London: Cartographies of Life and Death: John Snow and Disease Mapping, and Dr. Johnson’s House

Insofar as a person can like a horrific disease, I like cholera.  In the world of epidemic disease, I don’t find it quite as interesting as smallpox, or the bubonic plague, or even yellow fever, but I still think it’s worth researching.  Therefore, I was excited when I saw that the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine had an exhibit about John Snow.  Cartographies of Life and Death was advertised in a few places, including Time Out and The Times, and they made it sound like it was a fairly large exhibition, so I imagined we’d be able to kill an hour or two there.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.  We strolled down to Keppel Street from Holborn, and were greeted at the door by some security guards.  Now, the building isn’t normally open to the public, so I guess I can understand why they wanted visitors to sign in, but it seemed kind of ridiculous in light of the fact that we would be in sight of the guards the entire time, making the visitor stickers we were given to wear a little superfluous.  The entire exhibit consisted of about four cases in an entryway with some basic information on John Snow, three small maps on a wall which showed the spread of various diseases through Africa and Italy, and a couple of larger pieces of modern art which had nothing to do with epidemiology other than their titles, as is often the way of modern art.  We were in and out within 15 minutes, and that included the couple of minutes we spent signing in and being questioned by the guards.  I understand it’s not a museum, but frankly, I think the way this exhibit is being advertised is ridiculous, considering how, well, lame it is.  The website on it listed a number of things that would be there, and I naturally assumed they were listing the highlights, rather than everything they had on display!  Also, the signage was terrible, and we weren’t really sure where we were supposed to go, as there was a sign directing us up to a John Snow lecture theatre on the second floor, but when we got up there, we were told it was a paid event, and we weren’t allowed inside.  It seems to me like they could have written that on the sign.  As we’d already wasted plenty of time and money travelling into central London, I figured we might as well make the most of the day, so we walked over to Dr. Johnson’s House next.

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Now, I actually do love Dr. Johnson.  Not so much his actual writing; the Dictionary is amusing enough, but have you ever tried to struggle through Rasselas?  Ugh. But the man was still an incredible personality.  I used to walk down Fleet Street to my university library on Chancery Lane a couple times a week when I was doing my Master’s, and I’d always mutter, “Hey Sammy J!” at his statue as I passed (braving the funny looks from tourists), so I feel like we’re pretty much old friends at this point.  But for whatever reason, I’d never actually been to his house, even though it is just off of Fleet Street.  It is essentially just a house, I mean, obviously they have period furniture and numerous copies of Johnson’s Dictionary, but there’s not a whole lot else to see.  Which was ok with me, since I wasn’t expecting much for 4 quid, and the house itself was the sort I’ve always wanted to live in; a slightly crooked Georgian with living room walls painted the perfect shade of arsenic green, and a chest that once belonged to David Garrick just hanging out casually in the corner, because hey, why not?  Plus they let you try on Georgian outfits upstairs, and I’m still a sucker for dressing up, so I took full advantage, as you can see above.  The best part was probably the statue of Hodge, Johnson’s cat, in the courtyard outside, though I was kind of upset on Hodge’s behalf that his statue wasn’t with Johnson’s on Fleet Street.  No matter, he looked like “A very fine cat indeed,” as promised.

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1 out of 5 to Cartographies, and let’s say 3 out of 5 to Dr. Johnson’s House.

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