Author: Jessica (Diverting Journeys)

I like visiting weird museums, and other intriguing places, especially ones that feature my rather niche interests, like wax figures, taxidermy, and historic odours. My blog revolves around my going to these odd attractions, and then reviewing them (a pretty straightforward concept, I know. Also, I like parentheses, and writing little "asides" like this, so there's a lot of them on the blog!). If this sounds even remotely appealing (yep, I'm awesome at self-promotion), then please give it a read!

Columbus, OH: Wexner Center and the Billy Ireland Cartoon Museum (Again!)

Every so often, I have one of those posts that is basically just a long angry rant about how much I hate something, and I’m afraid this is going to be one of them. I went back to Cleveland for Christmas, as is my custom, and my mother bought us a night at the BrewDog hotel in Columbus as an early Christmas present (for Marcus, I hasten to add). We drove down early that day so we would have time to see a couple of museums before meeting up with my uncle and his partner for dinner and drinks in the evening (we weren’t going to have time to do anything the next day as we had to drive back right after checkout so I could meet Hanson that afternoon!!), and one of the museums I chose to see, solely because I hadn’t been there before and it was in a convenient location, was the Wexner Center for the Arts, located on OSU’s massive campus. I think the Wex is also a venue for film screenings and performances, but the museum is what I visited, so that is what my ire is directed towards.

I knew we were off to a bad start when we were charged $9 each for admission, despite the website clearly stating it was $8. I didn’t question it because the woman at the admissions desk wasn’t very friendly, but I wasn’t happy. The exhibition at the time of my visit was HERE: Ann Hamilton, Jenny Holzer, Maya Lin and I foolishly assumed that HERE was merely the temporary exhibition, and there were other, permanent exhibitions. Nope, HERE is all that was THERE. The exhibition consisted solely of two rooms with words written on the walls, a room full of marbles, and another room full of tables of copies of images from OSU’s archives that you were meant to tear off and mail to yourself or a friend (it wasn’t clear if postage would actually be provided, and also this was a huge waste of paper). I was annoyed enough at having paid $9 for something that took all of ten minutes to see, but I was about to get even more annoyed.

Do you see all those marbles in the picture above left? They were all glued to the floor in some formation that was meant to look like rivers or some shit, which I guess was kind of cool, but they were just standard glass marbles of no real value, plus they were affixed to the floor, so were unlikely to be disturbed by footfall. Well, I walked to the end of the exhibition and tried to leave by stepping over the marbles at their narrowest point, which was only a few inches wide, because there was no other obvious exit. A guard ran up and started yelling at me and forced me to walk all the way around the exhibition to get out. She was accompanied by not one, but two other guards, all seemingly employed solely to guard the marbles. Although I didn’t say anything at the time, aside from a remark to Marcus about not disturbing the precious marbles, this is where I got angry. Leaving aside the fact that the exhibition probably shouldn’t have led you up on the wrong side of the marbles if you weren’t meant to step over them, or at least have a sign saying as much, I just can’t get over how many security guards this museum had working there to guard what was essentially a valueless artwork.

I don’t talk that much about the museum where I work for various reasons, and I’ve agonised over posting this, but I need to be honest about the realities of working in heritage for myself, my colleagues, and doubtless scores of other people throughout the UK. To say circumstances are not ideal is an understatement. Most of us spend years volunteering before we manage to land what will inevitably be a low-paying job not commensurate with our levels of education (and generally the bigger the museum is, the less they pay because people will settle for anything just for a chance to work there). And once we get that job, we put up with so much crap because we’re relieved that we have paying jobs at last – in my case, working in an office with horrible strip lighting that literally gives me a migraine every time I turn it on, so I have to work in the dark; getting verbally abused by mentally unstable visitors; having to stop what I’m doing fifty million times a day to direct people to the toilets that are just beyond my office (yes, we have many signs pointing the way, but people don’t look at them, and no, I’m not allowed to close my office door, so any member of the public can just walk right in at any time and demand things, yell at me, or make creepy comments); and despite the existence of the public toilets, sometimes even cleaning up after people who puke, pee, or shit inside the museum because our cleaner only comes once a week and we can’t just leave it there (I’m talking drunk adults doing these things, not children). I could say more, but I think it’s better if I don’t publicly post the rest. Now, I have been working in customer service in one way or another since I was 16 (not by choice, but I can’t seem to get a job that doesn’t involve it), so these are more or less all things I’ve had to deal with at some point in the past, as has probably anyone else who works with the public, but when I worked in retail and events, I at least knew there were always security staff on the premises if I needed help. At the museum, we are an entirely female team with no security staff, so we have to deal with any incidents ourselves. We don’t even have front of house staff – our welcome desk is entirely volunteer-run, by one volunteer at a time, and as their manager, I do my best to deal with any issues myself so they don’t have to, which means that even though I technically have an office job, I spend a lot of time in front of house dealing with any problems that occur. And despite all of this, I know I’m lucky to even have the job at all, since more budget cuts are imminent, and the future of the museum is currently very uncertain. So when I look at my working environment, and then I look at a museum that can charge $9 so they can employ three people to guard marbles, I get angry. And then I write a long rant like this one.

I’m going to end that rant there (even though I could go on for longer) but suffice it to say I definitely will not be returning to the Wexner! 0/5. Fortunately, my old favourite, the Billy Ireland Cartoon Museum, was there to save the day, as it is located in the building right next to the Wexner. Not only is it a free museum, but their temporary exhibitions at the time of my visit were very much up my alley. These were Drawn to Presidents: Portraits and Satiric Drawings by Drew Friedman and Ladies First: A Century of Women’s Innovations in Comics and Cartoon Art.

Any longtime readers will know how much I love presidential history, and I also love political cartoons when done well, and Friedman’s were pretty great. Not only did he draw a portrait of each president for his book All the Presidents (I didn’t buy it because it is literally just pictures of all the presidents) which all managed to be accurate yet hideously unflattering, he also drew cartoons for MAD, SPY, TIME, et al, and many of those were in the exhibitions as well as a whole section devoted to each of the presidents from Reagan through to the current President Fart (as I like to call him). I loved this.


I also liked the exhibition on female cartoonists, with works ranging from late 19th century cartoons advocating women’s suffrage to modern graphic novels, and everything in between. Many of them were funny, but there were also some thought-provoking and emotional cartoons, including one about a woman discovering the story of her older sister, who died when the cartoonist was a baby from a scalding accident, and how it affected her mother. I’m not going to go into too much detail on the Cartoon Museum because I’ve blogged about it a couple of times before and I’ve already made this post quite long by including that rant, but it is a fabulous little museum and I highly recommend visiting (and ignoring its neighbouring museum). The current exhibitions are great, but I’ve honestly never seen anything here that’s been a dud.


York: Yorkshire Museum

The Yorkshire Museum wasn’t on my must-visit list, but we ended up going to see it anyway because we had to kill some time before our train on our last day in York. Along with York Castle Museum and York Art Gallery it is part of the York Museums Trust, so if you plan on visiting all three, it is probably worth getting the YMT card to save a bit of money, but we got free admission to the Yorkshire Museum with our National Art Pass anyway, so we didn’t bother (admission is otherwise £8).


The Yorkshire Museum has three main sections: Jurassic World, Roman York, and Medieval York (I guess you need to visit the York Castle Museum and Jorvik Viking Centre as well to get a more comprehensive version of York’s history), and we started with Jurassic World, which was a fairly standard dinosaur gallery with a few touchy bits, as you can see above. This is apparently a temporary but “long-term” exhibition, and we had seen it advertised all over town, with the tagline, “Now Open!” but aside from a VR dinosaur-feeding game (I desperately wanted to play, but it wasn’t clear whether we could without staff supervision, and there was no staff to be found), nothing here felt particularly state of the art. It was more the kind of thing you’d find in any local history museum with a decent-sized prehistoric section.


We quickly moved on to Roman York, which was a more extensive series of galleries that took up the rest of the ground floor. I was initially apprehensive about entering the museum because of the large group of school children just outside armed with wooden swords and shields who seemed to be making an awful lot of noise, and it was in Roman York that we encountered them. The museum I work at only has school groups in on days the museum is closed to the public to avoid situations like this one, and larger museums with dedicated education rooms tend to steer school groups mainly to those, but I guess in a museum that is open to the public every weekday but without extensive special facilities, they have no choice but to stick school kids in with the general public. Honestly, it would have been fine if they hadn’t been so damn loud, but they were! They also just barged in front of us as we were trying to look at things, including the skeleton above. Some kid kept telling his friends it was the skeleton of a gladiator despite the case clearly stating it was a woman. You’d think eight year olds would be able to at least read the word “woman,” but apparently not these ones, and no one was bothering to correct them.


In an effort to get away from them, we basically skipped the last room of Roman York, and headed downstairs for Medieval York (where we were granted an all too brief reprieve before they followed, but at least it was a reprieve). This was definitely the best of the main galleries, and was a bit more Viking and early medieval than late Middle Ages (which is the period I know more about), so it was nice to see some unusual artefacts and learn more about this period in York’s history.


Even though there were some lovely things on display, like the York Helmet, one of only three intact Anglian helmets found in Britain, and lots of hilarious stained glass cross-eyed kings, my favourite things were definitely the signs for children containing historical facts illustrated with funny cartoons, like the one above (I think it’s probably just a coincidence that he looks a bit like a thin Trump, though the bumbling idiocy and complete lack of consideration for other people seems to fit)!


I also liked the fun game (one of the few interactive things in this museum not solely aimed at children) where you could determine how Viking you were based on your interests. The Viking in the game actually looked a bit like Marcus, so I wasn’t surprised that he was 30% more Viking than I am (in terms of actual ancestry, I don’t think either of us are particularly Viking, since neither of us has any Scandinavian ancestry. At least none we know about).


The final section of the museum that we saw was probably Marcus’s favourite part, as it contained “The Map that Changed the World,” a 200 year old geological map drawn by the “father of English geology” William “Strata” Smith (good nickname). The label said that the map was covered by a roller blind, but as you can see, it was just sitting out in the open during our visit, though there was another map with a cloth over the top that you were allowed to lift to look at it. Not being a geology enthusiast, my favourite part was the poor taxidermed bear in one corner of the library.


Although it contained some interesting things, I don’t think I would have bothered seeing this museum if hadn’t got in for free. It wasn’t anything out of the ordinary from the average local history museum (though it is undoubtedly bigger than many, including the one I work at), and although I fully understand the importance of museum visits for the younger generations, the school children were quite loud and disruptive and I think they probably could have been encouraged to walk through the museum in a more orderly manner. 2.5/5 for the Yorkshire Museum, but our visit to York overall (intruder in our hotel room notwithstanding) was lovely. I’m definitely a fan of the potato scallop, which we don’t see down south (just a battered slice of potato – the veggie alternative to fish, at least at places too old school to have battered halloumi or tofu) and the cheap cheap Northern prices (60p for a giant potato scallop and free scraps? Yes please!) so I will undoubtedly return!

York: York Castle Museum

I have a tendency to overdo it on holiday and visit way too many museums to the point where I end up completely exhausted. I was trying very hard not to do that this time and instead limit myself to one museum per day, but we seriously only spent half an hour at the Jorvik Viking Centre (and that was with riding the ride twice!), so I thought another museum wouldn’t hurt, particularly a fun one. And York Castle Museum seemed like it definitely fit the bill. A museum with a street of yesteryear, Victorian prison, and an exhibition from the Museum of Broken Relationships?! Yes, please!


But all that fun comes at a price. £12 to be exact, or £10.90 without Gift Aid. Actually, because we visited on a weekend during their Dickensian Christmas event, we paid even more than that – £13.90. Though if you’re not visiting with kids who want to see Santa, I think you can safely skip the weekends. I didn’t see anything magically Christmassy enough to justify the higher price (the decorations stay up for the whole Christmas season, it’s just the Dickens characters and Santa that are only there on a weekend). But this is probably making me seem a bit down on the museum, which was far from the case.


Contrary to what you might think from the name (naturally enough), the museum is not actually built in a castle, but is located in an old gaol on the site of what once was York Castle (there is still a castle-looking structure, called Clifford’s Tower, nearby). It was built by a Dr. John Kirk who sounded like a typical eccentric Victorian(ish) collector and wanted somewhere to house his collection and showcase the traditional ways of Yorkshire life. Apparently the museum was the first of its kind in Britain with everything designed to best showcase the objects in his collection, including the creation of a Victorian street named Kirkgate after its founder. I mean, frankly, the man sounds like a delight (except for the whole preserving traditional ways thing, which sounds a bit UKIPy for my tastes, though maybe he didn’t mean it in that way), and his museum still basically is.


We started by going up a walkway that had a brief timeline of York history and then looked at a few mock-ups of rooms throughout history, and an excellent collection of Staffordshire Dick Turpin figurines. This led into the “Toy Stories” gallery, which contained old, creepy, and sadly, even racist (blackface performing dolls) toys. Fortunately, I saw this gallery shortly before we saw the stage version of Mary Poppins in the West End (I’m like a super fan of Charlie Stemp, who plays Bert), because the musical has these giant creepy toys that come to life, and I would definitely had been more freaked out by these toys had I seen the play first. The toys segued into “Shaping the Body”, which was a collection of historic clothing arranged roughly chronologically. Most notable were the pieces of clothing belonging to corpulent monarchs. Above you can see Victoria’s dress, and George IV’s shirt. Everyone mocks George IV for being fat, of course, particularly cartoonists like Gillray, but jeez, judging by that dress, Victoria was even bigger! The woman was practically a cube (I know fat-shaming isn’t nice, but Victoria was so horrible she has it coming)! They also had a few dress-up stations, and I was dying to do it, but the clothes were very definitely child-sized, and there were too many people about, so I chickened out.


Next was Kirkgate, the ye olde street. And it was a good one! The Dickensian Christmas element seemed to be people dressed up as characters from his novels, though I’m not familiar enough with most of Dickens’ oeuvre to have recognised them by sight. There was also a magician, but I think he probably sensed my distaste for activities that involve audience participation, because he kept his magic to himself. There was even a sweet shop where you could actually buy sweets, but as the prices were quite high and they didn’t have soor plums (no reason they would, they’re a Scottish thing. I just really like them) we gave it a miss. I did, of course, pretend to try out the outhouse though, and managed a particularly unpleasant fake pooping face.


After Kirkgate, we ended up back where we came in and had to cut through the shop to see the other half of the museum (kind of like the Museum of Oslo). This was just as large as the first half of the museum, and began with a WWI gallery. Similar to other museums I know and love (Thackray Museum), York Castle Museum gives you a list of real people who were alive at the time, and has you pick one to follow through the war and find out at the end whether you had survived. I picked a guy called Albert, both because I like the name, and his symbol was a plane, so I figured I would get to do some flying, though I think he was primarily a aircraft mechanic.


I don’t think there was enough follow-up with this because I only caught a few updates on Albert throughout the display (he did survive the war, but not for terribly long after) but the rest of the exhibition was pretty good. I liked the fake head on a stick that resembled the actual ones stuck over the parapet of the trenches to try to trick the enemy into firing to reveal their position. Like so many other WWI projects, this was HLF funded, and so it had a similar feel to other exhibitions I’ve seen in terms of interactivity and concept.


Next came the exhibition by the Museum of Broken Relationships, which I’ve been meaning to see if I ever make it to Croatia. I assume this was only a sampling of what’s there because there were only maybe 50 objects on show. If you’re not familiar with the concept, people who have been in relationships that have ended have donated objects representing those relationships and written a short piece on the relationship and how it ended. These could be terribly poignant (the one written by a man whose wife had died from cancer), but also quite funny (a fake penis with piercings that represented the piercings of a guy who got them without asking his partner). There were objects that had been donated specially for this exhibition by people from Yorkshire, and a display on Brexit to represent the breakdown of Britain’s relationship with the EU. Based on what I saw here, I don’t know if I would schedule a trip to Zagreb solely for this museum, but it was interesting to read people’s stories of heartbreak.


We were then directed outside where we saw the site of the old gallows (though you couldn’t climb them) and the stocks (these you could use, as you can see at the bottom of the post). There was a sign pointing to something called the Rainham Mill, but I wasn’t totally sure if it was part of the museum (and also it was cold and rainy) so we didn’t go. Turns out it is part of the museum, and is a Victorian watermill, so don’t be like me – check it out if you visit!


Finally, there was a gallery on the 1960s (disappointing because there were no dress-up opportunities), and the old prison cells! These were actually a bit scary because it was very dark, and there were video projections based on real prisoners that would only show up after you’d walked into the cell. The best one (and worst one, I guess) was a cell where nine people had suffocated one night, which was absolutely pitch black and had sounds of people struggling to breathe. After you had made your way all the way into the room, green writing suddenly popped up on one wall about the people who died. Scary but sad! There were also cells dedicated to famous prisoners, including Dick Turpin, and a room with an audio recording of poetry written by prisoners.


This museum was actually loads of fun, enough to probably justify the high entrance fee, as we spent ages here and could have spent even more time had we seen the mill. As it was, we were tired and hungry, so headed straight over to Betty’s for tea, which is basically obligatory for all visitors to York (I do wish they offered a non-fruited plain scone, but I did enjoy my fruit-free rarebit scone and my very buttery caramel and walnut tart with ice cream. And lots of Earl Grey. Probably too much in fact, as I was peeing every ten minutes for the rest of the night). 4/5 for York Castle Museum, I think. Pricey, but just about worth it (certainly more so than Jorvik Viking Centre)!

York: Jorvik Viking Centre

The Jorvik Viking Centre was the only museum in York that I remember seeing on my first trip there (frankly, I’m not sure what we did the rest of the time, other than eat fudge), and given that I had it listed as one of my Favourite Places for quite a while, I was keen to return. But also a bit apprehensive, as they had apparently undergone a major redevelopment since my first visit, and typically that means a change for the worse. Apologies for the poor photos throughout this post, as the whole bloody museum was too dark.


Admission is £12.50 for adults, and they recommend booking a Fast Pass in advance, which is an extra £1. We did this, but if you’re visiting at an off time, it really isn’t necessary. We were there on a Sunday morning, which was pretty dead, but weekdays look to be very busy, so it might be worth getting the Fast Pass if that’s the only time you can visit. All this talk of Fast Passes probably makes it sound a bit like an amusement park, and well, it does have a ride, which is the reason I loved it so much on my first visit. Upon entering, you go into a gallery that has the ruins of a Viking house under the floor, with a guy dressed as a Viking giving a short talk about it. The Vikings invaded York in 866 CE and renamed the city Jorvik, and then proceeded to settle and live there for over a century, though the people who settled there were not the warriors most people picture when they hear the word Viking, but were ordinary farmers and craftspeople (of which more shortly). This first gallery also had a fairly fun interactive game where you could virtually dig up an artefact and then choose the best way to clean and preserve it.


After playing the game, we headed straight for the thing I was most looking forward to: the ride! Now, this is a very sedate ride, so if like me, you suffer from motion sickness, there’s no need to worry! I would say it’s most akin to one of the more boring rides in EPCOT where you sit in a vehicle of the future learning about the year 2000 from the perspective of people in 1970. You climb into a little car thing (they have two rows of seats, and you’ll be seated next to whomever you come with, so you don’t have to worry about sitting next to a random person (I assume if you come alone, you get a bench to yourself)). There might be strangers in the other row of seats, but because they are tiered, you won’t have to really see or interact with them throughout the ride. Then you select your language (there are different English audio guides for adults and children, and having listened to them both, I would say the children’s one is much more interesting and informative), and the tour will play from speakers next to your head (I was told to mind my head on the speakers on the way in, so of course I immediately whacked my head against them. Maybe padded headrests would be a better idea?).


The car is then propelled through the Viking town of Jorvik, where you’ll meet some of its inhabitants. The children’s tour actually tells you their names and gives more of a back story, as it is told from the perspective of a child living in the town. The adult one is just a commentary describing the village, and is rather boring. The guy drones on and on and won’t shut up. Meanwhile, the inhabitants of Jorvik, who are animatronic figures, are moving around doing whatever their assigned task is (trying to pull a slave off a boat, making cups (the street the museum is on is named Coppergate because of all the cup makers. I assume cop meant cup), pooping – there’s a wide range!) and speaking Norse, which you can really only hear on the children’s tour, because the dry boring adult tour guide just blathers on without pause.


Obviously, I am all about these animatronic figures, especially the animals (there’s a dog, cats, pigs, and even rats), particularly my favourite, the pooping man (you don’t actually see him poop, you just see his upper half as he sits in an outhouse). Now, here is an example of where the tour has changed for the worse. I’m pretty sure that the first time we visited, the audio tour actually translated whatever the townspeople were saying, and when it got to the pooping man, it said something like, “Leave me alone! Can’t you see I am pooping?” Clearly this was the best thing ever, and I was dying to get to the pooper to hear it. But now, you either get boring man just talking right through it and basically ignoring pooping man, or the little kid going, “oh, he seems busy, so let’s leave him alone.” Lame! Why would you get rid of a poop joke?


Other than that disappointment, the figures seemed more or less the same, and I still enjoyed myself, so much so that after we got off the ride, we got right back on and did it again! I’m not sure if this is officially allowed, but if you follow the signs through the museum to the toilets, it takes you back to the start of the ride, and the people ahead of us also rode twice and the guy working there recognised them and seemed totally OK with it, so if they’re not busy, I don’t think they really care. This is how I was able to listen to both tours, and learned I preferred the children’s version. I would also recommend sitting in a different tier of seats if you ride twice, because we were able to see things from the front row of seats that we couldn’t from the back, and vice versa.


Having got the ride out of my system, we then proceeded through the museum, which seemed a bit more high tech than our first visit, and with a different layout, but otherwise more or less the same as I remembered. Since you’re probably not sick of hearing about poop yet, you should know that there is an actual Viking turd in the museum, and that is fortunately still proudly on show! There are also various other Viking artefacts and some skeletons, along with a brief explanation of Viking culture, but it all seems rather bland compared to the ride. I think this is their attempt to make it a serious historical attraction, but it feels half-assed at best (also all staff members have to wear Viking clothing, which makes me feel a bit bad for them. It would be fun to do it once in a while, but not every day!).


So I’m sorry to report that the ride is no longer quite the hilarious experience I fondly remembered, but it is still entertaining…as long as you opt for the children’s audio guide! I think they should give up on selling a museum that is essentially a ride with a gallery tacked on as serious history, and go back to a more whimsical audio tour, as more befits the animatronics. On my first visit, I would definitely have given it 4/5 (had I had a blog with a ratings system at the time) but now I think it’s at best 3/5. Just embrace the cheese, Jorvik!


York: National Railway Museum

Happy New Year, everyone! To carry on our anniversary tradition of going somewhere even greyer and rainier than London, Marcus and I headed up to York for a few days at the end of November. We had been there together once before in 2010, back in the dark days before I had a blog, so I thought it was well worth doing a return trip, this time with more museum visits and a nicer hotel (or so we thought, at least until the night a drunk man wandered into our room whilst we were asleep. We still don’t know how he got in, and let me tell you, suddenly waking up from a sound sleep to see a strange man in your room is no picnic, even if he came in by accident and not with malicious intent). We started with the National Railway Museum immediately after arriving, before we had even checked into our hotel, because the museum is only about a two minute walk from the train station, but it was a twenty minute walk from our hotel, and I am lazy. Fortunately, they had lockers at the museum for our bags, though be forewarned you need £3 in the exact denominations of a £2 coin and a £1 coin to use them (though the museum will give change if needed), and you won’t be getting that money back.


Bags safely stowed, we headed into the museum proper, which is free to visit (it’s part of the Science Museum group). As you might expect from a museum that houses actual trains, the building is huge. It actually straddles two halves of a road, and is split between a Great Hall, Station Hall, North Shed, South Yard, and a few other little nooks and crannies (just like an English muffin, or a toasting muffin, as I like to call them in England). Because it was nearest the lockers, we started with the Station Hall, which meant we saw the thing I most wanted to see first: Laddie, the dog who used to collect money for charity inside Waterloo Station. He is long dead, though he remained in the station for decades after he died, having been taxidermied and enclosed inside a box into which you can drop coins (I would love it if they had actually rigged up some kind of motor so he barked or something when you did, but he just stands there, inanimate), before being moved to the museum, where you can still drop coins into him. However, I preferred to save my coins for one of those machines that flattens a penny that I always end up laboriously describing because I don’t know their technical name. Well, guess what? Thanks to the machine here, now I do! It’s a Pennymangle! This is how I shall refer to these machines henceforth, and I naturally had to mangle myself a Laddie penny in their machine.


The Station Hall is also where the trains of the rich and famous are kept…well, the trains of British royalty anyway. One of my dreams is to have my own private carriage so I can travel where I need to go without having to interact with the plebs, and of course for the royal family, deeply undeserved though it is, that fantasy is a reality. Only some of them had a whole damn train’s worth of carriages rather than just one. Like Victoria, for instance, who pootled around in a very fancy set of coaches, whilst her aunt, Queen Adelaide (I kind of love the term dowager queen, even though it’s a bit insulting to queens who weren’t actually elderly when they were widowed), was only given one small carriage of her own to trail behind Victoria’s train (I assume Victoria kept the door between the cars locked so she didn’t have to associate with Adelaide). Don’t get me wrong, honestly I’d be happy with my own compartment (with private bathroom of course), but it seems a bit crap for a queen compared to what the rest of them got. Sorry about the poor picture quality of these trains, but the Station Hall was very dark.


In addition to the royal trains (Adelaide-Elizabeth II), this hall also contained historic carriages from trains for us normies, and my god, even the third class carriages were nicer than what you get nowadays in first class, at least from what I’ve seen from the outside looking in (except for maybe the lack of lights unless you brought your own with you. No wonder so many people were murdered in trains). OK, so the earliest trains sucked because you’d just have to ride in an open carriage with wooden benches, but later on you’d be riding in style, with even a third class dining car in some trains that looked well fancier than anything you’d see on the average modern train.


After we finished reliving the glory days of rail, we headed outside to the South Yard, though on a day as gloomy as the one we visited, there wasn’t much to see. There are steam train and miniature railway rides available for a fee, and there is a shed containing the Workshop, where in theory you can see museum staff working on trains, though nobody was in on a Saturday so it was just some trains with no signage. We headed back in pretty quickly and made tracks (ha) for the Great Hall.


I thought the Station Hall was pretty big, but the aptly named Great Hall was even bigger, and was also full of trains, this time arranged around a vintage turntable. You could even climb aboard some of these trains, like the Japanese Shinkansen, apparently the only one outside of Japan. I think it’s probably time I said it – apart from us, visitors seemed to fall into two categories: families with young children, and well, anoraks. Definitely a lot of trainspotting types, some of whom were actively taking notes in little notebooks. So we felt a little out of place, and had difficulty looking inside some of the trains, as the viewing platforms were dominated by small children who refused to move. It’s nice to see children enjoying a museum, but I could have done with some of them being a little less bratty. The trainspotters, however, were relatively inoffensive.


Marcus, whilst not a trainspotter, was quite excited to see the Mallard, the world’s fastest steam locomotive. As it’s not actually moving anywhere inside the museum, I’m not sure I see the appeal. Still, there were plenty of interesting things in here, even for the likes of me, especially the WWI hospital train. I’ve read about them, but had never actually gotten to go inside one, so that was definitely a neat experience. I also liked all the vintage railway posters scattered throughout the museum, even the crab one, below.


The Great Hall leads into the North Shed, which contains a section on the Flying Scotsman, and is also basically an open collections store that you can walk around. Everything is just stacked on top of everything else all higgledy-piggledy, and there was no real organisation to the collection and minimal signage, but it was worth walking around to spot some of the odder artefacts, like a vintage roll of coarse brown LNER toilet paper (we took a LNER train up, but I didn’t actually use the toilet (I avoid train toilets whenever possible, and it was only a two hour journey) so I can’t comment on the softness of its modern equivalent). And then I discovered there was a whole gallery upstairs as well, full of the detailed information about railways that had been somewhat lacking in other parts of the museum (aside from an exhibition on National Rail, the focus was mainly on the individual trains on display), including, excitingly, railway disasters! There was also a viewing platform up here where you could watch trains pulling into York Station (despite the rain, it was disturbingly crowded with keen train beans), but platform aside, this area felt a little forlorn, and wasn’t quite as dynamic and modern as the rest of the museum.


Finally, we checked out a temporary display of some of the Railway Museum’s choice memorabilia, including Stephenson’s (of Rocket fame) actual draught board and a miniature replica of a train where someone had been murdered that was used as evidence in the trial, and picked up a few postcards from the main shop (they have two shops). We didn’t visit the other temporary exhibition entitled “Brass, Steel, and Fire”, which was also free, but you had to book a ticket, and we just couldn’t be bothered (we were there for hours anyway, and we were ready to chill at the hotel for a bit), and I’m sorry to report that all of the ice cream huts at the museum were closed (probably because of the horrible weather), though there was an antique carriage that had been converted into a tea room that was open (we were waiting for Betty’s). Despite seemingly not being the museum’s target audience, and not much of a train enthusiast (I vastly prefer train travel to plane travel, but I’m not terribly interested in the trains themselves), I still managed to have a very enjoyable day, and I definitely recommend this museum to anyone visiting York, especially as it is one of the few museums here that is free (York apparently gets the most tourists in the UK outside of London, and it can be a bit of a tourist trap, though their high prices are still low compared to London). 4/5.


London: Gingerbread City @ Somerset House

Merry Christmas everyone! I’d hoped that by visiting something called Gingerbread City, I’d have a nice cheery Christmassy post for you today, but I wasn’t reckoning on what a disappointment this exhibition would be. Still, since we’re probably all settled in to some kind of Christmas food (or if you’re like me, far too many Celebrations) coma, let’s discuss it anyway.

Gingerbread City is an exhibition sponsored by the Museum of Architecture where teams of designers create buildings out of gingerbread and the money from exhibiting them goes to fund the museum (which, rather ironically for a museum about architecture, doesn’t actually have a physical location). Last year, this was at the V&A, and my friend was upset she didn’t get a chance to go (neither did I, but I wasn’t that bothered), so when we were trying to plan a festive outing, I suggested this year’s Gingerbread City, which has moved to Somerset House. Time Out and Londonist had both really been pushing it, and the pictures made it look cool, so we met up with another friend (and former colleague, who has managed to move on to a much bigger and better museum) there, parting with the hefty £9 admission fee each (no discounts available for Art Fund, Museums Association, or anything else we had between us).

Having pre-booked, since we were going at what we assumed would be a popular time after work (it didn’t end up being all that busy, which was good, because it would have been almost impossible to look around if more people were there), I was sent not one, but two emails from Somerset House telling me we had to go in the Waterloo Bridge entrance, which would be clearly signposted. Now, if you’re not familiar with Somerset House, it is absolutely massive, and there are about a gazillion entrances, including at least three that could be said to be “Waterloo Bridge entrances”. And there was no clear signage. Cue the three of us all turning up to different entrances and comically wandering around separately whilst WhatsApping the others to try to find the right one. Eventually, I spotted a miniscule sign next to a side door I’d never noticed before, instructing us to queue up for Gingerbread City (there was no queue), and was able to direct my friends with some difficulty, as they had no idea about the entrance I had stumbled on either.

The staff there were all very nice once we actually made our way inside, but as they led us into the room housing Gingerbread City, we were all immediately and distinctly underwhelmed. To begin with, it was a whole hell of a lot smaller than we were led to believe – the size of two of those big tables that people set up model railways on. Also, although Somerset House is a gorgeous building, the room Gingerbread City was in was grim! The paint was peeling off the walls, and it didn’t even seem to be heated, though that may have possibly been to preserve the gingerbread. And, although I know the house builders weren’t professional bakers, it’s a bit worrying actual architects couldn’t have designed better looking buildings than this (and it explains a lot about the hideous skyline the City is in the process of developing)! I think most of them were meant to be replicas of London buildings, with punny names (Battersea Sugar Power Station, Victoria Sponge Palace, etc), and though some, like Sugarset House above, were actually pretty good, others were just a bit of a mess, frankly (the Tate Modern (I can’t remember the pun they used, but if it wasn’t something to do with Tate & Lyle sugar, it should have been, since that’s who it’s named after anyway) looked like it was ready to topple at any second).

I also have to apologise for the poor quality of my pictures, but the lighting inside the houses made it really hard to take a good photo. The theme this year was meant to be transportation, but since literally everything in here was a building except for the actual (non-gingerbread) train running through the city, I’m not sure how that theme was reflected in the gingerbread. You were meant to vote for your favourite one at the end, but since I was generally so underwhelmed, I didn’t bother (though looking at the pictures, obviously I should have picked the Gingernut Cracker). We seriously spent about 15 minutes here, and that was with us talking the whole while and taking time to really examine the houses. No way was this worth £9, but at least we learned a valuable lesson: never go again.

Fortunately, Somerset House isn’t all Gingerbread City terrible. Although we did not want to pay to see another exhibition after this one, we did have a wander through the very posh Fortnum’s pop-up shop and tried to order delicious sounding Chocolossus hot chocolates from their pop-up café, but as it was standing room only (full of people doing the apres-skate thing from the skating rink. Somerset House has an ice skating rink before Christmas), we opted instead for the much quieter but also much less fancy normal Somerset House café, where I had a cheaper but also much less exciting (and lukewarm) hot chocolate. We did still have a nice evening, because we hadn’t all managed to get together since August and had a lot to talk about, but that was very much in spite of Gingerbread City, not because of it. It is much more Christmassy just strolling around the free bits of Somerset House and down the Strand to Trafalgar Square (though what is up with them attempting to rebrand the Strand as North Bank? It’s not bloody North Bank, it’s the Strand), and visiting some of the less busy Christmas markets in London (Winter Wonderland is to be avoided like the plague, but I’m obsessed with Meltsmiths’ spicy cheese toasties from South Bank Christmas Market, which is sort of Marcus’s and my special place because that’s where we had our first semi-date over eleven years ago). Hope this was a suitably Christmassy post despite my complaining, and that you all have a lovely Christmas!


London: “Designed in Cuba” and “Charting Black Lives” @ the House of Illustration

I recently returned to the House of Illustration for the first time since 2016 to see two new exhibitions: “Designed in Cuba: Cold War Graphics”, which runs until January 2020, and “W.E.B. Du Bois: Charting Black Lives”, which runs until March 2020.  My main complaints about the House of Illustration on my first visit (because you know I gotta have some complaints) were that it was too expensive for the size and it had a strange layout that required you to keep hold of your ticket the entire time (rather than immediately shoving it in my bag and losing it amongst the general chaos, as I usually do), because the galleries have separate entrances that lead off the shop. As the layout remains the same, and the museum has gotten even more expensive since my first visit (now £8 instead of £7), I guess those complaints stand. Fortunately, I got in for half price with National Art Pass (sorry to mention it all the time – they’re definitely not paying me or anything, as I’m fairly sure they’ve never heard of me and I have to order and pay full price for my pass like everyone else – but the discounts are what allow me to see as many exhibitions as I do), and £4 ain’t bad.


Because all exhibitions at the House of Illustration are temporary, admission covers the whole building. I started with “Designed in Cuba,” which I was intrigued to see as I’ve always been keen on Soviet art, and I wanted to see how the art produced by their communist counterparts in Cuba measured up. The pieces in this exhibition was produced by Fidel Castro’s OSPAAAL (the acronym for the unwieldy Organisation of Solidarity of the People of Asia, Africa and Latin America) in the years following the revolution and included posters and magazines, primarily Tricontinental, which was used to disseminate communist propaganda around the world.


Cuban communist art was certainly much more exuberant than the Soviet variety, mixing in elements of Cuban culture as well as multiculturalism from around the world (many of the posters were for Days of Solidarity with [insert country here], and it frankly seemed like there were more days of solidarity than days in a year!), but I’m happy to report that I liked it just as much as the Soviet stuff. There was a bit of Castro themed art but most of the work here was either celebrating other Asian, African, or Latin American countries, as one of the aims of OSPAAAL was to foster cooperation between non-Western countries; or was anti-American propaganda, which made me laugh, like the evil Nixon-eagle shown below.

The art here was also noteworthy because much of it was produced by female artists, who were given a more equal standing in OSPAAAL than female designers had received in pre-Castro Cuba. All in all, I think this was a very different and fascinating perspective on Cuba and mid-late 20th century Cuban art. None of this is to dismiss the way many of the Cuban people suffered under the Castro regime, but it is interesting to look at things from this angle rather than the one I was taught at school.


Before heading into the W.E.B. Du Bois exhibit, I had a quick look in the Quentin Blake Gallery, which features (you guessed it) pieces of work by Quentin Blake. Though it is always Blake’s work on display, the pieces and themes change every few months. This one had sketches from his studio, and my favourite ones were the series of people talking to animals. I have definitely had some earnest conversations with birds, so I can relate!

And on to “Charting Black Lives”. This contained the infographic charts produced by W.E.B. Du Bois (pronounced du boys rather than du bwah), an African-American scholar and activist who was one of the founders of the NAACP, for the 1900 Paris Exposition. Du Bois’s aim was to prove to a world that was still deeply imperialist that black people were equal to white ones, through charts showing their improving education, employment, and ownership of property despite Jim Crow laws and other prejudice against them, particularly in the American South.


Because these were reproductions of Du Bois’s actual charts, some of the terminology on them would be considered offensive today, and many of the charts were in a rather “experimental” format, such as his use of bar graphs that had bars that curved around at the end to fit all the numbers in, which made some of them difficult to read. Nonetheless, they made for interesting viewing. The charts were displayed on wall mounts that you could flip through, so it was lucky the gallery wasn’t crowded, as it would have been annoying to keep having things you were looking at flipped over by someone at the other end. One of the walls contained charts specifically about Georgia, the state with the largest black population in America, and the other wall was about the US more generally, and although Du Bois tried to paint a positive picture, the effects of discrimination still made for deeply depressing reading.

Although the charts themselves were informative and interesting to look at, as were the photographs of ordinary African Americans that Du Bois displayed alongside them, there wasn’t much other context provided in the exhibition, other than explaining Du Bois’s background and why he made the charts. I would have been very interested to know what their reception was at the Paris Exhibition. Did people actually read  them? Was it a popular exhibition? Did it alter anyone’s way of thinking? None of this was covered here, and it felt like a rather glaring omission.


On the whole, I think I enjoyed this visit to the House of Illustration more than my first one, even though I obviously loved all the drawings of the BFG that I saw on my first visit. The nature of the Du Bois charts meant that I lingered longer reading them than I might have done just looking at artwork, and the Cuban art was visually appealing and also contained some interesting commentary, though I think this could have likewise been improved with more analysis on the signage. 3.5/5 for these exhibitions.


London: “Moving to Mars” @ the Design Museum

You won’t find me climbing aboard a rocket to Mars any time soon, but I did recently go to see “Moving to Mars” at the Design Museum, which runs until February 2020. Because it was at the Design Museum, the primary focus was of course the design of items that could be used to travel to Mars, live on Mars, etc, but there were plenty of science aspects to this exhibition as well. Admission was £7.25 using the National Art Pass, but it is normally an expensive £14.50 on weekdays, and £16.30 on weekends(!) so definitely aim to get some kind of a discount (National Rail 2 for 1s work at most London museums)!


The first gallery was about the relationship between humans and Mars throughout history from Galileo on up to the present. It had lots of old astronomical charts I didn’t really understand, some Mars Rover prototypes, and the obligatory orrery or two.


My favourite part was the wall of film poster and scifi books about Mars, including a fair few alien ones. I have a bit of a soft spot for Ray Bradbury because he loved Halloween as much as I do, and I love campy ’60s movie posters, though I often find the movies themselves quite boring.


The exhibition description mentioned how interactive and immersive “Moving to Mars” was, and though I didn’t find it particularly so overall, I suppose the next area was. It contained a large screen showing footage of the surface of Mars with a voiceover describing the Martian environment, where you were invited to remove your shoes and step on a mat that was apparently meant to resemble the surface of Mars. Because I wasn’t wearing socks (with high-tops, yes, I’m gross), I didn’t really want to take my shoes off and expose everyone to my horrible cheese Dorito-smelling feet, but Marcus tried it and said it just felt like a gym mat. I did climb inside the rocket ship in the gallery after this though, even though it was probably meant for children.


This next gallery was about how the first rockets used in space flight were designed, which segued into spacesuits and equipment that had been used on the International Space Station. The thing in the middle that looks like a trampoline is actually a communal dining table with foot straps and rails to lean against to hold yourself in place. Despite the strict hierarchical system that existed on ships during voyages of exploration (historically the closest thing mankind has done to prolonged space flight), current thoughts about life in space emphasise the need for everyone to be on an equal footing (which makes sense!), hence the round table so no one can be seated at its head.


I enjoyed looking at all the space suit designs (the one that looks like it has blood circulating through it is actually filled with water pipes to regulate the astronaut’s body temperature) and trying out some of the prototypes, like space gloves that feature the smells of home. The glove maker had chosen to use two of her favourite smells, which were fresh grass and the smell of her horse. The grass one was fine, but the horse would certainly not be my choice!


The largest gallery was devoted to what life on Mars might actually look like, and included miniature mock-ups of Martian homes (depressingly futuristic, and designed to minimise exposure to solar radiation), everyday space clothes (ugly, and made of futuristic fabrics), and the excellent diagram of how the technology behind a Martian home would work, with all waste products being recycled as much as possible, including the .128kg of feces and 1L of gasses that a human apparently produces in a day. This made me laugh.


There was also a life-sized version of a Martian living room where you could sit on the 3D printed furniture (at least, I assume you could sit on the furniture, as there was no sign saying you couldn’t. Obviously I did anyway). The couch was more comfortable than it looked, though there was a weird divot for the butt that I could imagine getting uncomfortable after a while. Needless to say, I don’t think life on Mars is for me, unless there’s a major ecological catastrophe (and let’s face it, there probably will be) on Earth that makes life here impossible. However, the settlement of Mars plan is definitely a long term game, with robots being sent up about a decade in advance of humans to build housing and start growing crops, so it is highly unlikely any of this would come to fruition in my lifetime anyway.


The final gallery contained a short video about the experience of flying to Mars, and all the prep work that would have went into it. There was also an interesting video showing the way different plant samples from Earth might evolve on the Martian climate, and a wall featuring all the different variations that could occur (there seemed to be a lot of spidery looking things – apparently those evolve anywhere!). There was also a brief discussion of why we would need to colonise Mars in the first place, and whether we should be doing so from an ethical perspective (if we’ve destroyed Earth, why do we need to destroy another planet too? Either improve as a species, or give it up).


I’m not a hugely scientific person, and I suspect Marcus enjoyed himself more than I did, but it was nonetheless an interesting exhibition, and I liked seeing the more eco-friendly ways we could try to begin again on another planet (by necessity, because of the difficulty of getting supplies to and from Mars), though I think we’d be better off implementing some of those ideas on Earth first, whilst we still have a chance! As I’ve said, Mars life would definitely not be for me – all those futuristic/dystopian novels give me the creeps, and some of the ideas in this exhibition made me feel the same way – but thinking about the different ways things might evolve and the technology needed for it to happen was an interesting intellectual exercise, and some of the 1960s space art in here was really cool. Get a discount if you can, because this exhibition is definitely not worth 15 quid+, but for what I paid, I was perfectly satisfied, even if I did think it could be a bit more interactive. 3/5.

London: “Top Secret” and “The Art of Innovation” @ the Science Museum

I was originally planning on treating these two temporary exhibitions at the Science Museum as two separate posts, but I was having such a difficult time getting started that I took it as a sign that I didn’t have enough to say about either individually, so it would make more sense to combine them. I was alerted to “The Art of Innovation” first, having been asked to do a social media post at work about it as they had an object from our collection on display, and then saw “Top Secret” on the Science Museum’s website as I was booking for the “Art of Innovation” and thought I might as well see them both. They are both free exhibitions, but you do need a timed ticket for entry. I actually booked my ticket for “Top Secret” on my phone just as I finished seeing “The Art of Innovation,” for the slot in 15 minutes’ time, which was just enough time for me to get there (the Science Museum is big, and “Top Secret” is in the basement gallery, which I had somehow never been to before, despite temping as FoH staff there for a couple weeks some years ago). I highly recommend doing the same if you dislike waiting around as much as I do.


I’ll start with “Top Secret: From Ciphers to Cyber Security”, which runs until February 2020. Like many kids, I think, I was quite into spy stuff, secret codes, etc when I was younger, even doing a project on secret codes for a math fair, so I thought this exhibition sounded promising. And it certainly looked good! Not only did actually finding it feel like you had cracked a code (because the basement gallery was so well hidden. I never knew the Science Museum had a whole display case full of antique toilets, amongst other wonders I uncovered in the permanent collections down there), but the design of the exhibition was quite fun, featuring a lot of little “buildings” you could enter, like a mock-up of a suburban Canadian home that housed some Soviet spies, a faux Bletchley Park hut; and bold graphics lining the walls of the rest of it. However, the content didn’t quite live up to the promise of the design.


I liked the WWI section, which was mostly about zeppelin attacks and what the British did to combat them, but the section on code breaking machines was just a bit too technical to hold my interest. The exhibition was also quite crowded in places, so having been to Bletchley Park itself, I couldn’t really be bothered to queue to look at what was on display in the hut, and gave that whole area a miss.


The final section was on GCHQ, the organisation so secret I’m not even sure what GCHQ stands for (oh wait, it’s Government Communications Headquarters). They are not so secretly celebrating their 100th anniversary this year, and there was a bit of information on their recruiting techniques, like leaving secret signs on the pavement that apparently only the right sort of person would notice; and some of the devices they use in their work. There was even a LEGO version of their headquarters (is that GCHQ HQ, or is that just a bit redundant?), but the very nature of their organisation meant I still left a little bit puzzled about what exactly they do. This exhibition was less interesting than I had hoped, but it was free, so all I wasted was time. 2/5. And on to “The Art of Innovation”, which I actually saw first.

As I mentioned at the start, this was also free but required pre-booking, though I would imagine if it’s not busy you can easily book a ticket there and then. This was much more my speed. The exhibitions in the second floor gallery tend to be a lot quieter, maybe because people don’t realise they exist, and this was no exception. This was basically what the title promised: artistic objects (or at least, aesthetically pleasing ones) and “the interaction between scientific progress and social change”. So there was plenty of art but also clothing, fabrics, machinery, etc. And some hilarious cartoons that mocked Humphrey Davy’s fascination with nitrous oxide by copious use of fart jokes. Obviously I loved those.


I discovered how much I liked Otto Dix at the Weimar art exhibition at the Tate Modern, so I was pleased to see one of his sketches here along with some examples of German prosthetics made for WWI veterans. Men who had lost limbs in the war were often then tied down to one specific job based on what their prosthetics were able to do, meaning they lacked social mobility, which is quite depressing, and Dix’s piece reflected the German ambivalence, bordering on cruelty, towards these men who had sacrificed so much.

I was also interested to see the results of mechanisation, like the puzzle board used by Rowntree’s to determine which workers were best suited to packaging chocolates (cue I Love Lucy-esque scenes of hilarity) and of course the train clock showing train time vs. local time before the clocks were standardised across Britain.

My favourite display was about the Science Museum’s part in the Festival of Britain, held in 1951. The museum had an entire new wing built just to showcase the Exhibition of Science, and the entrance apparently included five rooms where the things inside progressively got bigger as you moved through the rooms, so the visitors would feel like they were stepping under a microscope to explore the world of atoms. There were also fantastic textiles commissioned (above left) based on x-ray crystallography, each print showing different molecules. I would love a 1950s dress made from afwillite or orthoclase fabric, and I would like to wear it whilst exploring that historic exhibition. Don’t you wish we could travel back in time just for the sake of World’s Fair-type events like this?


This exhibition was not only interesting, it had some fabulous objects to look at too. I’d definitely recommend this over “Top Secret” if you only have time for one, though if you’re visiting with kids, I suspect “Top Secret” is probably more child friendly, as they had an actual interactive zone. 3.5/5 for “Art of Innovation.”


Rochester, NY: The George Eastman Museum

The final stop on our trip to upstate New York was Rochester, home of the George Eastman Museum. One of the curators at work had just been there to do research a few weeks before and had recommended it to me, and I also wanted to see Mount Hope Cemetery, where Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass are buried (along with 350,000 other people). So after fortifying ourselves with very delicious waffles from Funk ‘N Waffles in Syracuse (I can highly recommend the banana bread waffle), we made tracks for Rochester.


The museum was very large from the outside, consisting of a theatre building, the museum building, and George Eastman’s former mansion, so I was expecting the inside to be huge! However, it wasn’t quite what I was anticipating. Admission was $15, and I’m not sure if it was because the site was undergoing construction at the time of our visit, but there didn’t seem to be quite as many galleries as the exterior would have implied, and virtually no permanent collections on display, which was a surprise. Because Eastman was the founder of Kodak, I was expecting the museum to have more of a comprehensive history of photography, and it didn’t really. But let me tell you about what actually was there.


Because the museum building solely has temporary displays, almost nothing that we saw is still there, save for Tanya Marcuse’s “Woven”, which was a collection of photographs of leaves and other things taken from nature. Her pieces were actually quite cool and tapestry like, but it was a small gallery, so it didn’t take very long to see (and by the way, I hope you appreciate the fact that there are photos in this post, since my brother took photos there with his fancypants camera (so I didn’t bother to take many photos with my phone) that I then had to spend the subsequent two months asking him to send to me. He finally did the day before this post was published).


The museum does admittedly have a History of Photography gallery, but it is only one room, and also has changing themed exhibitions of artefacts taken from the permanent collections. At the time of our visit, it was all about the moon, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11. There were some very cool images in here, but we didn’t spend as much time as we would have liked due to some very annoying fellow visitors. We tried coming here right after entering the museum, but it was full of a very noisy tour group, so we decided to come back later. But when we returned, there were a couple in there who were basically shouting at each other about the photos, and then a tour guide came in, and they shouted questions at her too. So irritating. There was also a display of historical cameras in here, which I suspect is probably here all the time, but I didn’t spend much time looking at them because I couldn’t wait to get away from the shouty people.


This meant we headed to the special exhibition pretty quickly, which took up all of the museum’s main galleries. This was “The Art of Warner Bros. Cartoons,” which wasn’t necessarily photography related, but obviously did relate to moving images, etc. I had mixed feelings about this going in. I absolutely loved the classic Looney Tunes growing up, and spent many a Saturday morning happily watching them. But then there was some weird Warner Bros. revival in the mid-90s, where everyone got obsessed with Taz and got lame tattoos of him, and it just kind of put me off. There’s also all those wartime cartoons that Warner Bros. produced that are hella racist. But this exhibition reminded me of all the good things about the classic cartoons, and I was quite happy to stand and watch some of the best ones, which were being projected on screens throughout the exhibit.


The exhibit mainly featured the cartoons themselves and a lot of animation cels, along with captions explaining how each character evolved over time. For example, Elmer Fudd was originally called “Egghead,” yet bizarrely, had hair at that time, and also simply wanted Bugs for a pet, rather than to shoot him. Porky Pig is the oldest continuing Looney Tunes character, and he went from being a child to an adult, and from being Bugs’s antagonist to sometimes being on his side, though those cartoons where Porky was hunting never made any sense to me. Why would a pig hunt a rabbit? My favourite Looney Tunes were always the ones with the monsters in them, like Witch Hazel and the Big Red Monster, who is apparently named Gossamer. We both really enjoyed this exhibit, and also the fun photo ops throughout (especially appreciated because you weren’t allowed to photograph any of the animation cels).


These exhibitions were all that was in the main museum building, but we still had to visit Eastman’s mansion. This was an attractive Colonial Revival building accessed by cutting through the garden behind the museum. The building itself is interesting because Eastman decided to enlarge the conservatory about fifteen years after the house was built, but he didn’t want to ruin the symmetry of the house so his architect cut the house in half, jacked up half of it and moved it forward 9 feet on tracks, a process that took three months. This should give you some indication of how much money Eastman had to burn.


The house itself was nice, but nothing really stood out in way of decoration except for the pipe organ. If I had one in my house, I would definitely wake guests up every morning by playing some kind of Phantom of the Opera music, and I swear there was a sign that mentioned Eastman doing something similar, though I can’t find proof of it! This was the only place in the museum where there was biographical information about Eastman himself, and he seems to have been an intriguing man. He never married, but had a long-term platonic relationship with a woman with the unfortunate name of Josephine Dickman. The museum did seem to be implying that Eastman might have been gay, and based on the evidence that does seem likely, but I’m not about to posthumously out someone. He gave to a number of philanthropic causes which strangely included both dental clinics for underprivileged children and historically black colleges, but also the American Eugenics Society. So in some ways he was kind of a shit, but in others not. He killed himself at the age of 77 as he had developed a number of degenerative health conditions and didn’t want to lose control over his own body. His suicide note, which was inside the house (in facsimile form), read, “To my friends, my work is done – Why wait?”


On a less depressing note, the house was also home to an interactive room probably intended for children that included a giant zoetrope and a room sized camera obscura (the earliest form of camera, basically a pinhole in a darkened room that projects an upside down image of whatever’s outside inside the room) and one forlorn room at the back of the second floor that (finally!) had some information about the history of Kodak. Other than the rooms downstairs, which you could peek into, the rest of the house is used as a research room accessible by appointment only, so we headed back to the main museum building.


There is of course a shop with some pretty good camera themed merchandise, and a small cafe that we did not visit. Although it wasn’t at all what I had expected, I really enjoyed myself, though I probably could have done with some more examples of early photography, which is what I had been hoping to see. Because the exhibitions have changed now, your experience will be different from mine, but hopefully it will still be worth the visit! I also have to mention the car that was parked outside during our visit, which is apparently not Eastman’s (per the sign attached to it), but belongs to a member of staff. Based on the sign and the skeleton astride the car, I suspect we’d get along. 3.5/5 for the museum.


We did also briefly visit Mount Hope Cemetery, and it was a bit too manicured and sunny for my tastes, but still worth seeing, though the map I found online wasn’t much help when it came to actually finding the graves of famous burials (I only managed to find Susan B. Anthony). We were disappointed in our quest to find ice cream in Rochester when the pretentious chocolate shop downtown only had the grossest of flavours (fig and wine? Blech!), but we did manage to grab excellent doughnuts outside Buffalo at Paula’s Donuts, which were a sweet end to our road trip, and helped keep us from starving to death when stuck in traffic most of the way back.