London: Fatberg + Votes for Women @ the Museum of London

During the week of the so-called “beast from the east” (I know other places in the UK had actual dangerous levels of snow, but we only got what I would consider a dusting in London, and everyone was still treating it like such a big deal), instead of only working three days a week, per usual, and having some time off to enjoy the rare snow sighting (there wasn’t really enough to make a snowman or anything, but all I mean by enjoy the snow is that I would have cozily wrapped myself up in blankets in my flat and drank hot chocolate), I had to actually work a full week, which included a training course at the Museum of London. While I didn’t really want to have to bundle up and fight my way across the city (in a place where “leaves on the track” are enough to shut the trains down, you can probably guess how well they cope with snow), on the plus side, I was excited to go check out the infamous fatberg.


I was originally supposed to have an hour break for lunch, but in light of the snow we all agreed to only take half an hour so we could leave earlier, which meant my time looking around the museum was going to be somewhat rushed. Fortunately, the fatberg takes pride of place right by the museum’s entrance. For those who may not know (probably most people outside of London), the fatberg was a huge disgusting sewer blockage discovered in Whitechapel last September, which was ultimately found to weigh 130 tonnes, and was over 250 metres long (still haven’t completely wrapped my head around the metric system, but I get that that’s big). So naturally, the Museum of London was keen to get their hands on a chunk (who wouldn’t be?) and following a rather delightful social media campaign that was an homage to The Blob, it is now on display.
The exhibit contained some information about the fatberg, its removal, and what we can do to prevent future fatbergs (basically, don’t flush things down the toilet other than toilet paper and actual bodily waste), but of course the highlight was the fatberg itself, which they keep segregated in its own dark mysterious room bedecked with warning signs like “enter if you dare!” Given all the hype, the fatberg is admittedly underwhelming, but still pretty gross, and if you take all the fatberg promotion in the roadside attraction spirit in which it was probably intended, then the underwhelmingness is in keeping with that (and it’s nice to see a museum that doesn’t take itself too seriously!). They actually have two small lumps: one that has started to break apart, and another that is still largely intact (rumour has it that sometimes flies and maggots emerge from it, though there were none in evidence at the time of my visit). I’m not sure what else I can really say about it – it is just a big fatty lump with some wrappers sticking up out of it, and I think this exhibit could have really been enhanced with some authentic smells; obviously it would be a public health hazard if they let people smell the actual fatberg, but I’m sure they could have piped in some imitation rotting meat combined with stinky toilet smells (paraphrasing from a man quoted in the exhibit who had to remove the damn thing).
I also had time to pop down and see some of the suffragette stuff they’ve got on display to commemorate the centenary of the Representation of the People Act of 1918, and though this too was smaller than I was hoping, they did have a few interesting pieces. I liked seeing the grille Muriel Matters and Helen Fox chained themselves to in the Ladies’ Gallery of the House of Commons (both to draw attention to the issue of female suffrage, and to remove the grille itself, which blocked women’s view of Parliamentary proceedings), as well as the body belt they used to do it. I also loved Kitty Marshall’s silver necklace which commemorated her three terms of imprisonment (she was initially imprisoned for throwing a potato at Churchill, which I think is amazing. Potatoes are a hilarious thing to throw at someone, plus Churchill needed to be taken down a peg or two).
The pendant given to Louise Eates of the Kensington branch of the WSPU was really interesting too, as was Emmeline Pankhurst’s hunger strike medal, and the letters from Winefride Rix to her daughter written whilst she was in prison were quite sad. I especially liked that the caption mentioned how Winefride did not go on hunger strike with the other suffragettes, and her husband even sent her a box of apples whilst she was in prison. I can appreciate this, because I think it makes Winefride very relatable.  Sure, I can say I would have been right up there with the suffragettes, but in reality, I don’t think I’m brave enough to endure force-feeding. I’d like to think I would at least have participated in marches and things that I could have been arrested for; but to go on a hunger strike on top of it?! I think I would have chickened out big time once they brought out the tubes. So I liked that this exhibition showed that there were a range of women out there fighting the good fight to the best of their abilities, and not just the diehards, commendably brave though they were, which I think is an important lesson, because it shows that everyone can contribute to social change in some small way, and not just those at the more extreme ends of the spectrum.

I also of course had a wander through the shop (since I love to torture myself by looking at all the amazing stuff museum shops can buy when they have a decent budget and the visitor numbers to back it up), and they had a lot of great suffragette stuff (sadly no sash, but I was tempted by the “Votes for Women” umbrella) and even better fatberg souvenirs, so I succumbed and bought a badge and a totebag (and a t-shirt for Marcus) reading “Don’t Feed the Fatberg” which I suppose is an environmental message, but thanks to the campiness of the design, feels more like merchandise for a B-movie, which is honestly why I was drawn to it in the first place. I don’t know if I can rate these exhibitions because they’re both very small, but they are free (as is the rest of the Museum of London), and though the fatberg is not all that impressive, I’m still glad I saw it. Not as glad as I would have been to have the day off, but it was better than actually being at work.


London: “Rhythm and Reaction” @ Two Temple Place

It’s that time of year again: there’s another new exhibition at Two Temple Place, and on paper, it sounded not dissimilar to the Jazz Age exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Art, so I was intrigued to see how it would compare.  “Rhythm and Reaction: The Age of Jazz in Britain,” which runs until 22 April, is described as bringing together “painting, prints, cartoons, textiles and ceramics, moving film, instruments and the all-important jazz sound, to explicitly examine the influence of jazz on British art, design and wider society.” I love much of the 1920s’ aesthetic, as I’ve well established on this blog, and at any rate, it sounded much less controversial than last year’s somewhat ill-conceived exhibition on the Sussex Modernists (featuring the work of incestuous molester Eric Gill), so I was eager to check it out. (If you count Ocean Liners at the V&A, there’s been a lot of ’20s and ’30s focused exhibitions on lately. I’m not sure why that is, since it’s still too early for the centenary.)


Although I said I thought this exhibition would be less controversial, I realised that wasn’t quite the case upon entering and being greeted by pictures of people in blackface (and really racist drawings of black people), but at least this time it was easy to understand where the curator was coming from – jazz was instrumental (intentional pun) in breaking down some racial barriers, and it was important to see how black people were depicted in British society in the early 20th century in order to understand the difference jazz made (although apparently performers in blackface regularly appeared on British TV until the ’70s, and you can still buy those awful “Golliwog” dolls, so maybe it didn’t make that much of a difference after all). It was also interesting to learn that even people of African descent used blackface in some cases because it was such a recognisable stylistic convention at the time for performers of ragtime music.


I soon realised that this exhibition wasn’t just an exploration of the Jazz Age on the other side of the Atlantic, but was in fact a very different kettle of fish to the one at the CMA. Whereas the CMA had focused mainly on material things and the joy of acquisition that in some ways led to the Great Depression, “Rhythm and Reaction” was mainly about music and the musicians themselves. Therefore, a lot of the objects in the downstairs part of the exhibition were instruments, including a wall of banjos (I still REALLY want to learn the banjo), a player piano, and some most excellent drum kits, especially the one from the Kit Kat Club, and my very favourite specimen of all: a chicken drum that laid eggs!


I also adored some of the cartoons that showed how people felt about jazz in Britain when it first became popular in the post-WWI era – the best one is pictured above, and shows a man being driven to insanity by hearing ragtime everywhere he goes (I don’t mind ragtime, but I can certainly symphathise by being driven mad by having to listen to other people’s music on public transport – my only consolation is that if I can hear it leaking from their headphones, I’m quite sure they must be ruining their own hearing, but whistlers are just plain obnoxious!).


After finishing up downstairs (which had more in it than it might seem – you could only photograph some of the objects), we headed up to a room filled mainly with books, and a handful of objects relating to this period, including a tea set and that rather wonderful TfL poster (I just checked, and copies of this design are still for sale at the London Transport Museum, because TfL doesn’t miss a chance to make a quid).


The room next to this (the final room of the exhibition) was both painting and text-heavy, and explained more about the impact jazz had on British society. After the First World War, travelling American bands first brought jazz over to Europe, and clearly, some people liked what they heard, and developed their own syncopation-heavy style of British jazz (which purists eventually turned against, trying to get back to the African-American roots of the music). It gradually seeped into the wider culture, and began to inspire artists and designers. It also led to African-American musicians travelling to Britain, and because of a law enacted in 1935 which banned whole American bands from performing in this country (which was itself a response to American musicians complaining about British bands performing in the States), famous band leaders like Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway travelled by themselves and hired British (often white) musicians once they got here, which helped integration, at least amongst the musical community (though its impact on wider society clearly wasn’t as great as the exhibition seemed to imply).


This was all well and good, and whilst I certainly enjoyed learning more about the role of jazz in 1920s and ’30s British society (at least some segments of British society), I felt that the exhibition tried to tell me about the effect it had on art and fashion rather than showing me, which I would have preferred (I realise fashion wasn’t included in the exhibition description, but I was hoping they’d sneak some in there). Sure, there were some examples of textiles, pottery, and those fabulous brogue-style heels from Liberty, which I would wear in a heartbeat, but the exhibition was mainly art and music based, and even the music aspect of it was shown more through signage or instruments than the music itself. There was jazz music playing on a CD player in most of the rooms, which did enhance the atmosphere, but I didn’t feel there was enough information about what I was hearing for me to really understand the difference between British and American jazz, since I have very little knowledge of musical terminology (this despite the fact that I played alto sax (poorly) for five years, and guitar (adequately) for seven, but I was just playing things other people had written, not composing my own music!).


I also felt like there was a fair bit of wasted space that could have been filled up with objects. For example, there was a very long glass case in one of the rooms stretching across half the wall, yet the only things in it were two small books plopped right in the middle of the case. Surely they could have found something interesting to fill the rest of it up with! Although it took up the same amount of space as every other exhibition I’ve seen there, for some reason the Ancient Egyptian exhibition felt bigger to me, perhaps because there was more in each room so it took longer to look around.


And though the text was mostly pretty interesting, some of it was hard to read!  This was partly the fault of the people in the exhibition, like one man who planted himself in front of a video and refused to move so I could read the sign his big shiny head was blocking, even though I was quite obviously trying to crane my neck around him to see it; but some of it was due to poor positioning – why was there a long sign on the wall next to a video in the first place, especially when the lighting was quite poor in that corner?


If there was some way that this exhibition could have been combined with the one at the CMA, then I would have been perfectly happy, as it had some of the things the CMA was lacking – a discussion of the way jazz impacted society, as well as some examples of the music itself – but lacked other things that the CMA did so well, like providing concrete examples of the way jazz affected style and architecture. Basically, I wanted all the beautiful things from the CMA, but with a bit more context and soul. There were no clothes to speak of here, except the quite racist costumes shown above, and very little in the way of other material goods, and I think when you’re talking about a period with a style as iconic as the 1920s, it would be nice to have some examples of both, particularly since they had enough space to include more. But it was a free exhibition, versus the CMA’s $15 admission fee, so I can’t complain overmuch. It was a fine way to kill half an hour or so, and I liked learning more about the jazz age in England, I just wish I could have been shown the impact of jazz in a more visual way (or in a more auditory way for that matter, since we are talking about music!). 3/5.


London: Ocean Liners @ the V&A

Judging by the inexplicable popularity of that rather awful Titanic movie, people like an ocean liner. And whilst I’m clearly no Titanic fan, and avoid cruises like the plague, I understand the appeal of an ocean liner back in the golden age of travel, if you could afford to travel in style. I definitely like the idea of cruising around on a big old ship with gorgeous art deco interiors, servants to attend to your every whim, a massive stateroom, and of course a beautiful array of clothing to parade down the grand staircase in every evening, at least in theory…though when I think about it, I’d find the grand staircase stressful – I tripped walking up the steps to the stage at my high school graduation, the vice principal laughed in my face (he was a jerk), and I still cringe at the memory – and I could probably do without the servants too, because the idea of having people hanging around you that you just ignore when you’re not making demands makes me really uncomfortable, but presumably if I’d been born into a life of opulence, I’d be fine with being the centre of attention and treating servants like garbage. Nonetheless, I was still pretty excited about the V&A’s new exhibition “Ocean Liners: Speed and Style,” so much so that I went out to see it during its first week open (it runs until June).


Though I carefully timed my visit during a weekday, the V&A seems to always be busy, and this was no exception. We had to queue for a bit at the main desk to buy tickets (which we could have avoided by buying tickets online, but we weren’t sure exactly when we’d arrive), and the exhibition itself turned out to be fairly crowded too, though not at a horrible Harry Potter at the BL level. Admission was £18, which I am much too cheap to pay – I got half price with a National Art Pass, but if I didn’t have one, I would have used a National Rail 2 for 1. There is no reason anyone should pay £18 to see a single exhibition!
At least it was easy to find. It was through the main shop (the V&A is so big, it has more than one), and down a hallway, but it was clearly signposted the whole way, which made a nice change from my experience at the Natural History Museum. We had to pass the Winnie the Pooh exhibition to get to it, and I was a little sorry I wasn’t seeing Pooh instead, but they made it look so child-orientated on the website that it’s put me off from going thus far, even though I quite like poor old Pooh bear (and Eeyore!).
The first few rooms of the exhibition seemed to be divided up primarily by era, starting with the 1890s, and progressing on through the 1950s. There were artefacts from a number of ships here, including the SS Normandie, Queen Mary, SS United States, Canberra, and even the Titanic, though I was somewhat relieved to see that the Titanic  wasn’t the focal point. I like a disaster story as much as, if not more than anyone, but it does kind of detract from the fact that most cruises turned out perfectly fine, and everyone had a lovely time (except for passengers travelling in steerage, of course. And the guys working in the engine room – hell, probably most of the staff. People are the worst anyway, and I would imagine entitled rich people are even more awful to deal with).
There was a splendid mural of the Normandie that I kept trying to snap a photo of, but some woman stepped in front of it just as I took the picture, and remained standing in front of it for some minutes, looking at her phone, so this is what you get. Fortunately, it was only one of quite a few good mosaic/tile things here, including some William de Morgan pieces that included sea monsters (above right)!  And I would probably have felt obligated to spend some time hanging out in the Cleveland room (pictured below) if I was on that ship, although obviously I would prefer to spend most of my time holed up in my room by myself.
As with any exhibition based around this time period, there were some fantastic objects on display, but it was so crowded that I wasn’t inclined to dwell as much as I was at say, the Cleveland Museum of Art’s “Jazz Age.” There also seemed to be a decent amount of text, but it was hard to read through the sea of elbows (pun not intended), and what I did read was so hurried that I’m afraid I didn’t absorb much, as I just tried to look at what I could, and pass through the crowded areas as quickly as humanly possible.  It did seem to me that the furniture got progressively uglier as time marched into the ’50s, but then I’ve never been a fan of mid-century modern.
Fortunately, the exhibition opened up when I got to the room on engineering, and I was finally able to look at leisure. I was fascinated by the Lusitania medals given to the German officers involved in her sinking (an attempt to justify it by making her look like a war ship), which I’m pretty sure were mentioned in Erik Larson’s book on the subject (a much better read than Devil in the White City, which scared the ever-living crap out of me), and I also liked the diagram showing how ships were camouflaged during the war. I’m also pretty interested in how ocean liners were turned into troop transport, as that was how my grandpa made his way to Britain in WWII.
The biggest and best room was about life on board the liners, and had clothing, furniture, luggage, and information about the kinds of activities available (to be honest, playing shuffleboard, swimming, or sunning myself on deck don’t appeal, so I really wouldn’t have done particularly well on an ocean liner, but my god, do I want some of those dresses). I loved the flags from the pool of the SS United States that spelled out “Come in, the water’s fine,” and I know I’ve said I’m not big on the Titanic, but the deckchair from it (below left) was pretty cool (it floated to the surface when the ship sank, and I’m horrible enough to imagine someone pulling that out of the sea instead of a drowning person, thinking they could resell it later, but I’m sure that wasn’t the case). I also liked the giant wall with an ever-changing sea view that you could stand in front of and pretend you were on the deck of a ship (with my heavy coat, I must be on an Arctic voyage!).
I was a little creeped out by how the beds on an early ocean liner looked like adult-sized cribs (I don’t think I could sleep all confined like that, and I’m not even including a picture because I’d rather show you the clothes), but the clothing did not disappoint, particularly the 1925 Jeanne Lanvin dress (below) that is evidently one of the exhibition highlights (I can see why). The exhibition did also make an attempt to portray how horrible voyages could be for poorer passengers and the staff aboard the ship, and in fact, it seems like early voyages, before the invention of stabilisers, were pretty awful for everyone. There was an illustration of one cruise where the ship rolled and people were thrown around the dining room to the extent that a dairy cow even fell in through the ceiling!  But of course, no one really wants to hear too much about the unpleasant side of things in this sort of exhibition (especially because it was sponsored by Viking Cruises, as the exhibition rather annoyingly kept reminding us), so it focused mainly on the glamorous aspects of ocean travel.
The final room contained another chunk of the Titanic (apparently part of the dining room where the ship had split, and the largest surviving piece of the ship), which hasn’t been displayed before, though unfortunately they stuck it on top of a screen with a wave effect which made it kind of hard to see. There was a video in this room showing clips from various ocean liner themed movies, and I had to stop and watch the one from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (which perhaps inappropriately, I seem to end up watching every time I’m on a long flight, and desperately wish I could be on that ship instead, with Jane Russell’s personality, but Marilyn Monroe’s wardrobe (Jane Russell’s hats are a little too out-there for me), though for the reasons discussed throughout this post, I think I’m better off flying). We exited through the shop (of course), which had some excellent straw cloche-style hats in it, but they were £50, and little ocean liner brooch pins, which were £30 (if I made more money, I would have happily dropped £80 that day, but unfortunately museums don’t pay enough to actually shop at other museums), and I was jealous of how excellent museum shops can be if you have the money and visitor numbers to do it.
I would say I enjoyed this exhibition a middling amount – there was more furniture in here than I would have liked, especially chairs that basically looked the same as other chairs, and way less clothing than I found ideal, given how much the exhibition kept talking about how fashion was influenced by what was happening on ocean liners (because people would take about a million different outfits with them and of course parade down the grand staircase at night, though apparently British ships irritated Cecil Beaton because they did away with the staircase).  I have to say that I liked the Jazz Age exhibition at the CMA way better, even though it also didn’t have enough clothing (not exactly comparing apples to oranges, since they both had art deco-y themes), and it was cheaper, even without factoring in the exchange rate (then it’s way cheaper), and I only gave that 4/5, so I guess this one gets 3/5? I would have liked it more at a less busy time, but I think if you’re going to charge people £18 to see something, you should really deliver more content than this (especially if Viking Cruises is splitting the bill for putting the exhibition on).  At least I learned that if I ever travel back in time, I can safely skip the ocean liner and head for a World’s Fair or really unsafe old-school amusement park instead – I think those would be much more to my liking!

London: “Nature Morte” @ Guildhall Art Gallery

This is the third post I’ve written about the Guildhall Art Gallery, but the first one that has actually made it on to the blog. My initial post on it was sort of a panic-post written a few years ago as filler when I thought I would run out of things to write about, and was based on a visit from before I started blogging, so I had very few pictures (the post was actually mainly about their toilets). The second version was a revamp of the first that included a temporary exhibition I went to see there, as well as a few more pictures, but it turns out that I didn’t have much to say about the temporary exhibition either, and it was still mainly about the toilets, so I never ended up publishing it. This post, however, is a completely new effort, primarily about the special exhibition on until 2 April, called “Nature Morte” (though I will mention the toilets at some point).

Even though I’ve been to the Guildhall Art Gallery at least three times, I still get lost pretty much every time I’m trying to find my way there, because Bank is the most confusing station. There’s about a million exits, and even if you go out the one you think is right, you’re probably wrong. This time, I actually did go out the correct exit, but got confused by the street signs and ended up having to walk in a complete circle whilst crossing a number of busy roads, but I eventually made it. Probably because of its proximity to important financial stuff, they have fairly tight security at the gallery – there’s always at least a couple of guards standing around the entrance, and they put your bag through an actual airport style scanner, but to be honest I find that less embarrassing than someone opening my bag and poking around in there, because I usually have something odd in there like a book about murders or witches or diseases, or food (not even something normal like a granola bar, but maybe a brownie with buttery grease soaking through the bag or a baguette or some other weird thing), or an extra pair of flip flops (only in summer, because I live in fear of flip flops breaking when I’m out and about, and I am totally gross enough to wear flip flops out on a dirty city street) just sitting on top my wallet.
I could see a sign for “Nature Morte” downstairs, so I headed down there, only to be greeted by a sign on the door saying that I had to buy tickets from the shop, so I had to walk straight back up again. Admission to the exhibition is £8, though they do offer half price tickets for National Art Pass holders (not advertised anywhere, I had to specifically ask). To be honest, I think I could have gotten away without paying admission at all, because there was nobody downstairs. Not only was I the only visitor, there were also no stewards or security guards (though I suppose one of the ones by the entrance could have run down and stopped me if he’d noticed me on the cameras), so I just awkwardly stepped around the sign and let myself into the exhibition.
I was pretty thrilled at being the only visitor, and I didn’t see any signs prohibiting photography, so I was free to snap away with gay abandon. Obviously, I was drawn far more towards the “morte” part of the exhibition than the “nature” bit, so I was pleased to see a couple of skulls greeting me when I walked in. The premise of the exhibition, according to the museum’s website, was: “Confront what it means to be human. Explore the transience of time and the problem of mortality as the 16th-century tradition of still life meets modern art in Guildhall Art Gallery’s new exhibition Nature Morte. Go beyond the two-dimensional as 100 works of art on the themes of flora, fauna, the domestic object, food and vanitas, invite you to pause and look anew at the human condition.”
The first room was divided by roughly the aforementioned themes, which were actually “House and Home,” “Food,” “Flora,” “Fauna,” and “Death.” My favourites were of course “Death” and “Fauna,” because taxidermy + skulls, though I have to say there wasn’t really as much of either as I was hoping (especially taxidermy). “House and Home” literally only consisted of two paintings, and “Flora” was similarly unremarkable, except for a video installation of moving flowers by Jennifer Steinkamp, which was at least cool to watch. I did like the photograph of the withered lemons in “Food,” as well as the cheeses, though what cheese has to do with death I really couldn’t say (I mean, the whole point of cheese is that it is meant to preserve milk, so it’s sort of the opposite of decay, really).
I loved Peter Jones’s painting of Ollie Monkey in the “Fauna” section though, as well as Nancy Fouts’ taxidermied Rabbit with Curlers. “Death” was definitely the largest (not that that’s saying much) and best section, and Rigoberto A Gonzalez’s So that they Learn to be Respectful was the most eye-catching piece, depicting a man decapitated by Mexico’s drug cartels (apparently one of Gonzalez’s family members was killed in this awful way).
I was a little confused by the second room, because when I walked in and found myself staring at some blocks and a pop-art style painting of chairs, it didn’t appear to be part of the same exhibition at all. It wasn’t until I spotted a skull and read a couple of the picture captions that I realised it was still “Nature Morte.” There were nonetheless plenty of pieces I really liked here once I ventured further in, like Matt Smith’s Looking for a Chicken Hawk, Paul Hazelton’s Fright Wig (apparently based on the wigs Andy Warhol used to wear), Matthew Weir’s There and Not There (piece with the skeletons and little boy), and Cindy Wright’s Nature Morte 2, meant to show the viewer the reality of eating meat (I don’t eat meat or fish anyway, so it’s hard to say if it worked, but the fish do look gross).
The final room of the exhibition was a cosy little nook with a couple of Dutch still-life-influenced floral paintings (including one with dead butterflies stuck to it. Ick!) and a video of a jug of flowers exploding, which I sat and watched for a couple of minutes. Even though the description of the video specifically said the vase would “suddenly explode,” I still jumped about a foot when it happened, having been lulled into boredom by just staring at a vase of flowers for three minutes.
Although I liked many of the works in this exhibition (I was definitely more drawn towards the ones inspired by old still-lifes rather than the modern art pieces, like the thing that was just random blocks on the floor), I can’t say that it necessarily made me “pause and think about the human condition” all that much. Very graphic pieces like Gonzalez’s severed head and Wright’s bloody fish certainly did make me think about death, but not really in a more profound way than “ugh, a violent death would be horrible!” I definitely, definitely don’t think it was worth £8, as it was pretty teeny, and even £4 was kind of debatable because the last exhibition I saw there, which was on telegraphy (the one I never ended up blogging about) was a similar size and quality, and was free. 3/5 for “Nature Morte,” based mainly on my enjoyment of experiencing an exhibition in complete blissful solitude (and also some of the art).

I probably will get around to blogging about the rest of the gallery (which is free to visit) at some point, but I’ll just quickly run through what’s in there now. The upstairs gallery is primarily Victorian paintings, with modern art being located on the lower levels. There are also the ruins of a Roman amphitheatre in the building, and despite my lack of enthusiasm for the Romans, I think it’s neat that you can walk through it. After my introduction, I don’t think I can close the post without mentioning the toilets in more detail, so here we are. Basically, the museum has really nice toilets. Extremely fancy, and very private, if that sort of thing matters to you (frankly, I think it sometimes matters to all of us), and probably worth the effort of having your bag scanned if you’re in the area and in need of a loo (also, if you’re in the City on a weekend, not much is open, so your options are limited. Even on a weekday, it is creepily deserted during times when everyone is at work, which is probably why I really quite like the City (although if I had to work there, I’m sure I’d change my tune pretty quick). I was there on a Monday afternoon, and I didn’t see another visitor at the museum until as I was leaving).  I’m not the biggest fan of any of the art in their permanent collections, but it is worth visiting when they have free special exhibitions, or to see the Roman amphitheatre (or use the toilets of course!). Just don’t rush out to see “Nature Morte” if, like me, you’re expecting lots of taxidermy, because you will inevitably be disappointed that there’s only one example of it there (not counting the butterflies, because I hate them).



London: “Red Star over Russia” @ Tate Modern

Though I feel like I’ve gone to an excessive amount of Soviet exhibitions over the past year (so many that people are going to start thinking I’m a communist, which is not the case at all), looking back at it, it seems like I actually only went to two: the Russian Revolution at the BL, and “Imagine Moscow” at the Design Museum.  And in my defense, 2017 was the centenary of the Russian Revolution, which is why there’s been so many Russian themed exhibitions in the first place. So now I feel less guilty telling you that I also went to see “Red Star over Russia” at the Tate Modern a couple of weeks ago (it closes 18 February, so hurry up if you want to see it!).


I know I just said in my last post I probably go to the NHM less often than any other major London museum, but I totally forgot about the Tate(s). I go to the Tate(s) way less than even the NHM, because modern art and British art are not my favourites. It has to have been at least 5 or 6 years since I last set foot in the Tate Modern, and I was kind of surprised by how grubby it all seems now. The giant carpet at the entrance (the one that slopes down, with the massive ball overhead) was absolutely filthy, and I couldn’t believe how many people were laying down on it. Could they not see the bits of dog poo from people’s shoes, and residue from other people’s lunches? Blech! Even the main galleries of the museum proper just seemed kind of dirty, like all the walls could use a good wash.
We made our way to the ticket desk, and paid £5.65 each for entrance to “Red Star over Russia” (National Art Pass holders receive 50% off; it’s normally £11.30). When we asked the guy at the desk where it was, he told us on the third floor, which was super unhelpful, because it turns out it was actually on the second floor of the other building (the Tate Modern is now in both the Boiler House and the Blavatnik Building, which only opened a year and a half ago, so this was my first time seeing it).  We went up to the third floor, realised the exhibition was in the other building, and then had to go all the way back down to the first to find the bridge that connected the buildings, and then back up to the second once we’d crossed over, which was slightly worrying because he issued us with 1pm tickets when we arrived at about 1:20, and the tickets said they were only valid for half an hour after the stated time, so we felt the need to rush (I mean, it wasn’t all that busy, and I’m sure they would have let us in regardless if we explained, but it was slightly more stressful than it needed to be).
Having found the exhibition, I was pleasantly surprised to see firstly, that it wasn’t all that crowded, secondly, that this new building was much nicer inside than the Boiler House, and thirdly, that we were allowed to take photos, as many art museums don’t seem to allow it in temporary exhibitions (probably due to copyright issues). “Red Star over Russia” was divided into six rooms, each with a different theme, but most of the pieces on display came from the collection of David King, a graphic designer who eventually collected over 250,000 pieces of Soviet art, which have served as the basis for this and other exhibitions at the Tate Modern.
The first room “Art onto the Streets!” was one of the most visually appealing, with a graphic display of posters that splashed over the (appropriately) red walls. My only complaint in here is that I would have liked a lot more text. There was a paragraph or two on the wall explaining the theme of the room, but the only information provided for the posters was their title and artist, which doesn’t do a lot for me (and is the reason I normally avoid exhibitions at art museums. I like more context than they tend to provide).
The second room, entitled “The Future is our only Goal” was also very bold visually, with some fantastic posters of Stalin and Lenin, and a book with a fold-out image of a parachutist that I thought was really cool. The focus here was on mass-produced images, and as such there was a series of prints designed by El Lissitzky, as well as a number of magazine covers. There was also a video off in a side room showing clips of Trotsky and how he gradually disappeared from the Communist Party, which I found interesting more for what people at the time were wearing than for Trotsky himself.
“Fifty Years of History” was probably my favourite room. In fact, if it hadn’t been for this room, I probably would have felt cheated, signage-wise, but here, finally, were loads of detailed captions, along with a lot of great images from the time of Tsar Nicholas II up until the 1950s. I was most fascinated by the photograph of the outside of a gulag, because it looked so damn unexpectedly cheery – I suppose as a way of hiding the horrors that went on inside, and the contrast was incredibly jarring – presumably especially so for the people who were held inside.
“1937, a View from Paris” was about the International Exposition in Paris in 1937, for which the Soviets designed a massive pavilion topped with a stainless steel sculpture imaginatively called “Worker and Collective Farm Woman.” The drab name does nothing for this rather splendid art deco sculpture that was represented here by a wall-sized painting. I’m not a fan of Frank Lloyd Wright, but I know he’s a big name in architecture circles, and he said that the Soviets deserved to win all the prizes for architectural innovation for their pavilion, so I guess that’s impressive? Also interestingly, the Soviet pavilion was positioned opposite the Nazi one, which must have led to some awkwardness. (I found this post that has pictures of both pavilions: the Nazi pavilion was deliberately more imposing, but the Soviet one is much nicer to look at, not least because it’s not bedecked in swastikas, though I suppose a hammer and sickle isn’t exactly the most welcoming symbol either.)
The room on “Ordinary Citizens” was undeniably the most moving, dominated as it was by images of people purged by Stalin, accompanied by a book that told us more about their “crimes” (typically nothing more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time). I was especially drawn to the photo of a lovely young woman with haunting eyes named Tamara Litsinskaya, who was a 27 year old student killed for basically nothing, as far as I could tell (apparently I’m not the only person who found her photo compelling, as David King himself used her image on the cover of his book about people killed in Stalin’s Great Purge). There was also a series of photos showing the way that people were erased from images when they fell out of favour with Stalin (typically, a photo would have a whole crowd of people in it, then be gradually reduced until it was pretty much just a photo of Stalin; see example above). This room really drove home the horrors of Stalin’s regime, and I’m glad it was here to balance out all the lovely art.
The final room, called “The War and the Thaw” was about WWII and the post-war era, after Stalin’s death. There were again a lot of bold images in this room, like “Fascism – the Most Evil Enemy of Women” (there were two copies here to show how the image had been modified when the war moved into Azerbaijan to make the woman look more Azerbaijani). There was also a rather intriguing image of a soldier apparently making out with a peasant (exchanging a kiss was actually a sign of respect amongst Slavic peoples, so it sadly wasn’t an early celebration of gay culture).
Although I do wish there could have been more text in places to explain what I was looking at, there was at least a blurb on the wall of each room, and typically more information accompanying at least a few of the pieces (and quite a lot of text in the third, fourth, and fifth rooms). I enjoyed it more than I thought I would have (I know I like Soviet art, but exhibitions in art museums are often hit and miss, as I’ve said), though I’m still glad I only paid half price. Definitely worth a fiver and a bit, not so much 11 quid!
We went up to the tenth floor of the Blavatnik Building before we left, as I had never been, and I snapped a few photos, but it was pretty cold, and the Thames was all grey and blah looking, so we didn’t stay out long (the rumours are true, and you can totally see into the windows of all the flats nearby, but to be honest, most of them looked like show flats with no one living in them, or else rich people live much more uncluttered lives than I do!). Also kind of disappointed that I didn’t get to try the swings downstairs (shown near the start of the post), but people kept hogging them and in the end I just wanted to get home before rush hour, so I gave up. 3.5/5 for “Red Star over Russia” though!
Oh, and I have an update on something! Remember that derpy chipmunk painting I wrote about in the Franklin Park Conservatory post last month? Well, I’m happy to report that it has found a good home! Marcus contacted the artist, and when he found out it was still for sale, he ordered it. He just gave it to me for Valentine’s Day, so I am now the proud owner of “Chipmunk with Strawberry”!

London: Venom: Killer and Cure @ the Natural History Museum

I’m glad that I had so many posts from Manchester and the US on backlog, because I always find it really difficult to leave the house in January, and I just wasn’t motivated to go to many museums (it doesn’t particularly help that I work at a museum now – even though I still love visiting museums, I don’t always want to spend my days off in one). I was also battling a cold and jetlag for the first half of the month, which definitely didn’t help. But I finally dragged myself out of my flat in mid-January to check out the venom exhibition at the Natural History Museum, because the promise of stuff in jars is a great motivator, at least as far as I’m concerned.

I seem to go to the NHM far less than the other major museums in London (this is actually my first post about an exhibition there, though I have popped inside now and again over the years), I think because I perceive it as being always hideously crowded with screaming children, but I realised on this visit that if you go in the side entrance on Exhibition Road instead of the main one, it really isn’t any busier once you get inside than the Science Museum or the V&A, neither of which I seem to have any issue with visiting, so perhaps I’ve been unfair to the NHM. At least, it isn’t that bad on a weekday – I’m still not brave enough to attempt it on a weekend.

“Venom: Killer and Cure” was a bit tricky to locate; in fact, we had to ask for directions to it at the whale exhibit (the other special exhibition they currently have running), and we had to pass through several “zones” to get there (the museum is so big that things are assigned colour-coded zones), including the entrance hall with the blue whale skeleton (who is apparently named Hope) taking pride of place over the oft-mourned Dippy the diplodocus (honestly, I like Hope just fine, but I suppose I don’t have a childhood attachment to Dippy like other people do), but we eventually found our way. Admission is a whopping £10.50 (sans donation), but we got in for half price thanks to the National Art Pass (which is well worth getting if you live in London and go to lots of exhibitions).  (Apologies for the giant disgusting sting ray in the above picture – they scare the crap out of me, but the exhibition wasn’t that big, so I have a limited amount of photos and had to use it.)

The exhibition highlights on their website promised a lot of things, including:

“a live venomous creature,
the head of a gaboon viper, the species with the biggest known venomous fangs;
the insects with some of the most painful venoms known to science,
the enchanting flower urchin, whose venom can cause temporary muscular paralysis in humans;
the unusual love life of the emperor scorpion – where seduction has a sting in the tail,
the box jellyfish, whose embrace can kill humans in under five minutes; and
scientists whose ideas represent the cutting edge of venom research and its use in modern medicine”

and I suppose they did deliver, but in the most minimalist way possible. For example, they had exactly one live venomous creature – a tarantula in a glass tank. I was OK with that, because I definitely have no desire to touch a tarantula (though I’m fine with looking at them if they’re safely contained), but I was sort of hoping there’d be an opportunity to handle some snakes (though I guess not venomous ones!) or at least look at live snakes in tanks, because I love snakes, but dead snakes in jars were the only ones on offer (I mean, I do love stuff in jars too, but I like live snakes better than dead ones). Pretty much everything else on that list was there also in the form of dead and in a jar, or dead and tacked to a board, or dead and taxidermied…except for the scientists, which at least would have been interesting in a macabre sort of way. Again, I’m not really sure what I was expecting, because of course they’re not going to have a bunch of live venomous creatures hanging around, but I think I was just hoping the exhibition would be more engaging than it actually was. Because there was really no interactivity to speak of.

The exhibition opened with a large screen with a tarantula shadow projected on to it (which was a cool effect, particularly when you looked at it looming behind you in the mirror), which led into a very dark room containing cases of various preserved venomous specimens, with brief descriptions of each underneath. I enjoyed looking at these, but it didn’t take a whole lot of time to see them.

From there, the gallery segued into a round room with a tableau of a mongoose and cobra fighting in the middle, which was pretty neat. I also really liked the descriptions of the pain level of various venomous insect bites written by glutton-for-punishment researcher Christopher Starr. Most of them made me laugh, particularly the “W.C. Fields putting out a cigar on your tongue” one (I hope you can enlarge the above photo enough to read some of them for yourself!). The most venomous animal hall of fame was so dark that it was a little hard to see, especially some of the smaller insects, which had simply been pinned into place in the display. There was a short video featuring three survivors of venomous attacks telling their stories, which I didn’t really take time to watch because a family piled in there just as I approached (and although the exhibition was almost empty, there were a pair of really annoying visitors behind us who were pausing FOREVER in front of each display and blocking the case, so I wanted to make sure I stayed ahead of them).

The next room of the exhibition was probably the most interesting (and well-lit!) and was about historical medical treatments for people who had been attacked by venomous animals, as well as some uses modern researchers have found for various animal venoms. This included a great display with a big-ass jar crammed full of snakes (which was for some reason more exciting than all the jars with a solitary dead snake), and a preserved gila monster (I always seem to think they should be bigger than they actually are), as well as other cool cases full of medical stuff, like an apothecary jar and some venom-sucking syringes, and excitingly, some leaves that had been preserved on Cook’s first expedition(!).

The last object of note was a massive glass case with a preserved komodo dragon in it, which was given its own special room. I took the survey on my way out (I’m currently running the visitor survey at the museum where I work, so I feel obligated to do other people’s), and was interested to see that the things I was apparently supposed to have learned about in the exhibition didn’t seem to have been included anywhere, such as the difference between poisonous and venomous (I knew this already because I’m pedantic about these things, but I didn’t see it discussed anywhere inside). The shop attached to the exhibition was a bit meh – good if you’re into slow lorises, because they had about a million slow loris things, but not great if you prefer snakes and vampire bats.

I clearly can’t complain about all the specimens in jars, because that was mostly what this exhibition was, and I LOVE stuff in jars, but I could see that kind of thing in the free parts of the museum. If I’m going to pay to see an exhibition, I would rather see something more special, and with a bit of interactivity – there was one touch screen about ancient Egyptian treatments for snakebite, and that was basically it. Surely they could have come up with something cool and relevant to the subject matter (like a game where you had to try to tell whether snakes were venomous or not, or a screen or microscope where you could have examined some of the tinier insects up close, or some kind of electric zapping device that mimicked the sensation of an insect bite…well, maybe not that last one, but I’m just coming up with stuff off the top of my head here, and I think it’s more engaging than what they offered). It was also very repetitive, in terms of the animals represented – they must have had the same damn facts about the box snail (along with examples of said snail – maybe they got a whole case of them on discount) in there three or four times, so it really felt like they were desperately trying to bulk up the content to fill up an entire exhibition. I learned a bit about venom, and I enjoyed the descriptions of bites (and some of the more amusing object captions) and of course all the preserved animals, but for £10.50 (or even £5.25) I wanted more than what the NHM is already offering in its permanent zoological galleries. I think this would have been much better as a free display, rather than a special exhibition with a pricey admission fee attached. 2.5/5.


Stockport, Greater Manchester: Hat Works

How could I not visit the “UK’s only museum dedicated to the hatting industry, hats, and headwear”?! So after leaving Manchester, we headed straight for Stockport to see Hat Works (passing a McVitie’s factory en route, though I sadly couldn’t find evidence of a factory shop. I was hoping to obtain a sack of defective caramel digestives that had been rejected due to having too much caramel or something). Apparently there is parking right around the corner from Hat Works, which we noticed belatedly after parking in a garage halfway across town. But no harm done, we needed the exercise anyway (including the hike up a giant set of steps, because Stockport is hilly) after eating grilled cheese for breakfast for the second day in a row.


I’m a bit confused as to what Hat Works’ official admission policy is, because the website states that admission is £5, but the woman at the desk didn’t charge us anything. They do offer guided tours, so perhaps the admission fee only applies to those? Anyway, I’d just assume you have to pay the fiver, and then you’ll be pleasantly surprised like we were if you don’t. We had to drive back to London before rush hour, so we did not have time for a 90 minute tour, and opted to just wander by ourselves instead. The museum is spread out over two levels (both located below the floor that you enter on), and is much bigger than I was expecting based on some of the reviews.


The exhibition level is where all the hats are, and it was a delightful array of headgear indeed (though seriously, why would a clown have a hat with a skeleton inside? Clowns are creeps). The lighting was pretty dim for conservation reasons, but as promised, our eyes did eventually adjust, so it was easier to see all the splendid hats, which even included some worn by celebrities (if you consider Fred Dibnah and Ainsley Harriott celebrities, that is (in fairness, they did have one of Judi Dench’s hats too, I’m just not a big Judi Dench fan.)). I quite liked the ones shaped like things, like cauliflowers and cakes, though I’m not sure how they’d look on.


Happily, I did get to see how I would look in a variety of other hats, because they had an amazing hat dress-up corner. I confess that a large factor in my deciding to visit the museum was my love for trying on hats, since I figured they’d have to have at least a couple out for that purpose. It was way more than a couple – there was a whole shelved wall full of hats, probably thirty different ones! I’m sure they were intended for children, but we were the only people visiting the museum, and frankly, some of the hats were on shelves that a child would have struggled to reach (even I struggled with the topmost ones), so I think they really wanted me to be able to take full advantage. Best hat corner ever!


I also really enjoyed the displays curated by various staff members at their partner museums, and I loved the one guest curator’s idea of having a “hats and cats” museum instead (the sample stuffed cat wearing a hat was pretty great, though I strongly suspect real cats would be not so enthused about hats). All the vintage hat ads were cool too, and may have inspired me to start wearing the cloche I acquired a few years back, but have never worn out of the house because I fear unruly youths will mock me and snatch it off my head.


The floor underneath the hatstravaganza contained old hat factory machinery (the building is housed in an old factory, though I wasn’t real clear on whether it was actually a hat factory. I think it may have just been a cotton mill). This is where the guided tour would have paid off, because tour groups are allowed access into a couple special areas that we weren’t, and got way more information about the machinery than what was provided on the signs (judging by the group that was going through while we were there), but to be honest, my interest in hat manufacturing is nowhere near as great as my interest in looking at and trying on unusual hats, so I was content with just reading the signage.


There was also a mock-up of an old hatter’s cottage, which was pretty depressing, and perhaps authentically cold, as well as some information about the history of hat makers (not enough info about them going mad from mercury poisoning, but there was a bit). Basically, like everyone else who was working class in Victorian Britain, they had grim lives, with the added benefit of potential insanity, and male hatters were incredibly resentful of female hatters because they drove wages down. By this point it was already cutting it close for us getting back home at a reasonable hour, so I didn’t spend as much time in here as I probably should have, but the hat exhibition floor was definitely my preferred floor anyway, and I had ample time to look at that.


The gift shop sells, as you might expect, a variety of hats for men and women, though I declined to purchase one on this occasion, since I already own that cloche that I’m not wearing. I did get a postcard of what was allegedly the Duke of Wellington’s hat from Waterloo (the big feathery thing) which is also on display inside the museum (see below). I was pleasantly surprised that the museum was so much larger and hattier than I was expecting, and even if I had to pay £5, I would have been quite content with what I got to see in return, because it really was an excellent hat museum (as well it might be, if it’s the only one in Britain). 4/5 for the Hat Works, and it’s not the only museum in Stockport – I might have to go back some day to tour the old air raid shelter (and investigate the biscuit factory further – I want those defective extra caramelly digestives that may or may not exist)!



Manchester: John Rylands Library + General Manchesteriness

I want you to think those are the creepy kind of adult twins who still dress identically, but really it’s one woman accidentally transformed through the  “magic” of Photoshop.

The John Rylands Library was recommended to me on the strength of its historic toilets, which is a pretty good way to get my attention. It is an excellent-looking building (and I don’t have a decent looking picture of the front of it both because of how it is situated on the street, and because it was sleeting and incredibly windy, so we did hurry inside), so interesting toilets were just the icing on the cake. The library is free to visit (and to join, though it’s a reference library, so you have to do all your reading there), and is so much more chill than your typical archives or reference library. We merrily wandered in with our bags, and no one approached us at any time to yell at us for touching things or just breathing the wrong way (which is what it sometimes seems happens at the National Archives).


The interior of the old building is very Gothic, as you can probably see (it also has a modern extension, which is where you enter). It was founded by the uniquely named Enriqueta Rylands, widow of John, in her husband’s memory (she was 42 years younger than him, so spent quite a long time in widowhood). It was designed in 1889, and construction was finished in 1900. It is now part of the University of Manchester, serving as its official library, and even though I actually think the Maughan Library at KCL was the best damn part of that school (which isn’t saying much, because I hated it there, but the library is admittedly awesome), I think John Rylands may well have it beat (because of the historic toilets, though that said, the Wetherspoons across the street from Maughan Library has fantastic toilets too).


John Rylands has a couple of exhibition spaces, and one of them was hosting an exhibition on the Reformation which I have to admit I didn’t find terribly interesting, so I didn’t spend much time there. The other exhibition showcasing some of the highlights of the collection was much cooler, especially the medical stuff, including a pair of forceps invented by a Manchester physician (the Chamberlen family of London are credited with inventing the first forceps, but like jerks, they kept the invention to themselves, causing thousands of women to needlessly die until their secret was revealed. So other physicians had to independently come up with the concept of forceps, made to their own different designs), and some drawings he made of a deformed pelvis (the mother eventually died in childbirth as a result, though not until after her seventh baby). They also have the world’s oldest surviving fragment of the New Testament, dating to the 2nd or 3rd century (CE, obviously), for which fragment is an apt term, but it’s still cool to see something that old.


The historic reading room was also pretty rad. There were people actually using the space to work in, but there were also a bunch of signs down the middle of the room talking about the history of the building, and an opportunity to put on a silly hat and take photos. My favourite thing was the automaton outside the reading room of Enriqueta Rylands taking tea with a dragon.


And I’m not gonna lie, the historic toilets were pretty great too (they also have modern ones, for people who don’t like to pee in historic surroundings). They have these giant wooden seats, and the old fashioned pull chains, which I just love. I always feel like I’m really accomplishing something when I yank down one of those chains. They were a bit draughty, but that was part of the charm.  The library gets an enthusiastic 4/5 from me, not least because of the loos.

Because there isn’t a lot else to say about the library, this gives me a chance to talk about some of the other, non-museum stuff we did in Manchester (and also gives me an excuse to show you what I think is a rather hilarious photo collage of me eating a brownie sundae at Ginger’s Comfort Emporium). Manchester is fairly well known for its Christmas markets, which are scattered throughout the city, and I do enjoy a Christmas market when I’m in the right sort of mood, so I was keen to check them out.


The main, central market was only a couple of blocks from our hotel, so we ended up stopping by three or four times (creepy Santa made it even better). The first time was around 10 am on a Monday, right when the market opened for the day, which was great because there were no crowds at all. I decided a giant stroopwafel and a grilled cheese would be a perfectly acceptable breakfast, and enjoyed the grilled cheese so much that I came back for another the next morning before we left.


I also couldn’t resist trying a hot Vimto, which seems to be a local (or at least a Northern) specialty, along with something called “Hot Blobs,” which I wasn’t brave enough to sample (it’s apparently hot white wine with sugar and lemon). The hot Vimto was surprisingly tasty though, kind of like hot Slushpuppie syrup, and I did not reclaim the deposit on my souvenir mug, because that Santa-adorned beauty was going straight home with me.  Avoid the “hot” cinnamon rolls though: when we bought them they were freezing cold, and at least a day or two old. I still ate them, because cinnamon rolls, but I wouldn’t have wasted money on them if I’d known.


Manchester is also where Alan Turing lived and worked after the war, and was sadly where he was arrested in 1952 for “gross indecency” (which was simply having consensual sex with another man, because homosexuality was still illegal at the time). This set in motion the chain of events that would lead to him committing suicide just two years later. He has since been formally pardoned (fat lot of good that does him now), and Manchester has tried to make amends by commemorating Turing on a number of buildings, and with this excellent statue on a bench in Sackville Gardens, right in Manchester’s gay village. A passing lady was nice enough to take a picture for us, and we also grabbed a picture of this nearby mural, which features an…interesting interpretation of Turing.


The last thing I need to tell you about is this “memorial to Vimto” which is very probably my favourite thing in Manchester. Vimto doesn’t seem to be big in Southern England, but I’d actually been drinking it before I moved here because it is apparently very popular in the Middle East, and I used to buy it from the hummus stall in the West Side Market (yes, they have a hummus stall AND a falafel stall. Is it any wonder I love that place?). Despite hating blackcurrant, I actually quite like a Vimto on occasion (though it will never replace orange or cherry soda in my affections) – I reckon the raspberry helps to hide the ickiness of the blackcurrant – so I was pretty excited to see this statue, and it doesn’t disappoint. Just look at all those giant fruits! The other statue is of a constipated-looking Archimedes who we found right near Vimto for no apparent reason.  Manchester is a pretty rad city, and I’d definitely like to go back someday, though preferably during less awful weather (if that’s ever actually the case…I kind of suspect the weather is awful year-round, but I’d go back anyway).



Manchester: The People’s History Museum

Manchester wasn’t only at the forefront of the movement for women’s suffrage; it was also a hotbed for labour movements due to its position as “Cottonopolis,” home to the milling industry, and thus one of the birthplaces of the Industrial Revolution, along with all the abuses of workers’ rights that went along with it. Manchester still seems like a pretty progressive place (a bee is the symbol of the city because it represents industriousness and working towards the collective good,) and it is home to the People’s History Museum, which is about “Britain’s struggle for democracy over two centuries.”


The museum is located inside a former pump house that was fully restored in 2010, complete with a modern four story addition that looks out over the river Irwell. The permanent galleries are located on the first and second floors, and there’s a gallery for temporary displays on the ground floor. Even though it was only a ten minute walk away from our hotel, by the time we reached the museum, I was so grateful to get out of the sleet and wind (flagpoles were actually bending) that I probably would have paid whatever they were asking, but happily, admission is free, though donations are encouraged.


We began our journey through the museum by punching into an old-fashioned time clock, just like mill workers would have done (and me, for most of my working life, having only had salaried jobs in the past year or so), and entered the gallery on people’s history from the late 1700s until 1945. The opening section was all about the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, where 15 people were killed and hundreds injured when cavalry charged the crowd during a protest for voting reform. It then segued into famous Georgian supporters of reform, like Thomas Paine (they had his desk, and a lock of his hair!) and John Wilkes, who was apparently notoriously ugly (he was cross-eyed in the portrait they had of him).


There were actually a fair few interactive elements, like doors and bundles you could open that sometimes produced sound effects, and some opportunities for dressing-up (as you’ll see), which I was grateful for, because I have to admit that I have never been the biggest fan of labour history. I mean, sure, I appreciate the fact that people fought and died for the rights we enjoy today, but whenever I had to study it in school, it just seemed like an endless list of names, dates, and worst of all, obscure acronyms, which is exactly the kind of history I hate. As a former punk, I actually feel kind of guilty about this, but I’m primarily interested in how people lived (and died! Especially how they died, if I’m being honest), and I don’t want to just memorise lists or numbers (for someone with two history degrees, I’m actually pretty bad with dates). So I was glad the museum tried to dress up labour history a bit, but there were still sure a lot of names and dates and strikes that I’d never heard of.


But it wasn’t all labour history at the museum, fortunately. There was also information about political and social movements (though I’m admittedly not overly interested in those either), like the suffragettes; the socialist movement, the communist movement, and the effect WWI had on society. There was also a small section on British fascism, and I was struck by how stupid their leader, Oswald Mosley looked. The guy wore black turtlenecks and waist belts, like he was trying to look like he came from the future or something. Even without the appalling beliefs, how could anyone follow an idiot like that?  Now I really see what P.G. Wodehouse was getting at with Roderick Spode and his “Black Shorts”.


And there were some fantastic posters and political cartoons in here (and even more cartoons in the temporary display, as you’ll see later).  I don’t think Churchill would have particularly agreed with being “comrades in arms” with Stalin though…


I especially enjoyed the section relating to the formation of the Labour Party, mainly because it contained this amusing cartoon of a young flapper being wooed by the hip Ramsay MacDonald (with his superb moustache) who was apparently down with the kids, while David Lloyd George and Stanley Baldwin lurk awkwardly in the background, looking like old fuddy-duddies (or the Monopoly man). There was also, rather randomly, Clement Attlee’s pipe on its own special wall, which I thought was kind of hilarious.


The gallery upstairs covered the years from 1945-the present(ish, it seemed to stop around the 1980s or ’90s), and contained a lot of splendid stuff too, though I do find late 20th century labour history even more boring than early 20th century labour history (I guess because the changes were less dramatic?). I liked the puppets, and you could actually move around Thatcher and whoever the guy next to her was meant to be (Marcus thinks it’s Neil Kinnock, but I have no idea), but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t figure out how to open and close their mouths, much to my dismay (it’s hard to put on a puppet show if you can’t make the puppets talk).


This gallery also contained some of the museum’s collection of political banners, which they restore on site (you could peer in on the conservators hard at work in their glass-walled office, which made me feel really bad for them. It’s bad enough my office is on the way to the public toilets and I have to keep my door open, so I often have museum visitors gawping at me or sometimes randomly stopping to chat with me even though I try to give the impression of being hard at work, but I couldn’t deal with people staring at me all day every day). At the end, there was a re-creation of an early Co-op supermarket, and a room with a free-play jukebox so you could listen to protest songs (and a few greatest hits) from the last few decades.


And then there was the temporary exhibit, which was my absolute favourite part of the museum. It was called “Savage Ink,” which I initially hoped was about tattoos, until I found out it was actually about political cartoons, which was probably even better. I love political cartoons, when done well, and there were some real gems in here. I actually tend to prefer British cartoonists (Peter Brookes is my favourite); I think they capture the absurdity of Trump better than many American cartoonists, and this was no exception – the two delightful pieces featured below are both by British artists.


The “shart” in the one on the left makes me lose it every time. There were also older cartoons, including pieces by Gillray, Hogarth, the Cruikshanks (Isaac and George), et al, and cartoons from throughout the 20th century, though I have to admit that I was more familiar with the figures depicted in Georgian cartoons than I was with ones in British political cartoons from the 1980s (which is why I didn’t know who the other puppet was meant to be).


They also offered visitors to chance to contribute to a collaborative comic strip, and though I declined to take part due to my total lack of drawing ability, I did enjoy looking at the efforts of previous visitors.


The final section of the museum, located in what I imagined was a restored part of the pump house, due to the large industrial looking space with impressively high ceilings, contained photographs of ordinary people in Manchester in the 1950s, some of their identities presumably unknown, since there was a request to get in touch with the museum if you recognised any of the people in the photos.


I was kind of excited for the shop, hoping it would be rather like the one at the Tolpuddle Martyrs Museum, with lots of political t-shirts and badges and things (since I’d noticed a Tolpuddle Martyrs tea towel on the way in), but it was a little disappointing. I didn’t see a single t-shirt, and the only badges were ones with the name of the museum on them (which you can make yourself on the badge-making machine in the upstairs gallery, for a £1 fee). We did manage to get a couple of good postcards, and I noticed some nice greetings cards too, but it wasn’t quite what I’d been hoping for. Still, I found the museum enjoyable for the most part, particularly “Savage Ink,” but I have to admit that some of the material inside the permanent galleries was a little boring for my tastes, mainly because some of the displays seemed to assume a level of knowledge that I didn’t possess, due to not being particularly interested in this facet of British history (and not growing up in this country, when I would presumably have been forced to cover some of this material at school). I did appreciate their attempts to make the museum fun and interactive (the inclusion of so many cartoons meant that I learned something just from looking at those, even when I skipped the museum’s signage) – the artefacts on display were generally excellent – and it’s not their fault that my eyes glaze over when I try to read about labour movements. 3.5/5 for the museum.


Manchester: Manchester Museum: A Visit Interrupted

Truth be told, I wasn’t all that enthused about visiting the Manchester Museum. From the name, I initially assumed it was a local history museum, and was amenable enough, but then Marcus told me that actually, it was a natural history and ethnographic museum, and I became much less keen. Nothing against ethnography or natural history (my love of taxidermy is well known), but I could see that stuff anywhere, and Manchester had so many unique and interesting sounding museums that it seemed a shame to waste time on this one. But after leaving the Pankhurst Centre, we found ourselves with an hour to kill before we could check into our hotel (and put our car in the lot), so we needed to go somewhere with parking to kill time, which pretty much ruled out anywhere in the city centre. Since Manchester Museum is on the university campus, there was a parking garage right around the corner, and the museum was free, so that sold us.


The Manchester Museum was bigger than I expected, and our visit time was going to be limited no matter what, because we were due to meet friends later that afternoon, but it turns out that it was more limited than even I expected (as the title gives away), so this will by necessity be a partial review (but I still wanted to blog about it, because Marcus took lots of photos).  We opted to start with the permanent galleries rather than the temporary exhibitions, so headed upstairs to see the ethnographic collections. I loved their sign about the statue of Ganesha, because it explained that he is holding a bowl of his favourite sweets, which made me feel a real affinity with him.  In addition to religious artefacts from various world cultures, there was also a small section on weaponry, particularly archery equipment, in the back of the gallery.


And there was also an ancient Egypt section, which is pretty much de rigueur for this kind of museum. One thing I did like was that one of the sarcophagi was open over glass, so that you could see the mummy inside (the mummy had apparently been a victim of a Victorian unwrapping – the kind that was the inspiration for the performance I witnessed at the National Archives’ Halloween event).


But after muddling through all the uninspiring stuff, at last we got to natural history, and that’s where the museum started to shine. Because there was so damn much taxidermy, two whole floors of it, to be exact! And we all know that I love taxidermied animals way more than any vegetarian has a right to.


Though the animals, on a whole, seemed to be pretty well done (and nothing like the gems in the National Museum of Ireland), which, given my love for bad taxidermy, was admittedly something of a disappointment, I did of course manage to find a few derpy examples, which I present here for your enjoyment.


OK, the baby elephant was more adorable than derpy, but he was such a cutie that I had to include him (though I felt really bad that he was in there. I sincerely hope he died of natural causes). Other highlights included a couple of plaster casts from a man and dog who died in Pompeii, and the skull of “Old Billy,” an allegedly 62 year old horse. I mean, I don’t know exactly how long horses normally live, but I thought it was more in the 30 year range, so this seemed far-fetched, but it seems to be verified in various places, so maybe Old Billy was just an extremely ancient horse. Of course, he lived from 1760-1822, when it presumably would have been easier to run an old horse scam without anyone checking up on it, but he was just an old barge horse, so I’m not sure if anyone was actually exploiting his age for monetary gain or not.


The upper hall of taxidermy eventually led into the “Vivarium,” which holds the museum’s collections of living animals, primarily reptiles, amphibians, and insects. This area was pretty crowded with parents and children (it was a Sunday when we visited, and Manchester Museum seems like the go-to weekend place, probably because it’s free, and most kids like looking at animals), so it was hard to get a peek at most of the cases, but I did spot this excellently lazy lizard.


And sadly, that is where my experience of Manchester Museum comes to an end, because as I was about to pass from the Vivarium into the next gallery, a fire alarm started going off really, really loudly (as they do, I guess, but this really seemed close to a permanently damaging level of sound).   So we were all directed down the nearest staircase, where people got to the bottom and then just sort of milled around confusedly in front of the fire door, instead of, you know, going out it, so Marcus and I had to take the lead and push our way outside. In fairness to the people just standing about, the exit wasn’t particularly well marked, and there were more stairs leading into the basement from where we were, so it wasn’t completely obvious what we were supposed to do. Also, because we were in the first group down, there wasn’t a staff member by the door yet to direct people out.


After evacuating the building, we stood around the front for a while, but the alarms didn’t show any sign of letting up, and they really were hurting my ears, so we gave up and headed back to the car (it was nearly time to check into the hotel by then anyway). I’m pretty sure it was just a drill, because I didn’t hear anything more about it, so I assume the museum is still fully intact.  But as a result of the alarm, I missed the rest of the permanent galleries, and the temporary exhibitions, one featuring art by Reena Saini Kallat, and also one on memories of Partition, about the creation of India and Pakistan. So I guess I can’t fairly score this one, because I didn’t see the whole museum. I will say that the natural history section was enjoyable, and it’s certainly much bigger than other museums of this type, but it’s not really anything you couldn’t see in any other major city (except maybe Old Billy), there’s just more of it. Good for killing time, but not worth a special trip if your time in Manchester is limited, at least as far as the permanent collections go, though I can’t comment on the temporary stuff, since I didn’t see it.