I know that there are a lot of people who are really into the Peanuts (judging by the likes I got on the photos I posted on Instagram alone), and I certainly grew up reading the comic strip and watching the holiday specials, but I was never the sort of person who liked them to the extent that I collected memorabilia, for example, like my uncle who was obsessed with Snoopy. Still, “Good Grief, Charlie Brown” at Somerset House, which ends 3rd March, looked promising, more promising than most of the things on in London at the moment, so I decided to pop along and check it out.
Yes, you read that right. The Science Gallery, NOT the Science Museum. London’s got a new museum (at least, I think it’s new – more on that in a little while), and as usual,
I’m first on the scene I visited the museum as soon as I found out about it, via a London Museum Development newsletter I get at work, because I am definitely not high on any publicity department’s list. “As soon as I found out about it” turned out to be a week before their first exhibition closed, which is why I am sadly blogging about it too late for anyone to visit. But they will have future exhibitions, with a new one every quarter, so I might as tell you about the venue anyway for future reference.
The Science Gallery is located on King’s College London’s Guy’s Campus (and as King’s is my alma mater (I think? Is your alma mater the first place you went to school or just anywhere you did a degree?), you’d think I might have heard about it through them too, but no dice. They can sure send me plenty of emails about donating (never gonna happen), but can’t seem to send ones about things I might actually be interested in) – if you go out the Shard entrance of London Bridge Station, you will find it directly in front of you, just across the street (the Shard will also be directly on top of you, looming menacingly). This means it is also conveniently near to Borough Market, so you can easily pop over for a toasted cheese from Kappacasein after, which I definitely did.
The Science Gallery appears to be part of a larger international organisation, with branches in places like Dublin, Melbourne, Detroit, and Rotterdam. Judging by their website, the London Science Gallery seems to have been active as a project since 2014, but if I understand it correctly, this is their first exhibition based in this gallery space. And looking at their exhibition programme for the year, it appears to be Wellcome Collection-esque, with a sort of science-art hybrid going on that I quite like, and I especially like that admission is free. The exhibition I saw was called “Hooked” and explored addiction through science and art.
Each section of the gallery was meant to have a different theme, but I didn’t necessarily get that throughout. The first room was called “Natural Born Thrillers” and was supposed to be about the sorts of things people can get addicted to, but that also seemed (more or less) to be the theme of the second section. Nevertheless, it got off to a promisingly interactive start with a machine with a slot you could insert a coin into to see what happened (someone had thoughtfully left a 2p coin on top, and since the whole point of the machine was that the coin came shooting back out at you with surprising force, it could be used again and again). There was also a virtual reality mask that allowed you to watch drunk mice, and a video of a guy playing Playstation whilst coming down from speed. The table made out of sugar grossed me out a little because of all the sticky spilt tea around it, but not quite as much as the marshmallow pants (not entirely sure what addiction those were representing. Perhaps something sexual?).
The second section was quite dark and moody and seemed mostly to be focused on the addictions unique to modern life, like video games and mobile phones. There was a game that tracked your eye movements (not entirely sure to what purpose) and a room full of flashing low battery symbols from phones. I did manage to resist pressing the “Do not like this” button on Facebook, and didn’t watch the video about twisted fairy tales because the room looked quite full and I didn’t want to step on anyone, despite the presence of comfy looking cushions in front of the screen.
The third section, entitled “Free Will,” was meant to be addressing the question of who was to blame for addiction, but I didn’t really get that from the “Hashish Club,” which was a hallucinatory video meant to recreate the experiences of 1840s pot smoking intellectuals. I did like standing in front of the Victorian parlour video screen with the trippy green lanterns though. I listened to “Short Periods of Structured Nothingness” for quite a while, which featured a woman talking about her experiences with her deadbeat dad after her parents divorced, and was eagerly awaiting the opportunity to answer some questions myself that I’d been promised early in the conversation (well, I say conversation, but I was just listening to a recording), but it went on for too long and I hung up as other people were waiting.
I have to confess that I didn’t understand the suit hanging in a geometric frame in one corner of the gallery at all, but I thought the curtain made from wedding rings in “Divorce Index” was quite cool, though I thought tying it into addiction was a bit forced (apparently it was chosen because addiction can often lead to divorce, but that didn’t really come across in the piece).
The final bit of the gallery, called “Safe from Harm,” featured a series of short films called “Twelve,” where people struggling with addiction re-interpreted scenes from films (which sounds like it should have been entertaining, but it was actually quite depressing and bleak) and a very frustrating video of someone only scrubbing one tile of a tiled floor clean, while I was sitting there dying for them to wash the whole damn floor. There was also a reading room where people could read books about addiction or share their own experiences of addiction.
I assumed we were finished at that point, and was already rather pleased with what I’d seen – even though I didn’t always understand how the pieces tied to the theme, it was interactive and entertaining, and most importantly, free, so I was glad I’d stopped in. But then we went downstairs to check out the shop and encountered the final piece of art, “AGAIN” by Lawrence Epps. I’ve seen those coin pushing machines plenty of times at the seaside, but never played because I hate gambling. Doesn’t stop me from watching the very stupid Tipping Point though, because those machines are mesmerising. Well, “AGAIN” was free to play – staff members gave you a small envelope full of tokens if you asked, and if you won any tokens, you got to keep them. Apparently some of them were meant to be actual 24 karat gold, but all the ones we won were just terracotta. They had loads of different designs, and I desperately wanted a white one, only to have one fall and get stuck in the chute, so I spent most of my other tokens trying to get it out. Unsuccessful, and the one staff member said the artist claimed it was purposely supposed to do that, but she suspected it was just a design flaw. Either way, it did demonstrate the power of addiction in a very clear and disturbingly fun way. (I stood there for a good fifteen minutes feeding in tokens trying to get that damn white one – so long that everyone else had moved off, but I did go home with some terracotta ones at least.)
This was overall a very fun and interactive experience (more interactive than the Wellcome usually is, I have to say, but I still love the Wellcome) and I will definitely return to see their future exhibitions (the proximity to Borough Market doesn’t hurt, because Padella and Kappacasein are two of my favourite places), including the next one, “Spare Parts” which opens at the end of February (and I will try to see that one in a timely enough fashion that other people can still go after I blog about it). It’s always exciting to see a new museum open in London, and if it’s free and has constantly changing exhibitions, so much the better, though I am a little upset this wasn’t a thing when I was a student, as it could have provided me with some valuable museum experience (so maybe it wouldn’t have taken me like 8 years to find a job in a museum)! 3.5/5 for “Hooked.”
Now, this is an interesting one. Not that most of the places I visit don’t have something interesting about them, but this one is really a bit out there. Knowing what a fan I am of animatronics, and well, just weird shit, basically, Marcus booked us tickets to see the “adult” version of the Sharmanka Kinetic Theatre, which took place at 5pm on a Sunday (check their website for all available dates and times) and lasted for about an hour. It cost £10.
Merry belated Christmas everybody! I don’t have anything particularly Christmassy to post about this year, so I’ll just carry on with Glasgow. Looking back on it, we probably should have devoted a good few hours to the Kelvingrove, and slipped in the People’s Palace if and when we had time. But Marcus wanted to see Billy Connolly’s banana boots, and since the museum doesn’t have its own website, we didn’t have any idea what other treasures might be hiding away in there, so the People’s Palace became a priority. It is located in Glasgow Green, about a mile walk away from where we were staying in the centre of Glasgow, and it was very cold that day, so I was definitely not enjoying the walk.
I did, however, enjoy the sight of the Doulton Fountain, which we spotted from quite a distance away. This fabulous piece is apparently the largest terracotta fountain in the world, and was built in 1887 for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee and the International Exposition held in Glasgow. It celebrates the British Empire and contains figures representing Canada, South Africa, Australia, and India (I particularly enjoyed the Canadian moose, and what I think was a marmot). I’m no fan of empire, but I am definitely a fan of this fountain.
From there, we progressed inside the museum, which like every museum we visited in Glasgow, had these great wooden revolving doors at the entrance (and a giant ornate radiator right by the entry, which I needed to warm my legs after the walk there). The People’s Palace is free (with a name like People’s Palace, it would have been a little disappointing if it wasn’t), and since there was no front desk and we were a little unsure where the museum began, we went directly up the steps in front of us. It turns out we missed an introductory gallery on the ground floor, which we saw at the end instead (yes, the big welcome sign should have been a clue, but I swear we couldn’t see it from the entrance), but it was a very basic overview of Glasgow’s history and the exploits of the Scottish boxer Benny Lynch, who died at the age of 33 in 1946 from alcoholism.
So it didn’t really matter that we started with the first floor, and in fact, it meant that we saw Billy’s banana boots first thing (I mostly know Billy Connolly from that Columbo where he’s the murderer (not really a spoiler since the whole point of Columbo is that you see who did it at the beginning), but I don’t think I’ve ever sat there and watched one of his comedy routines, so the banana boots were a bit lost on me. That said, there was a video with Billy Connolly doing that very routine right next to the boots, so I definitely could have watched it then and there had I been so inclined). There was also Rab C. Nesbitt’s string vest, which Marcus was also excited to see.
The rest of the floor was given over to moments from Glasgow’s social history, so there was a section on crime and punishment (which I of course enjoyed, though it wasn’t very grisly). The gallows were located not far from the museum building, so there was a sign on the window telling us that this view was more or less the last thing condemned criminals would see. I was rather shocked by the sort-of game where you had to decide whether or not someone should receive the death penalty for various crimes, and then lift the flaps to see what other people answered (although most of the flaps were broken, so I could see their responses from the start) because most of the respondents were very very pro-death penalty, and since Britain abolished the death penalty in 1965, I didn’t realise so many people still felt this way. Yikes. Then again, it wasn’t clear who was surveyed or when the survey was done – the board kind of looked old enough to have been there since the ’60s!
There was also a small area on a famous dance hall in Glasgow, a few bits about visiting the seaside, and a section in the back about going to the “Steamie,” which was the Glaswegian term for the public washhouses (and not, as I thought, a bizarre sexual act along the lines of a Cleveland Steamer), and was where woman would meet to do their laundry and, most importantly, gossip. There was also a little bit of information about the World Wars (I liked the display that followed the story of a Glasgow couple who lived through the First World War, as their letters to each other were rather sweet, and the husband’s life was saved by a drill book he took from a German soldier as a souvenir, which was on display here), and a re-creation of an old dairy, although you couldn’t actually touch anything inside, and there were no authentic smells or anything, so it wasn’t really that exciting.
The appearance of this floor was very child-friendly, which was initially a bit off-putting, as I wasn’t sure whether we had accidentally wandered into the children’s section. The whole museum was like this though, so I’m pretty sure it was meant to be open to everyone. Aside from this, things did look a little bit run-down and in need of an update – some of the interactive bits had flaps broken off, as I mentioned earlier, and the signage looked a little grubby in places.
The second floor was similarly a little bit tired looking, though some of the displays appeared to be done more recently than the ones downstairs. One of the galleries was completely empty, but another contained information about political life in Glasgow, including labour movements and the like, and a handful of artefacts. The other gallery was about everyday life for Glaswegians, with small re-creations of a bathroom and teeny flat (which actually looked quite cosy if you had it to yourself, rather than sharing it with like ten people like most people had to (there was a report about 15 people living in a 6 metre square room in Victorian times). I mean, the bed was in a little nook, and you had your chamber pot right there, so you didn’t even have to get up if you didn’t want to). Glasgow had the highest population density of any city in Victorian Britain (worse than London’s even), and many people were forced to live in slums and appalling conditions.
On a cheerier note, there was also information about things people did for fun, like clothes, magazines, and music, and there was even an example of a best-selling product from Ann Summers in the 1990s – an alligator “pouch” for men. I also really enjoyed the little dollhouse showing the ways buildings were divided up into flats throughout the 20th century, though I wish it wasn’t quite so difficult to see inside.
Once we headed back downstairs, we had to wander over to the Winter Gardens, which we had already had a lovely view of from various places inside the museum. It is a large glasshouse tacked onto the side of the museum where people can presumably sit in the winter and enjoy loads of lovely plants. There is a cafe in there, but we had earlier purchased some doughnuts from Tantrum Doughnuts that we sat down on a bench to eat (a bit too bready for my tastes, but most British doughnuts are), and it was warm and fairly peaceful (or it would have been if not for all the children running through). I also loved the Shakespeare tiles lining the bathrooms!
The People’s Palace has a lot of potential, I think, but most of the displays just felt tired, and I think a social history museum needs more in it, as it only covered very specific aspects of Glasgow history, rather than presenting an overview of the city’s history and its people, which, as someone who had never been to Glasgow before, I would have preferred. However, I have learned in the course of researching this post that the Winter Gardens are set to close indefinitely at the end of this year for major renovations, and potentially the People’s Palace with them, unless they can find a way to make structural repairs independently to each structure. So I’ll give it 2.5/5 in its current state, but changes are clearly afoot, hopefully for the better, but knowing how these things work, I won’t get my hopes up (and do check first if you want to visit from January 2019 onward, since it appears they may not even be open!). Even though I didn’t love this museum, I do hope it is able to remain a museum in the future, because museums are so vital to the culture of a city, and it would be a shame to lose this one entirely.
In honour of our 10th anniversary, which was in late November, and in keeping with our tradition with heading up north for anniversaries (mainly because I’m not keen on staying in the countryside (too much walking!) and there isn’t much else south of London besides the coast, which is definitely not a good idea in the winter), Marcus and I decided to spend a long weekend in Glasgow, as neither of us had ever been. This not only gave me an opportunity to meet Anabel from the Glasgow Gallivanter in person (photos in a future post) and eat deep fried Mars bars and a stupid amount of Tunnock’s Caramel Logs, it also finally allowed me to visit the Glasgow Hunterian, something I’ve been wanting to do for years.
“Living with Buildings” is the Wellcome Collection’s latest offering, which runs until 3 March 2019, and I popped along to see it a few weeks ago since I was in the neighbourhood anyway for “Anglo Saxon Kingdoms.” I’m not sure if the Wellcome could have picked a more boring name for this exhibition if they’d tried (at least for those of us who aren’t really into architecture), but I was hoping the content would prove better than the lacklustre name. Even the exhibition description was fairly vague, being simply that it was about how buildings affect our mental and physical health.
The exhibition is located in the Wellcome’s main gallery on the ground floor and is free, as their exhibitions always are, and doesn’t allow photographs, as their exhibitions mostly don’t. We were there a little bit later in the day than usual, which I think was a good time to visit as the crowds were much less than what they would have been at lunchtime (or people were just staying away because of the dull name). The exhibition opened with Charles Booth’s famous poverty maps of London (made in 1886-1903) showing the relative wealth of each street of London based on Booth’s interviews with its inhabitants (he’s pretty judgy too, as the poorest people were listed as “vicious, semi-criminal”), which are always interesting, even though I’ve seen them many times before.
This was one of the Wellcome’s more open layouts, and though there were a few little nooks and recesses, everything was basically in one large gallery. The exhibition appeared to be arranged more by topic than chronologically, and covered subject matter from the Victorian era, when people began to suspect that living in smoky, polluted cities might not be great for one’s health, to the Grenfell Tower fire just last year.
One of the nooks was about the rise of the “garden city” in the late Victorian era, which began when some of the more, shall we say, benevolent employers founded model villages for their employees to live in. I get that the intention behind it was mostly good – giving the employees a clean environment to live in away from the pollution of the cities, which also reduced their commute and gave them access to opportunities for recreation and self-improvement, but personally I find something a little creepy about it. I like the people I work with, but I don’t particularly want to live next door to them (you would never be able to weasel out of work functions, since they would know exactly where you were), and I sure as hell don’t want my boss overseeing what I do in my spare time. The Cadbury brothers, the founders of Bournville, even had a pamphlet published with rules for their employees to live by, going so far as to tell them how to sleep (single beds only) and how to breathe, which is dreadful (but I’m fine with the emphasis on cleanliness, given that these people were making chocolate)! Some of the posters in this section (reminiscent of old Tube posters – they may have been designed by the same people) did make the garden cities look awful tempting though (if you could ignore all the paternalistic garbage)! Even Henry Wellcome, founder of the Wellcome Collection, tried to get in on the action by designing Wellcomeville, a city that would have been built around a pharmaceutical factory and research laboratory, but it fell through in the end, and the research facility was just a stand-alone building in Bloomsbury.
There were quite a few films in here featuring what appeared to be interviews with inhabitants of various tower blocks, but the only one I actually sat down and watched was Catherine Yass’s film “Royal London,” showing the demolition of the old hospital. I could only watch a small part of it though, as the camera kept spiralling up and down staircases, and I started feeling a bit motion sick. I was glad to step outside of the film room and examine the huge scale model of a hospital from the 1930s, which was used to raise money for King Edward’s Hospital Fund (it was named after Edward VII, and carried on long after his reign (it actually still exists today under the name King’s Fund), rather than being a short-lived scheme of Edward VIII. I think Edward 8 was probably too busy canoodling with Wallis Simpson to have time for causes, though I suppose the same could be said of Eddy 7 and his many, many mistresses). Queen Mary donated some lace handkerchiefs which were used to make bedspreads for two of the miniature beds, but I can’t help but think that a donation of actual money would have been much more useful (I seem to recall that Mary was notoriously cheap). The hospital scale model sure was neat though; it had little doll versions of patients, doctors, and nurses occupying the miniature hospital rooms, and even a tiny x-ray machine and humorous murals decorating the hospital walls. I’d take that over a dollhouse any day!
Some other things I found interesting were the information about the rise of tower blocks, which were meant to be the wondrous self-contained living of the future, only for the shops within to either never open or fail and the buildings to become dilapidated due to shoddy construction and attract criminal activity; the posters for the Finsbury Health Centre contrasting clean modern living with dirty unhealthy old Britain (released during the war, these were actually banned by Churchill because he thought it was both an insult to pre-war Britain, and it would damage morale if people realised they were living under shitty conditions); and particularly the cartoons showing the differences between old dust-trap buildings, and new, presumably tidier ones (I totally look like the guy in the before version, who sat at work all day with his hand on his head because he had a headache from breathing in the noxious, unventilated fumes. Considering I work in a building that was built in 1904, has bars on the windows, and is rife with asbestos, it’s really not so surprising I get headaches almost every time I’m there).
And, in a depressing denouement, the exhibition showed how all these “brilliant” ideas from the 20th century about building for the future have mostly been a failure, and resulted in downright tragedy in the case of Grenfell Tower. There was a particularly chilling letter written by a tenants’ activist group a year or two before the fire expressing concerns about the new cladding and the fire safety procedures that instructed tenants to remain in their flats in case of fire, which they warned could lead to disaster, as indeed they did. Even the examples of the new developments in creating light and airy environments for hospital patients, which were plopped right before the exit and I think were meant to cheer us up a bit after the Grenfell stuff, were still a bit grim architecturally, though I suspect I am just really not a fan of modern architecture.
I thought the exhibition was certainly more interesting than its name had led me to believe, but was mostly just rather depressing (except for the above cartoon, which genuinely made me laugh out loud), as it appears that we still haven’t found a good solution to the problems of city living. I’m pretty sure almost no one wants to live in a tower block, but houses are completely unaffordable in London for all but the very wealthy, so until someone comes up with a better solution, that is the sad reality of the situation. I’ll give “Living with Buildings” 3/5, since it wasn’t quite as large as I was expecting, and was really rather dispiriting, though I guess I can’t entirely blame the Wellcome for the latter issue.
The temporary exhibition on the first floor of the Wellcome Collection has also changed over, and is no longer the delightfully creepy “Teeth,” but is instead a companion exhibit to “Living with Buildings” called “Global Clinic.” And that’s literally what it was – a new, mobile clinic design set up inside the gallery space, which will be deployed somewhere in need of an emergency clinic once the exhibition has ended. It is meant to be an improvement on tents and shipping containers, which are currently mostly what are used in disaster situations, and it certainly looked respectively more stable and lighter than those options. However, without the accoutrements of a clinic set up inside, it was literally just looking at a building structure, which was not terribly exciting. There were a few toy designs by students that were intended for use in developing countries in one corner of the gallery, and these were slightly more engaging, though not as much as they could have been if you were actually allowed to play with them. I think the Global Clinic is a good idea, but it’s not necessarily something that needed to physically be here, since although it is an eye-catching structure, seeing it in person wasn’t significantly more interesting than just reading about it. If you’re short on time, I think it’s certainly safe to just breeze right through it or give it a miss entirely! 1.5/5.
The museum I work for is very keen on Anglo-Saxons (they’re one of the few things our borough is known for. Well, that, and Korean food), so even though Saxon Britain is not one of my favourite periods of history, I’ve been looking for opportunities to learn more about it. (And I am VERY partial to our wax figure of Athelstan, who I’ve started dressing up for various holidays, though that has more to do with the fact that he’s a wax figure than any specific traits of the real King Athelstan, who seems to have been fairly pious and boring.) So it was with some interest that I headed to the British Library’s latest exhibition: “Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War” which runs until 19th February 2019.