London

London: Abney Park Cemetery Tour

Happy almost Halloween everyone! I have more posts from the US coming up, but since I’ve managed to keep the spooky theme going for the whole of October, I couldn’t resist posting about a cemetery tour I went on recently first. Over the years, I have managed to visit almost all of London’s Magnificent Seven cemeteries (garden cemeteries built during the Victorian era in what were at the time suburban locations as a way to accommodate the growing number of London’s dead that could no longer fit in central London’s churchyards). The only ones I had yet to see were Abney Park and Kensal Green, so when I saw that Abney Park was offering a special Halloween tour, I jumped at the chance. Even though it meant going all the way out to Stoke Newington, which is quite a trek from Southwest London.

 

Our tour was due to start at 3, but we got to Stokey (as the cool people call it) a bit early so I could grab some cake from a local bakery and get a few photos of the cemetery before the tour started. The cemetery is quite near to Stoke Newington Overground station, so is easier to access than some of the Magnificent Seven (looking at you, Tower Hamlets). The tour cost around £13, which ended up being more like £15 once Eventbrite fees were added in, but the description did say we would have mulled apple juice, soul cakes, and bones of the dead to end the tour, which was honestly one of the main reasons I booked on. It also meant I had to miss a London Month of the Dead event that I had accidentally booked for the same day, but I’ve been to a few of those and they’re always slightly disappointing, so it wasn’t a major loss, though I wasn’t pleased that they refused to refund our money even though we contacted them more than two weeks ahead of time to say we couldn’t make it. It was a sold out event, and I’m sure they could have resold our tickets to someone on the waiting list rather than have them go to waste (but that’s a complaint for another time, I’ve got plenty of others for today!).

 

Initial impressions of the cemetery were good. Although obviously overgrown and in a state of disrepair, like all of the Magnificent Seven, it wasn’t as bad as Tower Hamlets (can you tell that is my least favourite of the seven?) – in fact, in terms of atmosphere, I’d rank it up there with Brompton and Highgate, though the condition was a bit worse than either of those. However, the tour itself seemed a little disorganised when we arrived. It wasn’t clear who would be leading it, and there were various staff members standing about, but only one had the guest list and she kept disappearing inside, so you had to catch her to get your name checked off. They also abruptly decided we would all walk to the chapel to begin the tour right after Marcus had gone in to find a toilet, so I had to awkwardly wait around for him to come back (fortunately, the group didn’t move very fast, so they were easy to find). Instead of having treats at the end, apparently we would start the tour with them, which was fine with me as I was starving (I got the aforementioned cake to take home, so I hadn’t eaten since breakfast).

 

The chapel itself was quite a neat design, although there were no modern conveniences like heat or light. In fact, there was nothing in the interior except a set of folding chairs and a whole lot of ladybugs flying around, which kept landing on people (I started thinking of them as death beetles, and was glad none landed on me). However, it is the only one of the Magnificent Seven to only have a non-denominational chapel (most of the others started with an Anglican one, and then added one for dissenters (anyone who wasn’t Anglican)), and it was cool in every sense of the word, so the mulled apple juice was much appreciated! I liked that the default drink was nonalcoholic, because they serve this revolting hot gin punch at London Month of the Dead events. There were no soul cakes, but there were cookie-esque things that were meant to be ossi dei morti, but according to the woman who baked them, they had all run together, so were just broken into chunks. No matter, as they tasted delicious, like the crunchy brown edges of sugar cookies.

Once we were all settled in, the woman giving the tour appeared, and this is where things started to get disappointing. Not because she was bad at public speaking or anything like that, but because my expectations for these events are clearly unrealistically high. Because I’m really fascinated by certain subjects (Halloween, crime and punishment, medical history, the macabre), I tend to know a lot about them, so if I attend a talk by someone who doesn’t really know their stuff, I end up disappointed, and that’s exactly what happened here. She had clearly done some research, but she was working towards a MA in Victorian history rather than anything directly related to Halloween, so these subjects were not necessarily her forte. Really it’s my own fault for booking on, because I know this will happen every time. She started off by giving a brief history of Halloween, which seemed to be taken almost verbatim from David J Skal’s Death Makes a Holiday (I know because I own it, and just happened to be re-reading it in the lead up to Halloween). So I suppose this was interesting for people who don’t know much about Halloween, but I don’t know if those type of people would have attended an event like this in the first place. I would so much have rather heard about the history of the cemetery, which seemed to have been much more the tour guide’s speciality, but she touched on it only briefly.

Once she’d finished with Halloween history, we headed out into the cemetery to visit the graves of five Victorians buried there who she thought fitted into the Halloween theme. This sounded much more promising, but unfortunately also turned out to be not what I was hoping for. For one thing, almost all the actual graves of the people were located in the overgrown inaccessible parts of the cemetery, so we didn’t even get to look at them! For another thing, some of the facts she was giving us contained glaring omissions, or were just plain wrong. She mentioned the Bloody Code, and described it as coming about because “people cared about property more than people”. Fair enough, but that’s painting an incomplete picture. It was also tied in to the lack of a police force and the need for punishments to be severe enough to act as a deterrent (not defending the Bloody Code, because it was a horrible thing, just saying it was more complex than she made it sound). The primary reason it was gradually revoked in the 19th century was because Britain had established an effective police force and alternative means of punishment, such as transportation, by that point, not because property had become any less important!

Anyway, the five people she discussed were William Calcroft, one of Britain’s most prolific and brutal executioners; a member of the Mather family who was distantly related to Cotton Mather, chosen for Cotton Mather’s role in the Salem Witchcraft Trials (the connection was tenuous at best, as was her grasp of medical history. She mentioned how Cotton Mather was interested in inoculation, which he was, but then went on to imply that he and Edward Jenner were contemporaries who were influenced by each other’s ideas, which was not the case at all! Mather died years before Jenner was born, and though Jenner was influenced by inoculation, Britain and America had independently adopted inoculation at almost exactly the same time, and the practice was popularised in Britain by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. Can you tell I can go on about this sort of thing all day?); a famous aeronaut and astrologer named George Graham; and finally a father and daughter who practised stage magic. The father was known as the “Wizard of the South,” and there was another odd moment where she seemed to say that Houdini and the Wizard knew each other, even though Houdini was born 15 years after the Wizard died. There was a lot of jumbling of timelines). Even though I obviously had some issues with some of her research (or lack thereof), I am at least polite enough to keep my mouth shut whilst someone is delivering a talk. Not so her friend, a self-described historian, who stood in front and kept interrupting to add bits in (but not make necessary corrections). It was just obnoxious after a while.

Honestly, I did enjoy the overall experience more than I’m probably making it sound like I did. The mulled cloudy apple juice and cookies were delicious (and the very nice cemetery volunteers were waiting for us at the end of the tour with more mulled juice, which was much appreciated), and the cemetery itself was great, I just wish the tour guide had bothered to do a bit more research and maybe picked graves we could actually see! I hope I’m not coming down too harsh – I just get annoyed sometimes because this is exactly the sort of thing I would like to do, but have never really been given a chance to do so, so it irks me when I see people who have had the opportunity not use it to the fullest of their abilities! I also think that if someone is talking about a subject I know about myself, and saying things I know are wrong, it makes it difficult for me to trust what they say on subjects I know nothing about, like George Graham. I enjoyed getting to see Abney Park, but I would have liked more of the focus to be on the cemetery itself, which I think would have let our guide play to her strengths – I think she would have been great under the right circumstances, this just clearly wasn’t her choice of subject. Still, not a bad thing to do pre-Halloween, and certainly better than London Month of the Dead’s horrible hot lemon gin would have been. I’ll be spending Halloween night watching all of my favourite films (Hocus Pocus, Braindead, etc) and vintage Treehouses of Horror, and maybe I’ll even get some trick or treaters this year, now that we’ve moved into an actual house! Hope your Halloween is just as spooky as you want it to be (even if that’s not very)!

London: The Moon @ the National Maritime Museum

I’m trying my best to keep to a Halloweeny theme in October (I don’t even think Halloweeny is a word, but it doesn’t stop me from using it constantly), and even though this exhibition wasn’t directly related to Halloween, what could be more atmospheric on Halloween night than a big old full moon (or even a spooky crescent moon)? I’ve always loved the moon, as I think I’ve said on several occasions – my old bedroom was star and moon themed, and I currently have four moon tattoos (with probably more to come) – there’s just something about the whole nighttime/dark side of human nature aspect of it that I can relate to.  The Moon exhibition is commemorating the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, and runs until 5th January 2020. This is the first special exhibition the National Maritime Museum has had in quite a while (or at least, the first one in a while that has been worth seeing), and you know I’m always up for an excuse to get Brazilian churros from Greenwich Market, so off to Greenwich I went!

This exhibition was a little bit cheaper than their exhibitions normally are, at £10 (half off for National Art Pass), but it was also a bit smaller than normal. The woman at the ticket desk was really lovely and friendly (it’s always flattering when they ask if you’re under 25, especially now that I’ve hit 34…), which was nice, since I’ve encountered a few grumps there in the past. Amazingly, you were actually allowed to take photos, which is almost never the case at the National Maritime Museum – had I known, I would have brought Marcus, but as it is, you’re left with my crappy phone pics. Hopefully you can still get some sense of how pleasingly dark and lunar it was inside.

The gallery was divided into four different sections, each with a different theme, and opened with an exploration of how different cultures have viewed the moon throughout history, and the role that it plays in society and religion. This included the really cool moon mask shown above, some gorgeous silver moon jewellery, and a few bits and bobs from the Romans, Egyptians, and Mesopotamians, including a little tablet inscribed with lunar eclipse rituals.

 

Not being a big ancient history fan, the more interesting section to me was about the moon and the role it played in four humours theory medicine right up until the 19th century. I loved the crescent moon apothecary sign! And of course the term “lunatic” derives from the moon and the role it was thought to play in human behaviour (it was thought to influence moisture in the brain, which in turn could lead to fits of “lunacy”). The exhibition highlighted the sad case of James Norris (who I think I mentioned in the Bedlam exhibition write-up), who was kept chained up for fourteen years in Bedlam before campaigners demanded his release (he died soon afterwards). Pierrot is kind of a creep (since he’s a clown), but I would definitely hang out with his charming moon friend.

 

The second section was more scientific in nature, and I guess was trying to tie in the moon to the National Maritime Museum’s collections, because they really pushed the moon as navigational aid and bringer of tides angle (I mean, it is a navigational aid and bringer of tides, so it’s not really an angle as such, but they were clearly trying to get the whole maritime theme in there in a way that felt a bit forced). And I know I’m always showing you that portrait of young, dishy Joseph Banks, so you might as well look at one of the fatter, less dishy older man he became.

 

This part of the exhibition was full of a lot of drawings of the moon, a moon globe (much cooler and rarer than an Earth globe), and some Victorian photographs taken by a guy of a plaster model of the moon he had made that actually won some prizes for photography (they knew he used plaster models, they just didn’t care because they were good photographs. Have totally forgotten guy’s name though). I really hate Pink Floyd (and now I know that song is going to get stuck in my head), but I liked the first photograph of the dark side of the moon, taken by Soviet craft Luna 3 in 1959.

 

The third section was about the space race, and I suppose this had all the exciting items that most people would have come to see (certainly judging by the people gathered around the cases – most of the exhibition was pleasantly empty, but there was a small crowd in here who fortunately dispersed by the time I made it to that side of the display), including Neil Armstrong’s “Snoopy helmet” (so named for the flaps that bore a resemblance to the cartoon dog’s ears), a watch worn on the moon, the camera equipment that was taken on the Apollo 11 mission, and a whole bunch of chunks of moon rock (the US brought back something like 340 kg of it and Nixon presented a little chunk to every country in the world. You can see the UK’s fragment further down in this post).

 

Me being me, I was much more interested in the weird stuff, like the display about HG Wells’ The First Men in the Moon, which was quite scientifically accurate about some things, but not about the aliens (there was a little model alien here based on Wells’ description), Georges Melies’ A Trip to the Moon, which was playing on a video screen (it totally creeps me out, but I like it), and of course, the excellent Soviet and American propaganda posters (I have to say that I vastly prefer the Soviet style. What’s with all those lame eagles everywhere on the American one? It looks like a joke poster).

 

The final (small) section was about the future of the moon. Are we going on more moon missions? Will people ever colonise the moon (or will America just exploit its natural resources?)? These and other questions were discussed here, and there was a touchscreen where you could answer some questions yourself and see what other visitors had said, one of the only interactive elements in the exhibition (I don’t consider touchscreens that simply play a video on command to be interactive. They’re just kind of boring).

 

Although there weren’t as many interactive elements as I’d have liked, I found the staging of this exhibition to be quite cool, with a lot of interesting visual effects that really added to the atmosphere (or lack thereof, since we’re talking about the moon). The was a large lunar calendar on one wall, a big rotating moon on another, and of course the giant lit-up crescent moon shown at the start of the post. It felt like a space I could have hung out in all day (if there had been more content to read), and I would definitely have the big old crescent moon in my house (which is exactly what a guy did for an art project, as you’ll see at the end of the post).

 

Though I don’t really believe in it (I’m more of a non-practising, non-theistic Pagan, except when I’m in the mood to whip up a spell), I would have liked to have seen more about the witchy aspects of the moon, as the exhibition focused more on ancient and mainstream religions. Even more mythology would have been interesting – there was a chart listing all the different faces that people see in the moon, depending on hemisphere, which was really neat, and I wanted more of that – but I did only pay a fiver, and for that price, I’m pretty happy with the size of the exhibition, just wish it had been a bit more interactive. I still enjoyed the environment of the exhibit (definitely helped that there were very few other visitors) and all the great moon themed art and artefacts (though I could have done with more of that in the shop, instead of boring old t-shirts and magnets). And of course I loved my pre-exhibition churro in Greenwich Market. 3/5 for The Moon exhibition.

 

 

London: “Art and Spirit” @ the College of Psychic Studies

And so we happily come to October, best of months, in which all I want to do is breathe, eat, read, watch, and sleep Halloween (to be honest, I do that for most of the rest of the year too, but especially in October). Because I like to try to do Halloween related posts for as much of October as I can, and because appropriately spooky things rarely come my way in London, I’ve been hanging on to this one since August. So you will no longer be able to visit “Art and Spirit: Visions of Wonder,” as it only ran for one week in August, but how about I give you my thoughts on it anyway? (Rhetorical question, you’re getting my thoughts whether you like it or not.)

  

The first thing you need to know about me, if you’ve never read my blog before (hi!), is that as much as I would love to believe in ghosts, I am at heart a cold hard skeptic, and these people had no chance on selling me on any concept of an afterlife. So I was relieved that the exhibition was free, because I really did not want to give the College of Psychic Studies money (or any sort of religious organisation money, for that matter). The place was exactly what I was expecting (maybe I’m psychic?) – a big rambling terraced house in South Kensington that the College had presumably financed back in the late 19th/early 20th century during the Spiritualism craze when they were rolling in the dough. The College is open to the public for classes and things (that you have to pay for, of course), but I think the summer exhibition is the only time the whole building is open to the public, and it was hard to tell if they had actually put together an exhibition specially, or if this is the stuff that is always in here.

  

In all fairness, the people working there were very friendly, albeit a bit earnest. The same was true of most of our fellow visitors, who seemed to really believe in this stuff (a couple were questioning why you don’t get spirits on photographs anymore, and talking about how “powerful” all the images were), and I guess good for you if you’re able to embrace your spiritual side, but I am a terrible person, and earnestness makes me uncomfortable (I don’t really have a problem with people believing what they want to believe as long as they’re not pushing it on me or hurting anyone, but I do take issue with psychics and other people who exploit people’s vulnerability for financial gain, and it seems like there’s a lot of supposed “psychics” connected to this college). The people working there also seemed a little confused on whether we could take pictures – two different people told us it was fine, but then we spotted small signs in some of the rooms telling us not to take pictures. So I do have some photos, but not in places where we noticed a sign, so hopefully there won’t be an issue with posting these.

  

So as I’ve said, basically the entire building was open, and you could wander in all of the rooms, but some of them had barely anything in them which made me think that this is the way it normally looks. But the building was huge, and there was lots to see (lots of stairs too, though I think they had a lift). I would say the best bits by far were the spirit photography (as seen above), and the spirit paintings (as seen at the start of the post), which were just naive art, but done by people who claimed to have their hands guided by spirits (I had to laugh at the captions that basically said, “This person never drew before in their lives, and then they produced these [very primitive] paintings, so that’s proof that they must have been guided by a spirit.”).

 

There was sort of a shrine room to Arthur Conan Doyle, who was one of the College’s presidents, which was a bit odd, and then various supposedly haunted furniture, which in theory I love the sound of, but oh man, did they take it seriously. I was also cracking up at how they tried to dismiss the debunking of a seance that featured spirit writing by saying that the people who did the debunking weren’t properly familiar with how seances worked, so they didn’t understand that the writing on the board could occur at any time, even before the seance had begun (and not because the psychic had put it there themselves, of course). It was just all a bit too credulous for me. Still, I was interested to learn more about all the devices used in seances, and about the history of the Rider-Waite Tarot cards, since I do dabble in tarot (just for fun, not for serious).

I’m sure I just sound like I’m taking the piss, but I do think this was an interesting experience – if it hadn’t been a serious exhibition, but had been something more in the vein of the Harry Potter exhibition at the BL or even the Witchcraft Museum (who don’t seem to take themselves quite so seriously), I would have been really into it. As it was, I was just a little too weirded out by the earnestness to fully enjoy myself (I was sort of worried someone was going to try to convert us to spiritualism, though nothing like that happened. I know I said I didn’t want to give them money, but if they’d had that “Psychic Intercourse” poster for sale, I’d have bought it in a second). It was certainly a very unique experience, and perfect for this time of year (though I had no problem getting into the spirit in August, so to speak), and worth checking out if they open again next summer, but I certainly don’t think I’ll be joining the College any time soon. 2.5/5.

 

 

London: “Secret Rivers” @ Museum of London Docklands

 

I went to Oslo and Gothenburg a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve got lots of great (and some not so great) museums to show you from there, but I’m going to first take care of some temporary exhibitions in London that will probably be close to ending by the time I get done posting about Oslo (we went to a LOT of museums), starting with “Secret Rivers” at the Museum of London Docklands, which runs until 27th October.  In many ways, I think I prefer the Docklands Museum to its Museum of London sister site, but I don’t often get out to that part of London, so I was pleased that this exhibition would give me the excuse to do so, not least so I could detour by Greenwich Market and get one of my beloved Brazilian churros.

 

This exhibition is free to visit, and is pleasingly just the right size – large enough to make it worth the trip, but not so big that I got tired of looking around before we finished. Also pleasingly, it is located on the ground floor, so we didn’t have to hunt it down somewhere in the belly of the museum. The exhibition opened with a map of the Thames and its tributaries, including all of the “secret rivers” featured in the exhibition: the Effra, Fleet, Lea, Neckinger, Tyburn, Walbrook, Wandle, and Westbourne (there’s a fun quiz on their website to determine which river you are – I’m the Walbrook, which except for the spiritual stuff is basically accurate). I think most Londoners will have heard of at least some of these – certainly the Fleet because of the famous street bearing its name – but they are secret in the sense that the rivers were wholly or partially buried under London (mostly during the Georgian or Victorian eras as the city got more built up), and some are only now, after many centuries, undergoing regeneration.

 

I have to admit that though I am not the most interested in rivers from a nature point of view, I think they’re super interesting for their role in London’s history (especially the Thames, which I have a real soft spot for, though of course that is not hidden), so I was definitely keen to learn more. The exhibition briefly profiled each river, showing its course on a map and explaining how/why it had become “secret,” and displayed a handful of artefacts relating to each river, often things that had been pulled out of it. Some of this was simply garbage, but there were also things like axe heads, swords, religious badges, metal oil lamps used for Diwali, and even a skull.

  

Since human waste was a big part of why most of the rivers disappeared, there was also a mock-up of a three seat privy (the seat of a real one was on display) so I could sit down and give you my obligatory pretend pooping face (apparently I also flail my arms, based on the way one has completely disappeared). One of the more interesting sections was on Jacob’s Island, a slum formerly located in Bermondsey where the Thames and Neckinger met. Dickens used Jacob’s Island as the inspiration for “Folly Ditch” in Oliver Twist, where Bill Sikes died, but according to the exhibition, he actually made it sound a bit nicer than it would have been in real life. The whole thing was a warren of ramshackle shanties with secret tunnels so its inhabitants could escape the police, and residents were forced to get drinking water from the same area where they emptied their chamber pots. Yum. I have a weird fondness for London tap water (I swear it tastes more full-bodied and delicious than the water in other cities, probably because it’s clogging my guts with limescale), but that’s a bridge too far even for me.

 

Not all of the rivers profiled here were in slum areas – the Westbourne ran through classy parts of town like Chelsea, and its banks were home to an upmarket version of Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens called Ranelagh Gardens, which offered a range of china souvenirs to its visitors, many of which were on display here. However, even rich people produce effluvia, and it too eventually became clogged with shit. Today a much cleaner version of it feeds the Serpentine in Hyde Park, though it is mostly buried.

 

Marcus took a particular interest in the section on the Wandle, as he is one of the volunteers who has helped to clean it. There used to be a tonne of industry on the Wandle, which runs through Merton, including William Morris’s factory and the Ram Brewery, and it was in a pretty sorry state, but has gone massive regeneration in the last couple of decades, and is now mostly pretty pleasant (save for the occasional discovery of a headless torso), though I’m sure Marcus and everyone else would appreciate it if we could stop carelessly disposing of plastics that make their way into the rivers.

 

There were a few interactive bits in this exhibition, like chamber pots with authentic smells and an installation where you could listen to the sound of the Thames at Windsor, but it was mostly a lot of text, nicely broken up by images and artefacts, which I was totally fine with, especially the excellent “anecdotal view” of the City, shown above. Marcus was even able to pick up a Wandle pin badge in the shop, though I would have liked to see more exhibition-specific things rather than generic London tat (though their shop is tiny, and I am all too aware of the challenges of ordering in custom merchandise for a special exhibition, but I think they probably could have worked with a local artist to produce some river-themed prints. They did have a couple on sale, but they were tiny A4 sized ones where you couldn’t even see the detail from a distance). However, overall it was truly a riparian entertainment with a good flow (ha!), where I learned about some rivers that I didn’t know existed before visiting (probably exactly what they were aiming for!), and got a kick out of all the scatological humour, like Ben Jonson’s poem, shown above. 3/5.

  

On a much less positive note, I also popped in to the Science Gallery to see their latest exhibition on Dark Matter, and I wish I hadn’t even bothered. It was possibly even worse than the last one. The theme of dark matter was really taking the piss – they literally included a jar of air and even worse, a display case filled with nothing, and called it art. Even amongst the pieces I liked, like this really cool map showing all the imaginary islands that had appeared on maps over the centuries with descriptions of how each of the islands had come to be imagined, the connection to dark matter in a scientific sense was tenuous at best. I’m not even bothering to give this one a proper post of its own, because I would struggle to fill it. Pretty lame, Milhouse. 1.5/5.

  

London: “Food: Bigger than the Plate” @ the V&A

The V&A’s exhibitions have been quite fashion-heavy of late (Dior, Mary Quant), and whilst I do like historical fashions, I’m not so keen on designer-based things (I seem to be in the minority though, as I think Dior is completely sold out for the rest of its run, and you’d probably be wise to pre-book Mary Quant). So I was glad to see they were offering an alternative to fashion in the form of Food: Bigger than the Plate, which runs until 20th October and is all about the future of the food industry.

 

I tend to book ahead at the V&A just to avoid queuing at the ticket desk, but it probably isn’t necessary for this exhibition, at least on weekdays. Admission is £17, which is a lot, but as usual, I only paid half with National Art Pass (if you visit as many exhibitions as I do, you definitely end up getting your money’s worth). There weren’t many people inside the exhibition, but I had to wait for a few minutes to enter because they were changing over staff at the entrance. This wasn’t a problem for me, but it clearly was for the old woman behind me who passed the time by loudly complaining about them (and possibly me, for not just walking right in? It was hard to tell who she was angry at. Everyone, I guess). After dealing with people being rude to me and my volunteers on a regular basis at the museum where I work, I have very limited tolerance for this kind of behaviour, so because I wasn’t at work and was free to do so, I may have made a comment right back to her. Seriously, please do not be horrible to customer service people who’ve done nothing to deserve it. Their jobs are awful enough without having to deal with your abuse.

 

At least the mean lady had the decency to disappear quite quickly after we got inside the exhibition (I think she might have been embarrassed after I called her out), so I didn’t have to keep awkwardly bumping into her as I wandered round. The exhibition covered four separate themes: composting, farming, trading, and eating, but it was more free-flowing than a typical exhibition here, which is probably why they had a round flow-charty thing serving as a map in each room to indicate how far along you were. And I have to say that the exhibition was definitely bigger than I was anticipating, certainly “bigger than the plate.” (Huurrrp.)

 

Of course I think sustainability is important, but I have to admit that I don’t think it’s the most fascinating of topics, so I was impressed that the exhibition held my attention throughout, right from the toilets near the entrance, though they definitely were display-only (I did kind of have to pee, but not in public)! They were water-free toilets, where the poop is caught in some kind of biodegradable bag. To be honest, the mushrooms grown out of bags of used coffee grounds were way grosser – just look at them! I’m not a mushroom fan at the best of times though.

 

There were a lot of examples of plant-based leathers and plastics, a collection of leather goods made from the hide of one poor cow, maps showing fruit trees in London where you could do a bit of urban foraging, and zines covering how to make beer from things like yogurt, but lest it all become a little too crunchy, there was also this great booklet/artwork parodying sustainability taken to extremes by offering ideas on how best to capture your tears to either make your own salt (you need something like 200ml of tears for one gram of salt) or to feed moths (and believe me, the pictures of moths licking tears off someone’s face were terrifying, especially for a lepidopterophobe like myself).

 

And then we got into farming, which was a mix of delights and horrors. There was a collection of tinned pork products that had all come from one pig who had been followed from birth to death by an artist. This was accompanied by a video of the pig’s life, up to and including slaughter (hence the horrors). I watched a bit of cute baby pig doing pig stuff, but moved away pretty quick before they got anywhere near the slaughterhouse. Since I don’t eat them, and I know damn well what happens to them (I’ve watched enough PETA propaganda films in my day), I don’t particularly want to watch it happening again, but I think it is good that it was there so those who do choose to eat meat can at least see where that meat is coming from (I’m really not a particularly ethical vegetarian, but I do think it’s only right that if you’re willing to eat it, you should be willing to watch it die).

 

On a happier note, chickens! Some guy is trying to breed healthier chickens through crossbreeding (as an example of how factory farming has destroyed the health of most modern breeds, a woman had attempted to make bone china from the bones of factory farmed chickens vs. organic chickens, and the factory farmed china was all grey and crumbly and horrible. Made me sick just looking at it), so there was a chart of chickens showing the breeds he had mixed and some (admittedly taxidermied) examples of the new breeds he created. There was also Florence, an adorable little strawberry plant who was having her environment monitored by a computer, and you could ask her questions about her mood, interests, etc, and get a fairly incoherent response in return. And after passing through all the horrors of factory farming, we got to sample an herb-based beverage from a kiosk, though sadly not the cherry one that was sitting out on the counter.

 

On the subject of beverages, the trading section (which was the smallest section here) contained the recipe for Coca Cola, at least as determined by the company that makes Cube Cola, after much trial and error. And now I guess you’ll be able to make it too, though I strongly doubt many of us are going to go out and buy nutmeg oil and powdered caffeine. There were some nice posters in here, and it’s always interesting to think about how far some food travels, like bananas to Iceland, which was the subject of a video here, though I confess I am definitely not a locavore sort of person (though we might all have to be if Brexit goes ahead. Have you actually looked at how many things in British supermarkets are made in the EU? Because it’s seriously most foods. It’s almost like no one actually thought this through…).

 

I was most excited for the eating section – the name was a bit of a misnomer, as there was only one thing you could eat in here, but I’m way more interested in culinary history than eating weird “foods of the future,” so that wasn’t really a problem for me, at least until I got to the diagrams of various cakes known only in Portugal. My experience of Portuguese baking (as sold in London) has not been great, but some of these cakes looked awfully tempting! I can’t say the same for the cheese made from celebrity cultures, including a cheddar from Suggs’s ear wax, and a Comte made from Heston Blumenthal’s pubes (I’m throwing up in my mouth a little just thinking about it). I guess I would eat cheese made from my own bacteria, but I can’t imagine it would taste particularly nice, as anyone who has smelled my feet would likely agree.

 

This section wasn’t only about food, but also about the nature of consumption. There was a display of pottery with designs depicting the early sugar cane industry, and all the slavery and suffering that went along with it, and objects from the intriguing project “Enemy Kitchen” by Michael Rakowitz, who started serving Iraqi food in Chicago during the Iraq War, to try to increase cultural understanding. He even served a dinner off of Saddam Hussein’s personal china, and imported a box of dates into the US from Iraq just to show that despite the difficulties that arose during the importation process, it could be done.

 

The last section of the exhibition was a massive dining table set with different dishes at every place – some were examples of art, others were inventions that could help people with various disabilities, like Parkinson’s, to feed themselves – and a counter where you could order your own food of the future. You didn’t have a choice of dish, you just selected three qualities you thought the food of the future should have (such as sustainable, vegan, delicious, affordable, etc), and they would make you a teeny cracker based on your choices. I am far too much of a picky eater to gamble like this, but Marcus gave it a go and ended up with some kind of courgette crisp topped with mushroom puree. He said it tasted sort of like pizza.

 

I have to say that I enjoyed this exhibition much more than I thought I would, given the emphasis on the future of food (when I’d usually prefer to learn about the past). I learned a lot, and it is definitely interesting, though not always appetising, to think about what food might become in the future. If I had one complaint, it’s that this exhibition featured an awful lot of products, most of which were conveniently for sale in the shop, which gave it rather a corporate feel (and because most of the products were pretty cool, I ended up buying more than I usually would at a museum shop. I’m a sucker for Tarot cards, and they had a food-themed pack you can use when you can’t decide what to have for dinner), which didn’t seem to match with the ethos of the rest of the exhibition. However, this is a fairly minor quibble, and I think it is very much worth seeing if you can get in for half-price (£17 is a bit steep), since it’s always good to know more about where your food comes from. 3.5/5, and I’ll leave you with a collage Marcus put together of the gorgeous wallpaper (if I ignore the butterflies) commissioned specially for the exhibition, and found throughout the gallery walls.

 

London: Stanley Kubrick @ the Design Museum

I am not a Stanley Kubrick fan. To be honest, every time I’ve seen one of his films, I’ve felt sick afterwards. But this is not really an example of me taking one for the team/sake of the blog, because Marcus does like him, and wanted to see this. Also, “The Shinning” is one of my absolute favourite segments in The Simpsons‘ “Treehouse of Horror,” so even though I don’t particularly like the Kubrick version of The Shining, I thought it would be worth going for the memorabilia from that film alone.

Of course, The Shining was only one small part of this comprehensive exhibition. The grandly titled: Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition is at the Design Museum until 15th September, and costs £14.50 (half off with Art Pass). I would recommend pre-booking at least a few days in advance, as it does seem to sell out, even on weekdays. I booked on a Friday for a Monday visit, and it was pretty crowded inside, mainly with American tourists (I suppose they could have been living here like I am, but they had the air of tourists. You can tell).

 

The exhibition opened with a small section on Kubrick’s life before he became a director (seriously small. Like two cases worth. All I got out of it was that he liked chess). Apparently people often don’t realise he was American, because he spent almost the whole of his adult life in Britain (wonder if that’ll happen to me after I get famous, though I suspect the accent will give it away). It then talked about his method of directing (obsession basically), illustrated by his personal copies of some of his scripts. And I mean literally illustrated, because he drew little pictures in the scripts of how he wanted certain scenes to look. His drawing was about as good as mine (which is to say terrible), so these were pretty funny.

 

From there, the exhibition segued into a series of small galleries for each one of his films, including props, film clips, and some making of/behind the scenes facts. The trouble with not being a Kubrick fan is that I’ve only ever seen three of his movies: The Shining, Full Metal Jacket, and A Clockwork Orange, so those were really the only parts that held my attention (and I seriously hate A Clockwork Orange so much, so it wasn’t necessarily holding my attention in a good way. I genuinely felt ill just looking at some of the props).

 

Like the one above left, for example. Not on account of it being a penis, but because I know what Alex does with that giant penis, and it is not pleasant. Because of this film, Malcolm McDowell totally gives me the creeps, but the photo shoot of him trying different hats to find one that suited his character was still pretty amusing. I think the bowler hat probably was the right way to go.

 

Speaking of creeps, how about Jack Nicholson? I think that’s why I hate the film version of The Shining so much, because Jack Nicholson taints everything he touches with his creepy creepy smile (I had to go see the first Batman movie in the cinema when I was about 4 (don’t think my parents realised how scary it was, since the TV show was super tame and campy), and his portrayal of the Joker has put me off Jack Nicholson for life). I have read The Shining, and of course it’s still scary, but the whole point is that while Jack Torrance clearly had his demons, he was trying his best to be a normal family man at the beginning of the book, which is what makes his descent into insanity so terrifying. Jack Nicholson was clearly just waiting for an opportunity to murder his family from the start, so all you’re left wondering is why they would be stupid enough to agree to be holed up with him for the winter in the first place.

 

But true to expectations, The Shining section was my favourite one by far, with all the props you’d want to see: the typewriter (“no TV and no beer make Homer something something”), the twins’ dresses, the axe, the photograph at the end of the film showing the Outlook Hotel at the July 4th Ball of 1921, and a miniature version of the maze from the movie made by Adam Savage of Mythbusters fame. There was even a patch of the Outlook Hotel carpet at the entrance to the exhibition (“that’s odd, usually the blood gets off at the second floor.” I really could quote classic Simpsons all day long (and often do))!

 

But I must reluctantly move on from “The Shinning” and get to the rest of the exhibition. I’ve never seen Barry Lyndon, apparently about a Georgian rogue, but the making-of in this case was quite interesting. Apparently no electric lighting was used during filming, so they had a lens with a super wide aperture to film in candlelight. The resulting film was also meant to look quite flat, like 18th century paintings, and certain scenes were even supposed to match up to various famous paintings, like Gainsborough’s Blue Boy (Hyacinth Bucket’s favourite). Because Kubrick didn’t want to have to leave England to film it, it was shot at about twenty different stately homes around the South of England, so Kubrick didn’t have to travel too far from London.

 

I’ve also never seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, but that one is at least ingrained enough in popular culture that I knew all about HAL and was willing to pose for a photo with him. There was also a gorilla suit that apparently features at the start of the film, a creepy (god, I’ve used that word a lot in this post) baby in a floating sphere, and a set of rather groovy furniture that was meant to be the interior of a Hilton Space Station.

 

Because I’m not familiar with Kubrick’s entire oeuvre, I think my views will be quite different than those of a fan. I enjoyed seeing the props I recognised, and some of the stuff about censorship and the film-making process was quite interesting, but personally, I would have liked to know more about Kubrick’s life, other than a brief blurb about his childhood and the fact that he married an actress from one of his films (in fact, she was the only female actress in the entirety of Paths of Glory, his WWI film, which looks like it actually might be worth watching). For one thing, I’d like to know what inspired him to make such violent films, or why he seemed to really like Jack Nicholson, who he had also marked down to play Napoleon, had that project not fallen through.

 

But I’ve little doubt that Kubrick fans would have been delighted with this, and even with me skipping over the sections I had no interest in (Eyes Wide Shut, for one), we still spent around an hour in there, so I think it was worth the price of my half-price ticket. In fact, I am intrigued enough to possibly check out Lolita and Paths of Glory, though whether I’ll actually like them is a different story altogether. The shop is also rich in Kubrick merchandise, though sadly nothing that could double as a “Shinning” reference, so we only got a postcard. For me, this was a solid 3/5, but fans will probably score it significantly higher.

London: “Writing: Making Your Mark” @ the BL

Am I alone in thinking that “Writing: Making Your Mark” is a really dull exhibition title? Well, for better or worse, that is the title of the BL’s current exhibition, which runs until 27th August (my birthday!). Admission is £14 (half off with Art Pass), and this is one where there probably isn’t any need to book ahead. Certainly the galleries were the emptiest I’d ever seen them when I went inside, though in typical BL style, some of my fellow visitors still seemed to go out of their way to be as irritating as possible: blocking cases whilst having extended conversations in front of them, bending down so far to read the signs that the entire case was obscured, and one very strange dedicated mother and teenage son duo who analysed everything single thing in every single one of the cases, even translating some of the foreign texts into English (the son made a valiant attempt to escape at one point, and totally ignored his mother calling him from across the exhibition, but she nabbed him in the end). So even though there were only about ten other people in there, they still all conspired to make my visit more of a trial than it needed have been.

Limestone Stela with Mayan Glyphs, BL.

Also complicating things was the BL’s usual prohibition on photography, which makes it especially difficult to talk retrospectively about an exhibition with a theme as, well, vague as this one (all photographs in this post, aside from the first one, are taken from the BL’s website). Like all of the BL’s PACCAR Gallery exhibitions, this was divided into sections, each as thrillingly titled as the exhibition itself: The Origins of Writing, Writing Systems and Styles, Materials and Technology, People and Writing, and The Future of Writing. These divisions weren’t always super clear, as most of the exhibition simply consisted of the written word, be it on the page, a stone tablet, or in the case of one of the most memorable objects, a piece of pottery that was used as a work permit giving a prostitute the right to ply her trade in the confines of a city (in Ancient Greece? I can’t remember, and I cannot decipher the writing on that shard (sherd). Somewhere in the ancient world anyway) for a day.

Prostitute Day Pass, BL.

The best thing about this exhibition was definitely the interactive elements, which I got to use for once, since the small number of other visitors strangely didn’t seem interested in them (they only cared about being annoying about the stuff in the cases, which I guess is good, in a way). These included tablets where you had to guess which language each writing system belonged to (surprisingly difficult), a station where you could try your hand at typesetting (though you disappointingly didn’t get to print anything, as you were just lining up letters on a board), and my favourite thing of all: a tablet where you submitted a writing sample, and it analysed your handwriting (I don’t know if it was entirely correct, but still, fun! Apparently I write with an upward slant and have well-defined dots and crosses, which can mean ambitiousness (definitely not) or arrogance (probably, though I think I’m more of a snob than arrogant. Arrogant implies a certain self-confidence that I don’t really possess) and a well-ordered mind (hopefully?)).

Section of a Mozart Symphony, BL.

The other best section, as far as I was concerned, was the one featuring examples of the handwriting of famous people, which contained Robert Falcon Scott’s last diary entry (which I’ve seen before, but still, so sad, and so pointless), one of Mozart’s symphonies as originally composed in his handwriting, Alexander Fleming’s early notes on penicillin, and if I recall correctly, I think either the manuscript for Pride and Prejudice or Frankenstein, or possibly both (this is the problem with not being able to take pictures. Well, that and trying to blog about something three weeks after the fact because I went to a lot of exhibitions in a short period of time and didn’t get around to this until now).

Caxton Canterbury Tales

As usual, the exhibition was illustrated throughout with lots of beautiful old texts, except for the final section, which was really pretty lame, as all it seemed to consist of was a screen where you could vote on how you thought people would communicate in 2050, and a scroll of paper where you could write how you felt about the future of handwriting (surprisingly few obscene messages, but given that most of the BL’s visitors appear to be pensioners, I guess it would have been much more surprising to find a penis doodled there or something). There were a handful of non-book related artefacts, such as a tattooing kit and some pens and pencils showing the evolution of writing implements, though I was disappointed to see there was nothing from the Pen Museum. I think I would have liked more of this sort of thing, particularly tattooing, though I guess it’s up for debate on whether it’s more of an art form or a form of communication.

Writing Composite Image, BL.

I suppose the object of the exhibition was to explore how writing evolved across cultures, and what might happen to writing in the digital age, and it did do that to some extent, though more as an overview than as a comprehensive exhibition. They didn’t use the entire exhibition space and what was here was far more spread out than usual, which I suppose is fine when you’re appreciating a beautiful object (or blocking a case, as at least then you’re only blocking one), but something about it just felt a little half-assed. This is definitely not one of their “blockbuster exhibitions,” maybe more just something to fill the space during the summer, when they presumably get fewer visitors than normal (because I’m assuming people don’t want to spend their summer hanging out in an archive? I would (well, in one with fewer rules than the BL), but I’m not normal). I liked it fine, but nothing in here was particularly memorable, as you can probably tell from the way I’m struggling to fill up this post, and if I’d paid full price, I think I’d be fairly annoyed at the lack of content, especially compared to the BL’s normal exhibitions. 2.5/5 for this one.

London: Wandsworth Prison Museum

I’ve been interested in seeing the Wandsworth Prison Museum for some time, but it only opens to the public a few days each year and I never quite managed to catch one of these open days. However, a friend of mine sent me an email about an open weekend in early June as part of the Wandsworth Heritage Festival, so I made sure to make the effort to get there this time, even though I had to go alone and take my own poor quality pictures because I was working on the Saturday of the open weekend, and Marcus was volunteering at a filming of Antiques Roadshow on the Sunday, so we didn’t have an opportunity to go together (yes, I gave up a chance to queue for hours and have my antiques appraised to do this instead. Actually, I could have still queued for hours after visiting the prison museum, but it was hot that day, and I did not fancy spending three hours standing in direct sunlight, especially since I already know that anything antique that I own is of low value. Poor Marcus had no choice but to stand outside all day, and ended up with terrible sunburn, but at least he got to volunteer with the cool militaria expert with the moustache).

   

The prison is located in the North Car Park of Wandsworth Prison (still a functioning prison), which is probably why it is only open a few times a year. It was hard to spot it because of the high walls surrounding the prison, and I didn’t see any signs anywhere as I would have expected from an open day, so I ended up circling the entire complex and walking back again from the opposite direction. It was on the return trip that I spotted the A4 sign with a tiny arrow directing me to the museum, which was completely invisible from the angle of my initial approach. I was glad I managed to find the museum on the second attempt, because I was worried I might be starting to look suspicious to the guards strolling around the site (I mean, they weren’t in watch towers with guns or anything like that, but authority figures still make me nervous). It is in a small shed right in the parking lot (as seen at the start of the post), but the current shed is apparently twice the size of the shed it used to be in, so I guess that’s an improvement. However, after looking at pictures of the old museum, I don’t think they’ve actually added anything to the new museum, just spread things out a bit more.

  

Wandsworth Prison has had some famous inmates come through it over the years, including Oscar Wilde, who spent four months here whilst awaiting transfer to Reading Gaol; John Haigh, the “Acid Bath” murderer; Ronnie Kray, and Ronnie Biggs (also Hawkwind played here, as you can see from the newspaper article above, but their female singer was advised not to take her top off on this occasion as she normally would onstage, and she apparently followed that advice). Obviously Wilde is a far more sympathetic figure than the others, but I can’t pretend I’m not interested in the lurid details of true crime, so of course John Haigh is of considerable interest as well. Contrary to his nickname, he didn’t actually kill people with acid, but battered or shot them to death first, and then dissolved their bodies in acid to hide the evidence (I’m not sure if that makes it any better than just killing them with the acid, but it does sound slightly less agonising for the victims). Although you wouldn’t have learned much of that here, as it was much more a prison museum than a crime museum, and frankly, even the history of the prison was a bit lighter than I was hoping.

 

The most interesting things in here by far were the execution box, which I think I saw before at the Black Museum exhibition, and the life mask of one of Britain’s last and most famous hangmen, Albert Pierrepoint (he featured prominently in the black comedy play Hangmen, which I saw a few years ago. The main character is a second-rate hangman who is super jealous of Pierrepoint (pronounced peer-point)). People were executed at Wandsworth Prison, including the aforementioned John Haigh, hanged by the also aforementioned Pierrepoint, but Wandsworth Prison was also the keeper of all the execution boxes for the whole of England. They had twenty boxes containing rope, straps, a sandbag, a hood, and whatever else you might need to hang someone, which were sent out as needed. There was a police officer supervising the museum whilst I was there (I wasn’t sure if you were allowed to take photos, and I was too shy to ask, so I kept trying to surreptitiously take them when his back was turned. I’m sure he was on to me, as I must have looked shady as all hell, so I dropped some coins in the donation box on the way out to look more like an upstanding citizen), and he started telling some guy about the difference between American and British noose knots, which was super interesting (basically, American knots lock on the neck and can only be cut, rather than untied, so are single use. The British just used a basic slip knot so the rope could either be reused or cut into lengths and sold to souvenir hunters to make some extra cash on the side for the hangman (I already knew about them selling the rope, but I don’t know anything about knots, so that part was news to me)). I wish he had shared more stories like that without prompting, because I don’t really like asking questions.

 

Aside from those objects, it was fairly standard prison museum fare – lots of photographs and newspaper clippings, and a couple uniforms and a little wooden (cardboard?) model of the prison, although there were a few grisly bits thrown in here and there amongst the mundane if you took the time to look, like the innocent looking ruler and pliers that were actually tools used by executioners to measure the rope for hanging. But it certainly wasn’t as thrilling as an actual criminology museum, and for all that the museum had been recently redone, I found the information in the cases quite hard to read, as it was printed in small font on laminated sheets hung in the back of the cases, and with the sunlight streaming in through the open doors, it was hard to get the right angle to actually be able to read them and match the labels up with the objects in the cases, let alone clandestinely photograph them.

Apart from being intimidated by the location (which, as you might expect, is not the easiest thing to access. You kind of have to get a bus from Earlsfield, or walk for quite a while) and thus having a bit of a panic when I couldn’t find it right away, I certainly don’t regret visiting, but I do wish that the information was more detailed and a bit easier to read. I also wish the officer working there could have shared more behind-the-scenes stories with us, as that was what made the City Police Museum so delightful on my first visit (until they went ahead and ruined it by making it very impersonal). I imagine they’ll probably be open at some point in September for either Heritage Open Days or Open House London if you want to pay this museum a visit yourself, though I think there are certainly better crime and punishment museums out there. 2.5/5.

 

London: “Smoke and Mirrors” @ the Wellcome

What we have here, for once, is a happy confluence of an exhibition at the Wellcome that I really really wanted to see, and visitors being allowed to take photos of said exhibition (which isn’t often allowed at the Wellcome). Oh happy day (and now I’m going to have the Sister Act 2 version of that song stuck in my head for the rest of the day)!

 

“Smoke and Mirrors: The Psychology of Magic,” which runs until 15 September, is basically exactly what it sounds like – an examination of how magic works on the human mind – and is free to visit, like everything at the Wellcome. It was not too crowded at the time of my visit, which made for a nice change over the usual packed rooms, though my fellow visitors still managed to park it right in front of every video screen (good I didn’t care about watching most of them anyway, though I did watch a bit of Arthur Conan Doyle talking about Spiritualism. He didn’t sound at all like I expected, as you can probably tell from my expression).

I’m not much of a fan of most magicians anymore (they tend to either be too cheesy or take themselves way too seriously), though I loved watching them when I was little, and walked around with one of those kids’ magic kits forcing my mother to watch me perform tricks (like pulling a handkerchief out of a wand, which was super magical if you ignored the end of cloth that was protruding out of the wand at all times), but I am very into the idea of magic (and magick), and all the paraphernalia that goes along with it. And of course I’m interested in historical magic and seances (though I don’t actually believe in ghosts), so I was especially excited to see the items belonging to Mina “Margery” Crandon and Harry Houdini (there’s a book called The Witch of Lime Street that details their encounter, which I read last October (part of my annual Halloween book season of spooky reads)).

 

The exhibition was ostensibly divided up into three themed sections: The Medium, Misdirection, and Mentalism, but as so often happens, I didn’t really see that much of a clear distinction between them, as the exhibition seemed to flow in more of a chronological manner than a themed one. The Medium was about the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and was thus my favourite part. There were some cases in the middle that contained an array of objects used in seances, including a rapping hand and a cool handmade Ouija board with a very happy little sun.

  

This sort of segued into a section on Houdini himself, containing a great poster for one of his shows, and a kimono style robe belonging to Margery Crandon, as well as a bunch of pictures of her manifesting her “ectoplasm” (chunks of meat, in reality). I was excited to see that Houdini’s famous bell box was here, though it looked much easier to use than I was expecting. Margery Crandon’s whole conceit was that she channeled spirits using the help of her guide, who was her dead brother Walter. In the early 1920s, Scientific American magazine promised a prize of $2500 to anyone who could demonstrate genuine telekinesis, and though Margery’s husband was a wealthy doctor, she wanted that prize (though she was probably more after the fame). Houdini was on the panel of men sent to test her using a variety of supposedly cheat-proof contraptions Houdini had devised, including the bell box, which she would have to ring whilst tied up inside a large wooden box (large enough so that she could sit comfortably inside; it wasn’t a torture device or anything) from which only her head protruded (also on display. The box, that is, not her head). But after seeing the box, I realise it was much less complicated than it sounded, as you didn’t have to actually reach inside the box to ring the bell, you just had to depress a panel on the top. No wonder she was able to ring it by leaning her head forward out of the box! Not sure why Houdini, the great sceptic, didn’t invent a better system than this, but then spiritualists did make up a lot of rules that had to be followed (like seances being held in the dark, for example, or the entire circle having to hold hands), and were conveniently unable to channel anything if these rules were broken. Makes you wonder how anyone could have believed in them, let alone the people who still do!

 

But let’s put my thoughts on human gullibility aside, and focus on the rest of the exhibition (and yes, I realise that most people who consult psychics are grieving and desperate, and I should really be angry at the people who choose to exploit them, but still). There were a series of short films in here showing how various magic tricks worked on the brain, and I’m sure these were very interesting (and maybe I should have watched them so I could have learned exactly why some people do believe in these things instead of just calling them gullible), but there were a lot of people in front of them and I have a limited attention span (far more entertaining was the early film showing a psychic being unmasked after floating a “ghost” through a room on a fishing line). So I just enjoyed looking at the props on display instead – a gorilla head worn by Derren Brown, the box Paul Daniels used to saw Debbie McGee in half, and Tommy Cooper’s fez.

 

My distaste for magicians does not extend to Derren Brown, whom I quite like, though I haven’t been to one of his shows because I’m terrified he’ll pull me from the audience (probably not, because I wasn’t susceptible to hypnotism when my high school psychology teacher attempted it on the class (much less shady than it sounds), but you never know), and I definitely enjoyed looking at some of his props, including the very cool poster shown above.

 

I know Derren Brown did something similar to this on one of his shows, but there was also a wall showing a series of random statements given to a group of people as their horoscope, who all thought it exactly described them. Of course, the catch is that all their horoscopes were exactly the same! I wish I could say this means I never bother to check my horoscope, but of course I do, if I happen to catch sight of it in the paper.

 

I think my issue, if I have to have an issue (yes I do, it’s the Virgo talking, haha), is that because this exhibition was focused on the psychology of how magic works, it was quite light on history, and I would have really preferred the history! I’m glad there were at least some artefacts here, especially those relating to the Margery Crandon case, but I would have liked to see more historical background behind them because I’m sure not everyone had read about these things beforehand. So it was disappointing in that respect, but I still think it’s an interesting subject and I’ll happily go see pretty much any exhibit about the occult, so I left reasonably content. 3/5.

  

London: “Edvard Munch: Love and Angst” @ the British Museum

I was intrigued by the advertisements I saw for “Edvard Munch: Love and Angst” at the British Museum, which runs until 21st July, so I decided to pop along to see it a couple of weeks ago. Before visiting this exhibition, my knowledge of Edvard Munch was pretty much limited to The Scream. I’m not even confident I can pronounce his name correctly (“Moonck?” “Monk?” “Monk-ch?”), which is why I ordered my ticket online, but the exhibition doesn’t seem to usually book up in advance, so there’s probably no need to do the same unless you share my fear of being laughed at by ticket desk staff.  I only just realised that the British Museum offers discounted tickets on Mondays; the exhibition is normally £17, but drops down to £14 on Mondays, so was only £7 with my Art Pass discount.

The exhibition was held in Room 35, which is one of the smaller galleries inside the big central column structure in the middle of the BM (their large exhibition gallery is currently hosting “Manga,” which I’m on the fence about visiting. I personally don’t care for manga, but I feel like other people might. Is anyone interested in reading about this?). I was surprised I was able to take pictures, since usually you aren’t able to in here, so I was unprepared for it (basically, I had neglected to bring Marcus and his camera), so I apologise for the poor quality of the photos I took with my phone. I would say the exhibition was medium crowded – easy enough to look at things, but a little more challenging to photograph the paintings without someone’s head in front of them. I tried my best!

Munch grew up in Kristiania, which later became Oslo, and also lived in Paris and Berlin for a time, so the exhibition was divided up into spaces that reflected the work he produced whilst living in each city. Like many artists, Munch didn’t exactly have the happiest childhood – his mother and older sister both died of tuberculosis, and his father was attentive, but was extremely religious, and would tell him that he was disappointing his dead mother in heaven when he misbehaved (yet would also regale his children with ghost stories that gave poor young Edvard nightmares and had an obvious influence on his later work). He also had a family history of mental illness – one of his younger sisters ended up in a mental institution, and Munch had his own struggles with depression and anxiety, which again, is fairly obvious when you look at his work.

 

He also had torrid love affairs, as artists tend to, including one with a woman named Tulla Larsen which ended with Munch accidentally shooting himself in two of his fingers, which were never the same again. He had painted a portrait of the two of them that he chopped in half after the shooting incident, as seen above (next to his drawing of Nietzsche, which I love).

 

Despite all this, Munch still manages to come across as quite a sympathetic figure, and I loved the work on display here, particularly his wood block prints. He manages to make his work bleak and beautiful, but definitely not soulless. I know the woman in the print above left is meant to be a bit of a succubus (“female entrapment” is the term they used in the exhibition), but they both look so damn happy that I can’t help but be drawn towards it.

 

There was work by other artists who had influenced Munch as well, like Acid-thrower by Eugene Samuel Grasset (acid throwing was also used by revolutionaries in Paris in the 1890s, and though she looks more glamorous than today’s acid-throwers, it doesn’t change the fact that it was (and is) a horrible, horrible thing to do) and Skull in an Ornamental Frame by Hans Wechtlin, which I just loved.

And yes, The Scream was here as well in its lithograph form, as well as an etching of a dead mother and grieving child who is using the same gesture as the figure in The Scream, sadly based on Munch’s own life experience, but it’s nice to know that although his life was not without more than his fair share of pain and suffering, there was more to the man than that.

 

Although he certainly fitted the archetype of the tortured artist for much of his life, after suffering a breakdown in 1908 that briefly hospitalised him, he stopped drinking, which led to improved mental health, and his paintings finally began to sell in Oslo, which further brightened his mood and led to more cheerful paintings (by Munch standards) with broader brushstrokes and increased use of colour. He lived to the age of 80, long enough for the Nazis to label his work “degenerate,” predictably enough, leaving Munch in fear his personal collection of his art, which he kept in his house, would be confiscated. Fortunately for the world it was not, and the Nazis even had the nerve to try to co-opt his popularity by paying for his funeral, even though they hated him in life, and he was definitely not a Nazi sympathiser.

 

I really enjoyed all the pieces in this exhibition, as well as getting to learn more about Munch’s life. I definitely consider myself a fan now! I think this exhibition was just the right size – enough space that I felt I got my money’s worth (£7, not £14), but not so big that I got tired of looking around before I finished. As usual, I could have done with slightly fewer people, but I’ve definitely experienced worse. Definitely worth a visit for the angst-ridden among us – weirdly, I find that when I’m feeling down, as I have been lately, it helps to look at slightly depressing art like this, and know that I’m not alone in my ennui (even though Munch was a lot more successful at it than I’ll ever be), so it was just what I needed. 3.5/5.