London

London: Grayson Perry’s “The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever!” @ the Serpentine + A Few Random Art Exhibitions

Whew, that’s a long title, isn’t it?  I have more Dorset posts, but this post covers a couple exhibitions that are ending in the near future, so I wanted to get to them first while there’s still a chance to visit them if people are interested. I recently went to go see Grayson Perry’s new exhibition at the Serpentine, and used it as an opportunity to do a whole day of arty stuff around London (I might have gotten an ice cream and a bubble tea too. It was a hot day, and I needed the energy!). I’ll talk about Perry’s exhibition first, and get to the rest later.

  

I first encountered Grayson Perry when he was a panellist on Have I Got News for You way back in 2009, when he appeared as his alter-ego “Claire.” Not being up on the modern art scene, I’d never heard of him before, and I didn’t know quite what to make of him. But then I finally saw some of his art: tapestries at the Foundling Museum back in 2014, and I had to admit that they were really pretty cool. I’ve since been to a couple more of his exhibitions, and watched a few of his TV specials, and now I’d definitely consider myself a fan – after watching his recent TV programme about Brexit, where he made vases representing “Leave” and “Remain,” Marcus and I were keen to see the vases in person, so when we learned they’d be at the Serpentine, in Hyde Park, along with some other select pieces, we headed out to see the exhibition about a week after it opened.

  

“The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever!” runs until the 10 September, and is free, although there is an opportunity to donate via a piggy bank Perry created with different slots to represent different identities – you could choose the slot you felt best represented you.  Although I’ve of course been to Hyde Park before, I’d never actually been inside the Serpentine Gallery, and I’m glad I managed to visit on a weekday, because I bet this exhibition lives up to its self-consciously grandiose title by being absolutely rammed on the weekends. As it was, it was plenty busy on a weekday, though not to the point where we had to queue or anything.

  

Perry’s chosen media are typically ceramic pots and tapestries, and there were plenty of both in here. What I particularly love about his work is how detailed it is – he often uses collages, and you really have to walk completely around each of his pieces to appreciate every element.  There’s often a fair bit of text incorporated within the pieces as well, which I can appreciate as someone who’s generally drawn more towards books than art.

  

But there were also a few other types of art in this exhibit, my favourites being the custom designed motorcycle with a special box for Perry’s teddy, Alan Measles, in the back (Alan Measles is a recurring motif in Perry’s art), and the “Marriage Shrine” with figures of Perry and his wife. I’d love something like that in my house (or garden, if I had one)!

I also had to laugh at the “Kateboard,” above, which is a skateboard deck with an image of Kate Middleton on it, and there were some excellent woodcuts, including the one pictured at the opening of the post, which features Perry himself.

  

And the Brexit vases (above) were of course excellent, though my favourite vase was actually the first one in this post, showing Trump, Farage, Theresa May, Boris, Corbyn, et al all worshiping Alan Measles.  But I really enjoyed almost every piece in this exhibition, which is a rarity for me and modern art, as you all know. It’s certainly very timely (it actually opened on the day of the general election, which was an exciting one for me as it was the first election since I’ve become a British citizen, so I actually got to vote! Not that it did much good in decidedly Tory Wimbledon, but still), and I highly recommend going to see it if you get the chance. 4.5/5.

  

We went to see two other exhibitions the same day, both of them at art galleries (and as gallery installations are so fleeting, I’m not going to bother to give them a rating). I normally shy away from galleries because I’m slightly intimidated by them; it seems like whenever I walk into one, there’s just some harried person talking on the phone at the back of the gallery who completely ignores my presence, and I feel really unwelcome. But I saw these listed in Time Out London, and I was intrigued enough to take a chance (albeit with Marcus for backup; I’m still too intimidated to do it on my own).

  

The first was Ann Craven’s Animals 1999-2017, at Southard Reid in Soho, which ends on 24 June.  This was a collection of animal paintings inspired by Youtube and memes and things. I can’t really complain about adorable paintings of kittens and deer, so I enjoyed it, even though the woman working there was indeed on the phone when we walked in, and we felt pretty awkward the whole time we were there. The gallery is also hidden down some pretentiously named “Royalty Mews” off of Dean Street that we accidentally walked right past the first time around, which made the experience that much more awkward, because it wasn’t the kind of place you could pop in whilst passing – you had to actively seek it out.

  

The other exhibition was Wayne Thiebaud’s retrospective 1962-2017 at White Cube Mason’s Yard, near Green Park, which ends 2 July and was poshly intimidating enough that I was worried about walking in wearing shorts and a tank top, with all my tattoos exposed. But except for the stern looking security guard in one of the galleries, it was fine. I wanted to see this one because I read that most of his paintings were of desserts, and indeed, food and landscapes were pretty much the themes.

  

I did like some of his paintings (particularly those of ice cream and doughnuts), and the layered paint effect was kind of cool, but I’m still not really enough of a fan of the gallery experience to be won over to doing this sort of thing very frequently in the future.

  

The last “arty” experience I wanted to mention, while I’m on the subject, was something I did a couple of weeks ago. It was part of the Merge Festival in Bankside, which seems to have been held quite early this year for some reason (I think it’s normally in September). I saw (in Time Out, yet again, because I’ve been reading the print edition every week lately on the train) that there was an opportunity to have your portrait drawn by a robot for free, if you booked a slot in advance, and for once I managed to book while there were still openings.

The actual name of the event was “Machine Studies” by Patrick Tresset, and what he’d done was create three robot arms that drew three separate pictures of you while you sat still and posed, as you would for a conventional portrait. This meant sitting perfectly still for over half an hour, which I realised I am incredibly bad at. An eyelash fell into my eye only about ten minutes in, and though I tried my best to blink it out, I eventually just had to rub my eye, which I think is why my one eye is blurry in some of the portraits. You can see the finished drawings above, and I think they’re quite cool, even with the wonky eye. If you’re familiar with (were traumatised by as a child, more like) the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books, Stephen Gammell’s illustrations are what I think the middle portrait looks like. I’m kind of like the girl who had a spider lay eggs in her face without her realising until all the spider babies exploded out. (Link here, but don’t click unless you want to be kind of grossed out. And bear in mind, these books were intended for children, and this is definitely one of the less scary drawings in them. No wonder I was so nightmare-prone.) You had a choice of buying your portraits for something like 150 quid each, or leaving them there to be part of the exhibition, so you can probably guess which I chose. At least I was able to get a few good photos of them first though!  And it was definitely a neat experience, though somewhat marred by the fact that the London Bridge attack occurred the same night, not very far from where the installation was located (though fortunately I’d been home for hours before it happened) – as a result, it was closed on what would have been its final day (and now there’s been the Grenfell Tower fire, and the Finsbury Park attack. London’s having a tough time of it lately).

Anyway, that’s it for the artistic interlude; I’ll carry on with more Dorset museums next week.

 

 

 

London: Russian Revolution; Hope, Tragedy, Myths @ the British Library

For the United Russia, 1919.

When I was unexpectedly given a Wednesday off work (albeit without pay, but hell, I’ll take it. Anything is better than being at work!), my first plan was to go home, change back into my jimjams, and catch up on some reading, but then I thought, “nah, I’m already dressed and out of the house, might as well make the most of it!” So, even though it was a bleak, rainy day, I had a great time. I went up to Golders Green to restock my bagel supply (whatever I don’t eat fresh, I throw in the freezer for bagel emergencies), got roti canai for lunch at the Roti King, and, most importantly for the purposes of this blog, decided to go see the new exhibition at the British Library.

The Happy Worker in Sovdepia, 1918. (From the Electronic Museum of Russian Posters)

Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths opened at the end of April, and runs until 29 August 2017.  At £13.50, admission is not cheap, but if you go with someone you can get a National Rail 2-for-1 deal (with valid train ticket), or you can get half price admission with a National Art Pass. Honestly, the British Library is one of the few places where I don’t worry overmuch about the expenditure, because I know their exhibitions are of a consistently high quality (that said, I did still use the 2-for-1, because £6.75 buys a lot of bagels).

The Godless at the Workbench, 1923.

And indeed, “Russian Revolution” was no exception. In keeping with the theme, most of the decor inside the exhibit space was red. After an initial slog through a slow-moving crowd of people to look at the displays in the first section, I was relieved that the exhibit then took me through a maze-like structure of red plastic-mounted photographs (it looked better than my description makes it sound) of the Revolution with displays hidden here and there amongst the structure, which seemed to really cut down on crowds building up for some reason (maybe people were getting lost? Though it wasn’t really a maze…).

Retribution for the Reds, 1919-1920. (From the Hoover Poster Collection)

Ostensibly, the exhibition was divided up into sections including “The Tsar and his People,” “Last Days of the Monarchy,” “Civil War,” “The Bolsheviks in Power,” “Threat or Inspiration,” and “Writing the Revolution,” though the ordering was more chronological than anything, which makes sense when you look at most of the section titles. It was only the last two galleries that felt thematically defined, and saying “gallery” where “Writing the Revolution” is concerned is a bit of a stretch, because I’m pretty sure it was just a single glass case full of books at the end of the exhibition.

Retreating, the Whites are Burning Crops, 1918-1920. (From the British Library)

As is typical with British Library exhibitions, there were some fantastic artefacts here (I’d love to have a look in the bowels of their archives…I can only imagine the incredible stuff they’ve got stashed away). Near the start of the exhibit, there was a first edition of the Communist Manifesto (which I couldn’t see very well because some guy was hogging the case) and Lenin’s original Reader’s Ticket from the British Library, issued to him under the alias Jacob Richter, which he used when he was living in London in 1902 whilst on the run from the Tsarist Police, as well as the letter he wrote to the library requesting the pass. I’ll say this for the man; he might have turned into a monster once he got into power, but he did have extremely clear handwriting.

Rasputin, New Starviken, April 1917. (From the British Library)

There were also various copies of rare Soviet books that had been mostly destroyed during purges, maps galore, letters from other prominent Bolsheviks (though not as easy to read as Lenin’s, since they were written in Russian), and even some ceramics (just as good as the plate I mentioned in “Imagine Moscow”), but the best thing by far was the propaganda posters. They shoved so many of them in here, and they were all really fantastic, as you may have been noticing (because the BL never allows photography inside their exhibitions, I’ve chosen to illustrate the post with some of them, with sources credited when known). My favourite was probably the one with a very crudely drawn Rasputin (see above), which was actually from the cover of a satirical magazine, but they were all great, though the Trotsky one below is disturbingly anti-Semitic.

Peace and Freedom in Soviet Russia, Trotsky the Red Devil.

I have to admit, when it comes to analysing the exhibition as a whole, rather than just describing individual objects, it’s been a bit of a struggle to put into words exactly what I mean (I’ve re-written this paragraph about ten times, and it’s still not great). Although the exhibition undoubtedly did have a narrative, it was also simultaneously perhaps a bit vague? I guess what I mean is that if I had to grade the content of the exhibition as if it were an essay, it would earn some points for stating all the relevant facts, but maybe lose points on interpretation. Basically, the exhibition did a great job of explaining the many catalysts that led to the Revolution (though perhaps another problem was that they didn’t make enough of a distinction between the February Revolution and the October Revolution, or spend enough time explaining what happened in the period between the two), but I still left feeling unsure how they all came together to give Russia that one last push into open revolt, and how the Bolsheviks managed to step in and seize power when some of the earlier experiments in moving away from autocracy were more democratic in nature (it is thus perhaps unsurprising that I only got a “C” when I took Russian history). However, I don’t know if this is an issue with the exhibit so much as my own reading comprehension (or lack thereof), since I did skim over some of the captions in places, or maybe my lack of understanding is because in retrospect, it’s difficult to see the appeal of communism. Which is not to say that I didn’t learn anything (the section about the civil wars was particularly interesting, because I’d somehow missed all that in that Russian history class (and now I’m kind of impressed that I even managed to pull off that “C.” I probably deserved a “D.”)), just that I felt that the exhibition could have done with more explanation in places, though then I suppose it would run the risk of being overly text-heavy.

Go and Save Them! 1918-20. (From the V&A)

Other than that quibble, and my issue with the layout of the first section of the exhibit space, which caused traffic to block up (especially when some woman decided to stop right in front of the display case and watch a video, instead of maybe stepping slightly to the side so she would have been out of everyone’s way), there was still so much to like here. The exhibit managed to pinpoint exactly when the Bolsheviks turned from all their lofty ideals and theories (which, let’s face it, were ultimately about them maintaining power) into just massacring people who disagreed with them, and it was chilling, but also fascinating. The artefacts chosen were also excellent, and the whole exhibition really did paint a magnificent picture of what went wrong with Russia in both the Tsarist and early Soviet days, even though I’m still hazy on some of the finer details of the Russian Revolution itself. 4/5 – a very enjoyable way to spend a day off!

Dimitrii Moor, Alphabet of a Red Army Soldier 1921. Text Reads: The earth burns, set alight by the worker’s hand. (From the British Library)

 

London: The National Army Museum

After being closed for several years for a complete revamp, the National Army Museum has recently re-opened. Having never visited the old museum, I can’t say how this new version compares, but I can at least give you my thoughts (of which there are many) on the new museum.

  

I should confess that I have a bit of a history with the National Army Museum. I very briefly volunteered there a couple of years ago, but compared to the work I did on the local history project I also volunteered on, it felt like the stuff they were giving me to do was simply busywork, and I couldn’t stand working in an open plan office. So I quit after about three weeks, but in my short time there, I had gotten to look at a plan of the new museum, so I had some idea of what to expect.

  

Sadly, the grand vision I had viewed didn’t seem to reflect the reality. First of all, there was the museum building itself. It is not attractive, but under ordinary circumstances, this might have gone unnoticed. However, the museum is located right next door to the stately Royal Hospital Chelsea (see above images), which in addition to being huge, is also very easy on the eyes (and contains a number of intriguing sights that are visible from outside the gates, including a statue of a Chelsea pensioner raising his cane in the air, as though he’s about to go Andrew Jackson on somebody’s ass, a cemetery with a tombstone featuring a carving of a helmet from a suit of medieval armour, a bench with a sculpture of a Chelsea pensioner dozing on it, an adorable statue of an elephant dressed as a Chelsea pensioner, and of course the pensioners themselves, who still wear those distinctive long red coats when they’re out and about), so the museum’s ugly modern boxiness is glaring in comparison. Clearly, any renovations only took place on the museum’s interior.

  

And unfortunately, the interior didn’t immediately catch the eye either. While I did enjoy the statue of a desert rat that I spotted on the lower level, and there are bright colours in some of the upstairs galleries, the thing directly in my eye line upon entering was the museum’s shop, which was small and drab (the museum is free, so you would think they’d make more of an effort in the shop to try to bring in some revenue). The museum is spread out over 3-5 floors (depends whether you count sub-floors as their own floors, or whether the cafe, which was on its own level, counts as a floor), but the only actual gallery on the ground floor is the “Soldier Gallery.” This is one of the galleries I vaguely recalled reading about when I was a volunteer, the conceit behind it being that people enter through one of two gates, based on whether or not they think they could be a soldier, learn more about the life of a soldier in the gallery, and then have to go through the same gates at the end of the gallery, so they can see if their answers changed.

  

I think this probably worked better in concept than in execution, because I was not overly impressed with this gallery. The most immediately obvious problem was with the appearance of the space itself. There was very dim lighting in here, which gave everything in the gallery a weird and unpleasant yellowish-brown tinge.  The other problem was what I perceived as the dumbing-down of the museum. Most of the text in here was fairly limited, and included quotes from soldiers on these huge, large-print signs. Which I suppose is nice for people with visual impairments, but it made me feel like I was walking through the museum equivalent of a picture-book (not knocking picture-books (especially Frog and Toad, who are the subjects of my latest tattoo), I just expect a little more text in a museum that wants to attract adults as well as children). They had clearly tried to introduce a fair number of interactive elements, but the trouble was that most of them were being repaired, or were in use by the many, many children also visiting that day.

  

The other issue was that though this section had a number of fascinating objects, the museum appeared to be doing their best to hide them!  Instead of being an artefact-driven exhibit, this was image driven, and all of the actual artefacts were shunted off into ill-lit cases around the gallery, so photographs, computer screens, and those huge text bubbles could take centre-stage.

  

This was a real shame, because among the object cases, I found stuff like a penny that had saved a soldier’s life by taking the impact of a bullet during the Battle of Waterloo, Wellington’s shaving mirror, the actual frost-bitten fingers and toes of a soldier who’d lost them whilst climbing Everest, the taxidermied body of Crimean Tom (a cat from the Crimean War), and the leg bones of a soldier who’d had his leg amputated and saved the bones so he could be buried with them when he died (so I have no idea why they’re in this museum). Unfortunately, all these awesome things were accompanied by the bare minimum of text, and in many instances, I had to hunt to find even that, because all the information was placed to the sides of the cases, with no numbering put on the objects, so you had to squint at the pictures to match things up. Not an easy feat given the poor lighting, and objects like the leg bones and bullet, for example, were hidden away in a hallway so dark that I’m pretty sure they didn’t want visitors to actually notice them at all.

  

Progressing upstairs, we entered the art gallery, which despite also being very dark (perhaps more understandable in this case to preserve the paintings, though most art museums manage to have brighter lights than this), was probably the best gallery in the museum, because it felt the most like a traditional museum gallery. Also, there were a lot of really cool paintings, including many from the First World War, and even a couple from the American Revolution, which I was even more interested to see than usual, because I was reading Nathaniel Philbrick’s excellent Valiant Ambition at the time. No complaints about this gallery!

  

However, it segued into a gallery about the history of the British Army, and there were more issues here. For something that was meant to tell us the history of the army, it was remarkably light on actual history. There was a timeline at the start, but it petered out somewhere around James II, and I never really learned how the army evolved into what it is today (and all the difficult-to-decipher pie charts on the wall (they used too many damn colours!) didn’t really help matters). Most of the exhibit was dominated by these cases full of mannequins wearing various regimental uniforms (a small child was terrified by them, and refused to approach them, which I am mean enough to have found funny), but only the type of uniform was listed on the case; for additional information, you had to turn to a computer screen.

  

The same applied to the artefact cases on the back wall, only they were even worse. These didn’t have an object label of any kind, it was ALL on the computer screens. This is the same issue I had with the In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres, but I’ll repeat myself, because that was a while ago. While trying to boost interactivity with touchscreens is great in theory, the problem is that if you only have one screen for each display, only one person can look at it at a time, and if they hog it, as people are wont to do, you won’t get to learn anything. Also, the contents of each case were divided between a couple of different touchscreens, and it wasn’t always clear which screen you needed to scroll through to get the information you wanted. I can’t help but feel that a much more sensible solution would be to put basic information right on the cases, like a normal, old-school museum, and have additional information available on touchscreens, for those who want it. That way everyone will at least have some idea of what they’re looking at, and will have the option of learning more if they choose to do so.

  

There were two galleries on the top floor, “Society and the Army,” and “Battle.” I preferred “Society”, because it was the only space in the museum that was well-lit (you could actually read all the labels, and everything had a label! Brilliant!), and I have to confess that getting to try on a royal guard outfit, and looking at that hilarious Sgt. Potato poster didn’t hurt either. I’m not quite sure if they did enough to show how the army impacts the rest of society when there’s not a war on, but it was a better attempt than most of the other galleries.

 

“Battle,” I feel, was mostly aimed at people who really like looking at heavy-duty weaponry and already know a fair bit about how those weapons work, because the labels were fairly basic and left me in the dark (literally, because we were back to the poorly lit galleries again), and that’s what 70% of the cases in here contained, but there was some cool stuff in the pre-WWI sections, particularly in the Napoleonic Wars case, because it contained not only the amputation saw used to hack off the leg of the Earl of Uxbridge (he of the famous (possibly apocryphal) anecdote whereupon he remarked to Wellington after being shot, “By God sir, I’ve lost my leg,” and Wellington replied, “By God sir, so you have.” Uxbridge also apparently remained “composed” throughout the anaesthetic-less operation, only remarking that the saw seemed rather blunt) and a bloody glove used to staunch the flow during his amputation, but also the skeleton of one of Napoleon’s actual horses! And, this was one place where there was a brief mention of British atrocities committed during various imperial wars (which otherwise pretty much went unmentioned). There were also a number of activities that looked really fun here, such as a drum where you could practice various cadences, a cut-out tank to crawl into that appeared to have some kind of video game inside, and some muskets where you could see how fast you could reload and shoot ten bullets, but yet again, these were all being monopolised by children, or, in the case of the guns, not even working.

  

The final gallery was “Insight,” located in the lower ground floor. If it hadn’t been for the desert rat sculpture also down there, I’d say don’t waste your time – it was pretty lame (I don’t even have any photos from it, the ones below are from “Battle”). It mainly just consisted of maps on the walls showing where British Army bases are located around the world (I didn’t even realise this at first, because it wasn’t explained until halfway through the exhibit) and a handful of objects, and again, very crappy lighting (the museum’s main decorative scheme, I guess).

  

Because I hadn’t visited the National Army Museum in its previous form, I can’t say for sure if it’s actually worse now than it was before, but I strongly suspect that may be the case, given how much I enjoy an old-fashioned military museum (see the Winchester museums, the Army Medical Services Museum, et al, for evidence of this). I think it would have been so much nicer if they had a couple highly interactive, child-friendly galleries, but then kept a couple old-fashioned galleries, with decent lighting and labels, for all the amazing objects in their collection, so that people who wanted to could actually admire and learn something about these objects in peace. While I understand that interactivity is what packs in the crowds these days, having interactive elements at the expense of actual history not only dumbs down a museum – it also makes it lose part of its essence.  If the National Army Museum is an example of where most museums are headed, then that is truly a depressing thought, since I learned remarkably little here. 4/5 solely for the awesomeness of the objects in their collection, but only 2/5 for how they were presented, so I guess 3/5 overall. With the army’s fascinating history (which you wouldn’t know from visiting this museum), and all the money undoubtedly poured into this, this museum should be so, so much better than it is.

London: “Imagine Moscow” @ the Design Museum

In my original post on the Design Museum, I predicted that I would probably go back when “Imagine Moscow: Architecture, Propaganda, Revolution” opened, and indeed, here we are (it opened 15 March, and runs until 4 June 2017). Unfortunately, my National Art Pass expired since my last visit, but there was no way I was about to pay £9 for what I imagined would be a small exhibit, so Marcus and I bought a couple of cheap single tickets into town so we could take advantage of the National Rail 2-for-1 offer.

“Imagine Moscow” is inside the Design Museum’s basement gallery, which is certainly a heck of a lot easier to get to than the ones upstairs (I guess you get what you pay for). I’m happy to report that the toilets down here are also even closer to the ones in Bob’s Burgers than the ones by the upstairs gallery (still not quite there, but they were slightly claustrophobic completely walled-in greyish green cubicles). No photography was allowed inside the exhibition, and there’s no exhibition guide available online (I think they want you to buy one), so this is going to be based on my probably faulty memory, but here goes.

After the Russian Revolution, Lenin, and later Stalin, wanted to redesign Moscow in a more communist style, and this exhibition showcases six of these proposed designs (which obviously never came to fruition), illustrated with sketches, blueprints, and other Soviet art (which was the part I was most excited about). It was all contained within one large room/gallery, but the way to move around it was somewhat confusing. From the very vague map on the wall (I wasn’t even totally sure where the entrance was on the map, so I didn’t really know where I was supposed to start), I got the impression that we were supposed to go around in a clockwise manner, but when I got to the opposite end of the exhibit, I found out that was where the exit was, so I ended up having to backtrack to see everything, and walk through the exhibit again to get out. So don’t do what I did, is what I’m saying…leave Lenin’s Tomb (or whatever it was called) for last.

As you can probably tell from the photos on the exhibition website (if you clicked the link at the start), there wasn’t a terribly cheery atmosphere (not surprising given the subject matter). The walls were all a dreary black, and the lighting was dim, so it was kind of a downer being inside.  I also felt that many of the captions were awkward to read…instead of putting labels beneath each item, they put them all together in the corners of each room, so you’d sometimes be reading a label for things that were on a different wall, which made it hard to keep track of what you were actually looking at. Still, the information that was provided was very interesting.

For example, I learned that some of the plans for Moscow included a city in the sky, which would have consisted solely of skyscrapers, though judging by the sketches, I’m not even sure that they would have been structurally sound; a somewhat regimented sounding “holiday city,” built on the Black Sea, where people would be served in the cafeteria by conveyor belt, so even on holiday they weren’t being inefficient; and a library city.  Clearly, it was the last plan I was most intrigued by.  I hadn’t realised, given how repressive Stalin et al were, that early Soviets put an incredibly high value on education; they even turned trains into mobile libraries, so that everyone could access knowledge, and printed books in over a hundred languages, so that all the people of the diverse regions that made up the USSR could read them. Of course, the Soviets being the Soviets, there was a more sinister ulterior motive behind this, which was that if everyone could read the same material, they would buy into the propaganda, and all begin to think the same, but still, I love the idea of a library train, and there was some fantastic posters here that they used to encourage people to read.

I was also fascinated by the idea of the “Palace of the Soviets.” This was meant to have been built on the site of a beautiful, historic Russian Orthodox Church that Stalin had dynamited, and would have been a “shrine” to communism. However, Stalin died before it was built, and Khrushchev basically said “to hell with it” and built a giant open air swimming pool instead, which, in anywhere but Russia, would have sounded much more fun.  They had a video of people swimming in it, and there was actual snow and ice all around the pool.  I mean, I assume it was heated, because there was steam rising off the water, but it still looked awful. The pool was closed in the ’80s, and after the fall of communism, the Russian Orthodox Church received permission to the rebuild the original church, so I guess it kind of has a happy ending (not that I’m into religion, but I do support historic buildings!).

The communal living plans were equally intriguing, not least for the planned daily schedule posted on the wall.  There were a number of things I found perplexing, from the scanty amount of time allocated to meals and exercise (most of the day was meant to be spent working down the mines), to the fact that they got up at 6, worked eight hours, but didn’t have lunch until 3 (they must have been starving!) and dinner at 9:25, even though they were meant to go to bed at 10 (maybe Soviets had tougher digestive systems, but for me, eating right before bed is a recipe for indigestion and poor sleep), but the oddest of all was that they only got five minutes for a shower, but were meant to spend 8 minutes washing their hands at one point! I wouldn’t be surprised if the creator of that schedule ended up being “purged.” Communal living was meant to liberate women from the drudgery of housework, so that they could take jobs outside the home, but of course there was a more sinister motive to this too. The ultimate aim was the destruction of the family unit, which was seen as a threat to communism, and the establishment of communal child-rearing, so that everyone’s first loyalty would be to the state. Fortunately, this was mostly a failure.

Though there wasn’t quite as much Soviet art here as I was hoping, most of the objects chosen were pretty great (even if it wasn’t clear what some of them were thanks to the confusing labelling). My favourite thing was probably a plate that said in Russian something to the effect of “He who doesn’t work, doesn’t eat,” but it was on this colourful, fun-looking children’s plate with a cartoony picture of a smiling Lenin right in the middle. Talk about mixed messages. I loved most of the posters too (you can see some of them on the exhibition website), especially the ones showcasing powerful women workers (of course employed in grim looking factory work). The most striking piece had to be the giant copy of Lenin’s finger that was originally meant to have been part of an enormous statue of Lenin that would have stood atop his tomb and pointed out across Moscow. The finger was at least ten feet long.

Although the exhibition wasn’t very large, and certainly not worth £9, I definitely got my £4.50’s worth out of it.  It didn’t rely too much on visitors having any background knowledge of architecture or design (which I lack, so I was glad this wasn’t the case) and there were some absolutely fascinating facts in here, and it was neat to see the city that could have been (though fortunately wasn’t because most of the plans looked awful), though I think I would have gotten more out of it if I’d ever actually been to Moscow. Other than the famous landmarks like the Kremlin and the Red Square and St. Basil’s and stuff, I have very little idea what modern Moscow actually looks like, and they didn’t have much information on this inside the exhibit, so I couldn’t really compare things to see what the difference would have been.  But I’ll still give it a 3.5/5, and continue hoping that library trains become a reality in Britain (minus any dystopian ulterior motives, of course).

 

London: Grant Museum of Zoology

Like the Petrie Museum which I visited some time ago, the Grant Museum of Zoology is part of UCL, and is one of those unusual lesser-known museums around London that you occasionally hear about on offbeat travel shows, or blogs that showcase weirdo destinations (like my own). So, perfect for me then, you might think, right? Well, I had actually been to the Grant Museum once before some years ago, and was so unimpressed that I was in no hurry to go back and blog about it, hence its absence from my blog (until now).  However, I recently needed to kill some time in the vicinity of Bloomsbury, and rather than wander around the British Museum as I normally would, I decided to give the Grant Museum another chance.

 

And I’m so glad I did, because it turns out that the Grant Museum I saw, in a basement gallery, was just temporary housing whilst they were preparing a new museum space, which opened back in 2011. Meaning my experience of it must have been from 2010 or even earlier…I think I’ve been living in London for too damn long!  Anyway, the first time I experienced the Grant, it also wasn’t under the most auspicious circumstances.  As I recall, Marcus and I had attended a public lecture somewhere in UCL, and a cocktail reception was held in the Grant Museum afterwards.  All I remember is being crammed into a corner of a tiny museum with about two hundred other people, whilst clutching a glass of cheap wine and struggling to see into the cases around the mass of people. I think we bolted down our wine, and left as quickly as was humanly possible.

  

The new(ish) Grant Museum is fortunately in a larger space, one where, despite a few narrow rows of display cases, it is actually possible to read the labels, and you know, breathe comfortably (it probably helps that it’s not full of people clamouring for free wine, or not when I visited anyway. I probably still wouldn’t want to take my chances with a wine reception there though).  The museum is free, and whilst still not terribly big, there’s enough stuff crammed into the cases to keep a visitor entertained for a while.  Like a whole jar full of moles. Or one of bats. (I’ll ignore the one full of centipedes, because bleurgh.)

The Grant Museum was founded in 1828 by Robert Edmond Grant, who was kind of a big deal in the world of zoology.  Charles Darwin was one of his students, and Grant helped influence his theories on evolution (though interestingly, Grant’s own views were formed in part by his admiration for the work of Erasmus Darwin, Charles’s grandfather. So really Charles Darwin was being influenced by his own grandfather, albeit indirectly). It is the only remaining zoology museum in London attached to a university (and probably the only exclusively zoological museum in London?  The Hunterian Museum has some zoological specimens, but its focus is more on its human specimens), which unfortunately means that it was full of some incredibly annoying students at the time of our visit, but you can’t win ’em all.

  

Once the students (finally) cleared out, it was blissfully quiet, however, and we were able to look around without risking catty remarks from the young people.  The cases were completely crammed with stuff, as you can probably tell, and the specimens were a good mix of “awws” and “eews.” I didn’t spend too much time looking at the cases of disgusting crabs and insects, but there were some pretty adorable preserved baby mammals (and the elephant shrew, which is not really adorable).

 

There weren’t quite as many labels as I would have found ideal, because it seemed like only the prize specimens had them, and even those were just a sentence or two.  There were a few weird looking things that I couldn’t identify that only had a hand-written sticker on the jar, and I’m not even sure if those contained the actual name of the animal, or were just some random word for classification purposes.

  

The museum offers a deal whereby on becoming a “friend” of the museum (starting at £15 a year), you get to “adopt” one of the specimens, and have your name on it.  However, it appears that all the best specimens have sadly been taken, some apparently by famous people (there were animals that had been adopted by Bill Bailey and Tony Blackburn et al (I mean, I don’t even think Tony Blackburn is all that famous, but I used to listen to “Pick of the Pops” if I was in the car on a Saturday, so I know who he is), but those are probably fairly common names, and may not have been the actual celebrities, though I could definitely see Bill Bailey wanting to adopt a cassowary heart so maybe it was actually him. Not that it matters, I’m not a fan or anything), so I hope they consider offering more specimens for adoption, since only a few of the remaining specimens had “adopt me” tags attached.

 

But anyway, let’s ignore the “adoption” aspect of the collection for now, and get back to what was actually on display. There was a case full of specimens from extinct animals that I particularly enjoyed, which included the bones of a dodo, and the skeletal hindquarters of a quagga. There were even some bones from extinct animals so obscure I’d never even heard of them, like the thylacine, which was part of Robert Grant’s original collection (thylacines were Tasmanian marsupials that kind of resembled wolves, without actually being related to them, because, marsupial).

 

The thing pictured on the right, above, was a hall of microspecimens, aka, the Micrarium, that would be too small to display without a microscope, so they blew up photographs of them, and put them on the walls of a small nook.  It pretty cool, especially because it had a mirrored ceiling so you could view them from all angles, although only one or two people can squeeze in there at a time.

  

And I can’t neglect to mention that they had the penis bone of a walrus (and a few other, much less impressive penis bones), because it was huge and hilarious (sadly, that has of course been adopted too.  I imagine it was one of the first specimens to be snapped up).

 

As you can probably imagine, since you all know how much I love in stuff in jars, I quite enjoyed this place, even though, as I said, they could do with more labels, fewer students, and perhaps a way to access the upper tier, because there were specimens all the way to the ceiling, but no good way to see them without uncomfortably craning your neck.  3.5/5 for the Grant Museum.

While we were on campus, I remembered that so is Jeremy Bentham, whose auto-icon (basically a stuffed version of him, with a wax head. I think his actual skeleton is inside the stuffing, which is excellently creepy) I have always wanted to see, so we figured out where it was (the South Cloisters at the end of the main building) and popped in to check him out.  He’s actually rather charming (the hat helps), and well worth braving the hordes of even more students for. Apparently his actual head is in a box somewhere in the building too (though it’s in a wooden box, so you can’t actually look at it, or at least I don’t think you can), but I didn’t know that at the time, so didn’t look for it, which probably means a return trip is in order.

  

London: The RAF Museum

There’s a reason I haven’t been to the RAF Museum before now, and it is this: London is a bloody big place, especially when you’re using public transport, and Colindale is absolutely nowhere near where I live.  In fact, it took so long to get there, I was tempted to write “London(ish)” in the post title, but that isn’t strictly fair, because Colindale is as much a part of Greater London as Wimbledon is (even if it did have me wondering if it would actually be faster to get to the RAF Museum’s Cosford location than their “London” one). As usual, my main motivation for finally taking the plunge was food-related. Namely, bagels.  Bagels are one of my favourite foods, and it is nigh-on impossible to get a decent one in London (I absolutely hate cream cheese, so I tend to either eat bagels plain, or with peanut butter or marmalade, but most bagels here are treated solely as vehicles for fatty toppings, and aren’t actually tasty enough to eat by themselves).  I’ve tried all the Brick Lane “beigel” places, and found them seriously lacking (and when a chunk of whatever one of the employees was gnawing on flew out of her mouth and into my bag one time, that was it for me. I’m gagging a little just thinking about it), and some place in Camden run by an American that was supposed to offer “authentic New York bagels” was even worse – they were soft and flabby. I’d been hearing good things about Carmelli’s for years, but Golders Green is a hell of a long way to travel just for bagels.  But if I combined that trip with a visit to the RAF Museum, which is only a couple stops farther up the Northern Line, I could just about justify it.

  

But more on the bagels later, let’s talk museum!  The RAF Museum was a short hike from Colindale station (fine on the way there, a bit too long on the way back when I was tired from walking around hangars all afternoon), and pretty much looked like a big construction site, because that’s what it is right now.  Two of the halls (Battle of Britain and Sunderland Halls) are currently closed for renovation (so I’ll probably have to do a redux at some point), but that’s OK because there were still five halls left to see, even though we had to walk past quite a lot of construction to get to them.  The museum is free, though they charge a fee to sit inside a couple of the cooler planes, or to go on the Red Arrows 4D “experience.” A sign outside had recommended that we start with the WWI Hall, but since we weren’t too sure where it was at that point, we just headed straight into the main building, which meant we inadvertently saved the best for last (we asked the guy at the admissions desk who halfheartedly tried to sell us a guidebook where to start, and he vaguely waved his hand in the direction of the hangar entrance, and didn’t mention anything about the WWI Hall, so we initially thought maybe that was closed for construction too. I got the impression that the staff weren’t tremendously enthusiastic about the museum).

  

I’ve been to a fair few aviation museums before, most memorably on this blog, the National Museum of the US Air Force in Dayton, where I got to go on FDR’s presidential plane, and Wings in Balcombe, where my ass touched the same place as Damian Lewis’s (it’s kind of a long story, if you haven’t read it yet).  The RAF Museum, at least the main building, was more old-fashioned and in need of updating than even Wings.  The aircraft didn’t appear to be arranged in any particular order as far as I could tell.  There was a neat shark-style WWII plane (the Curtiss Kittyhawk III) right when we walked in, next to the old gondola from “His Majesty’s Airship R33” (circa 1919…I don’t think the king ever flew in it, it was just named after him in the way that ships are, since it was considered a ship of the air. It did carry a band at one point though, to promote the sale of Victory Bonds, but people on the ground wouldn’t have been able to see or hear them, so pretty pointless really).  It just seemed like aircraft from the first half (or so) of the 20th century were scattered all over the hangar, with no real rhyme or reason to them.

  

Even worse was the signage.  I know I’m usually an advocate for old-fashioned signs, but these were particularly terrible examples.  The labels on the actual planes weren’t so bad, but there was additional signage about various RAF engagements on the walls, and this was just appalling –  boring, overly wordy, and neglected (there were whole sections of the text completely missing where it had given up the ghost and just peeled off the walls.  At one point, there was a section on nuclear power, and I was quite surprised to see it, because the signs genuinely looked like they pre-dated the nuclear age).  I can certainly see why they’re re-doing some of the other hangars, and I hope this one is next, because it sure needs it!

  

Actually, they do appear to be in the process of renovation, because there were sections closed off where they were removing the carpet in an attempt to make the hangars look more like hangars, apparently (though the carpet is the least of their problems). The singularly uninviting looking cafe in the middle of one of the halls certainly wasn’t helping with that authentic “hangar” atmosphere either.  After the hall of miscellaneous aircraft (in which there were admittedly some cool things, like a flying boat that had actually been turned into a houseboat at some point, before being restored), there was a room of helicopters, which was still remarkably unengaging, but at least there was a theme.

  

The hall of mainly WWII aircraft was better, in fact, it was the best part of the main building. There was a large display about American pilots who came over to Britain during the war, both American units which were stationed here, and Americans who joined the RAF prior to America entering the war, which I found quite interesting, despite it suffering from many of the same problems as the text in the first hall.  My favourite plane here was undoubtedly the massive Lancaster Bomber…you’ll see why at the end of the post (hint: it has something to do with my absolutely juvenile sense of humour).

 

This section was also more engaging because there was actually a plane you could crawl into (you can go inside the Spitfire too, but only if you pay a tenner first.  I think I’ll stick to the free planes, thanks), and a couple other aircraft you could peer inside (including a Chinook you could walk through the back of).  I also thought the small display about ejector seats was reasonably diverting.

  

After passing through the lame gift shop (the only postcards they had were those “Events from the Day you were Born” ones that looked like they’d been sitting around for a good twenty years.  They were all yellowed, with curled edges), we left the building in search of the WWI Hall that appeared to be somewhere around the corner (judging by the map outside that said it was still open, since the staff certainly weren’t volunteering any information), but on the way, we encountered the “Milestones” building, so stopped inside.  This apparently contained “milestone” aircraft from the last century or so of aviation, though there was nothing by the Wright Brothers (a 1909 Bleriot was the earliest I saw), save for a yellow line on the wall to indicate the length of their test flight at Kitty Hawk.

  

Having not learned our lesson from the disappointing first building, we climbed up to the enticingly-named “Control Tower,” only to be met with an empty room (that admittedly had good views of the hangar, but I was hoping for something more…interactive), but on the way up, we encountered a wall of “Flying Aces,” so I’m presenting to you the best moustache of the lot, so you can save yourself the bother of climbing all the way up there too.  For all that this were meant to be about “milestones” of aviation, and the hall clearly having been updated more recently than the main building, this was still not particularly impressive, and the displays concluded with a weird section sponsored by Oman about the relationship between it and the RAF, which read more like a tourist advertisement for Oman than anything else (didn’t convince me to go there though).

 

The final hangar currently open to the public is the WWI Hall, located, appropriately enough, inside the UK’s first aircraft factory building.  It has been very recently redone, thanks to a HLF grant, and it shows, because this was amazing compared to the rest of the museum. It actually still had the look of an historic building on the inside (my favourite part was the authentic “Thomas Crapper” pull chain toilets in the bathroom.  I love those.  It feels like you’re really accomplishing something when you pull the chain), but managed to incorporate modern, interactive, and entertaining elements.

  

The hall contained a number of really old planes, with display cases in the middle that explained more about the RFC and RNAS (the precursors to the RAF) uniforms, as well as other elements of early military aviation. The surprised fellow above is actually demonstrating a flight mask, as well as some early “electrically heated” clothing that apparently the pilots could only bear to turn on for a few minutes at a time, because the clothing got so hot, they risked burning themselves (it looks like that poor “surprised” pilot might have just burned himself in a delicate area)!

  

This hangar also had the interactive elements that were so sorely lacking in the other hangars.  In addition to a few activities including a game that involved matching up aerial photos of terrain with the actual terrain to see if anything had changed (surprisingly difficult), there was also a mock-up of a biplane, complete with gun and and communicating tube, so you could satisfy your inner Henry Jones Sr, only without blowing up your own tail fin (because there wasn’t one); and an old-school flight simulator that I quite happily flung myself around in for a while (it honestly felt like I was going to pitch myself out the side, because there was no seat belt or anything, but that was half the fun).

  

There was also that much needed personal touch in this hall.  Whereas the other hangars had just included long dull lists of the accomplishments of various well-decorated RAF pilots, this one actually had amusing anecdotes, like one from a pilot and his friend who flew over a beach and pelted German sunbathers with oranges, which was pretty hilarious (he said they laughed so hard, they almost fell out of the plane).  I love that kind of stuff.

 

If the WWI Hall is an example of where the RAF Museum is headed, then I definitely want to come back when they reopen the Battle of Britain and Sunderland Halls, and see what other delights they have in store (to be honest though, I was kind of relieved that not all the hangars were open when we visited, because we were there for ages, and I was exhausted by the time we left.  I didn’t want to see two additional ones!). I do hope they can afford to redo the main body of the museum too, because it is sorely in need of it!  Even with what’s there now, it is the kind of museum that takes hours to see, and might be better to make two trips if you’re very keen on historic aviation and don’t want to wear yourself out.  Because it is free, I can’t complain too much, but the difference in quality between old and new is too striking to ignore.  So, 4.5/5 for the new WWI Hall, but only 3/5 for the museum as a whole.  Oh, and about those bagels…Carmelli’s is where it’s at.  There were only a few flavours available (mainly just different types of seeds, which was OK, since I do really like seeded bagels, though I like blueberry ones even better), but they were fresh out of the oven, and pretty damn delicious.  I might have to make the trek out to Golders Green again sooner than expected, because now that I know I can get good bagels, I’m gonna want them all the time!

As promised, here’s that Lancaster Bomber. I think the big “Poos” speaks for itself, really.

 

 

London: “Electricity: The Spark of Life” @ the Wellcome Collection

Before I start with “Electricity,” I wanted to mention that this past Monday marked four years since I started blogging!  I didn’t feel the need to make a special post about it or anything, but sometimes I anthropomorphise Diverting Journeys a little bit, and I didn’t want my blog to feel bad that I didn’t acknowledge its birthday somewhere. Now with that out of the way, on to the Wellcome!

Since most special exhibitions in London cost £12 and up, and I have a constant need for new blogging material, I am grateful that the Wellcome Collection can be depended upon to provide an ever-changing series of interesting, and always-free new exhibitions.  The latest is “Electricity: The spark of life,” which opened on 23 February, and runs until 25 June.  The only downside is that the Wellcome doesn’t allow photography inside its galleries, so I never get to show you all the cool stuff on display!

I managed to get to the Wellcome a bit earlier than I would normally get up and out of the house, and was rewarded with an exhibit that while no means empty, was positively tranquil compared to the madness that ensues at lunchtime.  I think it also helped that there didn’t seem to be quite as much content in “Electricity” as there normally is in their exhibits, or at least, it was far more spread out than normal.  I am always impressed by the way they seem to completely rearrange the configuration of the gallery space for each new exhibition.  Instead of being fairly open-plan, as Bedlam was, this was more like a shotgun house style arrangement of large rooms that were closed off from one another, save for the entrances and exits to/from each (I initially thought it was railroad apartment style (probably thanks to reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn about twenty times), but apparently a railroad apartment usually has a hallway, and the configuration I was thinking of is actually a shotgun house.  You learn something new every day!).  I actually preferred this, because when someone was blocking the displays and moving around at an irritatingly slow pace, it was easy to speed past them and leave them in the room behind me so I didn’t have to encounter them again, because there was really only the one path through the exhibit.

Because Henry Wellcome (the collection’s founder) was a pharmaceutical man, the exhibitions here generally have some kind of medical slant, and based off the description of “Electricity” on the museum’s website, which states, “this exhibition contemplates the contradictory life-giving and death-dealing extremes generated by electricity,” I was expecting it to be mostly about electricity and medicine; things like electrotherapy, ECT, accidental electrocution, and even the electric chair (although killing people is admittedly the complete opposite of what medicine is supposed to be about).  This was actually only a very small part of the exhibit, which turned out to be more about how electricity changed everyday existence, particularly in Britain. (Side note: Like me, Henry Wellcome was an American who moved to Britain as an adult, and I notice he is listed as “American British” on his Wikipedia page.  Now, I know Wikipedia is not a terribly reliable source, but I’ve been (jokingly) referring to myself as Anglo-American since I got British citizenship, and it seems like that might imply that you’re an American with English ancestry, which I definitely am not. So which is it? Can I keep using Anglo-American, or do I have to settle for the unwieldy and un-alliterative American British? Thoughts?)

The first things worth noting in the exhibition were the many, very entertaining short videos.  Normally, I don’t bother to watch videos in a museum, because they’re either too long, not particularly interesting, or there’s too many people crowded around them.  Well, the exhibit wasn’t very busy, as I said, and these videos were all around two minutes in length, so I couldn’t use that as an excuse.  When I saw the guy next to me was standing there chuckling whilst watching the first video of the exhibition, I had to see what was so damn funny for myself, and then I was sold on the rest of the videos.  The one that was causing all the laughter was from the 1950s, and showed a group of people in a laboratory receiving a shock from an electric eel.  The next one was a clip from the dishy Colin Clive version of Frankenstein of the scene where he’s bringing the creature to life.  Other videos included one of a 2.25 mile motorised walkway built in Paris in 1900 which showed adult Victorians behaving much like jerks of today, and hopping on and off and deliberately walking the wrong way on it, which was unexpected and delightful to see (and I thought motorised walkways were supposed to be the future (as in now)?  Why are they now all confined to airports and Tube stations?), and another of the electrically-lit cabaret scene of Weimar-era Berlin. But the video highlight had to be the Buster Keaton short about an electric house with a robot arm that grabbed books in the library, a bathtub that ran on a track (why?!), and escalator style stairs that of course went hilariously wrong and tipped everybody out the upstairs window into a conveniently placed swimming pool. (Here’s the full 22 minute film, if anyone’s interested…we were shown a heavily condensed version.) Maybe I was just relieved that there wasn’t a video of Topsy the elephant (ugh, though I will watch the Bob’s Burgers version.  Poor Tina), but these were all great.

There were also a few art installations, though one of them was closed for repairs. I did however, get to see the giant 3D frog projection, inspired by Galvani’s experiments with electricity, and it was pretty cool (frogs are one of my favourite animals, after toads. And bats. Frog and Toad forever!). (I wanted Marcus to try the spirit photography booth that I had so enjoyed on my last visit, but that was out of order too.  It wasn’t a great day for technology at the Wellcome Collection.)

The narrative of the exhibit took visitors from ancient times, when people knew that electricity existed, but didn’t really understand what it was, to Benjamin Franklin’s experiments with lightning in the 18th century, to the electrification of Britain and building the National Grid, onwards to the 1920s and ’30s and the concept of the electrified and automated house (as parodied in the aforementioned Buster Keaton film) that would make life much easier for the British housewife (there was even a women’s electrical board set up to show women how electricity could make cooking and cleaning easier, and they printed helpful tips on tea towels.  I’d quite like to get my hands on one of those).  I thought there was a good amount of text, though the exhibit did seem at times to lack a comprehensive historical narrative, instead kind of skipping around to highlights of the electricity timeline (I believe each room was meant to be unified around a loose theme, but that was only apparent in some of the rooms).

Memorable artefacts included a display on how Bovril got its name (obviously “bo” from bovine, but I didn’t realise that “Vril” was taken from a creepy sounding Edward Bulwer-Lytton novel about a master race powered by a weird energy-fluid called Vril. This certainly doesn’t make Bovril any more appealing, nor did the early newspaper advertisement that showed cartoon cows being electrocuted to obtain their energy), an 18th century “thunder house” and “thunder ship” that were used to demonstrate the power of electricity, and a drawing of an electric plant done by a young engineer named Sebastian Ferranti, in which he had doodled happy smiling faces on all the machinery.

All in all, I think I enjoyed this more than Bedlam, but less than Forensics. Although it was still somewhat lacking, it had a better narrative than Bedlam, and I picked up enough intriguing facts (especially the one about Bovril) to impress friends with later that day.  I think the gallery housing the exhibition was decorated rather sparsely this time, and I suppose that does keep the focus on the artefacts, but I definitely think they could have done something cooler using the theme of electricity, perhaps something like the entrance to the exhibit, pictured at the start of the post.  It was still pretty alright though, even without more interesting decor or the medical focus I was anticipating.  3.5/5.

London: The Charterhouse Museum

dsc00346_stitchI was flipping through a copy of Time Out London a few weeks ago (because I still prefer the print version to their website), when one of the photos in their “Instagram Posts of the Week” (or whatever it’s called) section caught my eye, because the caption underneath read something like, “a picture of the Charterhouse, London’s newest museum.” I think I may just be automatically drawn to the word “museum” at this point, but my interest was piqued enough that I investigated further.  Turns out that the Charterhouse, built in 1371, and variously serving as “a monastery, private mansion, boys’ school, and an almshouse” (according to the museum’s website), has recently opened a small section of its building to the public “for the first time since its foundation in 1348” (again, from their website. I guess they’re including the plague pit years in that timeline). There is a small museum, and visitors are welcome to tour the chapel as well when it’s not being used for a churchly function.

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Nothing (well, other than the promise of ice cream) gets me out of the house faster than the prospect of a new, free museum to visit, so Marcus and I ended up heading there later that week. It’s right around the corner from Barbican Station, in a rather secluded square that would probably be quite lovely if there wasn’t loads of construction going on, and a pervading smell of chicken shit from all the mulch being put down (confession: I actually don’t really mind the smell of manure or mulch.  It reminds me of the county fair, and thus weirdly gives me a craving for frosty chocolate milkshakes and french waffles).  It wasn’t a corner of London I’d ever had the occasion to visit before, and even with all the construction, I was pleasantly surprised at how nice and historical it all looked (especially because I hate the Barbican Centre so very much.  It’s a hideous piece of Brutalist architecture, and the tunnel you have to walk through to get to it is grim, but the Charterhouse is in a different area entirely).

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We received a friendly greeting upon entering, and were told we could either go through the door marked “Museum” first, or go through the chapel entrance first and then see the museum.  We opted for the former, and ended up seeing the museum in reverse chronological order (I think it does flow pretty well either way, but if you’d prefer to go forward in time, then see the chapel first and go into the museum that way).  The museum was located inside two very long, narrow rooms, but by keeping all the objects tight against the walls so they didn’t stick out past the partial partitions erected between each section, and by having white walls with lots of windows, the gallery never felt particularly crowded or claustrophobic like the one at the City of London Police Museum, even though there were more visitors here than there were at the Police Museum (though still only a handful).  So, props to them for good design.

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Because we were travelling backwards through the museum, we began by learning about its present-day occupants; the Brothers.  The term is one that has stuck around since the Charterhouse’s monastic days, though it no longer has religious connotations (mass is still held in the chapel every day, but attendance is not obligatory).  Rather, the Brothers are a group of 60+ year old men “in need of financial and social support, who are selected from a wide variety of professions” (they must also be in good health at time of application. Because there is an application process involved…they’re not just selecting seniors at random or anything, which was kind of what I thought at first). They live together at the Charterhouse, which provides them with a sense of community, since they take meals together, and are welcome to participate in various activities. Traditionally, Brothers have always been men, but now women are welcome to apply as well, though they will still be called “Brothers.”

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Next, we learned about the boys’ school, which was here from the 17th century until 1872, when it was moved to Godalming.  It had some fairly famous pupils over the years, including William Makepeace Thackeray, John Wesley, and Robert Baden-Powell (of Scouting fame).  Not unusually for the time, corporal punishment took place here, with “swishings” being the method of choice, using a bundle of twigs like the one pictured above. As you may be able to read in the caption, the school actually tried to do away with beatings in favour of monetary fines, but the boys voted against it because they felt that paying fines wasn’t “honourable.”

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Next came the section on Thomas Sutton, who was responsible for both the boys’ school and almshouse that exists to the present day.  Sutton was a Tudor businessman who got rich from coal mines, money lending, and other investments, and, as many wealthy people did back then, he left a number of charitable bequests in his will for the good of his soul.  Because the Charterhouse had been dissolved as a monastery under Henry VIII, and turned into a mansion, Sutton was able to purchase it and establish an almshouse for 80 Brothers, as well as a school for 40 boys.  He also left money to a few other people and institutions, the most intriguing of which was mentioned on a sign in the museum, “£100 to the poorest fishermen of Ostend…In recompense for an episode earlier in Sutton’s career which weighed on his conscience.” Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t see how you can mention an intriguing tidbit like that and not give people the whole story somewhere, but I couldn’t find anything about it, and a bit of googling has gotten me nowhere.  I can’t be the only one who wants to know what the “episode” was!

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Anyway, leaving the poor fishermen of Ostend behind, I entered the next corridor, which was all about the monastery that stood here from the 14th century until Henry VIII got his greedy fat paws on it.  Like many monasteries, the Carthusians at the Charterhouse seemed to have a damned impressive medieval plumbing system, and the manuscript describing it stretched out along the length of the whole room.  I was also interested to learn that the monks were strict vegetarians, and they had a separate “flesh kitchen” away from the rest of the monastery for when they had to cook meat for visitors. Being a vegetarian myself, with a fairly strict no meat in my flat policy (well, visitors can eat it if they must in the form of a takeaway or something, but they can’t cook it here using my pans and utensils.  It’s not even an ethical thing so much, I just really honestly find meat super disgusting, and don’t want it stinking up my flat, or gunking up my pans. I had enough of that when I had housemates), I quite like that idea, if I had somewhere to put it, but obviously people would have to cook their own damn meat in it (I’m not doing it for them!).  It would save having to listen to my old flatmate whining whenever he comes for a visit because I won’t let him cook bacon for breakfast.

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They also had a splendid little scrapbook people could look through in the monastery section, full of medieval illustrations (including one of people being stabbed by “Death the skeleton” which I just loved), but the best thing of all is something we didn’t photograph: the skeleton of an actual plague victim.  Before it was a monastery or anything else, this was the site of a burial pit for the victims of the famous 1348-1349 bubonic plague outbreak (aka the Black Death), and modern archeologists have unearthed the skeleton of a young man who died during the pandemic (I imagine they found more than one, but only one is in the museum).  It seems rather curious that the monks would choose the site of a relatively new plague pit for their monastery, but maybe they reckoned it would give them plenty of souls to pray for (since it’s estimated that half of the population of London died during the Black Death).

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Thus concluded our museum visit, but there was still a splendid little chapel to see. The room outside the chapel was full of memorials to the great and good who had some connection to the Charterhouse, including Thackeray, and Wesley, and also one to Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island.  As soon as we entered the ante-chapel, a volunteer came running up and said he was about to take his lunch, but his replacement hadn’t arrived yet, so he could quickly show us around if we wanted, which was nice of him.  He gave us a brief history of the chapel (the ante-chapel dates back to 1512, but the large chapel had been demolished during the dissolution of the monasteries, and a small chapel was tacked on to the Charterhouse for the use of the person living in the mansion.  When it became Sutton’s Hospital, the chapel was expanded, so most of it dates to the 17th century, with the exception of a bay on the side that was built specially for the pupils of the boys’ school (presumably to keep them out of the hair of the other parishioners), and pointed out some decorative details.  One of these was the monument to John Law (shown above right), Sutton’s executor, who died a mere three years after him (so he must have done some speedy work).  I loved the skull, and thought I’d like a memorial plaque just like it, until I saw Thomas Sutton’s monument.

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Damn, now that was a monument!  It took up most of a wall, and included not only a skull, but also some delightful little figures of Peace and Plenty, and a whole panel showing the Brothers and Scholars who existed thanks to Sutton.  And a life-size effigy of Sutton himself.

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But that’s not the only Sutton-y touch in the chapel.  There were also greyhound heads at the end of every pew, because apparently the greyhound was Sutton’s personal symbol.  So now I guess I need a personal symbol as well (in addition to a splendid monument, though I’d like mine built before I die so I can see how awesome it is. Also my sacrilegious ass would have to be somewhere other than a church.  Maybe a library or museum…or gelateria), I’m thinking maybe spy crow?

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So despite my decidedly non-religious inclinations, even I could appreciate this gorgeous little chapel, in particular the memento mori-esque monuments.  These are the only areas of the building normally open to the public, though they do offer Brother-led “behind-the scenes” tours for a fee of either £10 or £15 (depending on the length of the tour), which sound like they might be worth doing someday, since you get to see some Elizabeth I related rooms, and some areas used by the medieval monks.  Visitors (of a more religious bent) are also welcome to attend services at the chapel, which are held daily.  As you can probably tell, I learned a lot from this little museum, and very much enjoyed my time here.  The balance of signage to artefacts was excellent, the layout was good, and the chapel was wonderfully quirky.  The only thing I can suggest at the moment is to include the story behind the bequest to the Ostend fishermen (if it isn’t one of those things that’s been lost to history… I do realise they might not have included it because there was only a passing reference to it in the will, and not an actual explanation or anything), because I’m dying to know if there’s an amusing anecdote behind it.  Other than that, it is an excellent start for “London’s newest museum.” 4/5.

ETA: I posted this in the comments, but in case you don’t feel like scrolling down that far, I have discovered the story behind the fishermen of Ostend, in case anyone else is interested, thanks to an obscure entry in the Biographia Britannica found on Google Books. It still isn’t terribly clear, but as far as I can work out, he purchased “two prizes” of boats laden with cod some years before he died, for which he paid £200 – basically, I think this incident occurred whilst England was at war with the Dutch, and the boats were basically stolen from Ostend fishermen by English privateers, so he was essentially trading in stolen goods, and clearly felt guilty about it for the rest of his life. So he was trying to make up for it by giving back the value of the boats that he had taken, because there is a clause in the original will that states “I desire the same men, or their children, to have the same, if the true owners may be found out, if not, then I will the same £200 to be given among the poorest fishermen of that town.” He later changed the amount to £100 because Ostend had been destroyed by a siege, and he reckoned there weren’t enough fishermen living there anymore to need that much money. So not as generous as it initially appeared, nor as juicy of a story as I was hoping, but at least the mystery has been solved.

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See what I mean about the construction?!

London: “Sussex Modernism” @ Two Temple Place

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Despite trying to stay relatively well-informed about the London museum scene (or as well-informed as I can be without having to leave my house much or actually socialise with people), I only first discovered Two Temple Place last year, when they were hosting an exhibition about Ancient Egypt (the only time the building is open to the public is when they have an exhibition on, which happens from late January-April each year).  I really enjoyed both the house and the exhibit, giving it a lofty 4/5, so I was eager to visit this year when they re-opened with a new exhibit, even though this year’s exhibit, “Sussex Modernism: Retreat and Rebellion,” didn’t sound particularly to my taste.

img_20170222_143451088To reiterate from last year, Two Temple Place was built by super-rich American William Waldorf Astor in 1895, and the building is really rather fabulous (tycoons back then did gaudy right).  Fortunately, we got a few good shots of the interior last year when photography was allowed, as we weren’t permitted to take pictures of the exhibit this year due to copyright issues (most (all?) of the pieces here were on loan from various galleries around Sussex, including Salvador Dali’s Mae West lips sofa, which we saw at the Brighton Museum last year), so I’ll be reusing a few of those old shots in this post (although the metal cow sculpture photo is new; I don’t think the sculpture was even there last time).

DSC00622As always though, Two Temple Place is free, and they let us borrow a guidebook to walk around with again too, which is a much appreciated touch.  They do always seem to have nice, enthusiastic volunteers.  Since I didn’t need to do as much oohing and aahing over the house this year (having gotten that out of my system last year), I was kind of hoping the exhibit would have some impressive art to marvel at instead (but knowing how I feel about most modern art, I didn’t hold out much hope, which was probably a good thing. Saved myself disappointment in the end).

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Going into the exhibit, I knew next to nothing about Sussex modernism, so I was ready to learn! Unfortunately, as you’ll see, I didn’t really end up finding out enough to make sense out of the movement. But one of the things I did learn was that there was an artist called Eric Gill who moved out to Ditchling in the early 1900s, and he attracted a small community of fellow artists/protegees, including David Jones and Ethel Mairet.  However, Eric Gill was not a terribly sympathetic figure; to be blunt, he was straight-up disgusting. He not only had incestuous “relationships” with his daughters and sisters, but apparently had sex with his dog as well.  And that was really all about Eric Gill that I needed to know…clearly I am never going to be a fan.

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But as far as the rest of the Sussex modernists go, there didn’t seem to be that much biographical information provided, or if there was, it wasn’t memorable enough to stick with me (it probably didn’t help that I had never heard of any of the main artists featured here).  There was a bizarre, but amusing story included as an intro to the exhibit, about the poet Ezra Pound, and some of his artistic friends.  Apparently, they decided to throw a dinner party for some elderly artist that they admired (who also lived in Sussex), so they served him a whole roasted peacock, and presented him with a coffer they’d made with a naked woman carved on one of the sides. The elderly artist was evidently quite uncomfortable with this, and always kept the side with the woman on it turned towards the wall when he displayed the coffer (I would have been far more uncomfortable with the roasted peacock than the nude on the coffer, personally).  My issue with this anecdote (and most of the rest of the exhibit) was that it was never adequately explained who the artist was (they provided his name, which I’ve forgotten, but I have no idea what he was famous for), and other than it being a story about what happens when old and new artistic movements clash, and taking place in Sussex, I didn’t really understand what it had to do with the rest of the exhibition, since Ezra Pound wasn’t mentioned again.  Basically, the whole exhibit left me in a state of general confusion, because nothing was explained quite thoroughly enough, and I left feeling that I still didn’t really know what the defining traits of the Sussex modernists were (and not being able to take photos didn’t help, since I couldn’t review the pictures later to see if I’d missed some vital bit of information).

DSC00604Which is not to say that everything was so crazily modernist that I couldn’t tell what the pieces were meant to be, or anything (the exhibit contained various works of art produced by the modernists; mainly paintings, but some sculpture as well).  I just don’t think I always picked up on the meanings behind them, or what the ethos was of the Sussex modernists.  Some of the artists were atheists, yet they seemed to produce mainly religious art commissioned by several local churches. Eric Gill made a lot of nudes, and used his teenage daughters as models, which is really creepy when you know about his sexual proclivities. Some of the artists focused on their experiences in the First and Second World Wars, and produced sort of dystopian stuff, or art about the invasion of modernisation in the countryside. I understand that artists can produce different styles of art and still be part of a community, but it felt more like the art had been selected simply because all of the artists had spent some time in Sussex, not because they were actually all friends, or even contemporaries, or part of the same artistic movement. As for the art itself, it mostly wasn’t my cup of tea, but I did enjoy some of it, most notably a ceramic cat, a beautiful little bright blue painting (print?) depicting the night sky, and a photograph of Henry Moore hugging his sculpture Mother and Child (well, one of his sculptures with that name anyway, since he appears to have used it about 50 times for different pieces. I mean, if you can take the time to chisel out a damn sculpture, surely you can put in the effort to think of a unique name whilst you’re doing it). There was also a strange surrealist video playing in one of the rooms that intrigued me; the end of the film featured a lobster bursting from the menu of a fancy restaurant.

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Like last year, the exhibit was both in the ground floor gallery, and all the upstairs rooms, but I don’t think it took anywhere near as long to look at, because the descriptions simply weren’t as detailed (or as interesting, to me anyway) as the ones last year.  I have to say, if I hadn’t visited last spring and saw all the neato Egyptian stuff, I don’t know if I’d be particularly impressed with Two Temple Place after this.  I mean, the house is still gorgeous, but the exhibit was nowhere near as good as last year’s.  As it stands though, I know what they can do, so I am still planning on visiting next year’s exhibit, whatever that may be.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think this year’s exhibition was terrible or anything, it just wasn’t really my kind of art, and there was also an odd lack of continuity within the exhibit itself (and that disjointedness has carried through to this post, since I think I’ve failed at making it completely coherent). Maybe even the curators weren’t too sure how to tie all these artists together outside of Sussex, or they just assumed that anyone coming to see it would already have some background knowledge on the Sussex modernists that I clearly lack. For a free exhibit though, I think it’s probably alright if you like that style of art (though please, no one ask me any questions about what exactly that style is, because I still can’t tell you!), and worth a visit just to get a look at the interior, if you haven’t seen it before. 2.5/5.

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London: “Wounded: Conflict, Casualties, and Care” @ the Science Museum

dsc00120I was originally intending on mentioning this exhibit at the end of the “Robots” post, because I thought there was no way I was going to have very much to say about “Robots” other than “there were a shitload of robots.” But then I ended up running on for 1400+ words, as I do, and whilst I didn’t want to spend two weeks just talking about temporary exhibits at the Science Museum, neither did I want to shortchange “Wounded” because it really was a very nice little exhibition.  So here we are.

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“Wounded” opened in summer 2016, and will run until January 2018.  It is a free exhibition, but is somewhat hidden on what they call “Floor G,” which is not actually the ground floor, rather, up a short flight of stairs from the ground floor (I think there is lift access, but probably only from one particular set of lifts, because the Science Museum is built weirdly like that). This “hiddenness” is probably a good thing, because it is blissfully quiet up there compared to the rest of the museum (for the most part…bit of foreshadowing there).  (For real, don’t underestimate the value of a quiet gallery in the Science Museum, because it is normally absolutely crawling with school groups, and the place gets loud!  I briefly worked there some years ago (temp job during the London Olympics), and would spend my breaks retreating to either the Wellcome galleries on the 4th and 5th floors, or if I didn’t have time to get up there (because they can only be accessed by one set of lifts, or a hard-to-find flight of stairs), I’d go to this strange old-fashioned gallery on the 2nd or 3rd floor that was just full of old-timey farming dioramas, and never had anyone in there.  I’m not even sure if it still exists, to be honest, but its silence was much appreciated at the time.)

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Anyway, “Wounded” tells the story of medicine in the First World War, which is basically exactly the sort of thing I’m interested in (I guess more specifically it’s meant to be medicine at the Battle of the Somme, hence the July 2016 start date, but it seemed to cover medicine throughout the war years. I’m not sure whether this exhibit has any connection with Emily Mayhew’s book of the same name, which I just started reading, as they cover the same subject matter, but I don’t recall seeing any mention of it inside the exhibit.  Then again, I might not have noticed, because I didn’t know that the book existed until I spotted a copy at the library last week). Where I think “Robots” failed a bit by having the quality of the signage not quite match up to the glories of the robots on display, here I think the Science Museum got things just right, because the amount of text relative to artefacts was just perfect.  And it was really interesting stuff, too!

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The first room dealt mainly with the reactions of soldiers to war, and included a good selection of “lucky charms” that they carried with them into battle (I thought the black cat pin was cute, but a rather curious choice as a good luck symbol).  It also had an early gas mask, and mentioned that soldiers who weren’t familiar with them would often panic from the chemical smell coming from the gas masks themselves, believing that they weren’t working.  Because, as the exhibit said, gas attacks did just as much to destroy morale as they did bodies.

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The next room was probably the most interesting (to me, anyway). It was about battlefield medicine, in particular the four different stages of the casualty evacuation chain, from getting hauled off the field by stretcher bearers (who were trained in basic first aid), going to a dressing station (where they would do their best to stabilise a patient, but were really only equipped to deal with relatively minor injuries), progressing to a casualty clearing station (located behind the front lines, these could perform major operations, such as limb amputations), and finally to an actual hospital – typically a hospital ship or train would transport the patient back to Britain for further treatment or convalescence (the hospital trains were a necessity because incoming troops and supplies took priority over wounded soldiers, so sometimes trains carrying casualties would have to wait for days to move along the tracks, and the soldiers could easily die en route if the trains weren’t fully medically equipped).  This was where the exhibit probably related most to the Somme specifically, because early in the war, on the Western Front, casualty clearing stations were the first port of call for medical treatment, and they were really more for minor things like changing dressings, rather than performing operations. Any serious injuries would have to be dealt with in hospitals away from the battlefield, but so many men were dying before reaching this point that the RAMC realised there had to be a better way.  Thus the four stage system was born, and it was pretty much up and running just in time for the Battle of the Somme.

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The exhibit also discussed medical innovations during the war, such as blood transfusions (doctors were able to store blood thanks to the use of sodium citrate as an anticoagulant), and one technique that actually harked back to the otherwise dark days of Victorian medicine: the Thomas Splint.  Before traction splints were used, 80%(!) of soldiers with fractured femurs ended up dying from their wounds, many before even reaching a dressing station, mainly because the broken bone was located by the femoral artery; when they were being transported by stretcher, it would inevitably be jarred at some point, and it would sever the artery and they’d bleed out. Robert Jones, a Welsh surgeon, realised that a pioneering splinting technique invented by his uncle, Hugh Owen Thomas, the century before, could help stabilise femur wounds during transport; after this splint entered general use, the mortality rate from femur wounds dropped to 16%.

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Then came what should have been the most poignant section of the exhibit; the one dealing with the treatment and rehabilitation of soldiers who had received life-changing injuries. Unfortunately, this was also the point when a group of schoolchildren entered the exhibition, along with their teacher.  However, they weren’t actually looking at the exhibits, or being taught anything.  Rather, they were just running amuck, yelling, and occasionally stopping to point at pictures of injured soldiers, going, “Look, they only have one leg!” and “Look, they’re missing an eye!”  I sincerely hope these children don’t do this when they see disabled people in real life, and I was really annoyed that their teacher was letting them behave like this in a very serious exhibition, and doing nothing to stop it.  These kids were about 7 or 8, so certainly old enough to know better, and it could have been a good opportunity to teach them about compassion, but this teacher was just completely checked out, and didn’t care what they did.  I mean, really, the whole rest of the museum is open for kids to run through and act as obnoxiously as they like, so the teacher couldn’t have kept them out of this one exhibit that they would have had to go out of their way to enter?! OK, rant over.

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Mercifully, they did eventually leave (I was glaring at them the whole time, which might have helped), and I was finally free to give the displays the attention they deserved.  There was a fair bit of material relating to St. Dunstan’s Hospital for blind and wounded soldiers, including Braille watches and typewriters, which were really cool.  These were part of the attempt to help blinded soldiers adapt to their new life by giving them work to do so they could feel useful again.  There was also a collection of scrapbooks with illustrations done by convalescing soldiers, and some information on pioneering plastic surgery techniques developed during the war (though this is covered in more detail at the Hunterian Museum et al, so they didn’t dwell on it here).

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The prosthetics were also very interesting (Wimbledon War Worker’s Depot, which was located up the street from my flat, made prosthetic limbs and splints, though none of these seemed to be from there). Apparently one prosthetic arm from America was particularly in demand because it looked very good, but only officers could afford to buy it, and they soon realised that it was too heavy to be of practical use, so most of them ended up mouldering away in drawers somewhere. Siegfried Sassoon’s poem, “Does it Matter,” was printed on one of the walls, and it made me tear up a little (poem here, please read!). (I have a soft spot for most of the War Poets, particularly that rather dishy Rupert Brooke (who died from an infected mosquito bite, poor guy. Denied even the “glory” of dying in battle).)

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The exhibit ended with a small display of objects belonging to modern wounded soldiers, including a t-shirt ripped by shrapnel, and a small stuffed monster that one soldier used to personify his PTSD, which helped him cope with it.  There was also a short video about modern soldiers, which I didn’t have time to watch, because I had already spent way longer than anticipated looking around this excellent little exhibit.  Even though I have always been interested in medical history, I still managed to learn quite a lot in “Wounded.”  I think the Science Museum got it just right this time; informative, poignant, and entertaining.  Definitely stop by to see this if you find yourself near the Science Museum; I think it needs a little love!  4/5.