UK

London: “Good Grief, Charlie Brown” @ Somerset House

I know that there are a lot of people who are really into the Peanuts (judging by the likes I got on the photos I posted on Instagram alone), and I certainly grew up reading the comic strip and watching the holiday specials, but I was never the sort of person who liked them to the extent that I collected memorabilia, for example, like my uncle who was obsessed with Snoopy. Still, “Good Grief, Charlie Brown” at Somerset House, which ends 3rd March, looked promising, more promising than most of the things on in London at the moment, so I decided to pop along and check it out.

  

Despite getting my Master’s at King’s, which is right next door, I’d never actually been inside Somerset House before, in large part due to the price of their exhibitions. They don’t accept the Art Pass or take part in National Rail 2-for-1, and I am not a fan of paying full price. However, after a bit of searching, I was able to find a discount code on TravelZoo that at least reduced the price from £14 to £9. Not quite half-off, but I’ll take it!
  
And actually, though I still think £14 is perhaps a bit of a stretch, it is certainly a £9 exhibition, because the gallery space was very large and spread out over three levels. The woman working at front desk advised that it might take two and a half to three hours to see the exhibition, but their website says an hour to an hour and a half, which I think is much more accurate, since we were there for around an hour and fifteen minutes in the end, though I suppose Peanuts fanatics who wanted to watch all the videos on offer could easily be there upwards of two hours.
  
The exhibition opened with some biographical information about Charles Schulz’s life. He was born in Minnesota in 1922 to parents of German and Norwegian heritage. He was quite a shy child, not helped by the Norwegian side of his family telling him not to have many expectations in life (not because they thought he was incompetent, but because that was their general mindset), but overall seems to have had a reasonably happy upbringing, with the help of his dog, Spike, who he later used as an inspiration for Snoopy (one of his first published cartoons was a drawing of Spike for Ripley’s Believe it or Not, complete with a caption about how his dog ate tacks and needles, which I sincerely hope wasn’t true!). He discovered a real talent for drawing, and after completing a drawing correspondence course, which was his only formal training, and a stint in the army, started work as a cartoonist. His first cartoon was called L’il Folks, but he was forced to call it Peanuts instead as there was already a L’il Folks cartoon in syndication. He always hated the name though, thinking it made his strip seem trivial (and L’il Folks didn’t…?).
  
The next section talked more about Schulz’s drawing technique and how it evolved, and provided examples of some of his strips that preceded Peanuts. In addition to L’il Folks (god I hate that name. I’m glad he wasn’t allowed to use it) he also contributed a one-panel strip to a Christian publication, which was about as funny as you’d imagine (not very). Schulz was forced to adapt his technique over the years as he developed a tremor in the 1980s, but somehow the shakier lines worked just as well as the clean ones.
  
From here we progressed upstairs to a massive central hall housing most of the exhibition. We’d already been treated to a selection of Peanuts strips downstairs, but there were many many more up here, with a description under each about events that had been leading up to that particular strip, and how Schulz used them as social commentary. Whilst Schulz was originally fairly conservative, he grew to oppose the Vietnam War, and was a strong supporter of women’s rights and racial equality. Whilst he always retained a fondness for the Bible, he also was referring to himself as a humanist by the end of his life, and this was reflected in his strips. Honestly, I wish they still ran more of the earlier strips in the paper, because these ones were much funnier than the ones I remember reading when I was growing up.
  
The comic strip displays were accentuated by displays of modern art that had been inspired by Peanuts – a lot of them were fairly meh, but I was quite taken with one that showed Charlie Brown and Snoopy in quite a lot of interesting situations, such as Snoopy using a toilet with Charlie Brown’s face, because, like the artist, I have a fairly juvenile sense of humour. There were also displays of retro Peanuts merchandise, including items from the “Vote for Snoopy” campaign of the 1970s (until California outlawed writing in the names of fictional characters on the ballot), and some that I owned (hand-me-downs from my mother. Inheriting isn’t the same as wilfully collecting) like a set of posters and a sheet set (which was honestly my favourite one growing up, since I, too, hate mornings), although actually the die-hard Peanuts fans back then didn’t like how the strip became increasingly commercialised, and thought Schulz was a bit of a sell-out (he even opened a Snoopy themed ice rink in the town where he lived).
  
There were yet another set of stairs leading off this gallery with two larger art installations on either side of the hallway, though I would be hard-pressed to tell you what was going on in either of them, I just wish someone had told us if we were allowed to lay on the beds or not (I wasn’t bold enough to do anything more than perch on the edge). There was also a movie room showing an hour’s worth of Peanuts cartoons with loads of comfy looking bean bag chairs spread on the floor, so this is definitely somewhere I could see people spending a lot of time if they came with kids or didn’t grow up watching all the holiday specials like I did (they’re always on TV in the US, but I’m not sure about the UK. I’ve never noticed them). I only watched about five minutes before I got bored though, because it was during one of Snoopy’s Red Baron scenes, and I’ve always found those really dull (I’m not that keen on Snoopy generally, I have to say. He’s cute and all, but I much prefer the strips with the kids and actual dialogue in them).
  
After we finally made our way across the massive upstairs gallery, we got to the bit I was most excited about – the interactive section! This included an adult sized mock-up of Lucy’s psychiatrist stand, a tracing station where you could design your own strip, and a writing station where you could finish Snoopy’s “It was a dark and stormy night” story – not quite as much stuff as I was hoping for, but still an entertaining space.
  
I think the shop is probably fantastic for Peanuts fans, with a custom selection of clothing, pins, books, and the like, but I personally think wearing Peanuts stuff is not really my style (which is also how I feel about Disney stuff, although Disney is probably worse), so I didn’t buy anything (no offence if you’re into it – this is coming from a woman with a collection of sweaters with stupid animals on them, so I’m really not in a position to judge). As we were leaving, we passed a display of wooden Peanuts characters that you were encouraged to rearrange and have a selfie with, but I found angling myself in for a selfie with them was nigh-on impossible (you probably need one of those stupid sticks), so I just had Marcus take some photos instead. I’ve always thought of myself as a cross between Charlie Brown and Lucy (as illustrated by some of the comics I’ve included in this post), so those were the two I wanted photos with.
  
Overall, this exhibition was much bigger than I thought it would be, and despite the price and my annoyance at their lack of participation in most discount schemes, I would definitely return to Somerset House for future exhibitions. Though I was sort of down on the Peanuts going in, I left with a new respect for Schulz’s skill and gentle humour – actually, some of the strips were genuinely laugh out loud funny, which is more than I can say for most comic strips (except Pearls Before Swine, which I love, and of course Georgian cartoons, which are one of my favourite things ever, but those aren’t really comic strips), so I feel like a bit of a grinch for my initial lack of enthusiasm. If you’re a Peanuts fan in London, I’d say this is a don’t-miss exhibition, but I think almost anyone who likes newspaper comics could find something to enjoy here. 3.5/5.
  
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London: “Hooked” @ the Science Gallery

Yes, you read that right. The Science Gallery, NOT the Science Museum. London’s got a new museum (at least, I think it’s new – more on that in a little while), and as usual, I’m first on the scene I visited the museum as soon as I found out about it, via a London Museum Development newsletter I get at work, because I am definitely not high on any publicity department’s list. “As soon as I found out about it” turned out to be a week before their first exhibition closed, which is why I am sadly blogging about it too late for anyone to visit. But they will have future exhibitions, with a new one every quarter, so I might as tell you about the venue anyway for future reference.

   

The Science Gallery is located on King’s College London’s Guy’s Campus (and as King’s is my alma mater (I think? Is your alma mater the first place you went to school or just anywhere you did a degree?), you’d think I might have heard about it through them too, but no dice. They can sure send me plenty of emails about donating (never gonna happen), but can’t seem to send ones about things I might actually be interested in) – if you go out the Shard entrance of London Bridge Station, you will find it directly in front of you, just across the street (the Shard will also be directly on top of you, looming menacingly). This means it is also conveniently near to Borough Market, so you can easily pop over for a toasted cheese from Kappacasein after, which I definitely did.

   

The Science Gallery appears to be part of a larger international organisation, with branches in places like Dublin, Melbourne, Detroit, and Rotterdam. Judging by their website, the London Science Gallery seems to have been active as a project since 2014, but if I understand it correctly, this is their first exhibition based in this gallery space. And looking at their exhibition programme for the year, it appears to be Wellcome Collection-esque, with a sort of science-art hybrid going on that I quite like, and I especially like that admission is free. The exhibition I saw was called “Hooked” and explored addiction through science and art.

   

Each section of the gallery was meant to have a different theme, but I didn’t necessarily get that throughout. The first room was called “Natural Born Thrillers” and was supposed to be about the sorts of things people can get addicted to, but that also seemed (more or less) to be the theme of the second section. Nevertheless, it got off to a promisingly interactive start with a machine with a slot you could insert a coin into to see what happened (someone had thoughtfully left a 2p coin on top, and since the whole point of the machine was that the coin came shooting back out at you with surprising force, it could be used again and again). There was also a virtual reality mask that allowed you to watch drunk mice, and a video of a guy playing Playstation whilst coming down from speed. The table made out of sugar grossed me out a little because of all the sticky spilt tea around it, but not quite as much as the marshmallow pants (not entirely sure what addiction those were representing. Perhaps something sexual?).

   

The second section was quite dark and moody and seemed mostly to be focused on the addictions unique to modern life, like video games and mobile phones. There was a game that tracked your eye movements (not entirely sure to what purpose) and a room full of flashing low battery symbols from phones. I did manage to resist pressing the “Do not like this” button on Facebook, and didn’t watch the video about twisted fairy tales because the room looked quite full and I didn’t want to step on anyone, despite the presence of comfy looking cushions in front of the screen.

 

The third section, entitled “Free Will,” was meant to be addressing the question of who was to blame for addiction, but I didn’t really get that from the “Hashish Club,” which was a hallucinatory video meant to recreate the experiences of 1840s pot smoking intellectuals. I did like standing in front of the Victorian parlour video screen with the trippy green lanterns though. I listened to “Short Periods of Structured Nothingness” for quite a while, which featured a woman talking about her experiences with her deadbeat dad after her parents divorced, and was eagerly awaiting the opportunity to answer some questions myself that I’d been promised early in the conversation (well, I say conversation, but I was just listening to a recording), but it went on for too long and I hung up as other people were waiting.

 

I have to confess that I didn’t understand the suit hanging in a geometric frame in one corner of the gallery at all, but I thought the curtain made from wedding rings in “Divorce Index” was quite cool, though I thought tying it into addiction was a bit forced (apparently it was chosen because addiction can often lead to divorce, but that didn’t really come across in the piece).

  

The final bit of the gallery, called “Safe from Harm,” featured a series of short films called “Twelve,” where people struggling with addiction re-interpreted scenes from films (which sounds like it should have been entertaining, but it was actually quite depressing and bleak) and a very frustrating video of someone only scrubbing one tile of a tiled floor clean, while I was sitting there dying for them to wash the whole damn floor. There was also a reading room where people could read books about addiction or share their own experiences of addiction.

   

I assumed we were finished at that point, and was already rather pleased with what I’d seen – even though I didn’t always understand how the pieces tied to the theme, it was interactive and entertaining, and most importantly, free, so I was glad I’d stopped in. But then we went downstairs to check out the shop and encountered the final piece of art, “AGAIN” by Lawrence Epps. I’ve seen those coin pushing machines plenty of times at the seaside, but never played because I hate gambling. Doesn’t stop me from watching the very stupid Tipping Point though, because those machines are mesmerising. Well, “AGAIN” was free to play – staff members gave you a small envelope full of tokens if you asked, and if you won any tokens, you got to keep them. Apparently some of them were meant to be actual 24 karat gold, but all the ones we won were just terracotta. They had loads of different designs, and I desperately wanted a white one, only to have one fall and get stuck in the chute, so I spent most of my other tokens trying to get it out. Unsuccessful, and the one staff member said the artist claimed it was purposely supposed to do that, but she suspected it was just a design flaw. Either way, it did demonstrate the power of addiction in a very clear and disturbingly fun way. (I stood there for a good fifteen minutes feeding in tokens trying to get that damn white one – so long that everyone else had moved off, but I did go home with some terracotta ones at least.)

   

This was overall a very fun and interactive experience (more interactive than the Wellcome usually is, I have to say, but I still love the Wellcome) and I will definitely return to see their future exhibitions (the proximity to Borough Market doesn’t hurt, because Padella and Kappacasein are two of my favourite places), including the next one, “Spare Parts” which opens at the end of February (and I will try to see that one in a timely enough fashion that other people can still go after I blog about it). It’s always exciting to see a new museum open in London, and if it’s free and has constantly changing exhibitions, so much the better, though I am a little upset this wasn’t a thing when I was a student, as it could have provided me with some valuable museum experience (so maybe it wouldn’t have taken me like 8 years to find a job in a museum)! 3.5/5 for “Hooked.”

London: “The Sun” @ the Science Museum

For someone who doesn’t think of themselves as a science person, I do seem to go to a lot of exhibitions at the Science Museum (of course, I don’t think of myself as a math(s) person either, but that seems to be what half my job consists of). But I suppose I am interested in the history of science, and that tends to be what most exhibitions there are about. I wasn’t too sure how much history they’d be able to work into their current special exhibition: “The Sun: Living with our Star,” but I was certainly willing to find out.
   
Based on our experience with “The Last Tsar,” when we discovered that the Science Museum is completely deserted after about 3pm, Marcus and I decided to visit “The Sun” mid-afternoon, which meant we could go out to dinner at Gopal’s Corner (sister restaurant in Victoria to the Roti King near Euston, which I speak about a lot on account of being addicted to their roti dhal) right after (though to be honest, I can happily eat dinner at like 3 or 4, since I skip lunch most days). And clearly once again, this was a good time to visit, as we were pretty much the only people inside the exhibition, apart from one annoying man who loomed over us in a goonish fashion whilst we were using one of the interactive elements, and when I politely moved away (even though I could happily have played with it longer) so he could have a turn, he left as well. I hate people.
 
Admission is £15, or half-off with the National Art Pass, which is pretty much the only reason I am able to visit so many special exhibitions (because there is no way I’d pay full price for all this stuff. I do have to pay for the National Art Pass, but I go to so many exhibitions that it’s worth it. Though if the National Art Fund wants to reach out and offer me a free pass, I’m all ears!). The exhibition opened with the “Days and Years” gallery, which explained how people have interacted with the sun throughout history, including ways of measuring time.
   
There was a display of watches, orreries, and sundials, and a little game where you had to read one of two sundials to tell an adorable monk the proper time to go for prayers (one sundial was much easier to read than the other). An “explainer,” as they’re called (and good luck becoming one, because those jobs are almost impossible to get, despite the not-great pay and having to be on your feet all day) came over and showed us how to use the unfamiliar sundial, and talked about how the railroads standardised time, which to be honest I already knew (I watch a shameful amount of Michael Portillo’s Great British Railway Journeys, even though I hate Michael Portillo as a politician) but I appreciated the explanation of the sundial. The other interactive element in this area was a screen where you could view a sunrise and sunset at various points around the world at different times of year, which was kind of cool, but I don’t think it was quite dark enough in the gallery to get the full effect.
   
The next gallery was called “Sunshine and Health,” and this was definitely my favourite, because it talked about the role the sun played in disease, and how it was used as a treatment for tuberculosis and some forms of lupus. There was even a special light therapy box designed by John Kellogg, and a fabulous sunsuit from the 1930s (shown below).  The gallery also mentioned how and when scientists realised that too much sun was a very bad thing indeed (much later than I would have thought, around the 1980s, which kind of explains why my mother didn’t seem all that concerned when I got hella sunburned as a kid (I mean, she cared that I was in pain, but she wasn’t all like, “OMG skin cancer!”)) and contained some great posters from both the pro-sunlight and anti-skin cancer eras (obviously people have never been pro-skin cancer, but you know what I mean, from the time before when they realised what caused skin cancer).
   
There was a cute little fake beach with palm trees and sound effects so we could bask in the sun, but it would have been much improved by the addition of some sun loungers (though who knows, perhaps they tried them and ran into issues. Considering some of the things I’ve seen going on in the museum where I work, anything is possible. People are awful and this post is turning out very misanthropic). The best thing was the screen where you could “try on” various pairs of historical sunglasses and snap your selfie in them. Clearly Marcus’s selfie game is much stronger than mine.
   
Next was “Power from the Sun” which for me was the most boring gallery. I’m certainly all for solar power, but I’m not terribly interested in learning how it works, and this section was very full of scientific detail that I didn’t really understand or care about. I was fully enraged, however, by the section explaining how Jimmy Carter installed solar panels on the roof of the White House and proudly gave a speech about how they would be providing renewable energy until at least 2000, only, nope, sorry Jimmy, because Reagan had them ripped out in 1986 to support coal and fossil fuels. I can’t say that Reagan is the worst, given the current administration, but he’s certainly up there! On a cheerier note, I did like the hallway that narrowed to a point to give that sort of shrinking/giant effect when you stood in either end, and the newspapers with articles on nuclear fission from the 1950s were interesting mostly on account of the other articles they contained!
  
The final gallery was “Observing the Sun,” which talked about the different theories developed about sun spots over the years, from Galileo right through to Richard Carrington who observed the first solar flare through an optical telescope in 1859 (there was a little cartoon about him, and the cartoon version of him looked rather like Marcus, but I tend to think that about anyone with red hair and a beard). There were a lot of cool light-up images that had been taken of sun spots (although thinking about sun spots freaks me out a little. Space does in general, frankly, as do the oceans. I don’t really know why, though I suppose the close-up images of sunspots could be a trypophobia thing) and a pretty fun game where you had to guess the severity of a solar storm based on the size and appearance of sun spots (and if you failed to predict a storm, everyone on Earth got pissed off at you).
   
The absolute last room of the exhibition contained an eight minute long video of the sun projected on a large screen showing some solar flares in action, but I only watched about a minute of it before I got bored. It did look neat though – the image at the start of the post is a collage of it. The exhibition shop was OK – not as good as the one for Robots or Cosmonauts, but then again, I’m just not as interested in the sun as a subject as those other things. I did get a badge though, and would certainly have bought a print or two if I didn’t already have way too many of the damn things.
  
I enjoyed the experience of visiting this exhibition quite a lot (except for the weird guy) because it was so empty that we were free to engage with most of the interactive elements for as long as we liked (and we definitely used that sunglasses thing for about twenty minutes), but content-wise, it was a little boring and not particularly memorable (it probably doesn’t help that I avoid the sun as much as possible in the course of my everyday life. I like staying pasty, thanks). So I’ll give it 3/5, and hope their next major exhibition is a bit more in line with my interests (not that it’s all about me, but it’s obviously going to get a better score on my blog if it’s something I’m interested in).

Glasgow Mop-Up Post

As you all have probably come to know by now (and hopefully look forward to, but maybe dread, who knows?), any kind of holiday I take usually leads to a mop-up post so I can fit everything else in that I didn’t quite have enough to jabber on about for its own post. This is Glasgow’s.
  
First of all, I finally got to meet Anabel from the Glasgow Gallivanter (and her husband John) in person, after following each other’s blogs for a number of years. They kindly treated us to lunch at the cafe in the Lighthouse, Scotland’s centre for design and architecture, and we looked around the galleries a bit afterwards. We even climbed the Mackintosh tower, which gave lovely (albeit chilly!) views of the city, though I don’t think any of us quite got Louise Harris’s installation “Visaurihelix” which was in the tower at the time of our visit (loved the man playing “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” on the piano in the viewing deck though). Afterwards, Anabel and John took us to the Billy Connolly murals we hadn’t seen yet (we’d stumbled on one en route to the People’s Palace, but there were still two more to see), and for a quick drink before we had to dash off to the Sharmanka Kinetic Theatre. Anabel is the first blogger I’ve met in person, and based on the lovely experience I had, I would definitely be open to meeting more bloggers in real life in the future (I’ve held off until now because I’m always scared people will hate me in person, since I’m kind of the worst)!
  
Secondly, inspired by Kev’s post on Walking Talking, another Glasgow blog, we went to the Necropolis, which is a fabulous old cemetery on a hill that overlooks the city (and is opposite the Tennant’s brewery, though we didn’t have time to visit that (fortunately)). I have to admit that I wasn’t super enthusiastic about the climb (massive understatement), but I’m glad I persevered, because it really is very cool up there, as you can probably see.
  
After the Necropolis, we got a train straight out to the Kelvingrove (well, the nearest train station to it, which really wasn’t all that close). By rights, we should have spent much more time here (as they say on their website, “If you only have one day in Glasgow, Kelvingrove is a must see!”), but we just didn’t really have time to fit it in on any other day, and I certainly wouldn’t have missed the Hunterian for it. It is a sort of everything museum – art, natural history, archaeology, etc, but it feels rather more elegant and modern than the Hunterian (which is definitely not a dig at the Hunterian. I love old-fashioned museums). Since I’m not the biggest art fan, we skipped most of that and just looked around the Glasgow-centric galleries, like the one on Mackintosh and the small social history gallery.
 
Because I only spent about an hour there, and thus only had time to visit the ground floor galleries, I’m just sticking the Kelvingrove in here rather than giving it a full post of its own, as it would otherwise deserve. I do want to show you the stuffed haggis though, as it was one of the funniest things we saw in Glasgow.
  
Our final stop on our last day there (other than swinging by the Christmas market so I could buy an enormous variation on the empire biscuit. I was intrigued since we don’t have empire biscuits down south, and they are really good but one of the sweetest things I’ve ever eaten, particularly when topped with caramel AND icing, as this one was) was Pollok Country Park, solely so I could see the Highland Coos (cows). I felt cheated that I never saw any when we were actually in the Highlands, so I definitely wanted to make sure I saw some on this trip. Pollok Park, which also had a stately home in the middle of it, has a herd, so we literally tramped through the mud to get to their enclosure, spent a nice chunk of time gazing at the cows, and walked straight back out of the park to the train back to central Glasgow so we could catch our train home. I think you’ll agree that it was worth the detour!
   
There are still plenty of things I’d like to see in Glasgow (like the Police Museum, the Anatomical and Zoological Hunterians, and the Tunnock’s factory (we were staying in a pretty fancy hotel since it was our anniversary, and everything in the minibar was free, so I got hooked on Tunnock’s Caramel Logs, which are unfortunately not so easily available outside of Scotland, unlike the more common Caramel Wafers, which I don’t like nearly as much), and I’d like to be able to spend more time at the Kelvingrove and the Lighthouse), so I’m sure I’ll be back someday, but I think we managed to cram quite a lot into our long weekend. I probably ate my own body weight in sugar (of course I had to have a deep fried Mars bar too!) for which I only have myself to blame (Glasgow has many lovely restaurants – I just really like sweets!). I always enjoy getting to travel up to Scotland (well, not so much the train journey the last time we went to Edinburgh, but there were no issues this time), and Glasgow was no exception.

Glasgow: Sharmanka Kinetic Theatre

Display containing the Bell Ringers, the Hunchback, the Tower of Medieval Science, the Tower of Babel, the Castle, and the Clock of Life. These are meant to tell the story of Stalin’s purges.

Now, this is an interesting one. Not that most of the places I visit don’t have something interesting about them, but this one is really a bit out there. Knowing what a fan I am of animatronics, and well, just weird shit, basically, Marcus booked us tickets to see the “adult” version of the Sharmanka Kinetic Theatre, which took place at 5pm on a Sunday (check their website for all available dates and times) and lasted for about an hour. It cost £10.

La Strada (On the Road) “Who pulls the strings? Who is being pulled?”

We arrived just in the nick of time (we got a bit lost on the way there, because Sharmanka doesn’t have its own dedicated building, but is housed inside an arts centre (Trongate 103), which took us much longer to figure out than it should have), and it was a good thing too, because the doors are locked for the duration of the show (I wish they would do this at the theatre too, because I hate jerks walking in halfway through the first act, which is what happened when I recently saw Hadestown at the National Theatre (which was otherwise great). They always are inevitably seated right in the middle of the row too – what’s up with that? Do only jerks pick those seats?). I should emphasise that you could get out, just that nobody could get in. It wasn’t a fire hazard or anything.

Detail from the Orient Express. “An image of Death riding a railcar over the vast Steppes of Russia.”

So, what the hell is Sharmanka(?), you may be asking yourself at this point, and rightly so. Well, to quote their information sheet, “Sharmanka is the Russian word for barrel organ.”…which really does not explain what the Sharmanka Kinetic Theatre is. More to the point, it is a show wherein metal sculptures light up and move to music. “This set of Kinetic Sculptures was made by Eduard Bersudsky in his only living space, an 18-square-metre room in a communal flat in Leningrad in the 1970s and ’80s.” Bersudsky was not permitted to exhibit these sculptures under communism, so for a while it was just an eccentric hobby. However, he did start showing them from 1989 onwards, but due to a lack of money to support the arts in Russia (or at least his version of the arts), he decided to move his collection to Scotland in the mid 1990s. They have been on display in their current location since 2009.

Victoria. “The figure of a crucified man in a yarmulke comes to life in the centre of moving chains, swords, and saws.”

The show begins whilst you are seated on benches around a large display of these kinetic figures. They light up one by one, music comes on, and the action kicks in. These particular figures were probably the most family-friendly, simply being of towers and things with little men doing acrobatics and ringing bells. After about fifteen minutes of watching this, you are asked to move to the back of the theatre, and that’s where things get a bit lewd. Well, more than a bit.

NIckodym. “Co-operation of genders.”

I believe the family friendly show simply progresses to another large display of figures opposite the er, randy ones, since those never lit up whilst we were there, and they must use them for something. The adult show has you moving around the room to follow the figures lined up around the perimeter as they light up, and since they don’t go in order, it’s kind of fun trying to guess which one will light up next (I watched the room like a hawk, and was enormously pleased when I managed to detect movement before everyone else, ensuring myself a prime spot in front of the next figure). Like the main display of figures, these all move as well, though these had the added benefit of pretty much all having some sort of penis, one of which was almost poking me right in the eye during one of the displays (so actually, maybe don’t sit right in front of them!). One guy had a literal bell-end with a miniature bell dangling from his tip.

Willy-the-Belfry. “Willy was a Shetland pony who patiently watched Eduard work in the first few years of our time in Scotland.”

Well, I suppose it wasn’t all phallocentric, since some of the figures had breasts instead, like the figure of Death a few paragraphs up, since Death is viewed as female in Russian culture. But lest you worry, there was no actual robot sex happening in front of us, just a lot of awfully bouncy penises, one of which was even operating a treadle that clashed a cymbal. I think you can probably tell I’m fairly lost for words as to how best to describe this show (though I certainly snickered a lot as I was watching it) – I think it’s just one of those things you’d have to see for yourself.

This guy didn’t move, but I think he’s meant to be St. Mungo, patron saint of Glasgow.

The robots are mainly made from old junk, so they’re not the most attractive things, but they are quite creative, especially the troll with boogers bouncing up and down in his nose. The music is specifically chosen to match up with each robot and its action, but I didn’t always see an obvious connection between the music and the theme of each piece (most of the songs are just instrumentals, and I’m not familiar enough with classical music to have known what they were). I think the general message here is meant to be one about the dangers of communism, but if you hadn’t read the descriptions about each figure, I don’t know if you would have necessarily gotten that from just watching them (though I suppose the rats contained within the pieces to represent the worker cogs in the machine were a clue. They reminded me of that piss-take of a Soviet cartoon they show in Krusty Gets Cancelled, with Worker and Parasite).

Self Portrait with Monkey. This is the booger troll.

It was indeed a very unusual experience, and certainly at least in theory the sort of thing I enjoy, though not quite on the same level as animatronic presidents. I do think some of the pieces did their things for longer than they needed to, as there’s only so long you can watch a robot wiggle his willy (surprisingly, I know, as I would have thought I could watch that sort of thing for hours), but I think I would have regretted not seeing it once I’d heard about it, so I’m glad we went, even though I don’t think I really got the message it was trying to send. 3/5.

Selection of figures including Shaman (middle).

Glasgow: The People’s Palace

Merry belated Christmas everybody! I don’t have anything particularly Christmassy to post about this year, so I’ll just carry on with Glasgow. Looking back on it, we probably should have devoted a good few hours to the Kelvingrove, and slipped in the People’s Palace if and when we had time. But Marcus wanted to see Billy Connolly’s banana boots, and since the museum doesn’t have its own website, we didn’t have any idea what other treasures might be hiding away in there, so the People’s Palace became a priority. It is located in Glasgow Green, about a mile walk away from where we were staying in the centre of Glasgow, and it was very cold that day, so I was definitely not enjoying the walk.

  

I did, however, enjoy the sight of the Doulton Fountain, which we spotted from quite a distance away. This fabulous piece is apparently the largest terracotta fountain in the world, and was built in 1887 for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee and the International Exposition held in Glasgow. It celebrates the British Empire and contains figures representing Canada, South Africa, Australia, and India (I particularly enjoyed the Canadian moose, and what I think was a marmot). I’m no fan of empire, but I am definitely a fan of this fountain.

  

From there, we progressed inside the museum, which like every museum we visited in Glasgow, had these great wooden revolving doors at the entrance (and a giant ornate radiator right by the entry, which I needed to warm my legs after the walk there). The People’s Palace is free (with a name like People’s Palace, it would have been a little disappointing if it wasn’t), and since there was no front desk and we were a little unsure where the museum began, we went directly up the steps in front of us. It turns out we missed an introductory gallery on the ground floor, which we saw at the end instead (yes, the big welcome sign should have been a clue, but I swear we couldn’t see it from the entrance), but it was a very basic overview of Glasgow’s history and the exploits of the Scottish boxer Benny Lynch, who died at the age of 33 in 1946 from alcoholism.

 

So it didn’t really matter that we started with the first floor, and in fact, it meant that we saw Billy’s banana boots first thing (I mostly know Billy Connolly from that Columbo where he’s the murderer (not really a spoiler since the whole point of Columbo is that you see who did it at the beginning), but I don’t think I’ve ever sat there and watched one of his comedy routines, so the banana boots were a bit lost on me. That said, there was a video with Billy Connolly doing that very routine right next to the boots, so I definitely could have watched it then and there had I been so inclined). There was also Rab C. Nesbitt’s string vest, which Marcus was also excited to see.

  

The rest of the floor was given over to moments from Glasgow’s social history, so there was a section on crime and punishment (which I of course enjoyed, though it wasn’t very grisly). The gallows were located not far from the museum building, so there was a sign on the window telling us that this view was more or less the last thing condemned criminals would see. I was rather shocked by the sort-of game where you had to decide whether or not someone should receive the death penalty for various crimes, and then lift the flaps to see what other people answered (although most of the flaps were broken, so I could see their responses from the start) because most of the respondents were very very pro-death penalty, and since Britain abolished the death penalty in 1965, I didn’t realise so many people still felt this way. Yikes. Then again, it wasn’t clear who was surveyed or when the survey was done – the board kind of looked old enough to have been there since the ’60s!

  

There was also a small area on a famous dance hall in Glasgow, a few bits about visiting the seaside, and a section in the back about going to the “Steamie,” which was the Glaswegian term for the public washhouses (and not, as I thought, a bizarre sexual act along the lines of a Cleveland Steamer), and was where woman would meet to do their laundry and, most importantly, gossip. There was also a little bit of information about the World Wars (I liked the display that followed the story of a Glasgow couple who lived through the First World War, as their letters to each other were rather sweet, and the husband’s life was saved by a drill book he took from a German soldier as a souvenir, which was on display here), and a re-creation of an old dairy, although you couldn’t actually touch anything inside, and there were no authentic smells or anything, so it wasn’t really that exciting.

  

The appearance of this floor was very child-friendly, which was initially a bit off-putting, as I wasn’t sure whether we had accidentally wandered into the children’s section. The whole museum was like this though, so I’m pretty sure it was meant to be open to everyone. Aside from this, things did look a little bit run-down and in need of an update – some of the interactive bits had flaps broken off, as I mentioned earlier, and the signage looked a little grubby in places.

  

The second floor was similarly a little bit tired looking, though some of the displays appeared to be done more recently than the ones downstairs. One of the galleries was completely empty, but another contained information about political life in Glasgow, including labour movements and the like, and a handful of artefacts. The other gallery was about everyday life for Glaswegians, with small re-creations of a bathroom and teeny flat (which actually looked quite cosy if you had it to yourself, rather than sharing it with like ten people like most people had to (there was a report about 15 people living in a 6 metre square room in Victorian times). I mean, the bed was in a little nook, and you had your chamber pot right there, so you didn’t even have to get up if you didn’t want to). Glasgow had the highest population density of any city in Victorian Britain (worse than London’s even), and many people were forced to live in slums and appalling conditions.

  

On a cheerier note, there was also information about things people did for fun, like clothes, magazines, and music, and there was even an example of a best-selling product from Ann Summers in the 1990s – an alligator “pouch” for men. I also really enjoyed the little dollhouse showing the ways buildings were divided up into flats throughout the 20th century, though I wish it wasn’t quite so difficult to see inside.

  

Once we headed back downstairs, we had to wander over to the Winter Gardens, which we had already had a lovely view of from various places inside the museum. It is a large glasshouse tacked onto the side of the museum where people can presumably sit in the winter and enjoy loads of lovely plants. There is a cafe in there, but we had earlier purchased some doughnuts from Tantrum Doughnuts that we sat down on a bench to eat (a bit too bready for my tastes, but most British doughnuts are), and it was warm and fairly peaceful (or it would have been if not for all the children running through). I also loved the Shakespeare tiles lining the bathrooms!

  

The People’s Palace has a lot of potential, I think, but most of the displays just felt tired, and I think a social history museum needs more in it, as it only covered very specific aspects of Glasgow history, rather than presenting an overview of the city’s history and its people, which, as someone who had never been to Glasgow before, I would have preferred. However, I have learned in the course of researching this post that the Winter Gardens are set to close indefinitely at the end of this year for major renovations, and potentially the People’s Palace with them, unless they can find a way to make structural repairs independently to each structure. So I’ll give it 2.5/5 in its current state, but changes are clearly afoot, hopefully for the better, but knowing how these things work, I won’t get my hopes up (and do check first if you want to visit from January 2019 onward, since it appears they may not even be open!). Even though I didn’t love this museum, I do hope it is able to remain a museum in the future, because museums are so vital to the culture of a city, and it would be a shame to lose this one entirely.

This building opposite the museum used to be a carpet factory, but now houses a German brewery, as I found out later when I had one of their beers at a pub.

Glasgow: The Hunterian Museum

Having finished with the excellent “William Hunter and the Anatomy of the Modern Museum,” we headed over to the original Hunterian Museum (well, not its first incarnation in London, or the first one at the University of Glasgow, which opened in 1807, but original in the sense of being the first of the Hunterian museums to exist, before the Art Gallery et al were a thing. It’s been in its current location since 1870), located on the other side of the University of Glasgow campus. It is on the fourth floor of a big old magnificent building (the Gilbert Scott Building, named after its designer), and the architecture of the museum itself is pretty great too. It reminded me of a Tudor banqueting hall.
  
If you come in from the side entrance, as we did, there is no front desk (all the Hunterian museums have free entry), but there is an introductory gallery with some information about Hunter’s life and the original museum before it jumps right on in to a mishmash of everything, so at least we knew we were in the right place. The first gallery of the museum proper was dominated by an exhibition about old Roman road markers that I paid approximately 0.5% of my attention to, because right next to it was a case full of medical specimens in jars, and next to that was a case of interesting zoological specimens. There were a lot of people gathered around this area, presumably because it was awesome, but it was worth the wait (for people to move out of the way for Marcus could take photos) or, more accurately where I was concerned, worth elbowing my way in (because screw waiting).
  
There was also Hunter’s chest of drawers from his first museum on Great Windmill Street that originally housed his insect collection, and whilst I sure as shit don’t want an insect collection, it would be a lovely home for something not gross, like maybe a collection of old Georgian cartoons, if I was lucky enough to own such a thing (I mean, Hunter totally could have, since he was alive then, but obviously we don’t have the same priorities. Well, some of the same priorities). And hidden in one corner was the chair that students used to have to sit on during their oral exams at the university (it was very Mr. Burns “I have a chair at Springfield University”-esque), which apparently they still use for a couple of degree qualifications (I can’t remember exactly which ones, but I don’t think they sounded very interesting, otherwise I probably would have tried to enrol on the spot).
  
The lower level main gallery feels pretty much like the Horniman, with a mix of taxidermy, fossils (not a fan of that giant millipede thing, as you can probably tell), musical instruments, and delightfully Scottish-accented pottery (see below). This was all great, but for me, the upper level outshone it by far. This is where the collections of Lord Kelvin and Joseph Lister, both of whom taught at the university, were kept.
  
Kelvin’s stuff was interesting enough, but for a medical history nerd like me, Lister’s side was where it was at. They had a flask of his actual urine for god’s sake! (It was disturbingly dark in colour, but he did boil it before sealing it, so one hopes that was the result of the boiling process (or the 150+ years it has spent in that flask) and not something horribly wrong with Lister’s kidneys. He lived to the age of 84, so he must have been in fairly good shape!) And of course there was his pioneering carbolic acid steam apparatus that he used in some of the first antiseptic operations. And there were a number of other medical instruments and specimens thrown in, in case you didn’t get enough downstairs (I certainly didn’t).
  
How hilarious/creepy is that obstetrical training doll?! I also loved the plaque dedicated to a former “keeper” of the collection embedded in one of the walls. I wonder if I can talk them into doing that for me at the museum where I work…(though I certainly don’t want to work there for another 35 years to earn one, like John Young did!)
  
I had noticed another set of doors in the first gallery when we passed through, and I was hoping that meant there was another gallery, but sadly, the doors just led to the fabulous main staircase that we had missed on the way in, due to initially entering at the ground floor (the stairs let you out on the second or third floor, but that’s cool too, because we got to walk through a pillared courtyard covered in lights (I assume for Christmas, but who knows, maybe they’re up all year) and also finally stumbled on some much needed public toilets, which was great, because there aren’t any in the museum itself). Whilst the Hunterian wasn’t quite as big as I was hoping, it certainly was an enjoyable museum. I really love old fashioned museums that have a little bit of everything in them, and this fit the bill (it was much more varied than the photos I’ve chosen show, since I’ve mostly focused on medical history to the detriment of everything else there), with the added benefit of the collections of Lister and William Hunter. 3.5/5.
   

Glasgow: “William Hunter and the Anatomy of the Modern Museum” @ Hunterian Art Gallery

In honour of our 10th anniversary, which was in late November, and in keeping with our tradition with heading up north for anniversaries (mainly because I’m not keen on staying in the countryside (too much walking!) and there isn’t much else south of London besides the coast, which is definitely not a good idea in the winter), Marcus and I decided to spend a long weekend in Glasgow, as neither of us had ever been. This not only gave me an opportunity to meet Anabel from the Glasgow Gallivanter in person (photos in a future post) and eat deep fried Mars bars and a stupid amount of Tunnock’s Caramel Logs, it also finally allowed me to visit the Glasgow Hunterian, something I’ve been wanting to do for years.

  

The London Hunterian, named after John Hunter, is one of my favourite museums, so I had high hopes for the Glasgow Hunterian, which was founded by John’s brother, William. Both brothers were in the medical field (John was a surgeon, William was a physician and obstetrician), both were raised and trained in Scotland, and both had anatomy schools in London. And of course, they both founded museums, though I have to say that William’s was far more ambitious in scope than John’s. Whereas John’s museum was primarily a receptacle for his collection of anatomical specimens, human and zoological (not that there’s anything wrong with that), William’s museum had a little bit of everything, more in the vein of the Ashmolean or the Smithsonian. Originally housed on Great Windmill Street in London, after his death the collection was moved to Glasgow, and is the oldest museum in Scotland.
  
Today, the Glasgow Hunterian is a collection of four separate museums, all located around the campus of the University of Glasgow: an Art Gallery, Anatomical Museum, Zoological Museum, and the general Hunterian, which is probably the closest in terms of the scope of its collections to the original museum. The Anatomical Museum is open by appointment only, and the Zoological Museum isn’t open on weekends, so we were only able to see the Art Gallery and Hunterian. Because there’s quite a lot to say about each, this post will focus exclusively on the Art Gallery, which is free to visit, even the special exhibition!
  
Given its name, it’s a safe bet that the Art Gallery normally houses art, but at the time of my visit, it was what would have been William Hunter’s 300th birthday, so the museum was featuring a special exhibition called “William Hunter and the Anatomy of the Modern Museum,” (which runs until 6 January 2019) about Hunter’s life and work, with an accompanying exhibit called “Strange Foreign Bodies” upstairs. The very nice woman at the front desk actually almost apologised to us that there wasn’t art in the main gallery, and I wanted to say, “but you don’t understand, I like medical history SOOOOO much better than art,” but I didn’t want to scare her off, so I left it.
  
But yeah, this was probably the ideal time for me to visit, as this exhibition was the best possible thing I could imagine being here. It was broken up into ten rooms roughly chronologically tracing Hunter’s life, not counting the introductory gallery, which provided a timeline of personal and historical events during Hunter’s lifespan (1718-1783).
  
The exhibition still got off to a fairly arty start with paintings of some of Hunter’s friends and contemporaries, along with some of his correspondence and book collection. Hunter attended the University of Glasgow and befriended a number of prominent Scots, including David Hume and William Cullen. In 1740, Hunter moved to London and studied obstetrics with the hilariously named William Smellie (despite his name, or perhaps because of it, he is pretty famous though. I remember hearing about him when I was doing my Master’s). The room on this portion of Hunter’s life contained a number of medical textbooks, including Smellie’s, and some great anatomical drawings, including one by my personal favourite anatomist Frederik Ruysch. But obviously the best thing here was the wax model of the flayed man shown at the start of the post, made by Hunter and based off of the body of an executed criminal. So amazing!
  
Since Hunter was into both anatomy and obstetrics, it was only natural that he would want to make some anatomical models of pregnant women, and fortunately for him (not so much for the women), 13 of the women under his care died in various stages of pregnancy (not all at once, since that presumably wouldn’t really be something he would want to commemorate and brag about, though I have read an article that did some statistics on maternal death rates and determined that it would have been unlikely he could have gotten so many perfect specimens of each stage of pregnancy, so there might have been some shady stuff going on. I’m not sure if I agree with that, since he did his studies over a twenty year period and maternal death rates weren’t exactly low back then, but he was undoubtedly involved with grave robbers in some capacity, as pretty much all anatomists back then had to be), allowing him to make gorgeous wax models of their wombs. As you have probably noticed, this was the rare medical exhibition that allowed photography, so I can show you all of these wonderful things (albeit with not so wonderful lighting).
  
He also loved making wet preparations, a technique only pioneered the century before by the previously mentioned Frederik Ruysch (there’s a reason he’s my favourite), so there were plenty of those in here too, and some of them were downright beautiful, especially the inflated portions of intestine that had been injected with wax to show off the veins. Actually, due to his brother John’s prowess in making anatomical specimens, this was one of the few projects they collaborated on, before opening separate (and competing) medical schools. I do wish there had been a bit more in here on William’s relationship with John, but if they didn’t work that much together, I guess there was only a limited amount they could say.
  
Hunter was also close with George Stubbs, famous for painting a kangaroo based on the skins and descriptions given to him by dishy Joseph Banks after Cook’s first voyage (all of the artists on the expedition having died en route, though Sydney Parkinson did produce a sketch of a kangaroo before he died), and they worked together to produce Stubbs’s Anatomy of a Horse, amongst other anatomical paintings.
  
On the subject of Cook, there were a number of objects here from Cook’s voyages that were given to Hunter’s museum, as well as a whole room full of gross insects (I didn’t spend a lot of time in there). The last few galleries covered the establishment of the museum in London, which, William Hunter having never married nor produced heirs, he wished to leave to the University of Glasgow after he died (he didn’t come up to Scotland much after moving to London, but apparently he retained some emotional ties, even if he didn’t actually want to live there. Kind of like me and Cleveland). The last couple of rooms were mostly art, but there were a few neat things, including the certificate given to those who had completed a course of training at Hunter’s medical school (god, I would love one of those certificates), Hunter’s death mask, and a pretty cool chart showing all the branches of “science” by 18th century standards (apparently you can be a scientist of black magic. I guess I’m a scientist then? (Just kidding, sort of)).
  
Having finished with this rather fabulous exhibition, we headed upstairs to see “Strange Foreign Bodies.”  I was immediately weirded out upon opening the exhibition guide and seeing a number of quotes from my MA dissertation advisor on one of the artworks (she scared me, and I haven’t really thought of her in years, so wasn’t expecting it), but was also weirded out by the art, which mostly seemed only vaguely connected to medicine and also not necessarily connected to the descriptions of it in the guide. I did however like the collection of painted skulls entitled “Family Conversation Piece,” and there was a video of a breathing robot one of the artists had created of herself, which was cool, but pretty creepy (below right).
  
“William Hunter and the Anatomy of the Modern Museum” had a great punny title, a fantastic collection of specimens in jars and anatomical models, a very detailed exhibition guide, and enough other stuff to appeal to those who aren’t huge fans of medical bits like I am. I definitely recommend seeing this if you can, and I’m pretty sure I enjoyed this about 1000x more than I would have the art normally here (not knocking art, but I obviously really prefer medical history). 4.5/5.
“Strange Foreign Bodes” was OK, but it wasn’t very big, and it’s definitely not a must see like the main exhibition. 1.5/5.

This cartoon made me laugh for about ten minutes. I have a weird sense of humour (which is not news to anyone who makes it through one of my posts).

London: “Living with Buildings” @ the Wellcome Collection

This is from the Global Clinic, not Living with Buildings, but I think you’ll agree it is a more striking image than the entrance of Living with Buildings, which is why it is serving as the introductory photo.

“Living with Buildings” is the Wellcome Collection’s latest offering, which runs until 3 March 2019, and I popped along to see it a few weeks ago since I was in the neighbourhood anyway for “Anglo Saxon Kingdoms.” I’m not sure if the Wellcome could have picked a more boring name for this exhibition if they’d tried (at least for those of us who aren’t really into architecture), but I was hoping the content would prove better than the lacklustre name. Even the exhibition description was fairly vague, being simply that it was about how buildings affect our mental and physical health.

The exhibition is located in the Wellcome’s main gallery on the ground floor and is free, as their exhibitions always are, and doesn’t allow photographs, as their exhibitions mostly don’t. We were there a little bit later in the day than usual, which I think was a good time to visit as the crowds were much less than what they would have been at lunchtime (or people were just staying away because of the dull name). The exhibition opened with Charles Booth’s famous poverty maps of London (made in 1886-1903) showing the relative wealth of each street of London based on Booth’s interviews with its inhabitants (he’s pretty judgy too, as the poorest people were listed as “vicious, semi-criminal”), which are always interesting, even though I’ve seen them many times before.

Charles Booth’s Map of London, LSE.

This was one of the Wellcome’s more open layouts, and though there were a few little nooks and recesses, everything was basically in one large gallery. The exhibition appeared to be arranged more by topic than chronologically, and covered subject matter from the Victorian era, when people began to suspect that living in smoky, polluted cities might not be great for one’s health, to the Grenfell Tower fire just last year.

Letchworth Garden City Poster, First Garden City Museum.

One of the nooks was about the rise of the “garden city” in the late Victorian era, which began when some of the more, shall we say, benevolent employers founded model villages for their employees to live in. I get that the intention behind it was mostly good – giving the employees a clean environment to live in away from the pollution of the cities, which also reduced their commute and gave them access to opportunities for recreation and self-improvement, but personally I find something a little creepy about it. I like the people I work with, but I don’t particularly want to live next door to them (you would never be able to weasel out of work functions, since they would know exactly where you were), and I sure as hell don’t want my boss overseeing what I do in my spare time. The Cadbury brothers, the founders of Bournville, even had a pamphlet published with rules for their employees to live by, going so far as to tell them how to sleep (single beds only) and how to breathe, which is dreadful (but I’m fine with the emphasis on cleanliness, given that these people were making chocolate)! Some of the posters in this section (reminiscent of old Tube posters – they may have been designed by the same people) did make the garden cities look awful tempting though (if you could ignore all the paternalistic garbage)! Even Henry Wellcome, founder of the Wellcome Collection, tried to get in on the action by designing Wellcomeville, a city that would have been built around a pharmaceutical factory and research laboratory, but it fell through in the end, and the research facility was just a stand-alone building in Bloomsbury.

Model of a hospital promoting the King Edward’s Hospital Fund, Wellcome Collection.

There were quite a few films in here featuring what appeared to be interviews with inhabitants of various tower blocks, but the only one I actually sat down and watched was Catherine Yass’s film “Royal London,” showing the demolition of the old hospital. I could only watch a small part of it though, as the camera kept spiralling up and down staircases, and I started feeling a bit motion sick. I was glad to step outside of the film room and examine the huge scale model of a hospital from the 1930s, which was used to raise money for King Edward’s Hospital Fund (it was named after Edward VII, and carried on long after his reign (it actually still exists today under the name King’s Fund), rather than being a short-lived scheme of Edward VIII. I think Edward 8 was probably too busy canoodling with Wallis Simpson to have time for causes, though I suppose the same could be said of Eddy 7 and his many, many mistresses). Queen Mary donated some lace handkerchiefs which were used to make bedspreads for two of the miniature beds, but I can’t help but think that a donation of actual money would have been much more useful (I seem to recall that Mary was notoriously cheap). The hospital scale model sure was neat though; it had little doll versions of patients, doctors, and nurses occupying the miniature hospital rooms, and even a tiny x-ray machine and humorous murals decorating the hospital walls. I’d take that over a dollhouse any day!

Finsbury Health Centre, Wellcome Collection.

Some other things I found interesting were the information about the rise of tower blocks, which were meant to be the wondrous self-contained living of the future, only for the shops within to either never open or fail and the buildings to become dilapidated due to shoddy construction and attract criminal activity; the posters for the Finsbury Health Centre contrasting clean modern living with dirty unhealthy old Britain (released during the war, these were actually banned by Churchill because he thought it was both an insult to pre-war Britain, and it would damage morale if people realised they were living under shitty conditions); and particularly the cartoons showing the differences between old dust-trap buildings, and new, presumably tidier ones (I totally look like the guy in the before version, who sat at work all day with his hand on his head because he had a headache from breathing in the noxious, unventilated fumes. Considering I work in a building that was built in 1904, has bars on the windows, and is rife with asbestos, it’s really not so surprising I get headaches almost every time I’m there).

Paris Montparnasse 1993, Andreas Gurnsky.

And, in a depressing denouement, the exhibition showed how all these “brilliant” ideas from the 20th century about building for the future have mostly been a failure, and resulted in downright tragedy in the case of Grenfell Tower. There was a particularly chilling letter written by a tenants’ activist group a year or two before the fire expressing concerns about the new cladding and the fire safety procedures that instructed tenants to remain in their flats in case of fire, which they warned could lead to disaster, as indeed they did. Even the examples of the new developments in creating light and airy environments for hospital patients, which were plopped right before the exit and I think were meant to cheer us up a bit after the Grenfell stuff, were still a bit grim architecturally, though I suspect I am just really not a fan of modern architecture.

Charles Williams, 1813. A Nonchalant Doctor dancing a jig, Wellcome.

I thought the exhibition was certainly more interesting than its name had led me to believe, but was mostly just rather depressing (except for the above cartoon, which genuinely made me laugh out loud), as it appears that we still haven’t found a good solution to the problems of city living. I’m pretty sure almost no one wants to live in a tower block, but houses are completely unaffordable in London for all but the very wealthy, so until someone comes up with a better solution, that is the sad reality of the situation. I’ll give “Living with Buildings” 3/5, since it wasn’t quite as large as I was expecting, and was really rather dispiriting, though I guess I can’t entirely blame the Wellcome for the latter issue.

The temporary exhibition on the first floor of the Wellcome Collection has also changed over, and is no longer the delightfully creepy “Teeth,” but is instead a companion exhibit to “Living with Buildings” called “Global Clinic.” And that’s literally what it was – a new, mobile clinic design set up inside the gallery space, which will be deployed somewhere in need of an emergency clinic once the exhibition has ended. It is meant to be an improvement on tents and shipping containers, which are currently mostly what are used in disaster situations, and it certainly looked respectively more stable and lighter than those options. However, without the accoutrements of a clinic set up inside, it was literally just looking at a building structure, which was not terribly exciting. There were a few toy designs by students that were intended for use in developing countries in one corner of the gallery, and these were slightly more engaging, though not as much as they could have been if you were actually allowed to play with them. I think the Global Clinic is a good idea, but it’s not necessarily something that needed to physically be here, since although it is an eye-catching structure, seeing it in person wasn’t significantly more interesting than just reading about it. If you’re short on time, I think it’s certainly safe to just breeze right through it or give it a miss entirely! 1.5/5.

London: “Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms” @ the BL

Spong Man, Wikimedia Commons. So adorable!

The museum I work for is very keen on Anglo-Saxons (they’re one of the few things our borough is known for. Well, that, and Korean food), so even though Saxon Britain is not one of my favourite periods of history, I’ve been looking for opportunities to learn more about it. (And I am VERY partial to our wax figure of Athelstan, who I’ve started dressing up for various holidays, though that has more to do with the fact that he’s a wax figure than any specific traits of the real King Athelstan, who seems to have been fairly pious and boring.)  So it was with some interest that I headed to the British Library’s latest exhibition: “Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War” which runs until 19th February 2019.

Woden, British Library.

Admission is £16 (half off available with Art Pass) and I saw there were plenty of spaces available online, so I didn’t bother to book in advance. Like all exhibitions at the BL, we could not take photos, so I’m relying on photos of some of the objects there that Marcus kindly found online for me. It was a similar layout to most of the BL’s exhibitions, which meant a crowd built up in the initial, narrow part of the exhibition, than dissipated as the galleries widened (you’d think they would have sorted that out by now, but no); but it was much less atmospheric than most of the exhibitions I’ve seen here, as the only real theme seemed to be “dark.” This was unfortunate, because like at everything I’ve been to at the BL except Harry Potter, 80% of the visitors were extremely elderly people. Now, I’ve got absolutely nothing against older people (I certainly like them more than young people most of the time), but most of the ones that patronise the BL clearly cannot see a damn thing when the gallery is dark, and I really wish the BL would realise this.

Domesday Book, with stain from medieval spearhead, British Library.

I understand that the galleries have to have low lighting in order to preserve these very rare objects, but maybe they could consider providing some kind of miniature, non-damaging (LED?) torches for those visitors who need them so they wouldn’t have to bend completely over the cases to see them, making it so that no one else can look at the objects (also, I think it’s kind of rude to block a case with your body when other people are clearly trying to look at it, but that’s another story). This happens every single time I come here, and it’s really starting to get to me.

Meister des Evangeliars von Echternach, Wikimedia Commons.

Anyway, annoyances aside – I should talk about what was on display! The galleries were arranged roughly chronologically, though because so many of the manuscripts that survive today were the result of monks copying even earlier manuscripts, most of the texts here could be grouped into one of a few different themes that repeated throughout the galleries (mainly religious ones. There were about four nearly identical drawings of St. Chad, which is fine because they amused me, but c’mon, maybe vary the saints a little bit? I know there had to be more saints than that, even back then, like St. Guthlac from Lincolnshire, for example, as seen near the bottom of this post). The exhibition started with Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica, which is the source of much of our knowledge about the Anglo-Saxons (I believe Bede’s original manuscript no longer exists, but the BL has a copy from the 8th century, made just a few decades after Bede’s death), ended with the Domesday Book, and included a hell of a lot of things written by monks along the way.

Beowulf, British Library.

As you might expect from the British Library, the vast majority of artefacts in here were old books and texts, but there were a few swords and crosses and Alfred’s Jewel, which was quite exciting because there’s an image of it in the stained glass in the museum where I work (the actual thing was probably intended to be a pointer, and may have been included with a copy of Alfred the Great’s book, Pastoral Care (or more accurately, Alfred’s Old English translation of Pope Gregory I’s book. Alfred’s version is the oldest surviving book written in English), which, contrary to what I was initially expecting, is not about taking care of sheep, but about the responsibilities of the clergy (still involves a flock, but I prefer sheep!)). I took a class on Anglo-Saxon literature as an undergrad, so it was pretty cool getting to see the oldest surviving copies of Beowulf and “The Dream of the Rood” – without these, we never would have known they existed (which I guess some people might not necessarily see as a bad thing, but I quite like Beowulf. I dig kennings)!

Alfred Jewel, Ashmolean.

But I have to admit that some of the other books in here were more interesting to look at because they had illustrations. And what illustrations! You’ve probably gotten a good idea of the wonders here already by this point in the post, but man, derpy animals, rather adorable saints, and teeny perfect elaborate little black ink illustrations – this exhibition had it all!

Lindisfarne Gospels, Wikipedia.

Honestly, there was a lot of information here about the Anglo-Saxons, but the names of most of the kings (other than Athelstan) kind of just all blurred together since I knew virtually nothing about them before coming in, and frankly, despite my best efforts, Anglo-Saxons just aren’t interesting enough for me to retain a significant amount of information on them in my brain (I just really don’t care about religion or war. I need some social history to pique my interest, which is why this post is thin on actual historical facts). But I did like the few medical texts in here, and I thought it was neat that they’ve recently re-created the recipe for an eye salve from one of the botanicals and have found it effective against MRSA (the main ingredients seemed to be garlic and leeks).

Blemmyae from Wonders of the East, British Library.

I think my favourite thing on display had to be the book about exotic creatures, including giants and the race of people with a face on their chest that I seem to remember still cropping up centuries later in some early modern text I read for my Master’s (maybe Paré’s On Monsters and Marvels?), clearly based on this much earlier illustration. So so great. I also love the little demon being exorcised, below (I think I’d be tempted to keep him as a pet after he was expelled from my body), but everything in here was striking simply by virtue of being so damn old.

Scene from the Guthlac Roll showing Guthlac exorcising a demon. British Library.

I can’t get over how incredible it is that these books still survive over 1000 years on, and I think getting to see them was probably worth the price of admission (or the half price admission I paid anyway, dunno about the full £16), despite my brain’s failure to absorb any of the information in here except trivia and amusing illustrations (isn’t that always the way though?). I was also disappointed that there wasn’t more about the development of the English language, given all the manuscripts on display (there was a bit of information of this, and it could also be seen in the progression over time from mainly Latin manuscripts to mainly Old English ones, but I think the Weston Library’s exhibition was more comprehensive). So I’ll give it 3/5 – not the best I’ve seen at the BL, but still pretty impressive by virtue of the artefacts on offer, though they really need to sort out a solution to the problem the low lighting appears to cause for the bulk of their visitors.

Combined images from three Psalters: Utrecht Psalter and two based on it, British Library.