Europe

Budapest: Vajdahunyad Castle and the Museum of Hungarian Agriculture

Here’s a tale of two attractions. There’s not really anything to not like about Vajdahunyad Castle (just look at it!), but the Hungarian Agriculture Museum is a different story (in other words, “it was the best of times, it was the…blurst of times?! You stupid monkey!”).  Actually, blurst (or worst) is a bit of an exaggeration (I’m just trying to carry on with the Dahl’s Chickens/Simpsons theme), but it wasn’t great.

  

Vadjahunyad Castle has a pretty interesting history. It was originally built in 1896 for a Millennium Exhibition in Budapest (I’ve no idea why they were having a Millennium celebration then, but whatever) and proved super popular, but was constructed from temporary materials that eventually began to fall apart, so in 1899 the original architect (Ignac Alpar) was called upon to rebuild a castle that would last, and indeed, it’s still there today, in the middle of a big park. It was designed to showcase a number of different architectural styles, hence its somewhat eclectic appearance, and is totally free to visit, though you are apparently unable to go inside most of it (I’m not sure whether there actually is much inside, other than the museum). There are a number of amazing statues scattered around the castle, but the main reason I wanted to go was the bust of Bela Lugosi, which is hidden around the back.

  

This was all just as amazing as I was hoping, and I had a grand time wandering around and having my picture taken with everything, even though sometimes I had to dodge other tourists to do so (Bela was all mine though – he was hidden away at the back of the castle, and I don’t think most people even knew who he was). So of course, I had to check out the Agricultural Museum, which has been based in the castle as long as the castle was here (they moved it out during reconstruction, but put it back in again after reconstruction was finished), especially because it is billed as Europe’s largest agricultural museum, and I tend to be a sucker for superlatives.

  

Admission was 1200 HUF (about £3.50) which wasn’t too bad, but no one really gave us any information when we came in, and much like the Hungarian National Museum, it was in a massive, beautiful  and confusing building, so it wasn’t immediately apparent where we were supposed to start (even the map by the stairs wasn’t super helpful). I spotted some mannequins off to our left as we entered, and because there were about a hundred schoolchildren having lunch outside the museum who I imagined would be re-entering at some point in the not too distant future and I wanted to make sure we could photograph the mannequins uninterrupted, we headed there first (on the plus side, this was the only museum we visited in Budapest that didn’t charge us extra to take photos).

  

I believe it was the “History of Hungarian Agriculture” gallery, and there was indeed a lot of history covered in the signage, with English translations provided, but just like at the Hungarian National Museum, it was not engagingly presented, and was just too damn much to read.  So I did skip quite a lot of it, but some of what I did read was interesting, like the information about types of crops they grew (there was a nice display of wheat. Apparently Hungary grew some award-winning wheat) and the domestication of farm animals (though come to think of it, I guess that was actually part of the exhibit entitled “Domesticating the Animals”), particularly the display case full of weird bare-necked chickens that were popular in Hungary. The mannequins were somewhat disappointing though, since they didn’t even have proper faces (I like a mannequin with some character).

  

After this, we tentatively headed upstairs (it wasn’t entirely clear whether we were meant to, but the guard saw us hesitating and made a “go on” gesture) and saw an exhibition about horses, which was fine. I’m not interested in horse racing, but I liked all the fake horses you could pose with (I didn’t risk sitting on the saddle, because it said there was a 30kg weight limit, but I totally wanted to).

  

There was another exhibition upstairs, which apparently held all the treasures of the collection, so of course I wanted to see that, but it turns out there was a separate admission fee (I’m not sure what it is, because no one mentioned it to us at the front desk, and I didn’t see any signs) so we couldn’t. I did use the nearby toilet though, free of charge, because the guard couldn’t stop me doing that (I honestly don’t think he even cared, but at the time I had the attitude of “well screw you, I’ll use this nearby fancy-looking toilet then.” It actually wasn’t that fancy, but it was clean, and free public toilets in Budapest seem to be pretty much nonexistent, so use them when you see them).

  

We then headed back downstairs, and checked out another small gallery on animals (maybe that was “Domesticating the Animals?”) and then looked around for the rest of the museum, but all we saw was another small gallery at the back, which by this point was full of all the schoolchildren that had been outside and had a teacher standing guard outside the door, so we felt weird about entering. Since we couldn’t see where any other parts of the museum would be, other than in the back gallery, we just left, but it felt rather small for the largest agricultural museum in Europe, since it seemed like the agricultural section at the delightful Technical Museum of Slovenia was larger than this museum. Well, we later popped our heads into the museum shop (which had a separate entrance) and got a view through the back window of a bunch of cases of taxidermied birds in what was evidently a gallery we’d completely missed, so obviously the museum did carry on for quite a while! I’m not even sure what exhibits we didn’t see, because the website says there are nine at the museum, and even if there was more than the “History of Hungarian Agriculture” in the one gallery, I reckon we still missed at least four exhibits, including the whole amazing sounding Gothic wing!

  

I’m pretty disappointed we didn’t get to see the whole museum and experience the full joys of the largest agricultural museum in Europe, but I doubt if they would have let us back in, and by the time we discovered the missing museum sections, we needed to head back to the city centre to grab some lunch before our flight home. But definitely do a better job of poking around if you’re in there than we did, because it is clearly hiding a number of secret galleries somewhere! I can only give it 2.5/5 based on what we saw, but maybe better things await the persistent. The castle is awesome though – at least go check out the courtyard, even if you skip the museum!

   

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Budapest: The Hungarian National Museum (Magyar Nemzeti Muzeum)

I always like to visit some sort of national history museum when I’m in a different country so I can learn more about the place, and Hungary was no exception, particularly because I don’t really know much about its history (my knowledge of most of Eastern European history (or Central European? Never quite sure what the boundaries are because they seem based more on culture than geography) is patchy at best, to be honest). And the Hungarian National Museum was housed in a very impressive building, as you can probably see (if you ignore all the construction work), so I was keen to explore.

   

Admission is 1600 HUF for the permanent exhibitions (about £4.50), and there is an extra charge for the temporary exhibition, which we decided not to see on this occasion even though it did look quite interesting (it was about the journey of a “fallen girl” in mid-20th century Hungarian society), because I was worried not everything would be in English, and also, frankly, my feet hurt, and I could only take so much museuming that day. We also had to pay extra, once again, for a photo pass (it was 500 or 600 HUF) and Marcus had to put his backpack in the cloakroom immediately after arriving, but at least that was free (and near the toilets, which you know is always a concern of mine).

  

We started with the lapidarium (having only familiarised ourselves with the term the previous day at the Parliament building, which you’ll see in a later post. Not because it’s a Hungarian word (it was obviously Latin), it just wasn’t really a term we’d seen used before). And boy, was it sure lapidary. It was a bunch of Roman ruins, which normally I am not really into, and this was no exception, though I did enjoy pointing out how most of the beardy guys carved in stone looked a bit like Marcus.

  

We then headed up to the first floor to explore Hungarian history, starting with the Middle Ages. As you can see, the journey up the stairs was spectacular, so I was a little disappointed that the exhibits didn’t quite live up to that level of grandeur. There were English translations on most things, but some of the signs were so old that half the letters had fallen off, which was obviously not ideal, and some of the translations were a bit…patchy anyway, so it was hard to tell exactly what they were trying to communicate in some of the rooms. Also, the presentation was very dry, with no interactivity at all, and considering I was already quite tired and reaching the end of my tether (we’d already been to the Semmelweiss Museum and Buda Castle that day, and stopped at the Central Market, so I was justifiably tired, especially because I also wear not very comfortable shoes), I just couldn’t summon up much of an interest.

  

I will give them credit where credit’s due and say they had some great paintings of people with amazing eyebrows (no wonder the clerk at our hotel asked if I was Hungarian!) and a really interesting banner showing the execution of three men who participated in a rebellion (the fourth had a ransom paid for his life, and I think may have possibly later ruled Hungary, though the museum didn’t explain whether it was the same person, or a descendant with the same name). There was also a painting of Suleiman the Magnificent just casually slung in here that I swear is really famous, and the label didn’t say it was a facsimile, so I assume it was the original?

  

The second section upstairs was the history of Hungary from 1703 (after the Ottomans were expelled) until 1990, which is presumably the last time the museum was updated (or just the end of communism, but I could totally believe that most of the displays were almost 30 years old). This was more interesting to me because I understand more about this time period – and I’m always happy to look at dirndl-style national costumes or old communist art (probably shouldn’t have posed with the statue of Stalin, considering what a monster the man was (though he was disturbingly hot when he was young), but I couldn’t help myself. I have some kind of sick compulsion to be photographed with statues).

  

My favourite part was actually the Liszt room, not because I’m a particular fan of Liszt (even though he does look like a vampire, and is even featured in my Vampire Tarot deck (not just because of his looks – I think he composed something vaguely vampiric)), but because it was air-conditioned and had a real comfy bench on which I was quite prepared to settle down and listen to recordings of some of his compositions, until a couple walked in and started ostentatiously trying to read the sign behind my head, so I had to get up.

  

When we headed back downstairs, it became obvious that we’d gone around the museum in the wrong direction, because we spotted a prehistory gallery down there. It’s a shame I’m not more interested in prehistory, because this gallery had been updated relatively recently, and had some interactive things and a much more appealing appearance than upstairs. By this point, I was pretty much done though, so we rushed through pretty quickly (I tried to use the bow and arrow interactive to see what kind of animal my strength would kill (bit grim I know) but I couldn’t figure out how to pull back the bow and the guy working there said something to me in Hungarian, and I was worried he was telling me I was going to break it, so I just left).

  

We somehow missed seeing the Coronation Mantle, which is apparently a pretty big deal, but I honestly didn’t see another gallery we could have gone into, so I’m not sure where it was (this would be a recurring problem at Hungarian museums). I think the building is stunning, and the collection has a lot of potential, it just hasn’t been fully utilised. The amazing (and free!) Swedish History Museum has become my gold standard for this sort of thing, and the Hungarian National Museum fell well short of this ideal. With more interactivity, and some updated signage (at least the updated signage!) I think it could be a pretty great experience, because clearly Hungary has an interesting past (I mean c’mon, Ottoman occupation? Transylvania? Communism? This stuff is interesting!), but the way it’s presented is not engaging. 2.5/5.

Budapest: The Semmelweiss Museum

I recently had to switch two of my working days around, which created a surprise five day weekend (without having to take time off!), and to make the most of it, I decided to try to book a trip. All the last minute deals appeared to be for places like Brussels and Frankfurt (nothing against either place, but I’ve already been to Brussels a few times, and Frankfurt seems like more of a business destination), so when I saw a deal for three nights in Budapest, I scooped it up. I had actually been to Budapest once before, about ten years ago, but that trip was just a series of misfortunes that meant I didn’t end up seeing very much, so I was happy to go back and explore more in depth.
  
Actually, I wanted to go to Budapest for three main reasons: 1) To eat lots of kurtoskalacs, aka chimney cake, which I dearly love, but resent being asked to pay a fiver for at Christmas markets in the UK; 2) Visit the Columbo statue, because I have been weirdly into Columbo the last few months (probably because it’s on pretty much all day Sunday, and Sunday tends to be my chilling and TV watching day, so I’ve caught a lot simply because there was nothing else on, and got hooked); and 3) Visit the Semmelweiss Museum. This post will of course be about the last of those three ambitions, though you’ll hear more about the other two in a later post.
  
I’ve always felt bad for Ignaz Semmelweiss – any way you look at it, the man got a raw deal. He accidentally stumbled onto germ theory when he noticed that a colleague who died from sepsis after cutting himself during a dissection had the same symptoms as the women who died from puerperal fever (without directly understanding why – he thought “cadaverous material” was the problem, and I mean, it was, but not for the reasons he thought), which allowed him to dramatically slash the mortality rate in his maternity ward (by 90%, though the hospital he worked at had two maternity wards: one for training doctors and one for training midwives, and the midwives’ ward had much lower mortality rates all along, because midwives didn’t dissect cadavers) when he started forcing his medical students to wash their hands in chlorinated water. He then published his findings, and instead of the medical community viewing them as revolutionary or at least intriguing, they instead accused him of fabricating results (Pasteur and Lister eventually confirmed his findings, but too late to have done Semmelweiss any good).  Semmelweiss was eventually committed to an insane asylum due to what may have been early onset dementia or depression, though the antagonism of his fellow doctors probably didn’t help his mental state, and he died only a fortnight after being committed as a result of being beaten by the guards (it actually is quite a tragic story). Therefore, I was excited to see his museum, hoping he would finally get the more exalted treatment he deserved (and of course, I was hoping to see some grisly medical stuff too).
  
Unfortunately, I would wind up somewhat disappointed on both counts. We managed to find the museum without too much trouble (it’s on the Buda side of the river, near a tram stop) located on the first floor of a building looking out on a rather lovely courtyard. Admission is 1000 HUF (just under £3), plus an extra 600 forints for a photo pass, which I always find a bit ridiculous in this day and age, but I suppose they have to make money somehow. I was a little worried that nothing would be in English, but most (probably 80%) of the signs had an English translation, although they did tend to be more concise than the Hungarian version.
  
The first room held the bulk of the grisly stuff, as it were (not much, and not that grisly). There was a re-creation of a shrunken head made from goatskin, a mummified foot or two, and a couple of skulls. There were also some small grotesques, and that rather adorable little anatomical model, but most of it was just medical instruments – a theme that would continue throughout the museum.
  
The second room held a re-creation of Semmelweiss’s parlour, complete with his original furniture and rug, and some of his original books (and apparently some books given to the Hungarian prime minister by George Bush Sr. during his presidency, though they quite clearly weren’t Semmelweiss’s books, since Osler’s Modern Medicine wasn’t published until 1892 (and those copies appear to be an even later edition), and Semmelweiss died in 1865). If I understood the signs correctly (some of them were a little confusing), Semmelweiss lived in this building at one point in time, and I wish more of his house had been preserved. There was also a re-creation of an old pharmacy that appeared to have some staff in white coats working in it, but it was roped off whilst we were there so I’m not sure if they do some sort of living history interaction with visitors or not (though if it was in Hungarian, it wouldn’t have done us much good in the first place).
  
The third room (I was pleased to see there even was a third room, because the museum looked like it was only two rooms from the entrance) had more cool things (and some fairly inexplicable ones like this opium pillow (he has an actual butt hole, and I don’t know why)) like some incredibly detailed wax models of organs (they were beautiful, in a kind of disgusting way, but I had read before visiting that the museum was meant to have an excellent wax anatomical model collection, which had me picturing Anatomical Venuses (you know, those comely women who just happen to have all their guts exposed) rather than organs by themselves).
  
The final gallery (more of a long hallway) was my least favourite, as much of it wasn’t in English, and it was largely just medical instruments and other random bits and bobs. I was disappointed how barely any of the museum actually seemed to be about Semmelweiss – unless I missed something that was only in Hungarian, there was only his room, and one small case of his possessions (including a copy of his skull, which is admittedly cool, though as you can see, the terse label provided no reason why it was there), and that was it. There was barely even any discussion of his accomplishments, so if you didn’t know about what he had achieved before going in to the museum, you sure wouldn’t coming out either.
  
We were headed out the door when we saw a poster that mentioned a temporary exhibition on vaccines, which appeared to be in a room on the ground floor. When we tried to go in, a man came out and stopped us, so we showed him our tickets, which led to a heated discussion in Hungarian between him and another woman who worked there about whether or not we had the right to see the exhibition (honestly, we didn’t care that much, we just didn’t think it would be an issue in the first place, as it didn’t mention anywhere that it cost extra). They eventually decided we could go in, which I was grateful for because that’s where the toilets were, but I don’t know what the official policy is (I don’t think even they know what the official policy is, frankly) so if you visit the museum, you may not be able to do the same.  You wouldn’t be missing much anyway. It felt like a travelling exhibition that had been translated into Hungarian, and contained fairly basic information about Jenner, Salk, Koch, and others that anyone with an interest in the history of medicine would already know about, and no major artefacts of note other than some rad old posters urging Hungarians to be vaccinated (the maternity chair shown below is from the permanent collections). We kind of rushed through because we felt like we were creating a disturbance by even being there.
  
So sadly, the Semmelweiss Museum will not be going on my list of must-see medical museums, but I’m glad we checked it out whilst we were there so at least now I know (I realise that these photos are making it look like they had lots of amazing stuff there, but that is because I’m just showing you the highlights, and not the rows and rows of scalpels and surgical scissors and things. Endless medical instruments may be of interest if you’re actually a doctor or surgeon, but I want stuff in jars)! I think it is worth seeing if you’re already in Budapest and like medical history, but it’s certainly not a destination museum. It probably is better if you just think of it as a general medical museum, because it is the lack of information about Semmelweiss in a museum bearing his name that really disappoints. He deserves better, and I really wish they would have provided some more biographical information, at least about his medical career (actually, the whole museum needed more information – the labels were not descriptive at all, and were sometimes just downright confusing!). 3/5.

Stockholm Mop-Up Post

I visited a few more museums in Stockholm (believe it or not), but for various reasons, none of them merited a post of their own, so I’m going to briefly discuss each here. The first was the Nobel Museum, which we rushed out to see shortly after arriving in Stockholm, because it offers free entry on Tuesday evenings from 5-8 (and is 120 SEK, or about 11 pounds the rest of the time, so you’re saving a substantial amount of money). I was actually pretty excited about seeing this, because it sounded really cool, and I was interested to learn more about Alfred Nobel and all the Nobel prize winners over the years, but it ended up just being a terrible experience all around.

  

To start with, we had to queue for a while in a square to gain entry whilst some sort of demonstration (as in protest) was taking place right next to us (not sure what, because all their signs were in Swedish, but judging by the flags, it had something to do with Cuba). And when we finally got inside, man, what a disappointment!  The “museum” was really small, consisting of a sort of grand entrance hall, a smaller hallway off to one side, and a couple lecture theatre-type spaces showing short films. Almost all the “artefacts” in the main hall were re-creations, and there weren’t even many of those, the museum mainly being composed of posters and videos, and it was way too crowded in there to read or watch any of them properly, not that they looked all that interesting in the first place (they seemed to have only very basic information on them). There were a few actual artefacts in the smaller hall, but we were completely crammed in (don’t be deceived by the photo, the smaller hall was about 10x more crowded than the main one), and I don’t do well with crowds (I’m not actually agoraphobic or anything, I just don’t like people), so I gave them only a brief glance. We were in and out of the place in under half an hour (not counting the queueing time), and I’m so glad we didn’t waste 11 quid each on this! The highlight was seriously the gift shop with its postcards featuring extremely obscure Nobel prize winners which I found (probably inappropriately) hilarious.  If, despite my negativity, you still want to see the museum, I would definitely just suck it up and brave the crowds and come on a Tuesday evening, because no way is this place worth what they’re charging. 1/5.

  

Though we didn’t want to pay to go in the Royal Palace (it wasn’t only cheapness in this case; it’s just that Stockholm’s looked like a fairly standard issue royal palace (god, that makes me sound like an awful snob), and I thought I’d rather spend time seeing museums unique to Stockholm), we did see a couple of the free museums attached to the Palace. The first of these was the Royal Armoury or Livrustkammaren (I love the Swedish word for it, since it contains “rust,” which could accurately describe old unloved armour). Most of the object labels were in Swedish only, but there were signs in English on the walls explaining what was in each room, so I managed well enough.

  

Though there wasn’t as much actual armour in here as there is in some armouries, I still thought it was alright. They had a collection of clothing belonging to the Swedish royal family through the centuries, and some child-size armour as well. They also had a random exhibition about samurai swords.

  

My main complaint (other than the number of people in there, particularly this one weird American couple who kept following us around and taking pictures of whatever we were taking pictures of, which was super annoying) was that the different sections of the museum weren’t connected, so after reaching the end of the main hall, and discovering that the upper floor was the children’s space (which wasn’t marked anywhere in English til after we went up, so I took a cheeky picture in the dressing-up throne since I was already there), we had to walk back through all the galleries (a not insubstantial number of them) to go down into the basement to see the carriage house. It definitely wasn’t the greatest armoury I’ve ever been to (that honour probably goes to the Royal Armouries in Leeds, because it’s so much more than just an armoury), but it wasn’t awful either, particularly because it was free. 2.5/5.

  

The final museum is the Royal Coin Cabinet. I’m gonna be honest; the only reason we visited this is because their brochure said they had the world’s largest coin, which visitors could try to lift (you can see me doing just that, above). So we barely even looked at what was in the museum, and made a beeline for the coin, which was a rectangular slab that weighed 19 kg (not all that hard to lift for an adult, but it was tied down, so you could only lift it a couple inches in the air anyway). I did stop to admire some of the designs of Weimer-era, heavily inflated German notes (check out that moon!), but I don’t feel that I can even give this one a score because I really didn’t take the time to read anything. It is another free way to kill some time though, which is pretty much exactly what we were doing before our flight home.

 

However, visiting museums wasn’t the only thing we did in Stockholm (though it was probably how we spent 80% of our non-sleeping/watching TV in our hotel room (I learned that minigolf is a televised sport in Sweden, which is kind of awesome) time there). We also strolled around a bit and explored the city, and thus got to see some cool statues and things. I love the poor beggar fox statue because it reminds me of Disney’s Robin Hood (I think it was supposed to be making me think about the plight of the homeless, but he was just so darn cute). And you may be able to spot some lady bits on the side of that building, beneath the guy’s head (don’t ask me why).

  

I’m guessing that lions are one of the symbols of Stockholm, because they were EVERYWHERE in Stockholm – on buildings, on statues, and even serving as adorable traffic bollards at the ends of pedestrianised streets. We found one with a cone on his head down the street from our hotel, on one of the main shopping streets, but the island I refer to as “Hipster Island” was the only place I saw female lions too, and they were pretty great.

  

We only ate in a restaurant once, because Sweden is not cheap, and except for the sweets (not counting licorice, because barf), Swedish food didn’t sound particularly appealing (actually we don’t eat out much on holiday generally unless we’re in a country with a particularly delicious nonmeaty national cuisine, because restaurant food every day can get expensive anywhere, plus my vegetarianism and general picky eating make restaurants tricky in some countries. I’m kind of the worst); the rest of the time we resorted to good ol’ bread, hummus, and crisps from the supermarket. So what did I choose to eat on our one restaurant visit? Yep, a big old bowl of hummus (with falafel balls and amazing deep fried halloumi) from FLFL on “Hipster Island,” because I can’t pass up falafel, and their hummus was about 10x better than the supermarket stuff, so I have no regrets. I supplemented my hummusy diet with frequent stops at bakeries for kanelbuller (cinnamon buns), ice cream (the Swedes seem particularly partial to soft serve with sprinkles, as am I (the real stuff, made with actual milk and available as chocolate/vanilla twist, unlike the shitty disgusting unflavoured Mr. Whippy you get in the UK) so I was as happy as a sandboy), and of course Daim bars, which are probably my favourite candy bar, so it was nice to be in their homeland (and I loved the special edition orange ones, which I’ve never seen in the UK).

   

I actually wasn’t too sure how I would feel about Stockholm when we booked the trip, because I didn’t particularly enjoy either Copenhagen or Malmo when we visited a few years ago, and I thought all of Scandinavia would be similar, so I’m happy to report that I was proven wrong!  Stockholm is a beautiful city, and each island has a distinct character, which made it an interesting place to explore. I also liked that it felt fairly hip (though not overly so, except maybe on “Hipster Island”) and there were so many museums there that I barely even scratched the surface (just means I’ll have to return some day!). It was fairly easy to get around via public transport, mainly trams and buses, though we did take a ferry once just for the hell of it (they also have a metro system, but we never ended up using it) – we purchased a travel card for the duration of our stay which meant we didn’t have to worry about the cost of individual trips; my only complaint is that a lot of the buses only came twice an hour, so you had a lengthy wait if you missed one (I might just be spoiled by TfL though)!  Be forewarned that Stockholm is as expensive as everyone says it is, but by not eating out much (ice cream doesn’t count), and getting a deal on our hotel + flight, our trip as a whole wasn’t any more expensive than anywhere else in Europe. Also be aware that Stockholm is practically a cashless city; we didn’t bother to exchange any money before we left, and ended up not using cash at all during our stay. Even market stalls and ice cream carts there take cards, and a lot of the museums don’t accept cash at all, so definitely bring a card with a decent exchange rate and no foreign transaction fees.  So yeah, that’s Stockholm – a city that I’d happily return to despite all the crowds of peak tourist season, and I can’t really give a place a better endorsement than that!

 

Stockholm: Medieval Museum (Medeltidsmuseet)

After visiting the Swedish History Museum and enjoying their excellent historical timeline galleries, I found it difficult to believe that another, smaller museum would be able to cover medieval Sweden as well as they did, so I was happy to skip the Medieval Museum, which we had originally planned on visiting. However, by the last day of our trip, we decided that we’d spent enough money (probably my fault; I was eating like three ice creams a day, but thinking about it now makes me feel a little ill since I’ve been working through the remains of my birthday ice cream pie all week and have been in pretty much a constant state of bloat as a result. (Yes Jessica, nice subtle way to sneak your birthday in there. And actually, who am I kidding, I’d eat an ice cream right now if you put it in front of me)), but we had about 5 hours to kill before our flight home and the Medieval Museum was free, so we found ourselves there anyway.

  

It is located right by the Royal Palace in “Old Town Island” (Gamla Stan), so I also found myself back in Old Town, even though I vowed not to go there again after fighting my way through the hordes of tourists one too many times, but it ended up being OK because the entrance was in a fairly secluded area by a small pier, so we didn’t have to force a path through the crowded, narrow shopping streets, and we got to see an unexpected changing of the guard as they paraded by (with a jolly band!) whilst we were waiting for the museum to open. Because the museum opens quite late, at noon, even though we got what we thought was a late start, we still had to hang around for a bit until they unlocked the doors (and we weren’t the only ones waiting!).

  

The museum is built around some ruins of medieval Stockholm that were excavated in the 1970s when they were trying to turn the site into a parking garage (obviously that fell through when they found the ruins), including an old wall, and a medieval churchyard (though I think they moved the human remains elsewhere, so it’s really only the wall left). The museum consists of a tunnel leading into a small entryway room, and one larger room where the ruins and most of the museum content was located.

  

Almost every label in the museum was written in Swedish and English, which was the case at all of Stockholm’s museums (or the ones we visited, anyway). There was a short introductory video at the start of the tunnel about how the ruins were discovered, and the opening gallery attempted to “introduce” us to some of the people who would have lived in the medieval city; though I love wax figures, these ones were a bit odd because they kept them in a darkened nook behind glass, only intermittently shining a light on them. I guess maybe it was supposed to give them a ghostly effect, but really it just made them hard to see.

  

The main room was a little better, as I could instantly tell upon walking in and seeing a wax figure of an alleged plague victim sitting there (but with no sign of buboes, I’m not sure I trust their diagnosis. I suppose she could have had pneumonic plague, which would explain the blood on her handkerchief, but TB would have been my first guess). There was also a small reconstructed village, complete with graveyard and gallows hill (which was obviously my favourite bit), and the ruins of the medieval wall were down the centre of the room (though apparently some of the wall was built in 1530, which is really early modern rather than medieval (putting my MA to use right there)).

  

To be honest with you, a lot of the information in this gallery seemed outdated…for example, in the section about food, it was mentioned that medieval people ate heavily spiced food to kill the taste of rotten meat, but I’m pretty sure that for a while now the consensus amongst historians has been that people ate heavily spiced food both as a sign of prestige, and simply because they liked the taste. After all, most meat was slaughtered as needed, so it was very fresh, and, then as now, people weren’t going to eat rotten food unless it was a starvation situation, in which case they certainly wouldn’t have been able to afford expensive spices!

  

And though I definitely enjoyed the mannequins (even the iffy plague victim), you could only go into a couple of the reconstructed buildings, and they didn’t have much in them (most of the mannequins are from street scenes). One building simply had a room full of long tables, with signs saying that you weren’t allowed to eat or drink there (which spoiled the atmosphere somewhat; also, it seemed like kind of a waste of space, since there was literally nothing else in that boring room), and another contained samples of cloth and a video showing how medieval women would have gotten dressed (interesting, but they didn’t really have to show her lacing up the whole damn kirtle. They could have just skipped ahead after the first set of laces).  There was also a mock-up of a church with a statue of St. George in it, and reading his story just annoyed me (I mean, I knew it involved a dragon, obviously, but I wasn’t aware of all the irritating details). So, this town had to sacrifice someone to a dragon like every week so he didn’t destroy them all, but it wasn’t until a princess was about to be sacrificed that George stepped in and killed the dragon. Why didn’t he just do that as soon as the dragon started demanding human sacrifices? I guess the ordinary people weren’t worthy of being saved?! What a jerk! I wish the dragon had killed George’s ass instead.

  

But as far as the museum goes, although I shouldn’t complain too much about a free museum (I probably still have though), it was something of a disappointment. I learned far more about medieval Stockholm at the Swedish History Museum, and there were way more interactive elements there too!  Except for a handful of video screens and a small display that opened in 2015 about archaeological findings from Slussen (a juncture in Stockholm that connects Sodermalm with Stadsholmen), and despite their claims to have undergone a renovation in 2010, it feels like the content of the museum (certainly the text) hasn’t really been updated since the museum opened in 1986. It was a perfectly acceptable way to kill some time without spending any money, but it’s not one of Stockholm’s better museums, and I regret not just coughing up the damn krona and visiting the Nordic Museum instead, as it sounds really good, and really, how often am I going to be in Stockholm?  I guess I’ll consider missing out my penance for cheapness. 2.5/5 for the Medieval Museum.

  

Stockholm: The Swedish History Museum (Historiska Museet)

After dropping an absolute fortune on museums on the first full day of our trip (we saw ABBA the Museum, the Vasa Museum, and Skansen all on the same day), we decided to save some money on the next day by visiting some free museums (so we could spend that money on ice cream, Daim, and cinnamon buns instead, of course). So that’s why we opted to check out Historiska, the Swedish History Museum, which is free, over the Nordic Museum, which is not.

  

It was not located on what I call “Museum Island,” but was on the same island that we were staying on, which appears to be the centre of Stockholm. I think this helped cut down on the crowds, because compared to Skansen and the Vasa Museum, it was almost empty.  We started our visit in the famed “Gold Room” in the basement, which held lots of prehistoric and Viking gold. Unfortunately, I’m not really that interested in prehistory or the Vikings (though I did read Michael Pye’s The Edge of the World, about the history of the North Sea, prior to this trip, and it wasn’t that bad (despite his irritating habit of beginning sentences with “More,” when he meant “moreover” or “additionally,” either of which would have sounded less awkward)), so I could take or leave the gold (I mean, I’ll take gold if anyone’s offering, but I’m not so keen on looking at it).

  

That said, there was a temporary exhibit in here that I did enjoy, even though it took me a little while to understand what was going on. There was a video in one room that featured refugees telling their stories, except there was a big gold square over their faces. In another room, I found a display of precious objects that the refugees had managed to bring with them; for example, one Syrian woman had brought her high school diploma, because her dream was to get a Ph.D, but her education was interrupted by the war, so she hoped that by holding on to her diploma, she’d be able to attend university someday. So then I realised that the video and objects were tied together, and I guess the gold square was the way of tying them into the Gold Room, but it was an odd artistic choice, and I think unnecessary, when they simply could have said something like: “these objects are as precious to them as gold was to the Vikings.”

  

We then headed up to the main galleries, where the sensible thing to do would probably have been to start with prehistory, and work our way up to more modern times, but due to my aforementioned lack of keenness on prehistory, we headed straight upstairs instead to walk through a series of 11 “scenes” representing the 11th-21st centuries. This ended up being my favourite part of the museum; I knew I would like it when they promised a “sensory experience,” which always means there’ll be stuff to smell (maybe even authentic smells), and sure enough, there was a row of spice jars to sniff in the 18th century room.

   

But that wasn’t the only fun to be had in here! You followed a timeline in the floor marking key dates in Swedish history through all the sections, and along the way there were neat artefacts, games, stuff to touch, short videos, and even a quiz to find out whether you were a witch or not (I definitely am, which was not at all a surprise)!  And I learned a lot about Swedish history, which was nice, because I knew next to nothing before visiting.

  

After getting to the 21st century, the gallery led into an art installation about the eugenics movement in Sweden at the start of the 20th century, and all the racist ways other cultures had been represented at museums and universities around the city. This included a huge word map on one wall showing all the people who were propagating these horrible ideas, and the institutions they worked for (this wasn’t a public shaming so much as historical record though, since they’re all dead now), as well as mannequins taken from various old anthropological displays (the kind that still exist in some old museums).

  

There was also a gallery about the Battle of Gotland in 1361, which I had never even heard of before, but it was basically a massacre where Swedish farmers tried to defend themselves against the Danish army, and were slaughtered mercilessly (or so the Swedes say anyway, I’d be interested to know if the Danes see it differently). Their bodies ended up in mass graves, which were excavated in the 1920s, and now many of their remains reside in the museum, which is probably not what they would have wanted (well, they probably would have preferred to not be killed in the first place, so it’s probably a little late to worry about that), but damned if it’s not really cool. They even had videos showing how exactly some of the people were killed or fatally injured (using animation and no blood, so not as gruesome as it sounds) based on the marks in their bones, which I thought was fascinating!

  

Following that, there was a large exhibit containing religious artefacts taken from medieval churches, which I would normally be pretty meh about, but the Swedes didn’t disappoint here either. Some of the altarpieces were amazingly intricate, and my absolute favourite scene is the one on the left, above, which shows people calmly waiting to enter the dragon’s mouth that leads to Hell, with a couple demons acting as bouncers (Hell is apparently the hottest (literally) nightclub in town). There was also a fabulous head of John the Baptist, and a really comfy couch where you could curl up and listen to recordings of medieval organs being played, which were delightfully melancholy sounding.

  

There was a room at the end of this floor explaining how the curators choose the objects that go into the museum, and how they arrange them. I was very interested to see that they had a Buddha that I had just been reading about in that North Sea book in there!  It was also interesting learning about how modern curators feel limited by the 19th century cataloguing system that is still in place at Historiska, and are thus trying to digitise and recategorise all the items so they can tell different kinds of stories.

  

We then headed downstairs to the Viking gallery. I did enjoy the quiz before we entered where we found out which Norse god we were (I’m Odin, the quiz is here if you want to take it too!), but the gallery was more or less what I was expecting. It was undoubtedly well-done, but didn’t really win me over to the Vikings (maybe if there was a pooping Viking, like the one at Jorvik Viking Centre…). It was also really the only crowded part of the museum (they had a range of Viking clothes to try on, but there were way too many kids for me to even get near it), so I moved through here pretty quickly.

  

And straight into prehistory, because we were doing the museum backwards. This actually surprised me by being better than I thought…unlike the usual approach of just having case after case of primitive tools, rocks, bones, or what have you, they made the first section (well, second section if I had walked through correctly) into something inspired by an airport departure lounge (not the one in Stockholm, which was godawful, but a nice one). You went to different “gates” to learn about different topics, and they tied prehistoric civilisations to the modern world by grouping things by themes, such as families, homes, travel, etc, and showing how ancient peoples mirrored the world today.

  

The second part was somewhat more traditional, but had some cool facial reconstructions based on ancient skeletons, and little doors hidden near the bottom of each room that made animal sounds (they were definitely meant for children, but I still bent down and opened every one) that were meant to show what kind of animals prehistoric Swedes would have kept. Most of this section (unlike the rest of the museum) did not offer English translations, except for a brief object guide in each room, so we went pretty quickly through here too.

  

On the whole though, I really liked this museum. It felt very interactive and modern, which they managed to achieve without dumbing anything down or getting rid of actual artefacts (take note NAM!), and I learned a lot!  It also helped that it was one of the least crowded museums we visited, which is surprising, given that it was free and pretty large (but it wasn’t near any other tourist attractions, so a lot of people probably didn’t know about it). I think this was actually my favourite museum out of all the ones we visited in Stockholm (and not just because it was free, though that certainly didn’t hurt). 4.5/5.

 

Stockholm: Skansen

Built in 1891, Skansen is apparently not only the first open air museum in Sweden, it is “the world’s oldest open air museum” (I assume they mean the oldest one still in operation, because it was based on an earlier open air museum in Denmark). It is located on what I’m calling “Museum Island” and we initially weren’t sure if we wanted to visit it, having passed it on the search for a supermarket earlier in the day and seen the queues of people waiting to get in. But, when we returned at mid-afternoon, the crowds had mostly dispersed, so after a fortifying ice cream from one of the stands out front (with rainbow sprinkles, or “strossel” as they’re called in Swedish (which is fun to say)), we decided to take the plunge and check it out.

   

Admission was 180 SEK (nearly 17 pounds), which was another reason for our initial hesitation, but the park is huge. Too big, actually, at least for us at the end of a long day of museuming, because it is built on the side of a hill, and walking around got really tiring really fast. The sun had also decided to make an appearance, and it felt much stronger in Sweden than it is in England, so we had to stop and slather on sunscreen pretty sharpish after entering.

  

Anyway, Skansen was originally built because Artur Hazelius, Swedish folklorist and founder of the nearby Nordic Museum (which we sadly didn’t have time to visit), was concerned that the old way of life was dying out due to industrialisation, and he wanted to preserve some of the traditional trades and buildings while he could. This includes the snus industry, which has a small museum dedicated to it inside the park. In case you don’t know what snus is (are?), because I sure didn’t, it is a kind of moist tobacco that you stick under your upper lip (but is apparently different than dip), and was extremely popular in Sweden until relatively recently, despite the high rates of mouth cancer that occurred as a result. Even though I’m pretty sure the tobacco is flavoured (like something other than tobacco), it still sounds absolutely disgusting to me (and I used to smoke the occasional cigarette, so I’m not completely immune to tobacco’s lure).

   

The museum was not very big, but it had some interesting objects in it (and some excellent mannequins, as you may have noticed). I really liked the collection of “snus dog” boxes, and the surprisingly graphic “erotic” boxes (and I’m not exaggerating the graphicness…definitely don’t enlarge the picture below if you’re at work or something), which were kind of hidden in a case off to the side. I was also interested to learn that snus were a big industry in Chicago, due to the large Swedish population there, and there was even a mock-up of a snus shop in Chicago in the basement.

  

I didn’t notice any snus for sale in the actual museum shop though, which was probably a good thing, though they do still grow tobacco on the premises, and you can even take home a tobacco plant of your very own. All too soon for my liking though, we had to leave the pleasing darkness of the museum, and venture out into the rest of the park (especially bad because I thought I lost my sunglasses at the ABBA Museum, and there was nowhere to buy a new pair on Museum Island, so I had to wait until we got back to “Shopping Island” to get a cheap pair. And of course, about an hour after buying them, I found my old sunglasses buried in the bottom of my bag, so now I have two pairs. But my point is that the sun was really bright, and my eyes were killing me by the end of the day because I thought I didn’t have sunglasses).

  

Fortunately, there was an escalator to take us up into the part of Skansen where all the historic buildings were, so we didn’t actually have to hike up the steepest part of the hill ourselves. I spotted a bakery almost immediately, and I am not one to resist cinnamon buns, old timey or otherwise, so I ended up buying one and also a sugar-coated roll shaped like a pretzel (yeah, I know I had just eaten an ice cream, but we skipped breakfast that day so I was hungry (and hangry)!). Not as good as the oat crunchies at Blists Hill, but still pretty alright. (They had more food stalls in the middle of the park, but they were mainly selling carnival type food, like popcorn, cotton candy, and the ubiquitous Scandinavian hot dogs (ick) and nothing of any real nutritional value (not that cinnamon buns are nutritious, but they are fairly filling).)

  

Unfortunately, the rest of the historical village was just weird, quite frankly. In all my experience of living history museums (which includes the awful summer I did an internship at one), the whole point seems to be, you know, “living” history, in that there are actual people there in costumes to show you how candle dippin’ and wool spinnin’ and things were done. Aside from the bakery, the church, and one of the farm buildings, almost none of the buildings were open, so not only could you not see the interiors, you weren’t “living” anything, because there was no one there to tell you about anything.

  

We seriously wandered around for about an hour, with me pointing out buildings that looked cool, only to find that every single door was padlocked when we got close to them. If the buildings aren’t open at the height of tourist season, then when exactly are they open?

  

Happily, there were a few animal enclosures, because although I’m not crazy about the idea of wild animals being kept in zoos, I do admittedly like looking at them, and they were the high point of the whole experience. We saw lynx, bears, eagle owls, and moose (and looked for the buffalo in vain, but they were being penned up somewhere whilst their enclosure was being cleaned), but my favourites were definitely the reindeer, because there were so many of them, and the babies were pretty damn cute (not so much the adults, who appeared to be molting).

  

After seeing the animals, I was ready to leave, but we still had to wander through more of the park just to get out, and yep, those buildings were all closed too!  We did miss a few sections, because I was so tired of walking around that I couldn’t be bothered anymore, but I highly doubt they were any more interesting than the stuff we did see. From the sheer size of it (and had we gone first thing in the morning, when we had more energy) and all the neat looking buildings there, Skansen had the potential to be really cool, but due to virtually everything being shut, it was actually incredibly boring. I like historical buildings as much as (actually, probably more than) the next person, but most of the fun is in getting to go inside and see how people actually lived in them, instead of just staring at a bunch of exteriors. I enjoyed seeing the reindeer (and eating a cinnamon bun), and the snus museum was OK, but everything else was pretty lame (and their bathrooms were super gross, as you can probably tell from my face. Actually, that face sums up my feelings on Skansen generally), and 17 quid is a lot to spend to essentially just look at a few animals (they did have a few activities available, like carriage rides and a funicular, but you had to pay extra for those, and we’d already wasted enough money). 2/5.

  

 

Stockholm: The Vasa Museum (Vasa Museet)

Stockholm is spread out over something like 17 islands, each with their own distinct character, so, as I hinted at in my last post, I started giving them names to reflect that (different than the Swedish names they already have, because apparently I’m like some kind of jerk Victorian explorer or something). The island that ABBA the Museum shares with Skansen, the Nordic Museum, the Biological Museum, et al, naturally became “Museum Island” (though there are other islands with museums on them, it’s not the same concentration as here). Sadly, because “Museum Island” contains so many popular tourist attractions, it is extremely busy, meaning that our experience at what is arguably Stockholm’s most famous museum was never going to be an entirely pleasant one.

 

The Vasa Museum is built around a ship, the Vasa, which sunk in 1628 only 1300 metres off the coast of Stockholm on what was meant to be its maiden voyage (probably due to being top-heavy). After laying underwater for over three centuries, it was finally raised from the sea in 1961, preserved, which took decades, and eventually became the centrepiece of this museum, which opened in 1990. If you read my post on the Mary Rose a few years ago, this is probably all sounding awfully familiar, and indeed the museums are very similar, which is why I can’t help but compare them throughout.

  

There were long queues just to buy a ticket at the Vasa Museum, but by using the ticket machines, we were able to bypass them. Admission is 130 SEK, or about 12 pounds, which is cheaper than the Historic Dockyard in Portsmouth where the Mary Rose is kept, but you get to see other ships and museums at the Historic Dockyard too (including Nelson’s Victory), so you probably get more for your money there. Anyway, the Vasa Museum is basically just one huge room with the Vasa itself as the centrepiece, with various levels where you can get a view of the ship from different angles and heights and look at some exhibits.

  

The Vasa is in a much better state of preservation than the Mary Rose (the Vasa is about 100 years younger), though this has the unfortunate side effect of meaning you can’t really see inside the ship, other than what you can spy through the gun ports on the lower levels. It’s so fabulous on the outside that I wish I could have seen the inside too, and although they have re-created the officers’ quarters and one of the gun decks upstairs, it’s not as good as getting to see the whole of the interior.

  

As far as the exhibits themselves went, I think they would have been decent enough (but not great) had the museum been less crowded. The main floor contained a splendid collection of figureheads that I think were meant to be replicas of ones on the ship, though I couldn’t actually get close enough through the hordes to see for sure (everything was in Swedish and English, so that wasn’t an issue).

  

There was also a small set of tableaux off to one side re-creating scenes in the history of the ship, which were exactly the kind of thing I love, or would have loved, if again, there weren’t so many damn people that I couldn’t even wriggle in and get a picture with that gawping woman (I think she was watching the ship sink) without someone blocking me.

  

I was actually kind of fascinated by the section about how the ship was re-discovered and salvaged, simply because I hadn’t realised that people still used those kind of creepy old-school diving suits in the 1960s (though I guess I should have known, because there’s that scary claw suit guy in For Your Eyes Only, and that was in the ’80s. Apparently they’re still used for some things, but made of more modern materials). I also didn’t know that diving bells had been invented by the mid-17th century, when they were used to bring Vasa‘s cannons up to the surface.

  

One of the upper levels contained some objects that had been found on the ship, though there didn’t appear to be quite as many as were on the Mary Rose, or at least, they weren’t discussed in as much detail.  I remember the Mary Rose Museum had a lot of quotidian objects, and they talked about the sort of people they would have belonged to, which was really interesting, but the Vasa Museum seemed to have mostly weapons and stuff, and not as many personal items.  However, the Mary Rose had been in service for 34 years before sinking, whereas the Vasa didn’t even really make it out of port, so there probably wasn’t as much stuff accumulated on board.

  

Another one of the levels was about what was happening in Sweden at the time of the Vasa, and included some most excellent portraits. One of them showed a Polish nobleman from that time, and explained that one of the carvings on the ship was of a Polish man being crushed under the boot of a Swede, and that they could tell he was meant to be Polish on account of his distinctive mustache and eyebrows (I’ve got a fair bit of Polish ancestry, and though I don’t have the mustache (yet, anyway), I do pretty much have the unibrow if I stop plucking, so maybe they weren’t just being racist?). I learned that Sweden and Poland were at war a lot in the 17th century (my knowledge of most continental European history is abysmal (I know a bit about Western Europe, but almost nothing about Eastern Europe or Scandinavia)), and the Poles were even blamed for the sinking of the Vasa.

  

I have to admit that one of the highlights of the museum for me was a video that was definitely intended for children, about a piglet called Lindbom, apparently based on a children’s book. Lindbom ends up on board the Vasa, where he is about to be eaten, but manages to escape in the end, aided by the ship sinking. I literally stood there for ten minutes watching this video, just to make sure Piglet Lindbom was OK (he was very cute).

  

The other highlight was the osteoarchaeology section, which included the bones of some of the people who died aboard the ship, along with explanations of who they might have been and what conditions they were suffering from, and facial reconstructions of some of them. I took an online course in osteoarchaeology last year, and while I am definitely no expert (osteoarchaeology is hard!), it was nice to review some of what I’d learned. Plus skeletons are just cool, and facial reconstructions always crack me up.

  

Other than the people they’d done reconstructions for (ten people, including one woman and one person of indeterminate sex who may have been a woman), I felt like there wasn’t that much information about the people who might have been on board the ship, which is a shame, because that was what I loved most about the Mary Rose Museum, though maybe this was partly because only 30 people died aboard the Vasa, whereas almost everyone on the Mary Rose died, so there wasn’t as much osteoarchaeological evidence available for the Vasa.

  

Also, while there was definitely a pretty good explanation of the techniques they used to conserve the wood on the ship, Marcus mentioned that he thought they didn’t really seem to say how the ship was actually repaired, because it can’t have been as intact as it is now when they found it. For example, they mentioned that all the bolts in the ship had to be replaced, but didn’t say how they actually did it, just what the new bolts were made from.  They did attempt to explain how the ship was originally built, back in the 17th century, but even that wasn’t very clear to me, since they seemed to skip some steps.

  

So we both thought that the content was somewhat lacking (while there were some explanations provided, we both wanted more), and the crowds really did have a detrimental effect on our experience, as many of the people were particularly annoying about not moving out of the way (one guy was standing there for five minutes taking pictures of the same small section of the ship, even though we were clearly standing there waiting to get closer). I feel like the Mary Rose Museum went into a lot more detail about both the people on board the ship, and the ship itself, while the Vasa Museum only skimmed the surface of its fascinating story (though part of the problem (in addition to the factors already mentioned) could be that I know WAY more about British history, so maybe they had the same amount of historical background, I just needed a lot more about Sweden because I don’t know much about it). But the ship is absolutely fantastic, no doubt about that, it’s just that the museum doesn’t quite match the Vasa‘s glory. 3/5.

 

Stockholm, Sweden: ABBA The Museum

After spending most of an unusually hot summer working in an even hotter brewery (on days when we had the mash kettle heating and the pasteurisation tanks on, it got up to nearly 100 degrees Fahrenheit in there (37 Celsius)), boy, was I ready for a holiday (actually, I quit my awful job so now every day’s a holiday until I find something new, which hopefully won’t take as long as it took to find that job)!  And preferably, a holiday somewhere relatively cool, because I really do not cope well with heat, which pretty much left out everything south of Scandinavia and the Baltic states. I initially quite liked the idea of Estonia and Finland, but we couldn’t find any flight deals, so Stockholm it was!  Which actually worked out perfectly, because the weather was pleasingly cool (in the shade, almost too cold without a jacket), and it meant I got to visit one of my dream destinations: ABBA The Museum!

  

You might think I’m being sarcastic, because maybe I don’t really seem like the sort of person who would love ABBA, but I genuinely do (I’m also way more into Eurovision than I should be, which is probably also ABBA’s fault). And though I knew that ABBA The Museum would be super overpriced (I mean, c’mon, you can tell from the name alone), I didn’t even care. If I was going to Stockholm, nothing was going to stop me from seeing it.

  

Based on the crowds I’d seen the night before when we walked around the Old Town, I knew July was prime tourist season, and I wanted to ensure that other tourists didn’t ruin my ABBA experience, so we got there right after it opened, even though we had to skip the free breakfast at the hotel to do so (and they had Swedish pancakes on that buffet, so it was a sacrifice, though I made up for it by eating obnoxious amounts of them the next two mornings). This was a smart move, because there were only a handful of visitors in the museum, and we didn’t have to wait for any of the activities, but by the time we left, there was already a queue to get in (it’s located on the same island as a bunch of other museums, so it attracts loads of visitors). And boy, was it ever expensive!  250 SEK, which is about 22 quid. A LOT more than I’d normally drop on a museum, but when in Stockholm…

  

Since the entire museum was in Swedish and English, we did not rent audio guides, but simply headed into the museum, which began on the floor below the admissions hall with an exhibition about Eurovision, including an array of famous costumes worn at the competition from Sweden and beyond (most notably the hideous tutu/blazer combo Celine Dion wore when she won it for Switzerland in 1988). There was also a Eurovision quiz, a chance to sing along with some Eurovision hits in front of everyone (which I was way too embarrassed to do), and some screens where you could watch videos of seemingly all the Eurovision grand final competitors, maybe since the competition started(?). I was too eager to get to the actual ABBA bit to find out how far back their Eurovision archives went, but I did stay to watch one of my favourite Eurovision contestants in recent memory – Sunstroke Project and their infamous thrusting saxophonist, representing Moldova. They originally competed in 2010 (video here), and though they didn’t come close to winning, they were such a fan favourite that they came back again this year, much to my delight!

  

After getting my fill of terrible Moldovan music, I ran down another flight of stairs into the museum proper, and it was pretty much an instant ABBA assault (as I was hoping). It opened with a giant semi-circular movie screen showing clips of all ABBA’s hits, and there were TV screens in pretty much every room blasting out more ABBA. The first gallery was really the only traditional museum room with lots of text. There was a biography for each member of ABBA before they all got together, as well as a few key ABBA artefacts, like the guitar Bjorn used when they won Eurovision in 1974 (which is what really put ABBA on the map).

  

The next room, in addition to containing a ’70s style crime against wallpaper, held the infamous ABBA phone. Supposedly, only the members of ABBA have the number, so if it ever rings and you pick it up, you will be talking to either Agnetha, Bjorn, Benny, or Frida, but somehow I highly doubt that it has ever actually rung. And if it had when I was there, I imagine it would have been a very awkward conversation, because what the hell am I going to say to ABBA anyway?

  

It was the next section where things really started to get fun. In addition to ABBA’s recording studio (either a replica, or they dismantled the whole damn thing and reassembled it, I didn’t really pay attention), it had three main interactive stations. The clever thing about this museum is that you had to keep hold of your ticket the whole time, and scan it for access to the activities, meaning everyone only got one try at everything and they couldn’t stand there hogging things all day!  Also, everything you did was recorded and loaded onto your own personal private page on the museum website, accessed by entering in your ticket number, which made for cringe-worthy viewing after we left. The first activity was simply to mix one of ABBA’s songs, and try to make it sound as good as the actual version, which was not easy.

  

Then, there were karaoke booths where you could sing along with ABBA songs to see if you had the chops to become the fifth member of ABBA (though not really, because they’re broken up). Fortunately, these were fairly private booths with a curtain that closed behind you, so I felt free to belt it out. As much as I would love to be the fifth member of ABBA (we would be called JABBA, obviously), my singing voice is terrible and I know it, so I don’t see it happening. I made up for my disappointment by going on to the next activity, which scanned my face and then “dressed” me in some of ABBA’s most famous outfits. I don’t think I can pull off Agnetha’s number, but I genuinely quite like Frida’s dress and hair on me (on the right, above). Maybe it’s time for a new hairstyle?

  

After walking past a hall of more ABBA-artefacts, we entered a rather confusing room which was dark and contained a stage. I think we were supposed to get up on the stage and dance around with ABBA holograms or something, but there was a women who worked there who was standing in the corner, ignoring us and staring at her phone, and since I didn’t really know what to do, and didn’t particularly want her watching me while I did whatever it was, we skipped it and moved on to the next section.

   

Which somewhat made up for missing the holograms (or whatever), because we got to be in an ABBA music video (we picked “Chiquitita” solely because of the creepy snowman in the background). And let me tell you, watching the video of us halfheartedly dancing around is way more cringing than listening to the karaoke, even (see above for evidence of my dancing ability, or lack thereof). Still fun though.

  

There was also an ABBA quiz, wax figures of ABBA, and some creepy ABBA puppets that came from some music video I’ve never seen before. The ABBA part of the museum concluded with a gallery of the actual costumes they wore on stage, and though many of them were remarkably ugly, I did dig the fox dress and of course the cat outfits, which were for sale in t-shirt version in the gift shop; and finally, there was a brief acknowledgement that the group had indeed broken up (and gotten divorced) long ago, though this clearly wasn’t something the museum was trying to dwell on (I guess ABBA lives forever in here).

  

The museum also contained a temporary exhibition about the musical artists that have performed at Grona Lund over the years (an amusement park that is literally next door to the museum), but as I have never been to Grona Lund (it was expensive just to get in, and then you had to pay for rides on top of it), I wasn’t terribly interested. I should also note that the museum contained the only clean public toilets that I encountered in Sweden, possibly because I was one of the first people to use them that day, but still, take advantage if you need to, because the other options on Museum Island are grim.

  

The gift shop felt more like a merch table at a concert than a museum gift shop, with prices to match, but they did have some excellent ABBA shirts, and I splurged and bought myself one of the aforementioned cat shirts (Frida’s version, simply because the yellow cat was derpier than the blue one, and thus obviously superior). So counting the shirt, I ended up spending about 50 quid here (not counting Marcus’s ticket), which is definitely a lot of money, but relative to what we paid to see some of the other museums in Stockholm, I can’t really complain too much (and at least I left with a wearable souvenir!). It might be light on content, but the interactive elements genuinely were a blast (except for the one I skipped on account of the unhelpful employee), and if you’re an ABBA fan, I think this is a must!  Non-fans can of course skip it, because you probably won’t get much out of it, though even Marcus admitted that he had fun here, just maybe not 22 quid’s worth of fun. I’m so happy I finally got to go though, and it did very much live up to expectations (including the overpriced part, but at least I was expecting it, so I wasn’t that bothered). 4/5.

 

Turin: National Cinema Museum

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On our last day in Italy, we only had time to visit one museum in Turin (it was a long drive back to Geneva), and like any normal person, I was having a difficult time deciding between the enormous and renowned National Cinema Museum or some smelly old gunpowder tunnels (ok, the fact that I was strongly leaning towards the tunnels means that I am NOT normal, but regular readers already knew that anyway).  Fortunately, the voice of reason (aka my boyfriend) prevailed, and the Cinema Museum it was (the glowing review on Misadventures with Michael also helped).

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The museum offers a number of different ticket combinations, mostly based on whether you want to go up to the roof or not.  It’s 10 euros just to see the museum, or 14 if you want to see the museum and access the roof by either lift or stairs.  Now, the museum is housed in a beautiful 19th century building with a cupola, and is probably about ten stories high, so I’m not sure how many hundreds of stairs are involved, but if the scenic glass elevator is the same price, why wouldn’t you take it?  Admittedly, there was a bit of a queue, but we only waited about 15 minutes to go up, so it wasn’t too terrible.  And yes, the views of Turin are pretty good, but the coolest part was getting to see the interior of the museum via lift, because the main floor has a lot of cool features and the other floors are made up of walkways that wrap around the building, so there’s a lot to look at.

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Once we’d left the lift and made our way over to the museum proper, our experience began with a look through the beginnings of cinema, before the advent of cameras, when things relied on shadowboxes, puppets, or silhouettes (which I always want to pronounce sil-you-ettes a la Bert in Mary Poppins).  There were any number of interactive things here showing you how light and lenses worked, and (my favourite part) little peepshows of stereoscope type cards you could flip through (there was a sexy red lit “adults only” room of Victorian pornography, but I was partial to the devil and skeleton themed set).

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Actually, I just lied, my absolute favourite favourite part was a phantasmagoria magic lantern show that we stumbled upon by chance when we peeked under a curtain (ok, there was a clearly marked entrance, but we hadn’t gotten to that part of the museum yet).  This began with creepy creaking door sounds, and progressed to a veritable cornucopia of ghosts and demons, and a man who got beheaded but calmly carried on rolling his head along in a wheelbarrow.  It was like a combination of the best bits of laff-in-the-dark rides and old fashioned haunted house effects, and I think I want a set of slides for my own house to project this shit on the walls and freak people out (not that I have ever visitors, probably because of reasons like this).  It was that good.

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The gallery progressed on to cover early films, with a viewing room where you could watch some of them (I should mention that everything in the museum had an English translation).  I tend to love anything Victoriany, so you can see why this whole section, titled the Archaeology of Film, was so appealing.

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However, the main floor also had its moments.  As near as I could work out, it was made up of composites of different film sets; or at least, sets that represented different genres of film.  So there was a kind of mad scientist room, a Western room, a musical room, a cartoon room, and many more.

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And a “poo room” with toilets.  I’m not even sure what the deal is with that one.  I don’t think we looked around this floor correctly, as we entered the first set, and then just kept crossing from set to set, rather than going out the entrances and exits, so I think we missed the descriptions of what some of the rooms were.

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The most awesome thing about this floor, without a doubt, is that golden demon looking thing you see me standing with on the right.  His name is Moloch, and he is a Phoenician god featured in the 1914 silent Italian film Cabiria; not being any kind of film buff I had never heard of this, but apparently people got sacrificed to him, so perhaps I shouldn’t have gotten so close.

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The upper floors, despite there being about 4 of them, were unfortunately not very interesting, as they were all about Italian cinema, and I genuinely don’t think I have ever watched an Italian film in my life (French, sure, because we used to have to watch them in French class in school, but I’ve never taken Italian).  You access them via that aforementioned sloped walkway that wraps around the building, so it is a lot of walking for not very much useful content.

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However, there was a whole section we very nearly missed seeing.  At the top of the stairs, before we entered the walkway, there was a curtain with a bunch of security staff standing in front of it, so we initially ignored it.  On the way back down we noticed some people going in, so we braved the guards and followed them through.  Turns out there was a whole floor of movie memorabilia and film posters hidden back there, which just goes to show you should ALWAYS pay attention to what’s behind the curtain.

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I’m not a Star Wars fan, at all (except for Halloween themed Jabba the Hut dolls, if you’ve been looking at my Instagram) but even I can see that poster is hilariously inaccurate.  Other than that, the highlights were probably Christopher Reeve’s cape from Superman, some of Marilyn Monroe’s clothes, an original mock-up of one of the T Rex scenes in Jurassic Park, and Robocop himself.  I’m not really that into movies, other than ’80s comedies, a handful of musicals (starring either Gene Kelly or Julie Andrews, or, erm, Whoopie Goldberg (yeah, I love Sister Act. Deal with it)), cheesy campy horror films like Evil Dead (the original version only), and Indiana Jones (my god I love Indiana Jones), so most of this didn’t do much for me, but I can see how other people would think it was cool.

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Considering they didn’t have anything from Dead/Alive or Hocus Pocus and I still enjoyed it as much as I did, the National Cinema Museum must have really been pretty decent.  Since I am the exact opposite of a film buff, all the ghost-type stuff in the Archaeology of Film section was my favourite by far, but I think most people who appreciate movies not starring Chevy Chase or Bruce Campbell would love this place.  It was superbly put together, and the building itself is attractive.  There is also a large shopping complex thing on the ground floor, with a gift shop (they have Moloch postcards and magnets, so we stocked up on both), a small branch of Eataly (the very expensive Italian gourmet food store; I’d recommend visiting the main store just outside the centre of Turin, not so much to buy things as to just admire all the types of pasta, but their gelato is reasonably priced and very tasty), and free wifi, so you could probably kill quite a lot of time in here if you were so inclined.  I’m going to give it 4.5/5, because I’m not that interested in cinema and I liked it regardless, so most people will probably love it.

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