I might have taken a bit of a break from blogging over December (though you wouldn’t know it because I wrote so many posts in November, which went out in December), but I certainly didn’t take a break from visiting museums, since that is fortunately still more of a joy than a chore (even with working at a museum. I wouldn’t visit the museum I work at on my days off though!). I was back in the States as usual for Christmas, and actually managed to hit up a few new-to-me museums on this trip, which was great!
Now, this is an interesting one. Not that most of the places I visit don’t have something interesting about them, but this one is really a bit out there. Knowing what a fan I am of animatronics, and well, just weird shit, basically, Marcus booked us tickets to see the “adult” version of the Sharmanka Kinetic Theatre, which took place at 5pm on a Sunday (check their website for all available dates and times) and lasted for about an hour. It cost £10.
Merry belated Christmas everybody! I don’t have anything particularly Christmassy to post about this year, so I’ll just carry on with Glasgow. Looking back on it, we probably should have devoted a good few hours to the Kelvingrove, and slipped in the People’s Palace if and when we had time. But Marcus wanted to see Billy Connolly’s banana boots, and since the museum doesn’t have its own website, we didn’t have any idea what other treasures might be hiding away in there, so the People’s Palace became a priority. It is located in Glasgow Green, about a mile walk away from where we were staying in the centre of Glasgow, and it was very cold that day, so I was definitely not enjoying the walk.
I did, however, enjoy the sight of the Doulton Fountain, which we spotted from quite a distance away. This fabulous piece is apparently the largest terracotta fountain in the world, and was built in 1887 for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee and the International Exposition held in Glasgow. It celebrates the British Empire and contains figures representing Canada, South Africa, Australia, and India (I particularly enjoyed the Canadian moose, and what I think was a marmot). I’m no fan of empire, but I am definitely a fan of this fountain.
From there, we progressed inside the museum, which like every museum we visited in Glasgow, had these great wooden revolving doors at the entrance (and a giant ornate radiator right by the entry, which I needed to warm my legs after the walk there). The People’s Palace is free (with a name like People’s Palace, it would have been a little disappointing if it wasn’t), and since there was no front desk and we were a little unsure where the museum began, we went directly up the steps in front of us. It turns out we missed an introductory gallery on the ground floor, which we saw at the end instead (yes, the big welcome sign should have been a clue, but I swear we couldn’t see it from the entrance), but it was a very basic overview of Glasgow’s history and the exploits of the Scottish boxer Benny Lynch, who died at the age of 33 in 1946 from alcoholism.
So it didn’t really matter that we started with the first floor, and in fact, it meant that we saw Billy’s banana boots first thing (I mostly know Billy Connolly from that Columbo where he’s the murderer (not really a spoiler since the whole point of Columbo is that you see who did it at the beginning), but I don’t think I’ve ever sat there and watched one of his comedy routines, so the banana boots were a bit lost on me. That said, there was a video with Billy Connolly doing that very routine right next to the boots, so I definitely could have watched it then and there had I been so inclined). There was also Rab C. Nesbitt’s string vest, which Marcus was also excited to see.
The rest of the floor was given over to moments from Glasgow’s social history, so there was a section on crime and punishment (which I of course enjoyed, though it wasn’t very grisly). The gallows were located not far from the museum building, so there was a sign on the window telling us that this view was more or less the last thing condemned criminals would see. I was rather shocked by the sort-of game where you had to decide whether or not someone should receive the death penalty for various crimes, and then lift the flaps to see what other people answered (although most of the flaps were broken, so I could see their responses from the start) because most of the respondents were very very pro-death penalty, and since Britain abolished the death penalty in 1965, I didn’t realise so many people still felt this way. Yikes. Then again, it wasn’t clear who was surveyed or when the survey was done – the board kind of looked old enough to have been there since the ’60s!
There was also a small area on a famous dance hall in Glasgow, a few bits about visiting the seaside, and a section in the back about going to the “Steamie,” which was the Glaswegian term for the public washhouses (and not, as I thought, a bizarre sexual act along the lines of a Cleveland Steamer), and was where woman would meet to do their laundry and, most importantly, gossip. There was also a little bit of information about the World Wars (I liked the display that followed the story of a Glasgow couple who lived through the First World War, as their letters to each other were rather sweet, and the husband’s life was saved by a drill book he took from a German soldier as a souvenir, which was on display here), and a re-creation of an old dairy, although you couldn’t actually touch anything inside, and there were no authentic smells or anything, so it wasn’t really that exciting.
The appearance of this floor was very child-friendly, which was initially a bit off-putting, as I wasn’t sure whether we had accidentally wandered into the children’s section. The whole museum was like this though, so I’m pretty sure it was meant to be open to everyone. Aside from this, things did look a little bit run-down and in need of an update – some of the interactive bits had flaps broken off, as I mentioned earlier, and the signage looked a little grubby in places.
The second floor was similarly a little bit tired looking, though some of the displays appeared to be done more recently than the ones downstairs. One of the galleries was completely empty, but another contained information about political life in Glasgow, including labour movements and the like, and a handful of artefacts. The other gallery was about everyday life for Glaswegians, with small re-creations of a bathroom and teeny flat (which actually looked quite cosy if you had it to yourself, rather than sharing it with like ten people like most people had to (there was a report about 15 people living in a 6 metre square room in Victorian times). I mean, the bed was in a little nook, and you had your chamber pot right there, so you didn’t even have to get up if you didn’t want to). Glasgow had the highest population density of any city in Victorian Britain (worse than London’s even), and many people were forced to live in slums and appalling conditions.
On a cheerier note, there was also information about things people did for fun, like clothes, magazines, and music, and there was even an example of a best-selling product from Ann Summers in the 1990s – an alligator “pouch” for men. I also really enjoyed the little dollhouse showing the ways buildings were divided up into flats throughout the 20th century, though I wish it wasn’t quite so difficult to see inside.
Once we headed back downstairs, we had to wander over to the Winter Gardens, which we had already had a lovely view of from various places inside the museum. It is a large glasshouse tacked onto the side of the museum where people can presumably sit in the winter and enjoy loads of lovely plants. There is a cafe in there, but we had earlier purchased some doughnuts from Tantrum Doughnuts that we sat down on a bench to eat (a bit too bready for my tastes, but most British doughnuts are), and it was warm and fairly peaceful (or it would have been if not for all the children running through). I also loved the Shakespeare tiles lining the bathrooms!
The People’s Palace has a lot of potential, I think, but most of the displays just felt tired, and I think a social history museum needs more in it, as it only covered very specific aspects of Glasgow history, rather than presenting an overview of the city’s history and its people, which, as someone who had never been to Glasgow before, I would have preferred. However, I have learned in the course of researching this post that the Winter Gardens are set to close indefinitely at the end of this year for major renovations, and potentially the People’s Palace with them, unless they can find a way to make structural repairs independently to each structure. So I’ll give it 2.5/5 in its current state, but changes are clearly afoot, hopefully for the better, but knowing how these things work, I won’t get my hopes up (and do check first if you want to visit from January 2019 onward, since it appears they may not even be open!). Even though I didn’t love this museum, I do hope it is able to remain a museum in the future, because museums are so vital to the culture of a city, and it would be a shame to lose this one entirely.
In honour of our 10th anniversary, which was in late November, and in keeping with our tradition with heading up north for anniversaries (mainly because I’m not keen on staying in the countryside (too much walking!) and there isn’t much else south of London besides the coast, which is definitely not a good idea in the winter), Marcus and I decided to spend a long weekend in Glasgow, as neither of us had ever been. This not only gave me an opportunity to meet Anabel from the Glasgow Gallivanter in person (photos in a future post) and eat deep fried Mars bars and a stupid amount of Tunnock’s Caramel Logs, it also finally allowed me to visit the Glasgow Hunterian, something I’ve been wanting to do for years.
“Living with Buildings” is the Wellcome Collection’s latest offering, which runs until 3 March 2019, and I popped along to see it a few weeks ago since I was in the neighbourhood anyway for “Anglo Saxon Kingdoms.” I’m not sure if the Wellcome could have picked a more boring name for this exhibition if they’d tried (at least for those of us who aren’t really into architecture), but I was hoping the content would prove better than the lacklustre name. Even the exhibition description was fairly vague, being simply that it was about how buildings affect our mental and physical health.
The exhibition is located in the Wellcome’s main gallery on the ground floor and is free, as their exhibitions always are, and doesn’t allow photographs, as their exhibitions mostly don’t. We were there a little bit later in the day than usual, which I think was a good time to visit as the crowds were much less than what they would have been at lunchtime (or people were just staying away because of the dull name). The exhibition opened with Charles Booth’s famous poverty maps of London (made in 1886-1903) showing the relative wealth of each street of London based on Booth’s interviews with its inhabitants (he’s pretty judgy too, as the poorest people were listed as “vicious, semi-criminal”), which are always interesting, even though I’ve seen them many times before.
This was one of the Wellcome’s more open layouts, and though there were a few little nooks and recesses, everything was basically in one large gallery. The exhibition appeared to be arranged more by topic than chronologically, and covered subject matter from the Victorian era, when people began to suspect that living in smoky, polluted cities might not be great for one’s health, to the Grenfell Tower fire just last year.
One of the nooks was about the rise of the “garden city” in the late Victorian era, which began when some of the more, shall we say, benevolent employers founded model villages for their employees to live in. I get that the intention behind it was mostly good – giving the employees a clean environment to live in away from the pollution of the cities, which also reduced their commute and gave them access to opportunities for recreation and self-improvement, but personally I find something a little creepy about it. I like the people I work with, but I don’t particularly want to live next door to them (you would never be able to weasel out of work functions, since they would know exactly where you were), and I sure as hell don’t want my boss overseeing what I do in my spare time. The Cadbury brothers, the founders of Bournville, even had a pamphlet published with rules for their employees to live by, going so far as to tell them how to sleep (single beds only) and how to breathe, which is dreadful (but I’m fine with the emphasis on cleanliness, given that these people were making chocolate)! Some of the posters in this section (reminiscent of old Tube posters – they may have been designed by the same people) did make the garden cities look awful tempting though (if you could ignore all the paternalistic garbage)! Even Henry Wellcome, founder of the Wellcome Collection, tried to get in on the action by designing Wellcomeville, a city that would have been built around a pharmaceutical factory and research laboratory, but it fell through in the end, and the research facility was just a stand-alone building in Bloomsbury.
There were quite a few films in here featuring what appeared to be interviews with inhabitants of various tower blocks, but the only one I actually sat down and watched was Catherine Yass’s film “Royal London,” showing the demolition of the old hospital. I could only watch a small part of it though, as the camera kept spiralling up and down staircases, and I started feeling a bit motion sick. I was glad to step outside of the film room and examine the huge scale model of a hospital from the 1930s, which was used to raise money for King Edward’s Hospital Fund (it was named after Edward VII, and carried on long after his reign (it actually still exists today under the name King’s Fund), rather than being a short-lived scheme of Edward VIII. I think Edward 8 was probably too busy canoodling with Wallis Simpson to have time for causes, though I suppose the same could be said of Eddy 7 and his many, many mistresses). Queen Mary donated some lace handkerchiefs which were used to make bedspreads for two of the miniature beds, but I can’t help but think that a donation of actual money would have been much more useful (I seem to recall that Mary was notoriously cheap). The hospital scale model sure was neat though; it had little doll versions of patients, doctors, and nurses occupying the miniature hospital rooms, and even a tiny x-ray machine and humorous murals decorating the hospital walls. I’d take that over a dollhouse any day!
Some other things I found interesting were the information about the rise of tower blocks, which were meant to be the wondrous self-contained living of the future, only for the shops within to either never open or fail and the buildings to become dilapidated due to shoddy construction and attract criminal activity; the posters for the Finsbury Health Centre contrasting clean modern living with dirty unhealthy old Britain (released during the war, these were actually banned by Churchill because he thought it was both an insult to pre-war Britain, and it would damage morale if people realised they were living under shitty conditions); and particularly the cartoons showing the differences between old dust-trap buildings, and new, presumably tidier ones (I totally look like the guy in the before version, who sat at work all day with his hand on his head because he had a headache from breathing in the noxious, unventilated fumes. Considering I work in a building that was built in 1904, has bars on the windows, and is rife with asbestos, it’s really not so surprising I get headaches almost every time I’m there).
And, in a depressing denouement, the exhibition showed how all these “brilliant” ideas from the 20th century about building for the future have mostly been a failure, and resulted in downright tragedy in the case of Grenfell Tower. There was a particularly chilling letter written by a tenants’ activist group a year or two before the fire expressing concerns about the new cladding and the fire safety procedures that instructed tenants to remain in their flats in case of fire, which they warned could lead to disaster, as indeed they did. Even the examples of the new developments in creating light and airy environments for hospital patients, which were plopped right before the exit and I think were meant to cheer us up a bit after the Grenfell stuff, were still a bit grim architecturally, though I suspect I am just really not a fan of modern architecture.
I thought the exhibition was certainly more interesting than its name had led me to believe, but was mostly just rather depressing (except for the above cartoon, which genuinely made me laugh out loud), as it appears that we still haven’t found a good solution to the problems of city living. I’m pretty sure almost no one wants to live in a tower block, but houses are completely unaffordable in London for all but the very wealthy, so until someone comes up with a better solution, that is the sad reality of the situation. I’ll give “Living with Buildings” 3/5, since it wasn’t quite as large as I was expecting, and was really rather dispiriting, though I guess I can’t entirely blame the Wellcome for the latter issue.
The temporary exhibition on the first floor of the Wellcome Collection has also changed over, and is no longer the delightfully creepy “Teeth,” but is instead a companion exhibit to “Living with Buildings” called “Global Clinic.” And that’s literally what it was – a new, mobile clinic design set up inside the gallery space, which will be deployed somewhere in need of an emergency clinic once the exhibition has ended. It is meant to be an improvement on tents and shipping containers, which are currently mostly what are used in disaster situations, and it certainly looked respectively more stable and lighter than those options. However, without the accoutrements of a clinic set up inside, it was literally just looking at a building structure, which was not terribly exciting. There were a few toy designs by students that were intended for use in developing countries in one corner of the gallery, and these were slightly more engaging, though not as much as they could have been if you were actually allowed to play with them. I think the Global Clinic is a good idea, but it’s not necessarily something that needed to physically be here, since although it is an eye-catching structure, seeing it in person wasn’t significantly more interesting than just reading about it. If you’re short on time, I think it’s certainly safe to just breeze right through it or give it a miss entirely! 1.5/5.
The museum I work for is very keen on Anglo-Saxons (they’re one of the few things our borough is known for. Well, that, and Korean food), so even though Saxon Britain is not one of my favourite periods of history, I’ve been looking for opportunities to learn more about it. (And I am VERY partial to our wax figure of Athelstan, who I’ve started dressing up for various holidays, though that has more to do with the fact that he’s a wax figure than any specific traits of the real King Athelstan, who seems to have been fairly pious and boring.) So it was with some interest that I headed to the British Library’s latest exhibition: “Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War” which runs until 19th February 2019.
Like many people, I think, I am fascinated by the lives and barbaric deaths of Nicholas II, Alexandra, and their children. As I think I’ve said before, I even signed up for a Russian history class as an undergrad on the assumption that we would discuss the tsars, only to be disappointed when it was nothing but communism, communism, communism (I mean, communism is interesting too, but if that’s all you want to talk about, you should maybe call the class Soviet History instead to at least give people a clue. Not that I’m still salty about that C or anything…). So I was pretty excited about the Science Museum’s new temporary exhibition “The Last Tsar: Blood and Revolution,” which also promised to contain a good dose of medical history, one of my favourite things. Admission to the exhibition is free, but you must book a ticket, which we found easy enough to do online on the day of the exhibition, shortly before we arrived. Normally I like to visit exhibitions in early-mid afternoon so I can avoid being caught in rush hour on the Tube on the way back, but on this particular afternoon, we were planning on going out to dinner after visiting the museum, so we booked the last slot of the day, at 4 (the museum closes at 6), and found the downstairs galleries of the museum virtually deserted, which was a rare treat. There were a handful of people in the exhibition, but I’m sure it was nothing like as crowded as it would have been during the day. Unfortunately, photography was not allowed, so I’ll post pictures of the objects I can find, and you’ll have to use your imagination for the rest.
We made it into Brugge (Bruges) the day after visiting the Ardennes, and though there were any number of museums we could have visited (I was hoping to return to St. Jan’s Hospital Museum, which I haven’t been to since long before my blogging days. It is a former plague hospital!), we instead ended up on the Halve Maan (Half Moon) Brewery tour. I had been on this before (the same trip where I visited St. Jan’s), but not for over a decade, and frankly, I didn’t remember much from the original tour other than the free beer at the end. Tours in English take place every hour on the hour for €10, including a beer, and we managed to get there just as one was starting (I’d imagine, judging by how crowded ours was in the off-season, that they do fill up from time to time, so may be worth pre-booking if you’re more organised than we were).
Even if I had remembered the first tour better, it was still worth going again, because a lot has changed since 2007. They have doubled their production, which created the need for a new bottling facility (everything used to be made under one roof) outside of town, which in turn created the need for a pipeline to get the beer to the bottling facility (at first, they were using trucks, which is obviously cumbersome and not the most eco-friendly way), which was opened in 2016. It stretches 3.2 km underground, and Halve Maan are clearly quite proud of it, as it was the focus of much of the tour. The pipeline actually consists of four interior pipes, two for beer, and two for water, so they can clean out the beer pipes by pumping water through, and can track a leak to within a metre of where it occurs, which is pretty impressive for something that long!
An important thing to know about the tour is that it has a lot of steps. We were warned before starting that there were 220 steps over the course of the tour (not all going up, fortunately), and some of the steps were so shallow that we were advised to go down backwards, which is far from my favourite thing, but I managed. The benefit of going to the top of the brewery was that it offered excellent views of Brugge, so we had no need to climb Belfort, which had the most awful steps (as I learned on our last visit to Brugge) – however, it was also incredibly windy, which was less ideal. I was very glad to re-enter the warm brewery.
In addition to learning about Halve Maan’s beer (which only comes in a few traditional varieties – the blonde is the one you get to taste at the end of the tour), we also learned a lot about the history of the company and about the history of brewing in the city, which to me was the most interesting part. Up until the 1950s, Belgians used to have beer delivered straight to their homes, first by horse-drawn cart, and later by trucks, and the beer industry in Brugge thrived. However, when supermarkets moved into the city, they began to drive small family breweries out of business, and now only a handful, including Halve Maan, remain. In an attempt to diversify before they were driven out of business, some of the breweries began manufacturing soda as well, which frankly is more appealing to me than beer! Halve Maan made a lemonade (I assume 7-Up style rather than still lemonade), but it was discontinued in the ’70s, much to my disappointment.
As I mentioned earlier, the entire brewing process used to take place under one roof, which is why the building has ended up with so many different levels, each of which used to be dedicated to a different stage of brewing. Until the 1950s, they even roasted their own malt, which was done in a room with grating on the flooring, to allow the heat from a fire several stories below to penetrate. It got crazy hot in here when the fire was going, so men would only be able to spend a minute or two at a time stirring the grain before they risked passing out (and speaking from experience, breweries are pretty damn hot in general. I worked in one during a heat wave, and it regularly topped 40 C in there, which is no picnic, and that was just from the heat of the kettle and pasteurising tubs). There was also a special room with a copper floor that the wort was pumped into to cool down to around 20 C before yeast was added.
Our guide also told us about the patron saint of brewing, St. Arnold, who actually became a saint because he encouraged people during a plague epidemic to drink beer rather than water, because it was safer (frankly, I don’t see what that would have done against plague, which is not waterborne, but it’s certainly good advice against cholera and intestinal parasites. I think they meant plague in the sense of epidemic disease, rather than bubonic plague specifically). A comfortable retirement as a monastic brewer seems like a solid way to get sainthood – far better than being martyred! St. Arnold is commemorated with a statue inside the brewery and in the tap room, which was of course our last stop, where we claimed our free beer. I’m not a huge fan of non-fruit beers, but Halve Maan do produce a very consistent, drinkable product, and you can’t beat their logo! The brewery was so named because the brewery originally on this site was called the Moon, and when Henri Maes took over in 1856, he decided that by calling it Halve Maan, he could include his initials and pay tribute to the brewers that had gone before (the Maes family still own the brewery). I do love a moon (I’ve currently got four tattooed on me!), so of course we picked up a poster, even though as I’ve said multiple times, I really don’t have room for more wall art.
Most of the rest of our time in Belgium was taken up by drinking beer, eating chocolate and waffles (and frites, sans mayonnaise), and hanging out in our unexpectedly amazing hotel room (it had two bathrooms and was bigger than my flat!), though I did force my brother to a WWI site in the form of Passchendaele 1917 Museum, which I visited on my last trip to Belgium. I won’t be blogging about it again, as it is roughly the same and still very entertaining (and moving. It’s impressive that they manage to achieve both aims), but they did add a temporary exhibition in an outbuilding on America’s entry into WWI, which I found quite interesting (the exhibition was all in Flemish, but they had free exhibition guidebooks in English). We also dropped by Tyne Cot again, since it is right by Passchendaele, and that too was incredibly sad, as always, but very worth a visit. We ended our Belgian sojourn in Brussels, where we took my brother to Delirium Cafe, enjoyed waffles near the Grand-Place, and almost missed the Eurostar back after waiting in an incredibly long queue only to get to the front and be told we shouldn’t have been waiting in the queue after all (there were no signs anywhere to indicate this. I checked), but we made it in the end. I also discovered this amazing village called Beselare en route to Brussels, where everything was witch-themed (including the Sand-Witch shop). We sadly didn’t have time to stop, but I googled it after and they apparently host a witch parade every year, so I will probably be back for that or the next Kattenstoet (2021) before long!