UK

London: The Heath Robinson Museum

Heath Robinson Museum is on the right, the building on the left is a cafe.

I don’t remember where I found out about the Heath Robinson Museum, but I filed it away (mentally, I don’t have an actual file) under places that looked interesting, but realistically would only be visited in the case of blogging desperation, because it was all the way in Pinner. I know I often complain about how long it takes to get around London, but I’m not even sure if Pinner is technically London. It’s on the Metropolitan Line (zone 5!), and is only a few stops away from places like Chesham and Amersham, which certainly aren’t London. In fact, it takes so long to get to Pinner that by the time I arrived, I wasn’t entirely surprised to see that it was downright bucolic, at least the area around the Heath Robinson Museum (there was a big Sainsbury’s right across from the station, which did spoil the effect somewhat).

  

So after sitting on a train for an hour and a half, we had a lovely stroll through some gardens with a duck pond and fountain to reach the museum. Parting with £6 each to see the museum was somewhat less pleasant, given its obvious small size, but a necessary evil. The museum consists of two rooms, with an additional gallery for temporary exhibitions. The museum was obviously fairly new, and indeed, it turns out it was only opened about a year ago, in October 2016. It was busier than I imagined it would be (because who goes to Pinner?!), perhaps because of the park and extremely busy cafe located next door, but “busier than I expected” in a museum this specialised still only amounted to a handful of people, so there was plenty of space to look around without people breathing down your neck (except in the temporary gallery, as I’ll get to later).

  

I admit that when I first heard of this museum, I had no idea who Heath Robinson was. I only had a flash of recognition when I started reading descriptions of some of his drawings. It turns out that he was an artist and illustrator who lived from 1872-1944, presumably at least some of that time in Pinner, though I don’t remember the museum explicitly stating such (according to their website, he moved out there after he was married), who is most famous for his drawings of strange gadgets and contraptions (he’s basically the British equivalent of Rube Goldberg, and interestingly, they were contemporaries, so I’m not actually sure who started drawing these things first, because the Heath Robinson Museum eschews all mention of his American counterpart. Which is probably also why I didn’t recognise the name at first, because Americans refer to those sort of fanciful machines as Rube Goldberg devices, rather than Heath Robinson devices like Brits do) and his illustrations of the “butterfly effect” (one of his drawings actually illustrates what happens when a butterfly decides to fly through a moving bridge, but other illustrations demonstrate the effects of chaos theory in a less literal manner). Basically, if you saw them, you’d probably know them, and happily, we can test that theory throughout this post using the photos.

  

The main room had a timeline running all along the walls at about waist height with detailed information about the different phases of Robinson’s career: he started out as an illustrator, and did editions of some major works, including A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Edgar Allan Poe’s poems, and some of Kipling’s stories. He then became a cartoonist, and made some quite funny cartoons during WWI, and moved on to drawing the unusual gadgets that his name would become synonymous with (at least in Britain). He also took up watercolour painting later in life, and returned to gentle lampooning during WWII until his death in 1944.

  

The timeline was accompanied all along, naturally enough, by Robinson’s cartoons and illustrations, and these were truly the highlight of the museum. Some of his drawings were downright hilarious. I particularly liked some of his promotional cartoons for companies like Thomas and Green Paper Makers, as shown above.

  

I also liked the physical versions of some of his contraptions which were scattered throughout the room (made by other people, because Robinson himself almost never made actual prototypes), although one of them (on the left, above) didn’t appear to be working, as two ladies were trying to fix it throughout the duration of our visit. The one on the right is a model of the apartment block illustrated in his book How to Live in a Flat, a copy of which was helpfully provided next to the model, and very funny it was too, especially if you actually do live in a smallish flat, as I do (I liked the drawing of a man holding a cat in a cage, demonstrating that there was indeed room to “swing a cat” in his tiny flat). There was also a model of an automated house that Robinson described, and it lit up and the machines moved when you inserted a pound, which was probably worth the extra expense.

  

The other room was seemingly aimed more at children, containing as it did a bunch of hands-on activities, but as there were no kids around, I plopped myself right down and turned my hand to one of Robinson’s drawing tutorials that were played on radio in the 1920s. You had to follow instructions using a grid, and mine did look like a house in the end, but it was distinctly less structurally sound than the sample drawing (and the less said of the man I had to draw living in it, the better). You could also trace one of Robinson’s drawings using a light box, and there was a rad drawing bike, which was meant to draw a picture as you pedalled (I think it was a sort of spirograph thing) though sadly that too didn’t appear to be working on the day of my visit.

  

The temporary exhibit when I visited (no longer there, now there’s one on “The Water-Babies”) was called “Rejuvenated Junk,” inspired by a series of drawings Robinson did in 1935 that were used to illustrate an article for Strand Magazine called “At Home with Heath Robinson,” in which he envisioned alternative uses for worn-out household objects (such as converting an old tennis racket into a “mirror for large-ish ladies” or using old LPs to make various fashion accessories ranging from hats to parasols and purses). The objects showcased in the exhibition were somewhat less fanciful, being quite cool and innovative ways that artists around the world created something out of junk.

  

I zoomed right in on the chickens made from plastic bags (I think I’d like to figure out how to do it and make some myself, though with supermarkets charging 5p for a bag these days, it wouldn’t exactly be making something from junk. It could actually get rather expensive!), but there was a lot of cool stuff in here like a dress made from Doritos packets, purses made from toothpaste tubes, and lamps made from old tins.  I also learned that Worcestershire sauce is apparently called “Savoury Spice” in South Africa, at least Colman’s version of it (don’t know if the actual Lea and Perrins stuff is still Worcestershire sauce).

  

The only problem with this section was that there was a group of extremely chatty ladies in here who would not take a hint and move out of the way. Not only was their inane chatter (about what to cook for a lunch party, I think) distracting when I was trying to read the captions, the most annoying thing was that they parked themselves in front of one of the displays and would not budge, even though they clearly weren’t even looking at it, being quite absorbed in their conversation. Why pay £6 to visit a museum, and then just chat amongst yourselves the whole damn time?! They could have done that in the cafe next door! Rather irritatingly as well, given the long train journey, there was only a disabled toilet available in the museum, and though I suppose I could have used one in the cafe, it was so busy that I ended up just going to the Sainsbury’s by the station (it also came in handy for a much needed snack for the journey home, so I guess I shouldn’t knock it).

  

As far as Heath Robinson goes, if his drawings are anything to go by, the man was a delight. I really loved looking at them, and getting to learn a bit about him, though I did feel that the information in the museum was a very pared down biography, and they could have offered additional information and examples of his illustrations for people who were interested (they did have a touchscreen that might have had additional drawings on it, but there was only one in the whole museum, and another visitor was waiting to use it, so I didn’t want to monopolise it). To be honest, I was quite happy with the old-school activities as opposed to more modern interactive elements, I just wish all of them had been working when I visited (especially in a museum that new). I’m very much a fan of Robinson’s work now, but the museum didn’t quite live up to his standards; for the £6 admission price, I would have liked to see more in it. But I did enjoy my visit overall, and perhaps they’ll improve more with time; despite the trek getting there, I’m glad I came and saw Robinson’s very funny work, and the temporary exhibit (nonwithstanding the annoying luncheon club (isn’t luncheon a gross word?)) was actually very well done, in fact, I think the quality of the labels there was a bit higher than in the main part of the museum. 3.5/5.

 

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London: The Imperial War Museum

I blogged about the First World War gallery at the Imperial War Museum almost three years ago, and genuinely had every intention of returning soon after to blog about the rest of the museum…but somehow I’ve only just got around to making that return visit, I guess because Lambeth isn’t really somewhere I frequent (I’ve only been in the vicinity a handful of times since moving away from Elephant and Castle eight years ago).  Although some of the surrounding streets aren’t overly salubrious, the IWM itself is housed in a superb building, as you can probably see. Actually, the building is particularly interesting, because it used to be Bethlem Royal Hospital aka Bedlam, the most infamous psychiatric hospital of them all.  In medieval times, Bedlam was located close to what would become Liverpool Street, but by the early 19th century, space in the City was at a premium, so the hospital moved out to this purpose-built building in Lambeth, and there it remained until 1930, when it moved again to its current home in Beckenham. They knocked down the wings (which is where the wards were), and opened the central administrative hall as the Imperial War Museum in 1936. I don’t know about you, but I would be terrified enough if I was being committed even without being brought to a building this imposing, so I think it works much better as a museum, though its past does admittedly give it a creepy touch that I enjoy.

  

Like all of London’s major museums, the IWM is free and huge. It actually is still really imposing on the inside, even though it’s obviously been redesigned a few times since the ’30s (most recently just a few years ago).  I think the concept of a “war museum” itself is really interesting, because it’s genuinely not a military museum; you’ll find very little about battles and such in here. It’s more about how war impacts society (mainly World Wars 1 and 2, though there is a bit in here on more recent conflicts).

  

Because I already blogged about the First World War gallery, and the museum is so extensive, I decided to skip that section entirely this time around, and start with WWII (I’ll refer you to my earlier post if you’d like to read about their WWI collection). I’d enjoyed their WWI stuff so much that my hopes were high for WWII. Unfortunately, the galleries just didn’t measure up to expectations.

  

The main Second World War gallery was called “Turning Points: 1934-1945” and its intention is to “explore key moments of the Second World War through the connections between people’s lives and the objects on display,” which sounds like it could be a really interesting idea, but somehow it just didn’t work out that way. For starters, the objects were meant to be grouped together in themes like “War on the Way” and “Shifting Sands,” which translated to a few big things, like planes or cars, all displayed together, and then further on, a few more motorcycles or cars or whatever. The themes didn’t really come across very well at all. Another issue was that someone had made the (stupid) decision to make all the object labels in this gallery stickers stuck to the OUTSIDE of the cases.  Well, as you can probably guess, visitors had picked at the edges, because they could (I don’t necessarily think it was malicious or even intentional, because I’m totally the sort of person that will pick at the peeling edges of something without even thinking about it, and other people are probably the same), and some of them were so worn down that whole words were missing from the captions. They only redid this section three or four years ago, and you’d think they would have aimed for labels with more longevity than that. It’s fine if they wanted to use stickers because they were planning on moving objects around a lot, so it would be easy to change the labels, but why not at least stick them on the inside of the case where people couldn’t get at them? It made everything look kind of grubby and cheap.  It was also weird that almost nothing in here was interactive, given how much of the WWI gallery is. I think it would have really benefited from offering something hands-on, because it’s rather boring as is.

 

There were a few interesting objects in here, like a map Rommel had personally plotted military campaigns on, and Montgomery’s car, but I didn’t really get a sense of how the war affected British society except in a little exhibition off in a side gallery, called “A Family in Wartime.” This followed the Allpress family, who originally lived in Southwark (I think) but moved to Wimbledon because of the Blitz. They were fairly lucky in that both of their sons who were old enough to fight made it back home safely, but unlucky in that two of their daughters had congenital heart conditions and died as teenagers (I think they had nine children in total). I enjoyed learning about their family and how the war affected their lives, and particularly liked the doll house version of their Southwark house, made by one of their sons-in-law. They didn’t really seem to have any possessions actually belonging to the family, but they did have objects that were representative of a middle class family at that time, including a litterbug made to look like Hitler (because being wasteful helped the Nazis) that I personally think was way too cute. I get the idea of improving morale by making Hitler look ridiculous, but c’mon, that bug is kind of adorable, and Hitler was pure evil.

  

I was pretty excited for the “Secret War” gallery about espionage, because I am way fonder of old James Bond movies than I should be, given how sexist and racist most of them are (I think it’s because I grew up watching them with my family, and they’re one of the few things we’ll still all sit around and watch together), but this too was disappointing. There was way too much text in here, and actually, too many objects too. I just got sick of looking at them all, and thus probably missed some cool stuff in some of the cases. I did notice there was a letter from Noor Inayat Khan here, however, who you might remember if you read my post on Beaulieu. She was an incredibly brave British spy during WWII who was eventually captured and executed by the Nazis, and her letter was to another female spy back at HQ.

  

“Peace and Security: 1945-2014” had a similar layout to the WWII gallery, only it was dealing with more recent conflicts. I thought some of the objects here were really cool, in particular a suit of armour made by an artist to symbolise the conflict in Northern Ireland, a mosaic of Saddam Hussein that was torn down after his fall from power, a mannequin representing what a victim of a nuclear explosion would look like, and a big chunk of the Twin Towers, but I think the signage overall was again a little lacking.

  

The floor above all this (I think we were only up to the 4th floor at this point) held a few temporary photographic exhibitions that I actually really enjoyed. Two of them were on the conflict in Syria, and some of the photos of everyday life were excellent. There was also an exhibition on Guantanamo Bay, which I thought had the potential to be really interesting, were it not for the relatively poor labels that were both confusing and difficult to locate.

  

I was intrigued by the “Curiosities of War” exhibit, because any time I hear the word “curiosities” I think cabinet of curiosities and my interest is piqued, but this exhibition seemed to be something of an afterthought. To begin with, the layout was really bizarre; because the museum is arranged around an atrium, there is a lot of wasted space, and it was really apparent by the time we got up to this level. There were two super skinny passageways leading off from the gallery space on one end, and they weren’t connected on the other end. So to see “Curiosities of War,” you had to walk all the way down one hallway, come all the way back, walk down the other, and come all the way back again. And because they were so narrow, you literally couldn’t pass someone without making body contact, so if someone was coming the other way, you had to duck into an alcove to let them through. Also, it looked as though the person who made the signs did not arrange the artefacts, because at one point there was a sign about a wooden training horse from WWI, which I had noticed on the complete opposite side (catty corner) of the exhibition, shoved in next to a plane wheel, even though it was presumably supposed to be next to the sign about it where there was indeed plenty of space for it. I’m not sure how they even pulled that one off, but it was pretty lame.

  

The top floor was just home to a gallery about various Victoria Cross and George Cross holders, which was fine (there was a clip from an old movie about spies and some objects made by POWs that I thought were neat), although I think they tried to cram too many people in there, and it was overwhelming to read about them all. I get wanting to honour as many people as possible (even though it wasn’t a complete listing of VCs or George Cross holders as it was; I think only 250 people were featured), but I think the layout could have been better.

And now for the Holocaust gallery. We saved it for last, which was probably a mistake, because it was intense. Not that I thought it wouldn’t be, but I was unprepared for quite this level of intensity (or immersion. Most Holocaust exhibits I’ve seen were relatively small, but this one was on two levels, and we were in there for over an hour).  You couldn’t take photos, for obvious reasons, but it’s the kind of thing that stuck with me nonetheless. This was by far the most comprehensive Holocaust gallery I’ve ever been in, and I’ve been to quite a few over the years. It covered the whole appalling story, from the history of antisemitism in Europe, Hitler’s rise to power (which was unpleasantly reminiscent of recent events in America), and the beginnings of euthanasia of so-called “mental defectives” to the “Final Solution.” Throughout the way, the horror was really driven home by the inclusion of stories of people killed in the Holocaust, including their final letters to family members, which were terribly poignant to read. As if that wasn’t heart-rending enough, there were also toys belonging to children who were killed or who managed to survive through hiding; one boy spent 5 years concealed in a cupboard so small it gave him bone deformities, with only a few toys to play with in the dark (his piano teacher brought him food). There was a scale model of Auschwitz that described in chilling detail exactly what happened to people when they arrived, and a dissection table that came from one of the “hospitals” where they euthanised people. But the two things that disturbed me the most were actually bits of information taken from the signs in here: first, that the Final Solution probably came about as a result of various Nazi officials trying to outdo each other to impress Hitler, and secondly, that the crews of people forced to cremate bodies in Auschwitz were themselves changed over and killed off every four months, so that (in theory) no one would live to tell the world what the Nazis had done. I was taught about the Holocaust in school, of course, and although I remember it affecting me really intensely and giving me nightmares at the time, I think it’s also important to learn about it as an adult, because you do forgot details over time, and I think it affects you in a different way as an adult, when you understand that atrocities aren’t consigned to the past – genocide still happens. I genuinely think everyone should have to confront the horrors of the Holocaust in some way, because I can’t understand how anyone would think it’s OK to go around waving Nazi flags after seeing something like this.

  

So clearly, the IWM is a very mixed bag indeed. The Holocaust and WWI galleries are excellent, the photography exhibits were quite good, and everything else could really use some improvement – more interactivity for a start. It’s great that it’s free, but the level of neglect in some of the areas of the museum was really unfortunate, especially with something as inexpensive and easy to fix as a sticker, and the resulting inconsistencies in the quality of the galleries are too glaring to ignore. My other complaint is that the only toilets in the whole, six story museum are on Floor 0, other than disabled toilets/baby changing stations on most of the other floors. I’m glad that they at least offer those, but I didn’t feel comfortable using them when someone might have needed them more, which meant I had to hold in my pee for a very long time indeed (because I was too lazy to go all the way down and then all the way back up again). I don’t know why a museum this big couldn’t have at least two sets of toilets for everyone, especially when one of the floors was taken up by a big platform under the atrium with nothing in it (seriously, put at least a couple toilet stalls in there). There were odd things going on with the layout of this whole museum, but this was the worst thing for someone with a bladder as small as mine. Anyway, I’d definitely recommend visiting for at least for the Holocaust and WWI galleries, and the others are certainly worth seeing, but if your time is limited, then those two are the ones I’d make a priority, because you could easily spend an entire day or two here if you wanted to see everything in the museum. 4.5/5 for the Holocaust and WWI galleries, but 3/5 for the museum as a whole.

London: Death in the Ice @ the National Maritime Museum

Yeah, that’s my butt.  Just so you don’t think I’ve gone full-on Tina Belcher and am posting pictures of strangers’ butts.

Unless you’re brand new to my blog (in which case, welcome!), I’m sure you all know by now how interested I am in the grim history of polar exploration. John Franklin’s final expedition was perhaps the grimmest of them all (not only did everyone die, but there is also evidence that the last people left alive ate the bodies of their dead fellow crew members), so when I heard last year that there would be a Franklin exhibition at the National Maritime Museum in summer 2017, I was pretty excited. And now here we are, less than a fortnight after the exhibition opened, and I’ve already been to see it!

“Death in the Ice: The Shocking Story of Franklin’s Final Expedition” costs £12, and is located in the basement gallery of the National Maritime Museum. As usual, I balked at paying that much, so I went with Marcus so we could take advantage of the National Rail 2-for-1. There was initially a bit of confusion going into the exhibit because there was a sign at the top of the stairs saying that no “rucksacks” were allowed in the exhibition, so Marcus went to drop his off at the cloakroom, only to find there was a £1 charge (which I know is not that much, but still). The guy working there said that he could in fact take it into the exhibition, he just might have to carry it in front of him, which was fine. So we went down, only for the woman at the entrance to tell him to put his backpack in what she claimed was the “free cloakroom.” Fortunately, after we asked if he could just carry it instead, she did allow him to bring it in, which saved us a trip up the stairs (and a pound), but it did show that there is a lack of communication amongst the staff about official museum policies. One thing there is no confusion about, however, is their policy on photography in their special exhibit gallery. It’s never allowed, and this exhibit was no exception.

The exhibit space was dark and atmospheric, which I quite liked, but it clearly wasn’t a hit with everyone, because I immediately noticed a woman there who was standing right on top of all the labels, and using the flashlight on her phone to read them, despite the large print guides that were available (I did hear a security guard offer her one, but she apparently preferred her method, other visitors be damned). The first two galleries provided a bit of background on the history of British polar exploration generally, starting with Martin Frobisher, and some background on Franklin’s expedition specifically.  However, it paled in comparison to the excellent and comprehensive history available at the Polar Museum in Cambridge, and I think that if you didn’t know much about Franklin going in, it was probably a little lacking. Because I don’t want to repeat the museum’s mistakes, let me give you a little background on Franklin and his expedition here:

John Franklin was a Royal Navy officer with extensive experience of surveying the Arctic. However, though he had mapped much of the Canadian coast, he still hadn’t uncovered the fabled Northwest Passage (a common belief for centuries was that there was open water at the North Pole, and if you could just find an entrance to it, you could cut journey times to the other side of the world in half), so agreed to undertake one final voyage in 1845 to try to find it. He took two ships, the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, crewed by 105 men and 23 officers, including Francis Crozier, who captained the Terror. Both ships had been used on a previous Arctic expedition, but to keep up with the latest technology, were now outfitted with steam engines and propellers in addition to reinforced bows and iron rudders (which added a lot of extra weight). Unfortunately, the work had been done in a hurry, and wasn’t of the best quality. In addition, Franklin, though experienced, was quite old to be undertaking this kind of voyage (59 in 1845, which I know is not that old by modern standards (just look at Ranulph Fiennes!), but Franklin wasn’t exactly fighting fit), and like most Europeans, was disdainful of Inuit ways, which might have helped the men survive after they abandoned ship. No one is entirely sure exactly what happened on the voyage, which is what makes Franklin’s expedition so intriguing even to this day, but it is certain that they all died, some while they were still on the ships, and many more in camps on land as they tried in vain to reach civilisation, and some recent discoveries (as discussed later in the post), might eventually help shed more light on it.  Now, back to the exhibition!

The third, and largest gallery was meant to be roughly the dimensions of the lower deck of the Erebus, Franklin’s flagship (I’m guessing they specifically arranged it that way, but perhaps it was just a happy coincidence), and this gallery had sort of sailory audio effects, with the sounds of men mumbling and coughing, and boards creaking all around us. I liked that this helped me imagine a bit what it would have been like inside the ship, and to further the effect, they had seats in there the size of a ship’s chest, which would have been shared by two men, in which they would have kept all their personal belongings (they weren’t very big). The downside of Franklin’s expedition being a complete and utter disaster (besides everyone dying, of course), is that aside from some letters mailed from Greenland, before Erebus and Terror set out for Nunavut, and a note found inside a cache (more on that later), there is virtually no information about what happened on board the ships – no diaries, logs, or unmailed letters have survived, so the museum didn’t really have a lot to say about ship life, other than using Franklin’s previous Arctic voyages, and other voyages around that time to infer what might have happened. Thus there was a display of games (used to keep up morale), accounts of the plays men often performed in on these kinds of voyages (again, morale), and a cat o’nine tails in a display about discipline, and not a whole lot else.

Anyway, because there wasn’t much to be said about the expedition itself, the exhibition quickly moved on to the search efforts. The expedition had been supplied for three years, so nobody thought too much of it when a couple years went by without hearing word from Franklin. Typically, ships would get frozen into the pack ice, and were then trapped until the summer thaw, which didn’t happen some years, so they’d have to spend another year trapped in the ice (more than one other expedition met disaster that way, though not to the extent that Franklin’s did). But when 1848 rolled around and nobody had heard anything, people, especially Jane, Franklin’s wife, began to get concerned, and the Royal Navy sent out some search parties, in addition to offering a £10,000 reward to anyone who discovered the fate of the ships (which was a lot of money back then. Hell, it’s still a decent chunk of cash now!). My favourite of these search parties was led by Dr. John Rae, a Scottish surgeon who befriended many of the Inuit and was a successful explorer because he used their survival techniques and lived off the land. Rae was the one who got closest to the truth, again, because he listened to the Inuit, which is why many people in Britain hated him, not least Jane Franklin, and when he dared to say that there was evidence that the men had resorted to cannibalism, his reputation was ruined.  (There was a letter here from Charles Dickens to a newspaper saying that he thought the stories of cannibalism were just the Inuit trying to cover their tracks, because they probably murdered and ate the men themselves, because you can’t trust an Inuit (his words). It made me hate him even more than I already did.)

Sadly, John Rae only rated about a paragraph in this exhibit, though a little more space was given to some of the other search parties, and some of the artefacts they’d left behind in the Arctic (including a metal food box with polar bear tooth marks in it!). But the main artefacts I was there to see were from the Erebus and Terror themselves. Yes, after over 160 years, the ships were discovered at the bottom of a bay off the coast of King William Island. The Erebus was found in 2014, and the Terror even more recently, in September 2016, hence the timing of the exhibition. There was a video of scuba divers exploring the wrecks, which was pretty cool, and some neat stuff that they’d dredged up from the deep, including the ship’s bell, various metal bits and pieces, and even a bit of cloth from a uniform. There were also artefacts found in the camp of the last men to die (it’s thought about 30 or 40 men made it to the northern coast of mainland Canada. Inuit actually encountered some of them, but they didn’t help them because the Inuit themselves were starving that year, and had no food to spare), and these were really neat, including a hymnbook, a small beaded purse, a pair of mittens with hearts stitched into the palms, and a few pieces of silverware with one of the officers’ family crests on them which had initials crudely scratched into them, so it’s thought that the crew might have shared out the officers’ possessions after they died and discipline broke down.

Speaking of artefacts, there was also the aforementioned letter left by some of the officers in a cache, initially in 1846 when the voyage was still going relatively well, saying that they’d wintered on Beechey Island, where three crew members had died, and then again in 1848 after the boats sank and Franklin had died (he died in June 1847, probably well before most of his men. As I’ve said, he was not in the best of shape, so the voyage would have been quite taxing even without starvation and frostbite and everything else) along with 9 officers and 15 men.  I saw a facsimile of this at the Polar Museum, and was excited to see the real thing, but unfortunately, the real thing was all ripped and stained, and harder to read than the facsimile!  The same could be said of Jane Franklin’s letters to her husband, sent when she thought he was still alive (obviously, he never got them, and they were returned to her), not because the condition was poor, but because she had absolutely appalling handwriting.

My absolute favourite part of this exhibition was the medical section. In one room, they had very clear photographs of the bodies of three men (William Braine, John Hartnell, and John Torrington) who had been buried at the first camp on Beechey Island and exhumed in the 1980s. They were still remarkably well preserved on account of the cold, and it might have been a little grisly for some, but I loved reading accounts of their injuries and what diseases they might have been suffering from whilst getting to look at their actual remains (and I wasn’t the only one…there was a child in there asking his mother which corpse was her favourite. I don’t much like kids, but this was a child after my own heart!). There was also a display on what might have killed the men of the Terror and Erebus, because starvation alone apparently doesn’t explain all the deaths, especially because a cache of food was found near some of the bodies. Theories range from botulism, scurvy, tuberculosis, hypothermia, lead poisoning (the food for the expedition was prepared in a hurry, and some lead solder contaminated it during the canning process, plus the ship had a water distillation system that also leached lead), and others, but none of those conditions provides a complete explanation (it was probably a variety of causes of death that did them all in), and the exhibit explained why, as well as offering a helpful interactive screen showing a breakdown of exactly how men did die on other naval expeditions of that period. The interactives in this exhibit were generally quite good, with a few that played short videos of Inuit oral testimony that explained what they witnessed happening to Franklin’s men and ships (recorded by modern Inuit people, from oral traditions that had been passed down), maps of the probable expedition route, and a 3D virtual model of the wreck of the Erebus that you could “explore.” Because it wasn’t too crowded when we visited, I actually got a good look at all of them, though of course the disease one was my favourite.

Although it was exciting getting to see some of the artefacts from Franklin’s final expedition, something about this exhibit just felt rushed to me…perhaps they wanted to get it out quickly in order to capitalise on interest about the discovery of the Terror? They mentioned how much time it takes to preserve artefacts that have been left underwater, and it seems to me like they hurried to get some out in time for the exhibition, when it might have been better if they’d held off for a year or two til there was more to look at, and maybe some conclusions could have been drawn from the ruins to tell us more about what went wrong. I also felt the content was a little lacking…I read Anthony Brandt’s The Man Who Ate His Boots (mainly about Franklin) a while back, and while the book wasn’t perfect, it was quite interesting because it pieced together what might have happened on the voyage from accounts given by Rae, other search parties, the Inuit, and modern historians. This exhibition really didn’t do that, perhaps because they didn’t want to use speculation rather than fact, but trying to tell more of a story about Franklin’s voyage would have made it a more cohesive exhibition, rather than it skipping abruptly from the interiors of the ships to search parties. It was interesting enough, it just didn’t give the complete picture (unlike their Emma Hamilton exhibition, which was excellently comprehensive). I’m glad we only paid £6, as it didn’t take that long to see it, and I don’t think it was worth £12. It runs until the 7th of January 2018, so you’ve got plenty of time to go visit, which I would do if you’re as keen on polar exploration as I am; otherwise, I think you can safely give this a miss and wait for their next special exhibition instead. 3/5.

Hove, East Sussex: Hove Museum and Art Gallery

I’ve been to Brighton quite a few times over the years, and except for the Old Police Cells Museum, which I’m never around at the right time of day to visit (it’s by pre-booked guided tour only, and the only tour time is 10:30 in the morning), I feel I’ve pretty well exhausted its limited museum options at this point.  So on this trip to the coast (which turned out to be much colder than London, so not a good seaside day after all), I turned to its smaller neighbouring town of Hove, and the Hove Museum and Art Gallery, which was rumoured to have a nice collection of magic lantern slides.

  

The Hove Museum falls under the authority of Brighton Museums, which makes sense, because it is very similar in feel to the larger Brighton Museum.  Fortunately, admission to the Hove Museum is free to all, and not just residents of Brighton and Hove, like the Brighton Museum is. At the time of my visit, there was a special exhibit about puppets on the ground floor, so that’s where I began.

  

I’d be the first to admit that a lot of puppets are kind of menacing, but most of these ones were actually quite charming. I particularly liked the ones of Miss Fox and Miss Cat (above previous paragraph), and of Bluebeard, Bluebeard’s wife, and the ghost of one of his previous wives (not pictured, because I don’t have a photo for some reason). There was a woman in there at the same time as me who was apparently one of the creators of a Rikki-Tikki-Tavi puppet theatre, and she was explaining how she made it to some other woman, but I was too distracted by her pronunciation of “Tavi” to pay attention. I’ve always said “taa-vee,” but this woman kept saying “tah-vee.” I guess it’s one of those British/American English divides…I just asked Marcus how to phonetically spell the “aaa” noise I make in “Tavi” and “apple” and he couldn’t do it because it’s not even a noise English people make. Just picture a sort of annoying nasally “a” noise.

  

The bulk of the museum was located on the first floor, and as I was keen to see the magic lantern stuff (Professor Heard from that Brompton Cemetery event last year fired up my enthusiasm for the medium), I headed to the film gallery first. This turned out to be two small rooms, plus a neat little cinema (I loved the wall decor) where you could watch short films starring puppets (dunno if this was connected to the puppet exhibit, or if they show them all the time).

  

The slides turned out to be all mounted together in a large panel that you could press a switch to illuminate. I think my favourites are the dog and cat in the fourth row from the bottom (they’re a little hard to see, but they’re dressed in people clothes, and the cat is reading a book), but there were enough entertaining slides that I stood there studying them for a good long while (longer than the light stayed on for anyway, I had to press it again). There were also a few thaumatrope and flipbook type things to play with, and some early silent films of the Brighton area to enjoy.

  

Next was a small room devoted to the history of Hove, which segued into an equally pint-sized art gallery. I didn’t spend too much time in the local history section, which was a bit wordy, even for me (plus I’m just not that interested in the history of Hove), but it seems like Hove was built up during the Regency period, same as Brighton. Also, Edward VII apparently liked to hang out in Hove when he was still the Prince of Wales. The art gallery had a few paintings in it that I quite liked (which is impressive, given that there were only about ten paintings in there), including a whole wall with a giant monkey painting.

  

The “Wizard’s Attic,” which was presumably aimed at children (though they’d have to be fairly brave children, as you’ll see once you get a look at some of the toys there), was without question my favourite gallery in the museum. The premise was that a wizard (pictured above) lived there (you had to be quiet so as not to wake him up), and he liked to collect and repair old toys. So the room was chock-full of Pollock’s Toy Museum style cases of antique toys of varying degrees of disturbing. I have to admit that I quite liked those George V, Queen Mary, and young Edward VIII (in his pre-Nazi sympathiser days) dolls, even if they were a bit creepy.

  

But their creepiness was nothing compared to those clown dolls pictured above. I’m positive if you let them into your house, they would kill everyone you cared about in the night, and wait until you woke up and saw what they had done before they killed you too. It’s a good thing the sensible Wizard has them contained behind glass. Tricycle boy there is a bit unsettling too…to be honest, there were a lot of shit-scary toys here. I’m not sure how much children would actually like this terrifying collection, but I loved it. It was like being in an episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark? or something (god, I used to love that show, but I had no idea it ran until 2000!  I must have stopped watching at some point in the mid-’90s).

  

The final gallery was devoted to different crafts and how they were produced – I’m not terribly interested in crafts, but a few objects did catch my eye, like the figure of Lucretia stabbing herself, above, a pumpkin teapot (which you may be able to spot in the photo on the above left), and some cute little monster dolls (below left).

 

I ended up spending less than an hour at this museum, which is fine because it was free, but it definitely felt like Brighton Museum’s less impressive little sister (which is kind of funny, because apparently Hove likes to think of itself as being posher than Brighton). It matched Brighton Museum’s eclecticism, just on a reduced scale (there was even a pavilion-y structure outside the museum that I think was some sort of war memorial). I really enjoyed the magic lantern slides, and the toy gallery, but the rest was a little hit-and-miss. I think it’s worth a visit if, like me, you’ve been to the area a lot and want something new to see, but if you’re only in this part of Sussex for a day or two, I’d just stay in Brighton and see the Royal Pavilion and Brighton Museum instead (and eat some ice cream! Scoop and Crumb or Boho Gelato are both good options), or maybe go for a walk at Devil’s Dyke (and then get ice cream!). I’d even recommend the Booth Museum over this one (if you’re into taxidermy), just because it’s so gloriously old fashioned. 2.5/5 for the Hove Museum.

 

Bournemouth, Dorset: The Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum

The Russell-Cotes House is exactly the kind of house I’d like to live in…if it wasn’t a museum, and also wasn’t in Bournemouth (not knocking the town, because it’s the first time I’ve ever been there and I didn’t really go anywhere except Russell-Cotes House, but it looked kind of seedy as we were driving through, like most English seaside towns. The beach did look quite nice though, if it hadn’t been freezing cold. In May).

  

It is a gloriously quirky Victorian mansion (completed in 1901, shortly before Queen Victoria died, it is also technically one of the last Victorian mansions ever built, as the museum kept reminding us) perched on a side of a hill overlooking the sea. Apparently it is built in an “Art Nouveau” style, but the turrets, bold colours, and big wrap-around front porch reminded me of Victorian houses in America, rather than the more boring sedate brick Victorian buildings that are much more common in England (like the one I live in, which has been divided into flats and stripped of any character it might have had, save for the fireplace and high ceilings), which is why I probably loved it so much.

  

Admission to this fabulous building (its official name is East Cliff Hall) is £6 (or £5.45 if you decline the Gift Aid), and the self-guided tour starts with a short film about the history of the house. Built by Merton Russell-Cotes for his wife Annie, it was their dream home and a place for them to display the many, many objects they had collected on their travels through the years. They seem to have been a rather sweet and devoted couple, what with travelling the world together, and dying within a year of each other (don’t worry, they were able to enjoy their house for about twenty years first). They were also clearly extraordinarily wealthy and well-connected, though where their money came from is a mystery, at least to me, because it wasn’t discussed anywhere in the museum (I suspect there’s a dark secret somewhere in their past, albeit with absolutely no evidence to support this theory).

  

The house is meant to be set up pretty much as Merton and Annie would have had it (except for a few of the more museum-y rooms), and you’re free to wander through and pretend you’re visiting them, I guess. So nothing is really roped off (though obviously you’re expected to not touch things) and there aren’t signs on anything, just a a large informational guide on a stand in each room (we came right after they opened, so there were only a handful of visitors, but I suspect this gets annoying at busier times, because those books were seriously like twenty pages each, and based on my experiences in way too many National Trust properties, I can imagine that some people stand there for ages reading every page). We got a taste of their enviable lifestyle right off the bat, when we walked into the dining room and were greeted with an octagonal table and a wine cooler (above right) once owned by Napoleon that they managed to snap up whilst they were visiting St. Helena (as you do…oh wait, you haven’t been to one of the most isolated islands in the world?! Me either). I also immediately learned that Merton really liked birds (as do I, admittedly. Well, some birds. Not those white ibis in Australia. Or emus or cassowaries (also in Australia)), and had chosen to decorate the room with a splendid peacock border.

  

There was a collection of busts in the conservatory, my favourite being good ol’ Wellington (looking rather dashing), though his rival (archnemesis?) Napoleon was there too.  However, the conservatory was locked, so we just had to peer out at them from the dining room.

 

Napoleon’s table wasn’t the only famous person’s furniture that the Russell-Cotes’s owned. They also had a sofa and chairs that were Queen Victoria’s (I don’t think she ever visited this home, since she died shortly after it was completed, but I believe she did visit them in a previous residence, and her daughter, Princess Beatrice, took tea here with Annie), and a cabinet belonging to Empress Eugenie of France, who they knew personally. Actually, the story behind the cabinet is that Eugenie didn’t realise it had been sold, and got a nasty shock when she went to East Cliff Hall for a visit and saw it in pride of place in the drawing room.  The dress in the picture above is a re-creation of Annie’s wedding dress, based off of a photograph taken on her wedding day.

  

The main hall of the house was similarly extravagant, and contained even more busts, paintings by Rossetti et al, and a fountain inspired by the Moorish room at Leighton House (which was one of the only parts of Leighton House that I didn’t complain about).  The ornamentation even carried on into the public restrooms…I strongly recommend that you use the ones in the actual house rather than the ones in the gift shop or cafe, because they are worth seeing, in particular the ladies’ loo (I peeped into the men’s and it was nice, but not as elaborate as the women’s toilet).

  

There was an extension added on to the house for art galleries (done whilst the Russell-Cotes’s were still alive, as they had always planned to donate the building to Bournemouth after they died (they had children, by the way, they probably just reckoned they didn’t need the house), and had some of the house open to the public once a month whilst they were still living in it), though unfortunately only a couple of the galleries were open, because they were in the process of putting together a new exhibit.

  

Merton and Annie definitely seemed to be partial to statues and busts (though apparently Merton collected most of the art; Annie was more into natural history), and my favourite piece here was a bust of George Bernard Shaw (above right) done, oddly enough, by Kathleen Scott, widow of Robert Falcon Scott of polar fame (bust on the left is Nelson, no idea who the sculptor was).

  

Now, I want to talk about the stained glass on the cupola over the main hall, because that is what convinced me that I needed to visit the house in the first place. As you can hopefully tell from the picture above (click to enlarge), it has bats and owls on it, flying through a night sky. If I could only have one element from this house in my imaginary dream home, this is what I’m taking, no doubt about it.

 

Though the upstairs rooms admittedly weren’t as grand as the ones downstairs, they were nonetheless my favourite section of the house, because they were more straightforward museum rooms, with actual labels, and I got to learn more about Merton and Annie’s travels and the things they collected. One room had objects ranging from a decorative band that was on the outside of Queen Victoria’s wedding cake (Merton and Annie were both born in 1835, so I imagine they were too young to have actually attended her wedding), to an instrument made from a crocodile’s head, and, in keeping with the crocodile theme, some child-sized ankle bracelets found in the stomach of a crocodile in India, meaning some unlucky little girl got eaten.

  

There was also a “Mikado Room” built to house Merton’s Asian artefacts, and another room with souvenirs from their trip to Russia and Scandinavia, including a child’s sled embellished with some scary toothed geese. The signage in here included extracts from Annie’s diary entries during the Russia trip, which were pretty interesting. They visited about twenty years before the Revolution, but apparently could already see signs of unrest.

  

Lest you think that the things poor Annie collected had been left out, never fear! There was also a whole room full of natural history stuff, like a case full of stuffed kiwis that she acquired in New Zealand (obviously). The bedroom she was forced to move to shortly before she died was also up here; she had to move because it was near the only room that could accommodate her nurse (I guess because all the other rooms were too nice?).

  

My favourite decorative border in the house was in what I’m going to call the “Crow Room” (unless those are blackbirds? I like birds, but I’m not great at identifying them). I especially love the golden moon that’s been added in. (Many of the rooms also had beautiful gold stars painted up near the ceiling. This was really my kind of house.)

  

The strangest room had to be the Henry Irving Room, which was like a bizarre shrine to the actor Henry Irving. Apparently he was a good friend of Merton and Annie, and they loved his acting, so were devastated when he died, and set a whole room aside for Irving artefacts. I know Irving was a famous actor, but I don’t really know all that much about him, so I couldn’t fully appreciate the Irvingness of this room, though I did admire the weirdness.

  

More stained glass of note (because those damn Victorians really excelled at stained glass); the piece over the centre of the upstairs hallway. It’s a little hard to see, but the corners of each larger square are the signs of the zodiac. I was particularly partial to Taurus, who you might just be able to spot (and I’ve just noticed that Aquarius looks rather like the Mannequin Pis).

  

There were so many more fabulous details in the house that I’d love to show you, but we’d be here all day, so let me move on to the gardens. Apparently, the gardens once stretched for quite a ways around the house, but they’ve all been swallowed up by real estate, so all that’s left now is the grotto area, and a small Japanese garden. Unusually, the Russell-Cotes’s didn’t have any live-in servants, instead relying on staff from the hotel next door to keep their house running, so there was a secret gate in the garden that they could cut through on their way over. (Merton and Annie did own the hotel too at one point, though I’m not sure if it was while they were living in East Cliff House. I do hope that the staff were properly compensated for their work, and not just expected to do two jobs for the same pay, but knowing Victorians, my hopes aren’t high.)

  

I certainly enjoyed pretty much every aspect of this house’s appearance, inside and out, though I’m still not sure how I feel about Merton and Annie – they were definitely a fascinating couple who had amazing experiences, but I feel like them using the hotel’s staff is probably a bit shady, and I’m still bothered that I don’t know the source of their wealth. But, they are long-dead, and the house as it stands today is magnificent, and worth the relatively modest price of admission (I mean, can you imagine what the National Trust or English Heritage would charge to see something like this? Probably at least 15 quid, if not more!).  I do love labels, so I would have liked to see some in the actual house, but I can understand that it would detract from the experience they’re going for. Perhaps if they put a couple smaller guides in each room in place of the big books, it would be better, because some of the books contained stuff like a list of restoration expenses, or a lengthy history of some of the artistic styles represented in the paintings, and it was way more than I cared to read and came at the expense of information about some of the smaller, but more intriguing looking objects. Because of that, I’ll give it 4/5, but it is a most excellent looking house, and I think Merton would be happy to see all the birds that still frequent the garden.

  

 

Tolpuddle, Dorset: Tolpuddle Martyrs Museum

This is an odd one, and not only because “martyrs” is surprisingly hard to spell. Having never heard of the Tolpuddle Martyrs before, when Marcus first proposed going to this museum, I assumed they were Protestants burnt at the stake during the reign of Mary I, like the Oxford Martyrs, Lewes Martyrs, et al. Or at least hanged, or otherwise killed for their beliefs, as the term martyr usually implies. But no. The Tolpuddle Martyrs were a group of men in the 19th century who were transported to Australia for the crime of swearing a secret oath, but allowed to come back to England after a couple years when the public outcry got to be too much.

  

I admit that when I first heard this story, I was probably offensively flippant about the whole thing…when you’re expecting people to have been killed brutally to have earned the title of martyr, somehow a brief spell in Australia doesn’t really compare (I may have said something to the effect of, “So they got a lovely free Australian holiday? Some martyrs!”). But, this is clearly something that the people of Tolpuddle take very seriously, even hosting a yearly festival and procession in their memory, so I was willing to see the museum to learn more.

  

Tolpuddle is a “blink and you’ll miss it” sized village, so I wasn’t expecting the museum to be particularly large either, and I was right. But it is free, so there we are. 95% of the museum simply consisted of posters on the wall, in the style of protest or trade union banners, with several touchscreens and only a small glass case in the centre for artefacts, of which very few were particularly interesting. However, the posters did contain a lot more information about the story of the martyrs, so at least I learned something.

  

Basically, in 1834, a group of villagers formed an early example of a trade union to protest their low wages (six shillings a week, which according to the chart on the museum’s wall, wouldn’t have even been enough to buy adequate food for their families, let alone pay rent or buy clothing). Though trade unions weren’t technically illegal, swearing secret oaths was, and that was what got the men in trouble when one of their fellow labourers sold them out. A “rigged trial” followed, and six men: George Loveless, James Brine, James Hammett, James Loveless, and Thomas and John Standfield (they were father and son), were sentenced to be transported to Australia for their “crime.” (The museum was real salty about Lord Melbourne and the Whigs.) Protests back in England ultimately forced the government to pardon them, although they took their time about it, and the pardon took a couple of years to reach Australia. The men eventually returned to England, and were given plots of land in Essex to make up for their ordeal, but most of them realised they no longer felt safe in England, and emigrated to Canada together, where George Loveless, the “ringleader,” wrote several books about the martyrs’ plight, which is why the story probably has stuck in the minds of villagers to this day.

 

As you might expect from all this, Tolpuddle is an unusually left-leaning village (which you wouldn’t think was the case in the 19th century, given what happened, but the earliest commemoration was in 1875, when the only martyr to remain in Tolpuddle was given an engraved watch), and the shop was essentially full of Labour-themed souvenirs, including Jeremy Corbyn mugs, a rather splendid (and expensive!) Tony Benn bowl, and some pretty cool t-shirts (though they were definitely walking the line between politics and straight-up propaganda. I could see those of a more conservative bent not feeling entirely comfortable here). The building the museum is housed in, as well as the surrounding cottages, were built in 1934 to commemorate the centenary of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, and were intended to house retired agricultural trade unionists (which may still be the case today; the website isn’t entirely clear on this).

There are apparently a few other related sites around the village, including the tree that the martyrs initially met under, creatively called the “Martyrs Tree” (you can get a t-shirt featuring it), and the grave of James Hammett, one of the martyrs, but we were in a bit of a rush, so didn’t stop to see them. While I still think the term “martyrs” is a bit, well, misleading (…or maybe just confusing?) in describing their experience (maybe they could be the Tolpuddle Six?), they were nonetheless extremely unfairly treated (transportation was definitely no picnic), as were many other working men and women throughout the 19th century (and beyond), and the publicity their case attracted played an important role in the shaping of British trade unions and the fight for workers’ rights. Though it is undoubtedly an interesting story, I could have just read it on the website, as the museum didn’t really contain any artefacts worth noting, other than the court (police?) book recording the names of the six and a physical description of each man. So it’s worth stopping in if you’re passing through the area anyway as we were, but I wouldn’t make a special trip for it unless you’re coming for the festival, which takes place in July, and seems to be a pretty big event. 1.5/5.

Blandford, Dorset: The Blandford Fashion Museum

I make no attempt to hide the fact that I have the most juvenile sense of humour, so I’ll just admit it up-front: I only visited the Blandford Fashion Museum because it was built by Bastards.  Yes, the Georgian building that the museum is housed in was literally built by a pair of Bastards; the brothers John and William Bastard. I’m pretty sure bastard has been a derogatory term since at least medieval times, so I’m not quite sure why the two were saddled with such an unfortunate surname, but they don’t seem to have lived up to it in either sense of the word, since they were both legitimate Bastard children, and they rebuilt most of Blandford after the fire of 1731, and it is a reasonable looking town (despite it also having an unfortunate name).

  

Anyway, our visit to the Bastard House, I mean, Blandford Fashion Museum, got off to a somewhere awkward start due to some confusing signage outside. The museum is also home to a tearoom, and the sign outside that said they were only open til 4…as it was already 4:02 by the time we arrived, we thought we were too late. However, when we walked around to the museum entrance, there was an “Open” sign hanging from the gate, and a sign saying that their spring hours, which began on the first of April (this was the end of April) were from 10-5. There was a gentleman working in the garden just next to the front door, so we asked him if they were still open, and he seemed uncertain, but told us to go in anyway and see if anyone was at the admissions desk. Fortunately, there was still a volunteer there, but she was busy counting up the day’s takings when we walked in. Feeling uncertain, we offered to leave, but she assured us that it was fine, because they were supposed to let people in until 4:30 anyway, so we paid her a fiver each, and began to look around the museum.

  

Unfortunately, while the admissions lady was perfectly nice, and didn’t seem to be in any particular hurry, the same couldn’t be said of the tearoom staff. Though we had absolutely no intention of taking tea, and told them as much, we had to listen to the continued grumblings of the tearoom ladies throughout our visit, as they bitched about having already closed the tearoom, and wanting to go home (and to be honest, I’m not quite sure why they couldn’t have just gone home. They certainly didn’t contribute anything positive to our visit). They had already turned the lights out in most of the museum, so the poor volunteer at the admissions desk, who clearly had some mobility issues, had to come over and turn them back on for us (which is why some of the pictures are really dark), and unlock the rooms that they had already locked up. We felt really horrible and guilty about the whole thing, but we had already paid, so we just rushed through the museum as quickly as we could, feeling uncomfortable the whole while.

  

As for the museum itself, I think I would have quite enjoyed it if I didn’t have to hurry through. The collections were arranged in 10 or 11 different rooms of the house, and whilst there were only a handful of outfits in most of the rooms, the signage was generally quite good, and some of the clothes were really neat. Take that fruit-print dress from the ’50s, above left, which I would totally wear (actually, I have a pineapple dress, but it’s not as good as that one!).

  

Sadly, there was no mention of the Bastards in the house (the admissions lady was telling us a bit about the history of the museum, which was started by a lady called Mrs. Penny, and I was already biting the inside of my lip so I didn’t start laughing in anticipation of her talking about the Bastard brothers, but she left them out altogether. Eagle-eyed Marcus did spot one mention of them outside a different building, as you’ll see at the end of the post to prove I’m not making them up), but there were a few amusing anecdotes amongst the object labels, including one about the man who devised and wore the first top hat in 1797. Apparently, “passers-by reacted with horror” and he was later fined for daring to wear such an unusual piece of headwear. Of course, a few decades on everyone was wearing the damn things!

  

And, as you can see, the mannequins were also pretty good (i.e. creepy)!  The earliest pieces of clothing were Georgian, and there were a couple Victorian dresses, but most of the collection was 20th century. There were also separate displays of hats, shoes, lace, buttons (including Dorset knobs, for which the bread products are named, due to their resemblance to the buttons), and coats.

  

I am not a fan of winter; in fact, pretty much the only positive, as far as I’m concerned, is getting to wear a good coat, so I really enjoyed the coat room. I probably have about ten winter coats already (in fairness to me, they’ve been acquired over a number of years, and that’s pretty much all people see of your outfit for four or five months out of the year, so I don’t think ten is an excessive number), but I would definitely happily add that cool reversible coat from the ’20s (above left) to my collection, though it doesn’t look all that warm.

  

Anyway, I definitely think this museum had some potential (though a fiver might be a bit steep), but our visit was unfortunately tainted by those tearoom ladies and their attitude problem. If the museum is actually open until 5, as the sign outside and the website claim (and the volunteer agreed with), I don’t understand why it was a problem for us to visit at 4 (and we were out the door by 4:30, so they still technically got to leave early). I think they need to sort out what their opening hours actually are, and make sure all the employees and volunteers are aware of them. Also, although I enjoyed most of the signs, one of the rooms mysteriously had none, just empty stands (perhaps it was those tearoom ladies being overzealous in shutting the place down early?) which is a shame, because additional information was definitely crucial to the experience, and I would have liked to know something about the dresses I was looking at in that room. So 2/5 for our particular awkward experience, which I would like to stress is not the fault of the volunteer, just those mean tearoom ladies (who were presumably being paid), but I’d be willing to bump it up to 3 if that hadn’t happened, because the displays were clearly lovingly arranged by someone, and the signage was surprisingly good (save for a mention of Barbra “Streisland” and of course the missing labels) for a small local museum.

London: Grayson Perry’s “The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever!” @ the Serpentine + A Few Random Art Exhibitions

Whew, that’s a long title, isn’t it?  I have more Dorset posts, but this post covers a couple exhibitions that are ending in the near future, so I wanted to get to them first while there’s still a chance to visit them if people are interested. I recently went to go see Grayson Perry’s new exhibition at the Serpentine, and used it as an opportunity to do a whole day of arty stuff around London (I might have gotten an ice cream and a bubble tea too. It was a hot day, and I needed the energy!). I’ll talk about Perry’s exhibition first, and get to the rest later.

  

I first encountered Grayson Perry when he was a panellist on Have I Got News for You way back in 2009, when he appeared as his alter-ego “Claire.” Not being up on the modern art scene, I’d never heard of him before, and I didn’t know quite what to make of him. But then I finally saw some of his art: tapestries at the Foundling Museum back in 2014, and I had to admit that they were really pretty cool. I’ve since been to a couple more of his exhibitions, and watched a few of his TV specials, and now I’d definitely consider myself a fan – after watching his recent TV programme about Brexit, where he made vases representing “Leave” and “Remain,” Marcus and I were keen to see the vases in person, so when we learned they’d be at the Serpentine, in Hyde Park, along with some other select pieces, we headed out to see the exhibition about a week after it opened.

  

“The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever!” runs until the 10 September, and is free, although there is an opportunity to donate via a piggy bank Perry created with different slots to represent different identities – you could choose the slot you felt best represented you.  Although I’ve of course been to Hyde Park before, I’d never actually been inside the Serpentine Gallery, and I’m glad I managed to visit on a weekday, because I bet this exhibition lives up to its self-consciously grandiose title by being absolutely rammed on the weekends. As it was, it was plenty busy on a weekday, though not to the point where we had to queue or anything.

  

Perry’s chosen media are typically ceramic pots and tapestries, and there were plenty of both in here. What I particularly love about his work is how detailed it is – he often uses collages, and you really have to walk completely around each of his pieces to appreciate every element.  There’s often a fair bit of text incorporated within the pieces as well, which I can appreciate as someone who’s generally drawn more towards books than art.

  

But there were also a few other types of art in this exhibit, my favourites being the custom designed motorcycle with a special box for Perry’s teddy, Alan Measles, in the back (Alan Measles is a recurring motif in Perry’s art), and the “Marriage Shrine” with figures of Perry and his wife. I’d love something like that in my house (or garden, if I had one)!

I also had to laugh at the “Kateboard,” above, which is a skateboard deck with an image of Kate Middleton on it, and there were some excellent woodcuts, including the one pictured at the opening of the post, which features Perry himself.

  

And the Brexit vases (above) were of course excellent, though my favourite vase was actually the first one in this post, showing Trump, Farage, Theresa May, Boris, Corbyn, et al all worshiping Alan Measles.  But I really enjoyed almost every piece in this exhibition, which is a rarity for me and modern art, as you all know. It’s certainly very timely (it actually opened on the day of the general election, which was an exciting one for me as it was the first election since I’ve become a British citizen, so I actually got to vote! Not that it did much good in decidedly Tory Wimbledon, but still), and I highly recommend going to see it if you get the chance. 4.5/5.

  

We went to see two other exhibitions the same day, both of them at art galleries (and as gallery installations are so fleeting, I’m not going to bother to give them a rating). I normally shy away from galleries because I’m slightly intimidated by them; it seems like whenever I walk into one, there’s just some harried person talking on the phone at the back of the gallery who completely ignores my presence, and I feel really unwelcome. But I saw these listed in Time Out London, and I was intrigued enough to take a chance (albeit with Marcus for backup; I’m still too intimidated to do it on my own).

  

The first was Ann Craven’s Animals 1999-2017, at Southard Reid in Soho, which ends on 24 June.  This was a collection of animal paintings inspired by Youtube and memes and things. I can’t really complain about adorable paintings of kittens and deer, so I enjoyed it, even though the woman working there was indeed on the phone when we walked in, and we felt pretty awkward the whole time we were there. The gallery is also hidden down some pretentiously named “Royalty Mews” off of Dean Street that we accidentally walked right past the first time around, which made the experience that much more awkward, because it wasn’t the kind of place you could pop in whilst passing – you had to actively seek it out.

  

The other exhibition was Wayne Thiebaud’s retrospective 1962-2017 at White Cube Mason’s Yard, near Green Park, which ends 2 July and was poshly intimidating enough that I was worried about walking in wearing shorts and a tank top, with all my tattoos exposed. But except for the stern looking security guard in one of the galleries, it was fine. I wanted to see this one because I read that most of his paintings were of desserts, and indeed, food and landscapes were pretty much the themes.

  

I did like some of his paintings (particularly those of ice cream and doughnuts), and the layered paint effect was kind of cool, but I’m still not really enough of a fan of the gallery experience to be won over to doing this sort of thing very frequently in the future.

  

The last “arty” experience I wanted to mention, while I’m on the subject, was something I did a couple of weeks ago. It was part of the Merge Festival in Bankside, which seems to have been held quite early this year for some reason (I think it’s normally in September). I saw (in Time Out, yet again, because I’ve been reading the print edition every week lately on the train) that there was an opportunity to have your portrait drawn by a robot for free, if you booked a slot in advance, and for once I managed to book while there were still openings.

The actual name of the event was “Machine Studies” by Patrick Tresset, and what he’d done was create three robot arms that drew three separate pictures of you while you sat still and posed, as you would for a conventional portrait. This meant sitting perfectly still for over half an hour, which I realised I am incredibly bad at. An eyelash fell into my eye only about ten minutes in, and though I tried my best to blink it out, I eventually just had to rub my eye, which I think is why my one eye is blurry in some of the portraits. You can see the finished drawings above, and I think they’re quite cool, even with the wonky eye. If you’re familiar with (were traumatised by as a child, more like) the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books, Stephen Gammell’s illustrations are what I think the middle portrait looks like. I’m kind of like the girl who had a spider lay eggs in her face without her realising until all the spider babies exploded out. (Link here, but don’t click unless you want to be kind of grossed out. And bear in mind, these books were intended for children, and this is definitely one of the less scary drawings in them. No wonder I was so nightmare-prone.) You had a choice of buying your portraits for something like 150 quid each, or leaving them there to be part of the exhibition, so you can probably guess which I chose. At least I was able to get a few good photos of them first though!  And it was definitely a neat experience, though somewhat marred by the fact that the London Bridge attack occurred the same night, not very far from where the installation was located (though fortunately I’d been home for hours before it happened) – as a result, it was closed on what would have been its final day (and now there’s been the Grenfell Tower fire, and the Finsbury Park attack. London’s having a tough time of it lately).

Anyway, that’s it for the artistic interlude; I’ll carry on with more Dorset museums next week.

 

 

 

Dorchester, Dorset: The Keep Military Museum

Of course, Dorset wasn’t all just knobs. I also found time to visit some museums. The glorious, castle-like Keep Military Museum is situated rather incongruously in the middle of Dorchester, sandwiched between the much less attractive modern barracks, and a large pay-and-display car park (and a note on the car park; there is a small, free car park behind the museum for visitors, so you don’t need to pay to park unless there’s no space in the museum lot). When I was looking for museums to visit in Dorchester (which is where the Knob Festival took place), the two that stood out to me were the Keep and the Dorset County Museum; sorely tempted though I was by the Crystal Palace style gallery at the Dorset County Museum, the promise of mannequins (and bizarrely, Hitler’s desk) won me over to the Keep in the end (and with each museum charging £7 for admission, I certainly wasn’t going to visit both!).

  

So, after parting with £7 each, and undergoing a brief interrogation from the admissions desk guy about how I’d heard of the place (he was perfectly nice about it, he was just very anxious to know EXACTLY where I’d heard of them, and apparently “Uh, I just googled ‘museums in Dorchester,’ and you popped up,” wasn’t specific enough) Marcus and I were ready to enter the Keep. However, we’d arrived at exactly the same time as a group of elderly military enthusiasts (I think they may have been veterans) who were being given a tour of the museum, so one of the volunteers suggested that we start with one of the upper floors first so we didn’t get stuck behind them, which was much appreciated. Thus, we began the ascent up one of the spiral staircases running through the Keep, and emerged on the first floor.

  

This floor contained a chronological history of the Devon and Dorset Regiments, which are the regiments that the museum is dedicated to (being located in Dorset and all). Most of the local regiments were formed in the 17th and 18th centuries, so some of the earliest artefacts were from the American Revolution. As I mentioned in the National Army Museum post, I read Philbrick’s Valiant Ambition, about Benedict Arnold, not too long ago, so I was in the perfect position to appreciate all the John Andre stuff in their collection. John Andre was a British Army officer who was sent to collect maps from Benedict Arnold after Arnold decided to turn traitor; however, he was captured by American militiamen on his way back to British lines, and because General Clinton had promised to protect Arnold, he couldn’t exchange Arnold for Andre, so Andre was executed in Arnold’s stead. There’s actually a rather horrible story about how Andre was executed…because he was technically an officer, he was hoping to be executed by firing squad, but because he wasn’t in uniform when he was caught, Washington decided to make an example of him by treating him as a spy, thus executing him by hanging. Andre wasn’t told this until the day of his execution, when he was marched from his cell, and led to the purpose-built gallows. Upon seeing them, his knees buckled, because he thought he was getting the firing squad (hangings back then were still by short drop, so you died of strangulation, which took ages. It was much more prolonged and horrible than firing squad). I felt pretty sick reading this story in Philbrick’s book, and helpfully, the museum provided a small diorama of his hanging (so now I can REALLY visualise it). There was also a lock of Andre’s hair, given by him to Peggy Shippen (Benedict Arnold’s wife, but she and Andre had had a flirtation going before she married Arnold…it’s a long story), and a few more of his possessions.

   

But let’s leave the depressing story of Andre there (lest you feel too bad for him, you should know that he was super snobby, although that doesn’t mean he deserved hanging), and talk about something more cheerful. Like all the dressing up opportunities this museum provides!  As is pretty much a requirement for any museum that talks about WWI, they had a mock-up of some trenches, and one of the rooms had some clothes hanging on a hook, so even though I’m not 100% sure if I should have done so, I obviously put them on and posed (it was a lovely coat too. So big and warm). I also grabbed a helmet and gun in the WWII display (I’ve trimmed my bangs since then! I was in the middle of an attempt to grow them out at the time, but I just couldn’t deal with them covering half my face anymore).

  

We found “Hitler’s desk” up here. It might not even have actually been Hitler’s desk, though it was apparently retrieved from the bunker where Hitler was holed up at the end of the war, so it was certainly at least a Nazi desk (not that that’s really something to brag about). To be honest, I found the information about British rationing way more interesting…I was initially somewhat perturbed to see the tiny amount of cheese I would have been allocated, so was relieved to see that vegetarians were given extra cheese.  I just hope it was a nice mature cheddar or something, rather than the horrible government-grade cheese that I suspect it probably was.

  

The next floor was the medals floor, and really all that can be said about this is “wow, that’s a lot of medals!” In fact, that’s exactly what I said when I saw it, and I had to laugh when another couple came up a minute after we did, and the guy immediately exclaimed, “wow, that’s a lot of medals!”

  

The third floor carried on with the history of the regiments in post-WWII engagements, though there was also a splendid matchstick model of the Keep hidden in the corner. I should mention that most of the labels throughout the museum were written on wooden paddles hanging from the side of each case. There weren’t enough visitors that there was an issue with having to wait to read them, but I do think it might have been easier if labels had actually been put on the cases, rather than having to keep looking back and forth to figure out what each number was. At least there was additional information about everything though, unlike at the NAM.

  

We finally made our way up to the top of the Keep (all the floors of the museum are lift-accessible, but you can only get up to the roof by stairs, unfortunately. Also, if you can’t take the stairs, you sadly miss out on all the military cartoons they have posted on the way up), and its panoramic views of Dorchester. Despite the Keep’s Norman appearance, it was actually only completed in 1879, and rather boringly served as an administrative centre for the Dorsetshire Regiment before being turned into a museum (although soldiers were de-loused in the room inside the turret you can see in the photo on the left, which is kind of interesting). From the top of the Keep, you can see the Little Keep, which was the home of the old militia barracks, completed in 1866, and is still more attractive than the new barracks, but probably wouldn’t meet the modern army’s needs.

  

Since we’d missed the ground floor initially to give the tour group time to pass through, we headed back down there last, and honestly, I’m glad we saw it at the end of our visit, because it was the best part! The mannequins were just fantastic, and there was some pretty cool stuff down here, like a prison cell that soldiers were kept in to await court martial.

  

There was also some fascinating, albeit depressing information about the soldiers who were executed for desertion in WWI (three of them were from the Dorsetshire Regiment, and their stories were told here), traditional army punishments (each more horrible than the last, these included flogging, being made to sit on some kind of wooden “horse” torture device, having your heels somehow forced up to your chin, and a form of water torture that was so painful it made even the toughest men faint. Makes branding seem almost pleasant by comparison), and the difference in the quality of life between 19th century soldiers, and their farmer counterparts (hint: it was much better being a farmer).

  

To end on a more positive note, there was another dressing-up box in a room at the back of the museum, and since no one else was there, I indulged myself again! (I know the hat doesn’t go with the first jacket (and my salute’s a bit crap in the second jacket), but they didn’t have one that did, and I didn’t want to go hat-less. And god, I really need one of those WWI overcoats for myself. SO GOOD.)

Before we went, I read some reviews comparing the Keep to the NAM in London, and they said the two were of similar quality (intended as a compliment). Since these were written before the new NAM opened, it gives me some insight into what the old museum must have been like, and validates my position in my NAM post that the old museum must have been better than the new one in terms of artefact display, because the Keep was pretty damn good about displaying their artefacts, despite the wooden paddle labels that made me feel like I was a pupil in a ye olde one room schoolhouse. Although I didn’t really find much of interest in the medals floor, I get that they’re understandably proud of them and want to display them somewhere (it would help if they explained how the medals were earned, because they only did that in a couple of instances, and I’m sure the stories would be interesting), and on the whole, it was definitely the biggest, as well as one of the better regimental museums I’ve seen, especially the ground and first floors. 3.5/5 for the museum, and they deserve another medal in their massive collection for providing so many superb dressing-up opportunities.

 

 

The Dorset Knob Throwing Festival!

I do love a bizarre local festival (see Kattenstoet), and the Dorset Knob Throwing Festival certainly falls under that category. I first became aware of it a few years ago, via a cooking show, I think (can’t remember which one), and this year, the stars aligned and I was able to attend (OK, Marcus and I were planning on going somewhere in England on the early May bank holiday weekend anyway, and we were thinking of Leicester (to see some Daniel Lambert sites), until I thought, “wait, when’s the Dorset Knob Festival?” Turns out it is also on the early May bank holiday weekend. Decision made).

I’ve been to enough, shall we say, provincial festivals and fetes in England to know roughly what to expect, so I wasn’t setting my hopes too high, but I was still expecting an amusing day out based solely on the obvious sense of humour possessed by the festival organisers. But first things first, what, you may ask, is a Dorset knob, and why is there a festival based around throwing them?

In the words of Dorset Phil, who performed at the Knob Festival, and described them more eloquently than I can: “Knob knob knob, Dorset knob, I likes mine with cheese. Hard as wood, tastes real good, but it goes soft when I dunk it in my tea.” (I recommend watching the whole video; the verses are pretty great too, and it is damn catchy.) Basically, they are small, hard, dry, extremely bland (I don’t agree with the “tastes real good” line) biscuity things that used to be generally available in the area, but are now produced by only one baking company, and only seasonally.  They’re made out of triple-baked bread dough, so it’s sort of like what would happen if you left a small roll somewhere for a good month or so to dry out. And yes, people eat them with cheese, typically a local blue cheese, which is how they were serving them at the festival (I did not have one there, because I hate blue cheese), but you can also dunk them in tea, which is how the competitors eat them in the knob eating contest. As for why they throw them…well, I genuinely can’t find an answer to that, but perhaps it’s related to similar traditions elsewhere in England of throwing hot cross buns. Ten years ago, someone seemed to realise that Dorset knobs had a hilarious name, started an innuendo-laden festival in their honour, and it’s grown from there, even having to move to a new location this year to accommodate the crowds.

  

Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t due to cooperate on the day of the festival, as it was supposed to rain all day, only getting worse as the day progressed. So I threw on wellies and my raincoat, and we showed up right when the festival opened, before the rain got really bad. This turned out to be a smart move, as we were able to park relatively close to the field where the festival was taking place, and it wasn’t super crowded.

  

Admission was a fiver, and I was initially a little dismayed when I saw the venue…though I had been expecting crap, I was hoping I’d be wrong, but it just looked like a very standard English outdoor festival – some stalls by local food producers, and then some random generic crap for sale, like those wooden bowls and leatherware that seem to pop up at every market. However, once we got inside and saw all the knob-themed things, I started to perk up, because it was funny, and also rather delightful.

  

In addition to the knob throwing (of which more in a second, but I think they really missed a trick by not calling it “knob tossing”), there were SO MANY OTHER knob-themed games, including putt-the-knob, knob and spoon race, splat-the-knob, guess the weight of the big knob, knob-spotting, etc etc. I was also thrilled to see that they had t-shirts, tote bags, and bumper stickers for sale, because one of my main aims in visiting was to score myself a knob t-shirt (mission accomplished, though maybe they should consider having black t-shirts in women’s sizes. I’m not a huge fan of pink, and they were already sold out of men’s smalls in black). But of course we started with the knob throwing. You got three tries for a pound and you had to throw underarm, and it is not as easy as it looks. They’re light, and they don’t go very far (I think a hot cross bun would be a hell of a lot easier to throw). I definitely did not take home the glorious bronze knob for my attempts.

As you can see, I also pinned the knob on the Cerne giant. Although I did indeed get it in the right place, anatomically (the blindfold wasn’t very effective), you actually had to land in the correct, pre-chosen secret square, which could have been anywhere on the board, to win the prize. We also attempted to guess the number of knobs in a jar, albeit unsuccessfully. Once we’d had enough of knob games, we wandered around a bit and dropped far too much money on food, including some surprisingly excellent brownies, local honey fudge, a three pack of beer from Cerne Abbas Brewery (which honestly, we bought mainly for the bottles with their Cerne giant label), and of course, an ice cream (though I pretty much just ate sweets, I was pleasantly surprised by how many savoury veggie options there were, including a vendor selling steamed puddings filled with dal that looked intriguing, but the food tent was hellishly crowded on account of the rain, and I wasn’t up for braving it again after I’d passed her stall), and then stood around listening to the musical stylings of the aforementioned Dorset Phil (who writes songs about drinking, and Dorset, and sometimes both, as in the case of his Badger Ale song), who I actually really enjoyed (but then I quite like the Wurzels, and he had a similar sort of amusing regional accent vibe).

Other than “awwwing” at all the cute puppies people had with them, there wasn’t really much else to do, and the rain was coming down harder, so we called it a day. Honestly, considering the size of the festival, I was amazed we spent almost two hours there, and that I enjoyed myself as much as I did. It was indeed, as the sign at the entrance promised, a “knobtastic day.” Kudos to the organisers for having a great sense of humour, and to everyone working there for being really friendly. It kind of reminded me of the funfair in that episode of Father Ted when Ted is trying to get interviewed by that TV show (minus the shitty rides), but it was self-consciously so – they’re definitely in on the joke!  The whole thing was really quite charming, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I would go back again, especially if I lived closer!  3.5/5.