of his work in The Twilight Zone and Grumpy Old Men (I can’t even watch the second one all the way through because he dies in it).

   

The shop had some good t-shirt designs (Marcus bought the aforementioned Muggs one, I declined because they only had basic man-cut ones, and I’m not a fan of the neckline or thick fabric of those), but the most charming part of the museum was undoubtedly the garden(s). The one behind the house was full of dog statues, and there was a unicorn in the garden in front of the house, based on another of Thurber’s stories, which was written on a plaque by the statue.

  

Although the office situation was a little bit outside my comfort zone (though I’m sure the people working there were perfectly friendly, I am just not the type to barge into someone’s office and start making conversation), the rest of the house, and the gardens especially, were a delight!  I appreciate that it is free to visit, and I very much enjoyed learning more about James Thurber and his stories (and I really must get my hands on one of his story compilations, I want to read more!). 3.5/5, well worth the visit for the statues alone!

London: “Can Graphic Design Save Your Life?”@ the Wellcome Collection

It’s finally autumn (the best season, obviously), and there’s a new exhibition at the Wellcome Collection, which is normally exciting in itself, so I should be happy, right? Well, unlike the Wellcome’s usual exhibition themes, which are either inherently fascinating to me (death, forensics, poop), or topics I can at least summon up a spark of interest in (electricity…see what I did there?), this one sounded like a real dud. Graphic design? Sorry, but no. In an ideal world, I’d go on to write how the Wellcome proved me wrong with their amazing exhibition, and really changed the way I think about graphic design, but we don’t live in that world, and I am not that blogger.

Photography is never allowed in the Wellcome’s main gallery space, which is particularly galling when the whole focus of the exhibition is graphics, but you can view a few of the images here. The Wellcome gets so crowded that I always try to come mid-day on a weekday (also so I have time to grab lunch from Roti King on the other side of Euston station – I’d never tried roti canai until I started eating there, but now I crave it pretty much all the time), but even that isn’t enough to avoid my fellow Londoners, because the museum is always hopping. I was dismayed to see there was an actual queue to look at the first set of cases, so I naturally bypassed it and headed straight for a display case in the middle of the room that almost no one was looking at. This turned out to contain graphics to do with anatomy, including a couple iPad models of the human body, and a small section on birth control with a few comic strips used by Planned Parenthood back in the infancy of the Pill. To be honest, I don’t think it made any difference what order I walked around in, because each display had a self-contained theme, and there wasn’t really any narrative tying the exhibition together; it was just a series of examples of different types of graphic design.

The line at the start of the exhibit eventually cleared, so I had a chance to meander over and check it out. This was the smoking themed section, and included both campaigns to encourage smoking (the designs of Silk Cut and Lucky Strike cigarette packets), and those against it, including a very bizarre Japanese poster on smoking etiquette that said something about how being scolded to pick a cigarette butt up was like being a child scolded for dropping candy wrappers (which to me sounds a little pro-smoker, but it was in the anti-smoking section, so maybe it lost something in translation).

The exhibition also dealt briefly with the design of fonts used in train stations and workplaces, which really had nothing to do with medicine at all, but I suppose the primary focus was indeed medical, because most of the other displays tied into medicine in some way; most obviously in the section on the design of prescription drugs, which has apparently been heavily influenced by an Israeli designer who came up with the idea of putting a big colourful shape on the front of prescription drug packets so pharmacists would be able to see with ease exactly what they were handing out, and thus avoid making dangerous mistakes. There was also a Swiss pharmaceutical company called JR Geigy AG that was renowned for its “ground-breaking” designs, though I do not remember exactly what they were.

There were displays on hospitals, mental health, and children’s medicine, but my favourite display was undoubtedly the one on epidemic disease. This contained some of the few properly historical objects in the museum, including posters warning about the spread of plague in 17th century Italy, and Victorian ones about cholera. There were some Dutch (I think? Damn this no picture rule!) designers that moved to Africa in the 1950s or ’60s and designed colourful posters explaining how leprosy is spread, and their work was here as well. Probably most visually striking, however, was the work done on the AIDS campaign in the 1980s-90s including a tombstone emblazoned with the word AIDS in giant red letters. There were also posters that went up in places like hospital waiting rooms and tattoo shops explaining how AIDS was spread, and also tying in with AIDS (sort of) was the display of condom packets (I was amused by the brand called OOOPH!) which came in an impressive and rather hilarious array of designs.

I feel like this exhibition was a lot smaller than most of the Wellcome’s major exhibitions, because it was limited to one large room, rather than a whole series of galleries like normal. I suppose it worked well with the theme, because it was bold visually and there wasn’t an overarching story to tell for which being led around a progression of galleries would make sense, but it nonetheless didn’t make for a particularly impressive exhibition. I left feeling just as uninspired by graphic design as I was when I went in – I suppose it might save my life, to answer the question in the title of the exhibition, but that doesn’t make it intrinsically interesting. I’m sticking with my initial description of dud for this one. 2.5/5 – it might be OK if you have a strong interest in graphic design, but if you were expecting something with a lot of informative text about the history of medicine and how graphic design tied into medical advances, like I was, you’re going to leave disappointed.

I also have to report that the Wellcome updated its Spirit Booth, which I was really excited to have my picture taken in last winter, and it was not an update for the better. Not only do you no longer get a physical copy of your photo (it’s all online), you have to answer a series of questions (in your mind) first, which would be fine, except for the voice in the booth pauses for about a full minute between each question, and you’re left sitting there in the dark wondering whether the booth is malfunctioning (for real, it doesn’t take a minute to read five words of text). They asked for feedback on the Spirit Booth, so here it is: put it back to the way it was before, or at least speed up the voice!

 

 

Tunbridge Wells, Kent: Tunbridge Wells Museum and Art Gallery


Instead of opening this post with a photo of the outside of the museum like I normally would, I decided to cut to the chase and show you the best and weirdest thing in the museum right at the start (also the front of the museum is pretty boring, because it’s just in the town hall, whereas Minnie the dog (I’ll explain more later) is hilarious and awesome).

   

We were able to borrow a car for a day a few weeks ago, and though the air felt like autumn and my first thought was to drive out to the countryside to see some foliage, it was only the start of September, and all the trees in London were still green (not that they change to a colour more exciting than brown anyway, but still) so I had to concede that it was unlikely that trees outside the city would be much different. So a plan B then, but one that would still allow me to acquire cloudy apple juice and cider from my favourite orchard shop in East Sussex, because I’m always ready for fall, even if the trees aren’t cooperating. Unfortunately, I’ve been to pretty much everything nearby the cider shop worth blogging about over the years (except Hever Castle, which I’ve been to but haven’t blogged about…I’ll have to go back!), so I turned my search to obscure local museums, most of which I had to immediately eliminate because they’re not open on Sundays. Enter the Tunbridge Wells Museum and Art Gallery. Though they’re not normally open on a Sunday, their website claimed their “summer hours” (til October 8) did include Sunday opening, so I thought we should risk it, especially once I got a look at the photo of Minnie the Lu Lu Terrier on their website.

   

Happily, the Tunbridge Wells Museum was indeed open (as you may have guessed by this point) and also free to visit. We were able to find parking along the side of the building since it was a Sunday; otherwise I think you’d probably have to head for one of the nearby car parks. We were welcomed by an extremely nice and helpful woman at the front desk, who was very eager to make sure we saw all the highlights of the collection, and she immediately disposed me towards liking the museum.

   

We began with the toy alcove, and there were so many gems in here I can’t even show you them all, but I’ve included photos of some of the highlights, including a teeny model butcher shop (not that I patronise real butcher shops, but this one even had a little cat in it. A pet cat that is, not a cut of meat). I also really loved the poor derpy Felix the Cat doll, but, as you can probably tell from the opening photo, he wasn’t even the derpiest thing in this museum.

   

The showpieces of this first room were undoubtedly the massive dollhouse (I think it was Georgian, or at least the house it is based on was), which apparently lit up (the woman working there directed me to a button on the wall, but I pressed it twice and nothing happened, and I was too embarrassed to try again), but since I couldn’t get it to work, I contented myself with peering in through the darkened windows, and could still see enough to know that I would have killed for that dollhouse as a kid (even though I wasn’t particularly into dolls, elaborate old dollhouses are cool. I’d still love to have one, even if it turns out to be haunted); and the old rocking horse, who was nothing like my beloved childhood rocking horse Buckles, but was still a lovely horse (“running through the fields…”).

   

Most of the rest of the first gallery was taken up by extraordinarily wordy (but not uninteresting) displays about local industries, including cricket balls and much more to my tastes, biscuits (although the company seems to have made mostly water biscuits rather than anything actually delicious). There was a back wall lined with cases filled with everything from flasks to farming implements, accompanied by very old-school captions that were rather charming, but a bit of updating wouldn’t go amiss on some of the labels.

   

I was very taken with the sheep boots (shown above), but I was most excited about the Biddenden Maids cakes. I’m sure everyone knows by now how fascinated I am by the strange and unusual (and that Beetlejuice is one of my favourite movies), and when I was looking for something odd to write my MA thesis about some years ago, I happened upon the Biddenden Maids. I ended up not using them, because historical fact is kind of thin on the ground where they’re concerned, plus if they actually lived when the legend says they lived, they would have fallen well outside of the Early Modern era, but the story goes that in the 1100s there were wealthy conjoined twins living in Biddenden, a village in Kent, and they donated their lands to the village when they died with the proviso that income from the lands would be used to provide the poor with alms every year at Easter. The tradition continues to this day, and in addition to providing food to widows and pensioners on Easter Monday, Biddenden also gives out Biddenden Maids cakes bearing the image of the twins (I’m not gonna lie, I’ve debated going out to Biddenden at Easter to get one, as it’s rumoured that they also make some to sell to tourists as souvenirs), and a few recipients over the years have donated these to the museum, so I finally got to have a look at them. They were just as splendid as I’d hoped!

   

The next gallery was dedicated almost entirely to “Tunbridge Ware,”and that’s where Minnie comes in. Tunbridge Ware is a kind of highly decorative painted wood developed for the tourist trade in Tunbridge Wells (as you might be able to guess from the name, Tunbridge Wells is home to a natural spring, and thus became a spa town in the Restoration, like so many other towns with healing waters, so there were plenty of tourists coming through), and there were many, many examples on show in this gallery, but the box used to house Minnie is the most notable of all. Minnie was a Lu Lu Terrier, apparently an unusual (and unfortunate-looking) Chinese breed, and when she died, her owner decided to preserve her in high style by placing her taxidermied body inside a huge and elaborate Tunbridge Ware box. The photo on the right is of what was probably my favourite Tunbridge Ware design in this gallery, and shows a gentleman encountering a sweep and his donkey in the night, which he took to be the devil, hence his fright.

   

I also enjoyed these charming, rather primitive collages by George Smart, one of which was blown up and featured on a large banner outside the museum, as it was evidently a heritage weekend when we visited. Which probably makes not seeing the famous Pantiles (the other main thing Tunbridge Wells is famous for, being, as far as I can tell, simply a tiled shopping district that has been given a fancy name) whilst we were there even more of an oversight, but we were worried about getting a ticket if we left the car parked where it was for much longer, so we high-tailed it out of Tunbridge pretty sharpish after leaving the museum.

   

But I’m not finished with the museum yet! There was also a small room with a few paintings in it, as well as a letter from Nelson (written after he lost his arm, to judge by the handwriting, though it still looked better than what I can achieve with my dominant hand), but the taxidermy is really what I need to show you. The final room of the museum contained the obligatory geological exhibits, but also a small taxidermy collection, the wildcat and squirrel shown here being highlights. There was also a splendidly derpy fox cub. I also liked that they thoughtfully kept the butterfly cases covered (probably to protect them, since I’m guessing they didn’t know about my lepidopterophobia), as it meant that I didn’t have to look at them.

   

As you may have guessed from the post title, the museum is also an art gallery, which is located just across the hall from the main museum. The exhibition when we visited was called “Springlines” and was meant to be an exploration of “hidden and mysterious bodies of water.” It wasn’t quite as exciting as the title promised, being a collection of fairly ordinary landscapes, but I did like how the pictures were accompanied by poetry, which did at least add something evocative to the paintings.

   

Considering my past experiences with local museums hadn’t led me to expect much out of Tunbridge Wells, I was actually pleasantly surprised. Having very friendly staff probably helped, but I was also impressed by the sheer array and eclecticism of objects on show, and thought the captions were generally quite informative, for all that a few of them could use an update. 3.5/5, it definitely exceeded my expectations, and was worth coming to for poor ridiculous Minnie alone.

   

While we were (sort of) in the area (well, it is very close indeed to the aforementioned cider shop (with limitless free samples) anyway), we decided to go for a walk around the bit of Ashdown Forest that was introduced to the world by A.A. Milne as Hundred Acre Wood. I’m sure I read the Pooh books at some point, but I don’t really remember them very well as most of my Pooh memories are dominated by the cartoon, which I loved as a kid. There isn’t much to the walks; you can opt for either a “Short Pooh” or a “Long Pooh” walk (obviously I was making endless poo jokes), and the short Pooh is very short indeed, so we went for the Long Pooh, which primarily involved walking up and down two miles of hills (and stepping in lots of actual poo, due to it also being a horse trail) around a heath which was supposed to be Eeyore’s Gloomy Place (poor Eeyore. I think I’m a cross between him and Rabbit), but we also took in Roo’s Sandy Place, the North Pole, the Heffalump Trap, the Enchanted Forest (really more of a heath, like the rest of it), and the A.A. Milne memorial along the way. It is literally is just a walk in the country, but I think it’s kind of nice in a way that it’s not all commercialised (much as I would like to see some statues of Pooh and friends to help bring it to life, the fact that you have to use your imagination means that it’s not very busy. There is a tearoom down the road called “The Shop at Pooh Corner” or something like that, but that’s really only the concession to capitalism here). Just mentioning it as something else to do if you find yourself in the Sussex/western edge of Kent countryside.

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.