London

London: Gingerbread City @ Somerset House

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

London: “Moving to Mars” @ the Design Museum

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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 “Spirit 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.