London

EuroTrip 2007: London and Brighton

We left 21 year old Jessica sobbing in a horrible hostel toilet because she couldn’t hack being away from home on her own for the first time. Fortunately, life was about to improve as she (I) discovered the joys of Brighton (sorry, I’m slipping into a weird kind of third person Jimmy from Seinfeld thing). First thing in the morning of day two, I marched myself down to Victoria Station and invested in a round-trip ticket to Brighton (34 year old me is aghast at the thought of buying train tickets on the day at the actual ticket window. They must have cost a fortune!), with which I instantly fell in love. Finally feeling flush in my independence, I got my lip pierced, which I had been dying to do for ages but hadn’t because I knew my parents wouldn’t be happy, to say the least (and yes, I was an adult, but living with them meant I was still very much under their control. I had a curfew until the day I moved out, aged 23). But now that wouldn’t be my problem for a while (I did also have several tattoos already at this point, but I was good at keeping them hidden, so no one knew). I had a wander around town, visited Infinity Foods (which I still really like) for some vegan sweets (I was just coming off of a year long flirtation with veganism, and was still eating mostly vegan. That lasted until I rediscovered the joys of cheese), visited Brighton Museum, and tried on vegan combat boots at Veg Shoes. I suppose I must have made it down to the pier, but I didn’t even mention it in my journal!

I returned to London that afternoon feeling much happier with the world, and even popped over to Buckingham Palace to have a look at the outside, and went inside Westminster Cathedral, which I’m almost certain I had confused with Westminster Abbey at that point. The weird thing is that I don’t think I’ve ever been back to Westminster Cathedral since, even to walk past (which is frankly all I would be doing anyway, since I’m not religious), so I’m not sure how I managed to find it in the first place! I still do love Brighton – I don’t think I could live there, but I like to make the trip at least once or twice every summer to grab a cone from Boho Gelato, which didn’t exist at the time of my first visit, and walk along the pier, though not at the same time. I learned that lesson the hard way after a jerk seagull snatched my cone out of my hand and ate it in front of me with all his jerk seagull friends.

In London, I had moved from my original hostel (which was near Victoria) to one in Bloomsbury, just across from the British Museum, so of course I felt compelled to spend a day there, and found it memorable mainly for the Ancient Egyptian collection (nowhere near as crowded in those days) and the incredible pain my feet were in by the end of it. This was also the day I discovered ICCo, aka Goodge Street Pizza, which is still one of my standbys if I need a cheap quick meal in the area. I liked it so much I went back the next day and accidentally made a date with a guy who worked there (he didn’t speak much English so I was just smiling and nodding and didn’t realise what I’d agreed to until it was too late) and subsequently stood him up, since I still technically had a (awful) boyfriend, so that put an abrupt end to ICCo, at least until a year later when I actually moved here and renewed my acquaintance with the place, which became my Friday evening treat to myself after class. The guy who asked me out was definitely still working there as of a couple of years ago, but I’m pretty positive he doesn’t remember the incident by now!

I also visited the Tower of London (for the one and only time. I got angry about how basic the Beefeater tour was. I was bitching in my journal because it cost £13, which to me seemed unbelievably expensive. I looked up how much it costs now and guess what it is?! £26! Of course, because the pound has gotten so weak over the years, it probably works out to a similar amount in dollars) and attempted to visit Whitechapel on account of my fascination at the time with Jack the Ripper. I’m not sure what I was hoping to see (Victorian London, alive and well?), but it certainly wasn’t what I got. All my journal says on the matter is “Whitechapel sucks.” I also made it to the Tate Modern and remarked on taking the Tube back, so I’m a little confused how I got to Tower Hill and Whitechapel in the first place. Surely I didn’t walk?! I definitely would not have taken a bus, so I’m a bit perplexed.

Day five was my last in London, and I spent it exploring Camden, which I loved in all my innocence of youth. I bought a horrible cheap black and white striped dress that I thought looked amazing, and a pink and black striped hoodie, both of which you’ll see pop up in pictures later on. I recall that I ended up in Camden because I was trying to walk to the British Library navigating solely by those arrow signs, and the signs crapped out at one point, so I just kept going until I hit Camden (I probably would have been disappointed with the BL back then anyway. It’s not much to look at from the street, and King’s Cross was pretty grim in those days). I also popped back to Westminster for some photos (I seem to have gotten Westminster Abbey and Cathedral straight by then) and prepared for my trip on the Eurostar the next morning, which I believe still departed from Waterloo at that point. My journal records that I bought a white chocolate Magnum for dinner because I couldn’t find an Indian restaurant or chippy to eat at. Must not have been trying very hard!

Sorry if this post was a bit uneventful, but after my first day, I did basically just have a nice time in London, so there’s not much to be said about it, other than the wry observations of a hardened Londoner looking back at my youthful naïveté. I also wasn’t interacting much with my fellow backpackers at that stage, so I don’t even have any stories to tell about other travellers.  I think it’ll get more interesting as things go wrong, so hopefully my next post, which will include my journey to Venice via Paris, and Venice itself, will be more exciting! Thanks for bearing with my reminiscences!

 

EuroTrip 2007: London Part 1

So, as promised, I am going to take you through my first trip to Europe, aided by a journal I kept at the time. I do have some photos, which I’ll be including where relevant, but not many. I don’t particularly like taking photos even now, though I’ve gotten better at it as phone technology has improved and made taking photos less obtrusive. But back then, with a bulky digital camera that just screamed “tourist!”, I absolutely hated it. I only have 59 photos from my entire six weeks in Europe, so this is going to be quite a wordy re-telling, for which I apologise in advance.

But first, I think I need to provide a little background to explain why this trip was such a big deal for me (and sorry, it’s going to get kind of depressing for a bit).  In 2007, my life was not great – in fact, that’s an understatement. I was completely miserable. I’d finished my BA the year before, and was basically just drifting at that point. I’d worked as a manager of an ice cream shop through some of high school and all of university, and I just kept my job after I graduated because I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with myself. Also, I had never learned how to drive (it’s a long story), and public transport where I lived was basically non-existent, so I wasn’t really sure what else I could do. However, the ice cream shop ended up going out of business in late 2006, due to the owner going bankrupt. He was a disgusting pervert who sexually harassed all of his employees (mostly teenage girls), so it couldn’t have happened to a more deserving person, but I did genuinely love that job. Pervert boss lived over an hour away, so I only had to see him once or twice a month, and the rest of the time was fabulous. I loved making ice cream and decorating cakes (what I lacked in skill, I made up for in enthusiasm), so I was quite upset when I found myself out of a job.

I was still living at home (in the suburbs between Cleveland and Akron, Ohio) and still dating my horrible boyfriend who I’d been with since high school. My relationship with my parents was extremely strained at the time, especially after I lost my job and failed to immediately look for a new one. Instead, I attempted to get my parents off my back by applying to some Master’s programmes for the following year, but my heart wasn’t really in it. I desperately wanted to move out, but I couldn’t afford to do so unless I moved in with horrible boyfriend, and though I wasn’t yet smart enough to break up with him at this point, I was smart enough to know that if I did move in with him, I’d never get out of the relationship. I was also desperate to move away from Ohio, but just didn’t know how to make it happen. I’d go for long walks at night, and just dream about walking forever into the moonlight.

Once I had submitted all my Master’s applications, I needed something else to do with my time (because it was that or work somewhere within a couple of miles from my house, which basically meant fast food establishments or retail), and I hit upon the perfect idea – why not plan a trip to Europe? I’d always wanted to go to Europe, but at that point in my life, my only experiences with foreign travel had been Niagara Falls and Tijuana, which don’t really count. However, when people would ask me why I hadn’t learned to drive, I’d always reply, “I don’t have to, I’m going to move to Europe.” I was fascinated with the continent without really knowing very much about it, other than what I’d gleaned from obsessively watching every episode of Samantha Brown’s Passport to Europe. But I had $30,000 burning a hole in my bank account, saved from five years of working nearly full time (I only had classes three days a week, so I’d work the other four just to get out of the house) with basically no expenses other than school books, clothes, and going to punk shows (even though I didn’t have the best relationship with my parents, at least they did let me live at home for free, otherwise there’s no way I would have been able to save so much. I only made $8 an hour), so I could definitely afford to do it, and being unemployed, I had nothing but time on my hands. The next step was to try to persuade someone to go with me, but since jerk boyfriend didn’t like me having my own friends (presumably because they might tell me what a dick he was), my options were basically him or one of our few mutual friends, and when everyone ended up flaking out, I thought, “screw it, I’ll go alone.” So I did (except for an interlude where my mother and aunt insisted on meeting up with me in Italy, which I’ll get to in a later post).

After months of planning (much harder in those days because whilst we did have internet, it certainly wasn’t to the extent we do now, and I was sharing a computer with my entire family. I still relied heavily on my trusty copy of Let’s Go Europe 2007 to find hostels and things to do. Seeing that cover brings back so many memories!), making frantic calls to the State Department to try to get my passport in time (I’d ordered it with months to spare, but this was around the time when Canada announced Americans would soon need a passport to cross the border, so they were processing way more applications than normal, and had a major backlog), and arguing with my family and boyfriend, none of whom were happy about me going, I finally left in late May, shiny new passport in hand. Unfortunately, at the time I got my passport picture taken, I was in the middle of an ill-advised experiment with blonde dreadlocks, and even though I had given up and picked them all out before leaving for Europe, my passport would bear the evidence of this disastrous look until 2017! (See photo below to get an idea of how much this look did not work for me.) First stop, London, the plan being that I could ease myself in slowly in an English-speaking country. Unfortunately, things didn’t quite work out that way.

Having never really experienced jet lag (other than a bit after a trip to California, but everyone knows going west to east is the worst part, and then I was just heading back home, so it was fine), I was totally unprepared for what hit me upon arriving in London after a sleepless night on a plane. To quote my journal entry my first day there, “I am miserable! If I could go back home, I would. Got to London surprisingly quickly, but it took me an hour to find the hostel. I thought I would die. I got here at 10 but they wouldn’t let me into a room until 2, so I wandered around looking for food. I went to a Sainsbury’s – the highlight of my day was the candy. Hula Hoops and Toffee Poppets are also rather good [yep, that was my first time eating Hula Hoops. God knows how many thousands of Hoops I’ve eaten since then (only boring red packet though, I don’t like the other flavours), and I wouldn’t even say they’re one of my favourite crisps]. I then came back and slept in the lobby briefly, then spent an increasingly frustrating hour looking for a phone, which ended with me locking myself in the bathroom and sobbing. I took a three hour nap and am now awake, bored, and miserable. Everyone has a friend but me.” Yes kids, I did not have a mobile back then. Honestly, I was fairly behind the times, as most people did by 2007, but this was still primarily a flip phone era, and certainly not one where WiFi was free and plentiful. I was a bit of a Luddite, and was opposed to having a phone for some odd reason, so I was still relying on good old payphones and internet cafes for this trip, and as I was soon to discover, those famous red telephone boxes were basically toilets for rough sleepers and a place for prostitutes to advertise their services, so were best avoided at all costs.

Given that I very much consider London my home now, and it is one of my favourite cities in the world, I think it’s kind of funny how much I hated it when I first saw it. I left this out of my journal entry, but I remember that I also almost got hit by a cab when crossing the road (presumably because I was looking in the wrong direction) and the cabbie stopped and screamed at me and it made me cry. I did a lot of crying that first day. Would things get better? Well, I’ve done an awful lot of rambling on in this post already, so come back next week to find out! And thanks for sticking with me if you made it through this block of text!

London: The Cartoon Museum Redux

This is my last museum post for the foreseeable future, based on a visit I made a month ago before everything started to close down, but I would like to continue my weekly posts – I’m not going to kid myself into thinking they’re boosting anyone’s morale (other than maybe my own), since I’m quite a negative individual at the best of times, but I think it’s good to stay in the habit and keep myself occupied. And I have settled on a topic – if you’re a regular reader, you may have seen me reference my summer of backpacking around Europe back in 2007, and though it was definitely a mixed bag, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that trip ultimately changed the course of my life. Well, now that I’ve got nothing better to post about, you’ll get to relive it all with me, starting next week (assuming you come back then)! And I do hope everyone is managing to stay well out there!

 

I first visited the Cartoon Museum (not to be confused with the Billy Ireland Cartoon Museum in Columbus, which I have been to loads!) very early on in my blogging career, almost exactly seven years ago (Diverting Journeys turned seven in March), and I hadn’t actually been back there since, though I’d seen on various Museums Association newsletters that they were temporarily closed whilst moving to a new location, and then had re-opened in said new location (with a new curator who seriously looks about twelve. I mean, I’m probably just getting old and she’s actually well into her twenties, but I don’t understand how people that young get curatorial jobs. Really grinds my gears after the struggle I’ve had getting any kind of museum job) only a few months ago. Having seen most of the temporary exhibitions that I wanted to see at the time (wish I’d seen them all now!), I thought I might as well go check out their new set-up.

 

Normally, when a museum moves location, I would hope it was because it was an upgrade, but this was definitely a downgrade. They moved from their lovely ground floor location in Bloomsbury to a dingy basement just off Oxford Street (I guess it’s technically Fitzrovia, but that is far too posh a name to describe the museum’s locale. Also Oxford Street is hell and best avoided at all times, not just when social distancing). This place seriously felt like a concrete bunker, and there was what I assume was an uncovered sewage pipe just above our heads so that we got to listen to the atmospheric sound of running water (which really made me need a wee) for the duration of our visit. I can’t actually find a reason given anywhere why they moved, but now that I’ve seen it, I assume it was to save money, because there’s no way the rent on this place could be as high as the old location. The £8.50 admission price, a full three pounds higher than when I visited seven years ago, also seems to confirm that view, and I guess instead of being harsh on them, I should just be glad they still exist in some form. Art Pass members do get in for free, so I can’t really complain about the admission fee since I didn’t have to pay it.

  

I was keen to see the Cartoon Museum in March because of their temporary exhibition “Hail to the Chief: Brief Lives of America’s Best and Worst Presidents,” which ended in early April (I guess? I don’t really know what’s happening now). I can look at presidential caricatures all day long, particularly of the current Satsuma-in-Chief, and Martin Rowson’s drawings, which come from Andrew Gimson’s new book on the presidents (which I couldn’t resist buying from the gift shop, though I found upon reading it that it was absolutely riddled with factual errors (for example, it claimed Lincoln was assassinated by a “Robert Booth.” Don’t editors exist anymore?)), were pretty great, even though only a few of them were featured in the exhibition (they were all scrolling on a TV screen in the gallery, but I lost interest in standing there and watching them all because it was taking too long).

 

The other temporary exhibition at the time of my visit was “Dear Mr. Poole,” which was meant to run until 28th June (again, I don’t know what the plan is now). This was a collection of cartoons and sketches given to Phillip Poole, who sold pen nibs at his shop in Drury Lane (shown above), and befriended many artists and cartoonists over the years, who sent him personalised drawings and letters as a display of gratitude. There were too many famous names here to list them all, but this exhibition took up a substantial area of the museum, and was a treat to look at.

 

The permanent exhibition space was the rest of the (basement bunker) gallery, with framed cartoons from the 18th century right through to the present day crammed into every available space. As I’d come straight from work, I didn’t have the energy to read them all, but it could easily fill hours of your time if you did! I did at least skim every one though, and took the time to read the funniest looking ones. And I can finally show you the parody of Gillray and Rowlandson’s work that I loved so much on my first visit!

 

Unlike the old Cartoon Museum, there weren’t any comic strips here, though as I’m not a huge fan of British comics (I don’t understand the appeal of The Beano), to me it wasn’t a major loss. Also unlike the old museum, we were allowed to take pictures of the individual cartoons – at least, there was no sign prohibiting it, and Marcus specifically asked the admissions desk guy if it was alright, and he said yes. I do seem to recall there being more of a narrative to the old Cartoon Museum, but these were all just mashed on the walls in roughly chronological order, but without much commentary (maybe that’s what happens when you hire a twelve year old curator. OK, now I’m just being mean).

 

Although there were still a lot of lovely cartoons here (honestly, probably more that specifically interested me than in the old museum, given the focus is now more on political cartoons), I can’t help but think that in most other ways, the museum has taken a major step down. Like I said at the start, if it was a choice between a downgrade and closing altogether, I am glad they found a way to still exist (and hope they can carry on existing when this is all over), but I think they could have found a way to do more with the space. Even something relatively cheap, like better signage and nicer flooring (at least clean up the stains!), could have gone a long way to improving that bunker feel. I don’t think it’s worth £8.50, but if you have Art Pass, there’s no reason not to come and check it out when/if we’re all allowed out again. 3/5.

London: Aubrey Beardsley @ Tate Britain

Another week, another disclaimer. I visited this exhibition a few weeks ago, right after it opened  – obviously museums and most other things are shut now, but even if they weren’t, I wouldn’t be venturing into Central London or anywhere else for that matter, other than the supermarket when we run out of staples (which are almost impossible to find now anyway thanks to asshole hoarders). I hope by blogging about this that I’m giving you the opportunity to view something you would otherwise have missed, rather than upsetting you by showing you something you probably can’t see now, though I realise Aubrey Beardsley’s life and work isn’t exactly a boost of positivity unless your sense of humour is as dark as mine.

 

Aubrey Beardsley might not be an artist you know by name, but it’s more than likely you’ve seen an example of his work. As soon as I saw the image they were using to advertise this exhibition (the one of the woman holding a severed head, above left), it lit a spark of recognition in me and I thought, “Aubrey Beardsley, of course I need to see that!” but in retrospect, that may be more because of how Beardsley’s work obviously influenced Edward Gorey (of whom I am definitely a fan) rather than because of much prior knowledge of Beardsley himself. (The two pieces below are the only ones not by Beardsley in this post, but they are drawings of Beardsley, and I included them so you could get an idea of how others viewed him in his lifetime.)

 

The Aubrey Beardsley exhibition at the Tate was originally only on until 25th May (no idea what’s going to happen now), and at the time it opened, I could see which way the tide was turning (though I didn’t expect it to turn quite so quickly), so I went to see it immediately to make sure I got the chance. And clearly I wasn’t the only one being eager (or maybe blasé, in retrospect), because the gallery was pretty full, mostly with older people, since it was the middle of the day on a weekday. I’m positive this was the same gallery where we saw the Van Gogh exhibition, but they changed the orientation of the space so the entrance was now the exit. No matter, it’s still a large gallery, and it wasn’t anywhere near as packed as Van Gogh was (which could only have been a good thing, considering).
 
Admission was £16, but we got in for £8 with National Art Pass. I booked online shortly before we arrived just to save myself the faff of standing at the ticket desk (I will avoid human interaction whenever possible, which turns out to be serving me well in these times). The exhibition was divided up into fifteen sections, though some rooms held three different sections, so it wasn’t actually fifteen rooms, but it still took us a fair while to walk through them all. The advantage of having such a large space was that even though certain displays had quite a few visitors in front of them at once, the opposite wall would usually be empty, so I could just go look at something else until they cleared out, a boon for anyone who hates waiting as much as I do (and seriously, look at it, take a photo if you need, and move on. You don’t need to stand there studying a picture for twenty minutes when other people are clearly trying to look around you).
 
I suppose I should actually tell you a bit about Aubrey Beardsley at some point, so here goes: he was born in 1872, and contracted tuberculosis at the age of 7. Being that there was really no effective treatment at the time (unless you count the mountain cure, the prairie cure, or whatever other supposedly healthier air the owners of various sanatoriums were peddling), Beardsley always knew he would die young, so was determined to pack as much as possible into his short life. He was very close to his mother and sister, who supported his talent for drawing, which was evident from an early age. He mainly created images for publication, so not many people viewed his original sketches during his lifetime, and because he favoured the lewd and grotesque, many of his drawings were censored prior to publication, so this exhibition was an excellent chance to see the originals.
 
Beardsley, although probably not actually gay himself (he seemed more asexual than anything) fell in with a crowd of decadents that included Oscar Wilde, which would have profound consequences for Beardsley’s career after Wilde’s trial for gross indecency, as publishers didn’t want to do business with anyone who was associated with Wilde. Still, for someone who was effectively only working for seven years (he died at the age of only 25), Beardsley still managed to have an incredibly impressive output consisting of thousands of drawings, including the illustrations for an addition of Le Morte D’Arthur, Oscar Wilde’s Salome, and various magazines, including a stint as art editor of The Yellow Book.
And as I’ve already mentioned, and you’ve probably already seen from the photos, Beardsley had a fascination with the grotesque, and you can clearly see the influence his work must have had on Edward Gorey and other modern illustrators. He had a fetus motif running through many of his pieces (no one knows why), and did some excellent caricatures of both friends and enemies. The ones of Oscar Wilde (especially the one of him a couple of paragraphs down where he’s struggling to translate his work into French, a language Beardsley was fluent in) and Whistler, above left, (and Whistler’s wife, above right) made me laugh out loud. (He seems to have particularly had it in for Whistler, who he once admired, but Whistler snubbed him, which triggered the caricatures. An excellent revenge, I think.)
 
He also, though expressing no obvious sexuality himself, liked to do vaguely pornographic drawings, and these were kept in their own special “adults only” room of the exhibition (though I didn’t see any children in the exhibition anyway). They were primarily illustrations for a privately printed edition of Lysistrata, a Greek play by Aristophanes where women attempt to put an end to the Peloponnesian War by denying their husbands sex (I had to read it for a class I took on Eros and Love, and it wasn’t the worst thing we read in that class by a long shot. That honour goes to Wuthering Heights. Blech), and there was, to my great delight, an illustration depicting a fart cloud, and a whole lot of giant erections. He also tried to sneak sexy bits into illustrations intended for more mainstream publications, like a tiny erection he stuck on a drawing on John Bull for The Yellow Book, which was sadly discovered and removed prior to publication.
 
Obviously I loved Beardsley’s work, and I think we could have definitely been friends (we have the same big nose, and I can relate to the pain of that caricature at the start!). His work was popular in his lifetime, but then forgotten about until the 1960s, when the Tate held an exhibition of his work that prompted a revival of interest (though they claimed exactly the same thing in the Van Gogh exhibition, so maybe it should be taken with a grain of salt. I really don’t think the Tate is solely responsible for people liking Van Gogh), and there were some examples of ’60s art at the end of the exhibition so you could see the way his monochromatic style influenced a lot of artists, including the artist who did the cover of the Beatles’ Revolver (but I’m just including more of Beardsley’s work, because I love it so much. The guy wearing the crown of vine leaves in the picture below right is meant to be Oscar Wilde. So many great caricatures).
 
Sadly, the shop didn’t have postcards or prints of his more erotic work (no fart cloud print for me) or his caricatures, which were basically my favourite things, but we did get a few postcards of other pieces. £16 is a lot of money, so even though it was a big exhibition with great content (and just the right amount of text), it’s hard for an exhibition to live up to that, but I definitely think I got £8 of enjoyment out of it, if not a bit more, and considering it was one of the last exhibitions I got to see for who knows how long, I certainly have no regrets. 4/5.
 

London: The Postal Museum

By way of introduction, I should say that I visited the Postal Museum before Covid-19 had started to spread in London, and I certainly wouldn’t advise going into a museum and trying on communal dressing-up clothing at this point in time, if in fact there were any museums still open. As of yesterday, every museum in London that I follow on social media is closed, including the one I work at (though since my job is mostly office based, I will be working from home and still getting paid, at least for the time being. I’m not sure what the situation is like for FoH staff (at other museums, there’s none where I work), but I do sincerely hope they are still getting paid as well, especially the ones employed by large institutions that can afford it!). I have two more posts after this from places I visited before the pandemic was in full swing, but after that, I’m not entirely sure what I’m going to do. I will probably try to post something every week just so I don’t fall out of the habit, but I’m not yet sure what the subject of those posts will be. Suggestions welcomed!

I swear I don’t have a vendetta against every museum in London (if I stopped going to every museum that rejected my job applications, this blog wouldn’t have lasted very long), but lately, it probably sounds like I do. And actually, my issue with the Postal Museum is the reverse of the one I have with most other museums – they were willing to hire me, but I turned them down because one of the women who interviewed me would be my direct manager, and she seemed really mean in the interview so I didn’t want to work under her, and even if she had been nicer, the job just sounded so terrible. As they described it to me, it sounded like I would mostly be telling overweight people that they were too big to ride Mail Rail and dealing with overflowing toilets. I guess I should at least give them points for being honest, because my current job involves dealing with the public toilet, which I didn’t know until after I started (officially it is not part of my role, but because my office is next to the toilet and my desk is the one that people can see from the door, guess who gets asked about it constantly?), but nevertheless, I was angry, I suppose because they expected people to take an awful job for awful pay. At any rate, I had been offered another marginally less awful-sounding job at around the same time (not my current job – I only lasted three months at the not quite as awful but still pretty horrible job), which is why I had the option of turning this one down. They opened in 2017, but because of whatever odd grudge I was holding, I didn’t visit until a few weeks ago, and then only because I was looking for something to do with a friend who I know is a bit of a train nerd.

As I knew from my interview, the Postal Museum is divided between two sites, one a short distance down the street (and on the other side of the road) from the other, which I suppose is not ideal for a museum that seems to be aimed primarily at children. I don’t know if it particularly matters which site you start on – as you are given a timed slot for Mail Rail, it might be easier to start with that, but you can buy tickets at either site. Admission is a whopping £17, and there doesn’t seem to be a reduced ticket if you only want to visit the museum; however, if you are an Art Pass holder, then the museum is free, with an optional £6 supplement if you want to ride Mail Rail (Mail Rail being the miniature train that was originally used to carry mail through tunnels under the streets of London to various Royal Mail depots for sorting. Think miniature as in those kiddie train rides at a funfair, not miniature as in model railway sized). Since it was Marcus’s and my first visit, and we were with our friend who had to buy the normal ticket as he doesn’t have Art Pass, we decided we might as well give it a go, and it’s probably good we did because it is the most fun part of the whole experience.

 

Except for the queuing, that was not fun. When you get inside, you will likely be met with a massive queue, even with the reserved time slot, and because there are only two trains, each of which holds maybe thirty people, and each ride takes fifteen minutes, you will likely be waiting upwards of half an hour at busy times. Because you are riding in a train that was originally built to carry mail, the dimensions are not terribly large, which was why it was implied at the interview that we would have to turn quite a few people away. However, they are bigger than you think – my friend is a fairly big lad, and he got inside, and Marcus, who is 6’2″, did as well, though he basically had to hold his head at an awkward angle the whole time so it didn’t bang against the ceiling, and his legs were so far into my side of the seat that my hip was hiked up in the air in a really uncomfortable manner. If you’re riding with a tall person, I suggest not trying to share a seat with them! Still it was only fifteen minutes, and once the train started moving I forgot about most of my discomfort and just enjoyed the ride, which included a few short video presentations and a train “graveyard.” You don’t get to ride the entirety of the tunnels, which stretch to Liverpool Street (the museum is in what I think is Mount Pleasant – basically a weird area of central London that isn’t particularly near any stations. It’s a 15-20 minute walk to Farringdon, King’s Cross, and Russell Square), but you head out, loop around, and come back.

 

There is a small museum when you exit Mail Rail with more information about the railway and a few interactive elements – my friend and I enjoyed racing trains (I won), and there was a life-size mock-up of a mail room on a train (different from Mail Rail, this would have been on an actual full-sized train), where postal workers would have to sort letters whilst the train was moving, and the floor even moved so you could experience this for yourself, which was great fun, except I felt a bit ill for about ten minutes afterwards. By the way, we were the only people here without children, and the people who had children were making no effort to control them, so they were just running around screaming the whole time. It wasn’t so bad in here, as it was a less crowded floor area, but it was pretty awful in the main part of the museum, which we headed to next.

 

The actual Postal Museum bit was also really fun and interactive, and even with all the children running around, there were enough things to play with that we still got to have a go on most of them. However, I didn’t get to read all of the text because some woman with a huge pram kept parking it right in front of one display after another, making it impossible to look at them (this was most annoying in the section about historic ships carrying mail that still managed to make it to their destinations despite various calamities, which I was obviously keen to read. She noticed us struggling to read around her pram, she just didn’t care).

   

I initially enjoyed the story of the lioness who escaped from the circus and attacked a mail coach (which were used to carry mail around the country before the advent of trains, but also carried a few passengers. It was a faster ride than stagecoaches, but there were no scheduled meal breaks or toilet stops, only stops to pick up mail, so it would definitely not have been for me!), but after researching this for this post, it seems that the museum took a lot of artistic licence with the account. The impression I got from the museum was that the lioness was subdued by a Newfoundland, reclaimed by her owner, and things ended well for all participants (you can read the account above and see if you agree with me). Nope. In reality, the lioness attacked the horses, attacked and killed the Newfoundland, and was ultimately found hiding under a granary by her owner, the passengers having all fled and hid in a nearby inn whilst the lioness was occupied with the dog. I get that it’s a child-orientated museum, but if you can’t be truthful about what happened, don’t even include it. You could relive the inaccurate version of this story in a little choose your own adventure style game, where I chose to leave behind the man who left the coach for an unscheduled toilet break (it was the right choice, as I delivered the mail on time as a result, even after the encounter with the lioness).

 

I do love a dressing-up opportunity, and there were lots in this museum! I didn’t manage to fit into the lady postal carrier jacket (it was either child-sized, or I have unusually wide shoulders), but most of the other ones worked, especially the hats (I genuinely think I might have to get the one on the left. It matched my outfit)! Interestingly, postmen were not provided with trousers as part of their uniform until the 1850s (they presumably provided their own before that, rather than just going naked underneath, funny though that is to picture). Postwomen didn’t have a full uniform until WWI, when they joined Royal Mail in greater numbers to replace the men off fighting (a few women worked as letter carriers in the 19th century, but they didn’t have an official uniform), and those outfits included a skirt. They weren’t given the option to wear trousers until the 1940s, and then only because a woman named Jean Cameron had led the way by campaigning to do so because trousers were much more practical than skirts, particularly in very wet (all of Britain?) and cold areas of the country.

 

There were some artefacts here too, but they were rather few and far between with the interactive elements taking pride of place. My friend was complaining that there weren’t even any penny blacks, but I had managed to spot some, so I directed him around the corner to where I had found an entire damn sheet of them hiding in a nook. They were also some splendid posters from the mid 20th century, some of which were for sale as prints in the shop.

There was a temporary exhibition on the Great Train Robbery at the time of our visit, and though this was the one part of the museum that was clearly directed at adults, it was actually my least favourite bit. I’d heard of the Great Train Robbery (mainly because I was really into the Sex Pistols as a teenager), but I didn’t know much about it, and this exhibit seemed to assume a level of knowledge I didn’t possess, with only eyewitness accounts to explain what happened before we were presented with random lists of names of suspects, and I left still not fully understanding the sequence of events. I’m also not sure why the robbers were treated like folk heroes, since one of the postal workers later died from his injuries after being smashed over the head during the robbery. But I did learn that I am slightly shorter than the stack of paperwork Royal Mail has on the case, which I guess is something.

The part Marcus was most looking forward to, the Post Office cats, was actually just outside the exit of the museum (so I think you could probably view it if you just visited the cafe). Some post offices used to have official cats that were paid 1s 6d a week to keep the post offices rodent free (which was not bad going in the 1860s when the tradition started, since housemaids were only paid £7-£11 per year back then. Obviously the cats weren’t really paid as such, that was simply the amount that was allocated to them for their food and other expenses (tiny hats?)), and the Postal Museum decided to revive the tradition by having a competition in 2017 to find a different ceremonial Postal Museum cat each month. The winners were photographed in an adorable tiny hat, as you can see here.

 

I’ve heard the woman who runs the shop here speak at a couple of different training courses, and it’s a perfectly fine shop, but not as amazing as I was expecting given the awards it has apparently won. The only things I would have bought were the prints of old Royal Mail posters, and I’ve already got more prints than I know what to do with. There was a machine where you could buy exclusive Postal Museum stamps though (which you can actually use to post things), so Marcus got a couple of those, and I just designed my own stamp inside the museum (which you cannot use to send things, though they do email you a copy). You can see Marcus’s end result, which was better than mine, above.

Overall, considering I only paid £6, I did enjoy the museum, but if I had paid £17, I think I’d be significantly more annoyed. It is really fun and family friendly, which unfortunately has the side effect of attracting lots of children, and I am not a fan. I think I prefer a museum where the children’s area is self-contained, rather than spread throughout, as it seems to encourage misbehaviour in the entirety of the museum (though the parents certainly could have done a much better job of stopping it). As a result of this, although the museum isn’t yet three years old, it is already looking a bit worn and grubby in places. I also didn’t appreciate the historical inaccuracies – this isn’t really the kind of museum for history snobs like myself; in fact, I’d say it’s more of an attraction than a museum. 3/5 for the £6 I spent (I’d say the Mail Rail side gets 4/5, but the actual museum only 2/5), but I’d downgrade it for value for money if I’d spent the full admission fee – maybe I’d have better luck visiting at a less busy time than a Saturday, but it was the only time my friend could make it. And I’m still glad I didn’t take the job – I’m pretty sure all those screaming children would have sent me ’round the bend in a matter of weeks.

 

London: The Wellcome Galleries @ the Science Museum

The Science Museum finally opened their new medicine galleries last November, and I only just visited them recently. I know it’s probably surprising that I’ve waited so long, given my love of medical history, but I have my reasons. I am salty about many things, and these medical galleries are one of them, mainly because I would have killed to work on them (even though the salaries at the Science Museum for the jobs I was going for are significantly lower than what I make now, because big museums can get away with it) and of course I didn’t even get an interview for anything I applied for. I also had a weird attachment to their old medical galleries, mainly because they were really hard to find and barely anybody knew about them, so you usually had them all to yourself. But all things must change, and I guess the Science Museum having a whopping £24 million to throw at them didn’t hurt either. So I finally decided to pay them a visit to see if they lived up to the hype.

“Medicine: The Wellcome Galleries,” are free to visit, just like the rest of the Science Museum (barring special exhibitions) and now seemingly take up much of the first floor, though I’ve frankly always found the layout of the Science Museum a bit strange and confusing, as there are certain galleries that can only be accessed from one particular set of stairs, and I swear there’s galleries that I managed to find once and then never again. Did the agriculture galleries really exist, or were they just a figment of my imagination? Anyway, although I’m quite sure Henry Wellcome engaged in some unsavoury practices, as did all late 19th century/early 20th century pharmaceutical companies (and modern pharmaceutical companies, for that matter. Just look at all those bloody Sackler galleries that still exist)/collectors of objects from colonies in the British Empire, I don’t know where we’d be without him, as his possessions seem to make up the bulk of medical history collections in London; in fact, if it wasn’t for him and William Hunter (who may have been a murderer, jury’s still out), we might not have any medical history museums here at all, and these galleries are no exception, as the name indicates.

 

On first glance, the new space was certainly very visually appealing. The medical history collections used to be kept on the fourth and fifth floors, and though I loved all the weird life-sized dioramas, they were a bit stuffy. This space is completely open and huge (apparently it takes up an area equivalent to 1500 hospital beds), and you’re greeted by a giant bronze tattooed man who seems to watch over the place like a guardian. Each wall of the first gallery is lined with cases, but because the room is so spacious, you kind of have to work your way up one side and then back down the other, which does ruin the chronology a bit. The first gallery, which I believe is called “Medicine and Bodies,” is a look at the human body throughout history, the development of the study of human anatomy, etc. From there, the gallery flows into “Exploring Medicine,” which is where most of Henry Wellcome’s collections have ended up, and then the last room holds “Medicine and Treatment,” “Medicine and Communities,” (didn’t see much distinction between those two), and “Faith, Hope, and Fear,” which is mainly a collection of wooden icons from various religions, and a really creepy modern sculpture (as seen above left. It’s meant to be a healing Madonna figure (as in the mother of Jesus, not the pop star), but something about the patient being encapsulated in her dress makes it read more like an iron maiden to me).

First, the good. I thought the space looked fantastic, and there were a lot of wonderful displays of old public health posters, which I just loved (how cute is that baby elephant?). The calibre of the artefacts on display was also excellent – mixed in with the more mundane, you’d find things like the medical kit Scott took to the South Pole (the expedition where he died), the lancets Edward Jenner used for some of the first vaccinations, and Louis Pasteur’s microscope. You could easily spend hours in here just discovering everything. It was also a lot more interactive than the old galleries – although I didn’t get to try all of the games because the most fun ones were in use, I tried enough to get a sense of what was on offer (the Disease Controller game looks especially fun, as you not only get to infect people, you make the ceiling light up whilst doing so!).

 

I also thought the nature of the displays did a good job at drawing attention to the sheer beauty of some of the objects, which you wouldn’t necessarily expect from medical implements. I am definitely the sort of person that prefers the grotesque to the sublime, but I could see the aesthetics of the galleries drawing in people who mightn’t ordinarily be interested in medical history. But conversely, because I am an old (youngish) fuddy-duddy at heart, that also kind of annoys me. I prefer having the galleries to myself – I know this isn’t the best thing for the museum, but I feel that if you weren’t willing to go out of your way to look at the old musty galleries, you don’t deserve to hog space (or the interactives) in the shiny new ones.

 

Unfortunately, by making the space really interactive and eye-catching, I think they lost a lot of the traditional medical history feeling that I so love. Because Wellcome’s objects were all shoved into one big case that stretched up well above eye level, you lost the ability to appreciate the value of each individual object for the sake of aesthetics. Instead of having a description of each individual item, as they used to, there would only be one brief description of a whole group of items, or nothing at all. Since I get the impression Henry Wellcome basically stole a lot of those artefacts from other cultures, I think the least we can do is take the time to appreciate the cultural significance of each one, and it’s hard to do that when you’re looking at a hundred memento mori all placed together with no individual labels. I also thought the life-sized photographs of present day doctors spread throughout the gallery were fairly unnecessary, and didn’t really add anything to my experience. They just took up floor space.

 

With that said, I do think this is still a wonderful place to visit for anyone interested in medical history; it’s just sacrificed some of its charm in the move. It is absolutely worth checking out if you find yourself in the museum, and I will definitely be back to examine it in more depth, especially because this and the actual Wellcome Collection are all I have left (other than the smaller museums at various hospitals and medical societies that only really merit one visit) whilst the Hunterian is still undergoing redevelopment (please, please don’t ruin it!). 3.5/5. And, from the perspective of someone who loved studying infectious disease, how interesting is coronavirus?! Obviously I don’t want it, and it’s scary to think that among the albeit much smaller sample size we have thus far, it has the same mortality rate as Spanish flu did, but from an historical and sociological perspective, I am absolutely fascinated. And since my office is right next to the museum’s public toilet where I can hear people hacking up a lung on a daily basis, let’s be honest, I probably will get it at some point if it spreads much more.

 

 

London: The Vagina Museum

I first became aware of the Vagina Museum a few years ago, when I noticed job listings for it on some museum careers websites. At the time, it merely existed online, with no physical location. However, as of October 2019, it has found a home in Camden Market, and since their first exhibition ends on 29th March 2020, I thought it was high time I paid them a visit. I normally avoid Camden Market like the plague – it’s the kind of place you love when you’re a teenager or in your early 20s (as I was when I first discovered it), but you outgrow it real fast, in my case when some sleazy stall owner tried to kiss my neck (ick), so I hadn’t been there in years, and finding the Vagina Museum was a bit of a struggle, though I ultimately located it behind the Italian Alley.

 

The museum takes up two shopfronts in the market, and felt similar to the Museum of Neoliberalism in size and pop-up style appearance, though the Vagina Museum is searching for a more permanent location where they can hopefully gain more display space, as the current exhibition space feels downright spartan. The museum is free to visit, and the exhibition I saw was called “Muff Busters: Vagina Myths and How to Fight Them,” which is basically exactly what it says on the tin – the presentation of various myths followed by the facts.

 

I think the Vagina Museum is a great idea in theory – there is a Penis Museum, so why not a vagina one? – but the execution of this exhibition was just not up to scratch. Perhaps in keeping with my observation that Camden appeals most to teenagers, that’s who this exhibition seemed to be aimed at, as these myths were certainly not anything that any adult women of my acquaintance still believe, such as “you can’t get pregnant in a hot tub,” or “you can’t get pregnant if you douche with Coke,” (seriously, who does that last one, and why would you think it’s a good idea?!). In fact, based on my experience, women talk about their vaginas with each other way more than men talk about their penises with each other in a serious way (they might joke about size, but they would be embarrassed to talk about actual medical issues, whereas for most women that’s par for the course), so maybe this exhibition was actually aimed at teenage boys.

But if my theory is correct, the Vagina Museum needs to do a lot more to make their exhibitions visitor friendly, because this was just not, especially for the teenagers who might be attracted in by the name. As you can probably see from the pictures, 95% of the exhibition consisted of really big and wordy text panels, with only a handful of objects, mainly the Instagram friendly bloody tampon and moon cups you’ll see later in the post. Even I got bored with reading them, and I love reading. I know dispelling medical myths is a weighty and worthy topic, but the museum clearly has a sense of humour about itself (they host “pube quiz” evenings and their members are called the “Cliterati”) so it would have been nice if more of this shone through in the exhibition.

 

There was a small display showing the work of the “featured artist of the month” in the shop, and I think the Vagina Museum could start with featuring more vagina themed art, as literally the only works were the three pieces you can see in the above photo. Since half the museum is actually a museum shop, I think there was certainly room to display more pieces if they changed the arrangement a bit. That said, they do have some pretty neat things in the shop, and I wish the museum was as thoughtfully curated as their merchandise.

This post, accidentally but conveniently, will fall shortly before International Women’s Day (for which I am giving a talk on women of the collection at work – wish me luck!), and I do think we should all be more free to talk about vaginas, as half of the population have them. I have personally had way more than my fair share of gynaecological troubles, and I genuinely can’t believe how ignorant the average GP is about conditions that affect a sizeable percentage of women, let alone how ignorant the general public must be, so I think anything that demystifies the vagina is a worthy cause (I’m angry about the way I’ve been treated over the years, and I think all women deserve better). Because of this, and because they’re a new museum, I’ll cut them some slack and hope they improve with time (and also move away from Camden Market, because that place is seriously the worst). I’ll give them 2.5/5 for now, but I think they have potential – here’s hoping they can live up to it.

 

London: “Unbound” @ Two Temple Place and “Mushrooms” @ Somerset House

The title of this year’s exhibition at Two Temple Place is “Unbound: Visionary Women Collecting Textiles.” Sounds marvellous and wild and free, doesn’t it? Well, unfortunately it’s still Two Temple Place, so it had the usual crowd of stern biddies staring us down to make sure we didn’t accidentally brush up against anything. I know the photo above makes it look as though there were interactive displays, but what you can’t see is the rope barrier that ensured you couldn’t actually get anywhere near those fun looking yarn balls.

 

Anyway, even though I’m less than enamoured with the atmosphere of Two Temple Place, as well as its last few years of exhibitions, I do think it’s a fabulous building, and it is free to enter, so I normally pop along at some point to see their annual exhibition, which runs from January-April (this year’s ends on 19th April). This year’s theme was the work of seven women, five of whom were roughly contemporaries born in the mid-late 19th century, and two modern women, all of whom were involved in collecting textiles. Most of these women, as is typical of collectors, were fairly wealthy and had the time and funds to devote themselves to their passions, and I’m sure they must have had interesting lives, though unfortunately those stories didn’t always come across in the text. However, I did note some tidbits on Louisa Pesel, who travelled extensively, taught shell-shocked WWI soldiers embroidery to help with their convalescence, and designed the cushions for Winchester Cathedral. Another of the collectors (whose name escapes me), bought her pieces mainly from street markets in London, which apparently had beautiful 18th century garments on offer for cheap back in the 1920s and ’30s (sounds way nicer than the piles of cheap knock-off shoes and handbags they seem to primarily sell today).

 

As always with Two Temple Place, there were some really lovely artefacts here, but the curation felt lacking. Instead of providing a narrative, the signage was basically: short biography of a woman and a brief description of a handful of objects she’d collected, with no attempt to tie the pieces together in some cohesive way. The text panels were all quite dry, and I found my eyes glazing over as I tried to read them to the point where I had to read some of them several times because they were too boring for my brain to absorb the content (I used to have the same problem during lectures – no matter how much I told myself to pay attention, my mind would start wandering, I’d look up, and it would be the end of class and I’d have absolutely no idea what was discussed), which is why I can’t recollect which woman collected which things. In an exhibition that was meant to be about the pioneering spirit of these women, I think they could have tried a bit harder to make them stand out as individuals, though maybe that’s partially my fault for being bored so easily.

 

Still, despite my short attention span, I did take an interest in some of the artefacts, especially the Georgian dresses, the traditional straw dollies, and Yinka Shonibare’s reimagining of the slave ship The Wanderer, a voyage made well after the slave trade from Africa was banned (shown above right). In Shonibare’s version, the slaves managed to take control, hence the colourful batik sails. I wanted to like the Balkan textiles more, but without much description of how the objects were used and what the patterns meant, they all got a little samey. One plus side of the rather dour atmosphere was that it managed to work magic on the group of schoolchildren that were visiting the exhibition at the same time as us. I know I’ve complained about unruly children at various places lately, but these ones were completely silent, to the point where it was almost eerie. I can only assume one of the stewards terrified them into submission. We were done with this exhibition pretty quickly (though I made sure to use the upstairs toilets before I left – they’re fabulous!), and though I enjoyed it more than that awful molester Eric Gill exhibition (how could I not?!), it definitely wasn’t great. 2.5/5.

 

Since we were only a short walk away, we then headed to Somerset House to see the intriguing sounding “Mushrooms: The Art, Design, and Future of Fungi,” a free exhibition that runs until 26th April. Even though I am a vegetarian, I loathe mushrooms (in my experience, many other vegetarians do as well, so it escapes me why some places offer mushroom risotto as the sole vegetarian option (not really an issue in London in this day and age, but I still encounter it at weddings, in smaller British towns, and in Ohio, which is mostly not down with the whole vegan thing)), so my only real experiences of willingly eating mushrooms are the few times I dabbled with the magic variety in my younger days. But I still think fungi are weird and interesting, and provide exciting possibilities in terms of being a sustainable material, so I was keen to see some mushroom art!

Even though the exhibition space was much smaller than that of Two Temple Place, I think Somerset House managed to cram quite a bit more content in, as each of the three rooms was jam-packed with art on the walls and display cases on the floor. There was a guy who had collected mushroom stamps from all over the world, which filled up an entire wall, and some excellently bizarre collages by Seana Gavin. I also loved the William Morris inspired mushroom wallpaper designs above the previous paragraph, though I think I’d prefer a different colour scheme – maybe blues or greens?

   

I thought the Infinity Burial Suit was really kind of awesome – it is woven from thread implanted with mushroom spores, and the idea is if you bury a body in it, the mushrooms will feed off the body as it decomposes and eat up any contaminants to prevent them being released into the environment. I’m not sure that I prefer it to a traditional body-shaped coffin lined with velvet, and massive statue of myself either reading or looking sassy (or both!) on my grave, but by the time I die, I suppose it might be one of the only options available, depending on how much Earth has degraded by that point (which is more depressing than the thought of my own death). And on a lighter note, given the nature of mushrooms, of course some of the art was amusingly phallic, particularly the 3D pieces.

 

The text contained brief descriptions of how mushrooms had been viewed throughout history, from being treated with suspicion by medieval Europeans, who thought they were used by witches (I have never personally used a mushroom in a spell, though I’m sure they must have some useful medicinal properties) to becoming kind of adorable in the Victorian era, thanks mainly to Lewis Carroll. The little shop had some neat mushroom themed products, and apparently I could have had a free mushroom facial, though I presume the appointment slots were booked up by the time of my visit. Overall, I enjoyed this much more than Two Temple Place, and I’m definitely glad I stopped in to check it out and see my name written in fungi. I still won’t be eating a mushroom any time soon, but I respect their aesthetic! 3.5/5.

 

London: Cars – Accelerating the Modern World @ the V&A

I think we’ve established at this point that I have very little interest in cars, either in driving them or looking at them. But the social history of how they’ve shaped the world is interesting, and Marcus seems to be interested in cars generally (if the amount of time he spends watching Car SOS and Wheeler Dealers is anything to go by, because I can’t understand the appeal of those programmes otherwise) so we decided to go see “Cars: Accelerating the Modern World” at the V&A, which runs until 19th April. Tickets are normally £18, but are half price with National Art Pass.

 

The exhibition is located in the new(ish) Sainsbury Gallery, which I had only been to once before, for the Dior exhibition last year (which I never blogged about because I got in for free as part of a friends and family thing thanks to my friend who works there, and also because it was in the middle of all my Scandinavian posts and I just couldn’t be bothered to write about it). It is accessible either from the “Sackler Courtyard” (which they really might want to consider renaming, and also, you know, stop accepting money from the Sacklers altogether) or from the main part of the museum if you go all the way to the basement, and it is super nice, but the amount of money that has clearly been spent on it makes me feel a bit ill, compared to both how much money the museum I work at has, and how much the V&A pay their staff (not very much, like every museum, as you may have seen from the recent Guardian article about the head of coffee at the Tate being paid more than the curators. This was certainly not news to anyone who works in museums – we know how piss-poor our pay is). I don’t feel the space had quite been used to its fullest potential, like it had been in the Dior exhibition, and I also kept forgetting to look up at the row of cases that are well above head-height, which meant some of the captions made no sense to me whatsoever (maybe put a little arrow on the signage to help people out?).

According to the V&A’s website, the exhibition was divided into three sections, with the themes of “Going Fast,” about how the increasing speed of cars in the early 20th century influenced both design and health and safety; “Making More,” about how Henry Ford’s assembly line ultimately changed the nature of work and the world; and “Shaping Space,” about the impact of cars on the environment and globalisation, as well as the way they shaped how maps look today. These are obviously all huge topics, so the exhibition couldn’t hope to do more than an overview of each, and I feel that the “Making More” section was the most effective in getting its point across.

 

This was about the whole litany of ways automation made the labour force worse off – by breaking down the manufacturing process into an assembly line, where each worker only had to do one job (rather than the previous system, where each man had to know how to do everything), Ford was able to hire unskilled workers that could be paid much lower wages and made to work ridiculous hours. He even supervised their home lives, sending his agents to employees’ houses to inspect their living conditions to see if they were sanitary enough (not in the interest of improving public health, just to see if they were conforming to his standards). I already knew Ford was an awful man and a huge racist, but his impact on the world was even more horrible than I thought, because of course the assembly line spread to other industries and effectively undid many of the gains unions were able to make in improving working conditions in the early 20th century. This section also included things like the automated kitchen, which was designed by a German woman to make housekeeping more efficient so that women would have more time to pursue their own interests, and statuettes of the “average man and woman.” A competition was apparently held by a Cleveland newspaper to find a woman whose body most conformed to that supposed average (not a man though, I guess they didn’t have to submit to the indignity of having their bodies measured and scrutinised) – unless it was the now-defunct Cleveland Press, I suppose they must be referring to the Plain Dealer.

 

I was quite taken with poor Graham, from the “Going Fast” section, who was meant to represent the ideal body type for surviving a car crash. Apparently, if our bodies evolved based on our likelihood of surviving a car accident, we would all have flat faces, extra padding around the head and neck, and multiple nipples to pad our chests and help protect our internal organs. I think I’d rather just stick to public transport than end up looking like that! There was also, pleasingly, some fashion here, showing some of the styles influenced by the popularity of driving in the days of open cars, where drivers had to protect their clothes and hair from dust and dirt. So there were quite attractive things like cloches, but also the rather hideous hooded bodysuit you can see above right.

 

I suppose of all the sections, I was least impressed by “Shaping Space,” but as it was such a massive topic to cover, I think it was fairly understandable that the V&A barely made a dent in it. I’m sure multiple books can be written on what the oil industry has done to the Middle East alone, let alone how it changed the structures of power in the rest of the world. On a less serious note, there was also information on how cars becoming more affordable brought travel within the reach of ordinary people. My favourite thing in the entire exhibition was probably the Michelin map that showed the Michelin Man performing the native dances of various European countries. I also thought it was really interesting that the birthday song now sung in Iran was originally developed by a car company for one of their adverts (and depressing to think that all the groovily dressed women in the colourful late ’60s advert would soon be forced back into hijab. Don’t get me wrong, it’s one thing if women freely choose to wear it, but no one should be forced to).

    

I did like that although there were obviously some cars on display, they weren’t necessarily the main focus, and each section had a good mix of art, objects, and cars, so we weren’t just looking at cars the whole time, and we were able to get a more complete picture of the ways the automobile industry shaped society. (And seriously, how fabulous are those paint samples from the mid-20th century? I want most of those paint colours in my house!) I would definitely still recommend this exhibition to the non-gear heads like myself – if you’re interested in social history, you’ll get plenty out of it, just try to get half-price tickets if you can, because I don’t think it was a £18 exhibition (few are). 3.5/5.

  

Whilst we were at the V&A, we also popped in to “Filthy Lucre: Whistler’s Peacock Room Reimagined,” which is free to visit, and is there until May. I had never even heard of Whistler’s Peacock Room, but apparently the artist was commissioned to design a special room for an art collector to house his collection of ceramics. The collector never paid Whistler the full amount he was owed, so Whistler got his revenge by making the room as gaudy and ostentatious as possible. This was a version of it done by an artist named Darren Waterson, but it was a decaying version where things were all broken and in a state of disrepair. I can’t say I quite got the point of it, but it was still kind of fun to walk through, so check it out if you’re there!

 

London: The Museum of Neoliberalism

I know I’ve had a lot of angry posts recently, but I hope this will be more of a fun post on an angry topic, if that makes sense. The Museum of Neoliberalism has been around since November, but I only heard about it in mid-January when Time Out posted about it on their Instagram. Because it is a pop-up and it wasn’t clear how much longer it would be around, I immediately planned a visit for that Saturday. It is recommended that you book a time slot on the museum’s website to ensure that the museum will be open when you get there (entry and booking are both free, and you only have to book one slot regardless of how many people will be attending), but I reckon if you live locally, you can probably just drop in on a weekend. The museum is in Lewisham, near Lee Railway Station, which I had never heard of before (Lee, not Lewisham), so it was definitely not local to me and turned out to be even more of a palaver to get to than I was counting on because I didn’t realise that there were no South Western Railway services on my line on the day of my planned visit, so I had to get a bus to Putney to even get on a train to Waterloo, and then get another train from Waterloo East, and any journey that involves taking a bus just to get to a train is never a good time (and seriously, what is South Western’s problem? I took a train the week of the closure, but I swear they never announced it. They probably put a sign up late Friday night to announce no trains on Saturday. I know I said I wouldn’t be too angry in this one, but they’re so shit). Still, I only get every other Saturday off work, and I wasn’t going to waste a perfectly good Saturday not doing the thing I had been planning on all week, so I persevered.

 

And my efforts would not go unrewarded, as the museum, though small and located in the middle of an ordinary high street (easy to miss unless you’re paying attention), was instantly eye-catching and fun, presenting us with a display of free Jeremy Corbyn coasters when we walked in (obviously they pre-dated the December election), and was done in a bold graphic style reminiscent of the exhibitions at Banksy’s Dismaland, and for good reason – Darren Cullen and Gavin Grindon, the artists responsible for the Museum of Neoliberalism, also contributed to Dismaland. In fact, we bought one of Cullen’s prints there, so I was already a fan of his style, and was pleased to see more in that vein. His work is cynical and pessimistic yet hilarious at the same time, and being a pessimist myself, I can definitely relate. If you live in London, you may well have already spotted his work appearing on bus stops and other locations (not entirely legally).

It was a museum of neoliberalism, but most definitely not a museum that was pro-neoliberalism, in case the signage hasn’t already tipped you off. In case you’re not sure what neoliberalism entails (I wasn’t entirely clear before visiting this museum; the “liberalism” in the name threw me), its current meaning is basically a form of free market capitalism that takes Adam Smith’s laissez-faire ideas to extremes. In the UK, it is associated with austerity, and is the form of government practised by both the Tories and New Labour, so essentially is the shitty system that has gotten us into the mess we’re in. It means tax cuts for the wealthy, little to no spending on social services, antagonism towards unions, attempted privatisation of the NHS, etc, etc.

 

For such a small museum, it managed to pack in an awful lot of text, and was very informative. Ever the skeptic, even though I essentially agreed with the politics of this museum, its creators clearly have a strong bias, so I did some research on some of the material presented here, and it mostly checked out. If you already bemoan the current state of affairs, this museum will just enrage you even more, but at least it manages to entertain whilst doing so, with the above parody versions of railway games that made me laugh out loud (I’ve been that person sat on the floor next to the toilets), and objects that included a bottle of urine produced by an Amazon worker who didn’t have time to go to the toilet because of their ridiculously high targets, and the ultimate horrific dystopian accessory: the tracking device patented by Amazon that monitors an employee’s work at all times, and allows a manager to yell at them when they’re not working fast enough (although I can’t find confirmation anywhere that Amazon have started using them, just that they exist). I don’t have the space or energy to go into PFIs here (the subject of the above “game”), but they waste an incredible amount of money that should be going to the NHS directly, and reading about them is enough to make my blood boil.

 

Perhaps rather ironically for a museum with such an anti-capitalist bent, there is a shop, which was staffed by Darren Cullen himself on the day we visited, and was genuinely the best museum shop I have ever seen. Mainly filled with Cullen’s art in the form of prints, postcards, stickers, and t-shirts, I wanted everything in here, but settled for two prints, a handful of postcards, and two pin badges (if you’re unable to visit the museum in person but would like to look at Cullen’s art, most of it is available online). Although small, if you’re of a liberal persuasion (or even if you’re not, as long as you’re open minded) or just like art, this is a must-see. I’m glad I made the effort, even on a shitty no-trains day, and I’d go sooner rather than later if you would like to see it as well, because I’m not sure how much longer it will be there. 4/5.