UK

London: Teeth @ the Wellcome Collection

I was both excited and apprehensive about seeing the Wellcome Collection’s latest exhibition: “Teeth.” Excited, because the publicity material they released before the exhibition made it look great; apprehensive, because despite my general love for all things gory and medical, historic dentistry creeps me out (even though I’m not really afraid of dentists. Orthodontists, yes (my orthodontist’s awfulness had to be experienced to be believed), but not really dentists. But if you are afraid of dentists, this may not be the post for you). But in the end excitement won out, and I strolled on over to the Wellcome after I visited Cook at the BL.

  

“Teeth” is in the same first floor gallery that “Ayurvedic Man” was in (“Somewhere in Between” is still in the main gallery), and was a big, open, inviting space, with display cases mainly along the walls to make room for historic dental equipment in the middle of the room. I seem to have a knack for finding George Washington’s dentures in various museums (really, more pairs of dentures than you would think the man would have owned), so of course I was immediately on the lookout for some here, and I wasn’t disappointed. Poor old George and his omnipresent dentures. The exhibition theorised that George may have always looked rather stern in portraits because he was straining to keep his mouth closed – upper and lower dentures used to be held together with springs, which would have required some powerful jaw muscles to close!
  
He wasn’t the only famous person whose dental apparatuses were here either. There was also Napoleon’s toothbrush, which is interesting, because there are widely conflicting reports of Napoleon’s dental hygiene out there. His biographer claimed he was fastidious about brushing his teeth and had a beautiful white smile, whereas his contemporaries said his teeth were black and rotting. The pristine state of his toothbrush leads me to believe that his contemporaries probably were correct. Even more intriguing than Napoleon’s toothbrush was the upper plate belonging to Edmund Burke, politician and philosopher. It seemed to indicate that he had a cleft palate, as there was an extra piece on top to fill in a gap in the mouth. Burke famously wrote an essay on beauty in which he claimed that imperfection could add to the beauty of something – perhaps this was something he had firsthand experience of?
  
Because the subject matter was teeth, which is something many people have anxieties about (the exhibition also discussed why this was, and a lot of it did probably have to do with the horrors of pre-20th century dentistry, but some of it is also just the nature of teeth. After all, they are the only part of the skeleton that is exposed during your lifetime (barring any horrific accidents)), obviously some of the objects here were going to be a bit, well, creepy. The creepiest by far were the phantom heads that dentistry students used for practice. I think they would have been less scary if they were actually just a skull, because something about the wooden block with real teeth in it is the stuff of nightmares (as is the even scarier face with metal jaws filled with real teeth, which you’ll see at the bottom of this post, if you’re brave enough!). The display about dentures was less overtly disturbing, but it explained how when cheaper, better looking dentures made of porcelain became available, they were so popular that some people used to get all their teeth pulled in their twenties to avoid the hassle and expense of dental care in their adult lives, which really gives me the willies (Roald Dahl was one of those, and though I dearly love his books, his dentures are always one of the first things to cross my mind when I think of him (much like with George Washington)).
  
Fortunately, my pal Binaca squirrel was there to lighten the mood (I’ve never used Binaca, but it makes me think of that episode of Seinfeld where Elaine sprays Joe Davola in the eyes with cherry Binaca to escape his apartment), as were the letters both to and from the tooth fairy. I must have had quite a good tooth fairy, because there was usually some kind of small gift to accompany the two shiny new 50 cent pieces (I seem to remember it usually being a Disney VHS when I was a kid, but I didn’t lose my last baby tooth until I was 13 and though the tooth fairy still came, it felt more half-assed, not that I blame her) and a note carefully written on heart-shaped construction paper that was folded up small enough to fit inside the little plastic treasure chest that held my tooth. Some of the other tooth fairies were slightly more droll than mine, and their letters had me cracking up (even though the thought of a tooth fairy accidentally removing all the teeth from children who slept with their heads under the pillow would have given me nightmares when I was a kid, so probably for the best my tooth fairy was of a kinder, gentler variety).
   
Other objects of note included an aluminum pair of dentures made by a WWII POW who’d had his good dentures smashed by a Japanese guard (I was relieved that he’d already had dentures, because I know they often just smashed out your actual teeth), a horrible wooden chair for strapping reluctant patients to (which, before anesthesia, was pretty much everyone (shown second photo in the post)), and a number of hilarious historic ads for dentists, toothpaste, etc.
  
And I have to say, I don’t know if the main intention of this exhibition was to promote modern dentistry, but it definitely made me want to make a preventative visit to the dentist (especially the poster describing in great detail exactly how decay takes your teeth if you don’t visit the dentist often enough), so much so that I booked an overdue appointment (only by six months or so, but still) a few days after seeing this. Some of the objects on display were pretty freaky, and if you’re already scared of dentists, this exhibition might not help (though surely at least seeing how much worse it used to be would give you some perspective), but I thought it was fascinating, even though I ended up compulsively running my tongue over my teeth the whole time I was in there (and I don’t think I was the only one doing it either). 4/5.
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London: “James Cook: The Voyages” @ the British Library

Many’s the time I’ve spoken of my fascination with Captain Cook and his voyages, so I’m sure you can all guess that I was pretty excited to learn that Cook would be the subject of the BL’s latest exhibition. It’s the rare sort of exhibition I would have rushed out to see, but I was back in the States when it opened at the end of April, so I went to check it out on my first day off work after I got back (I don’t know why I always fly back the day before I need to go back to work; well, actually I do, because obviously I’m trying to maximise my time back home, but my first week back in London is always a big pile of jet lag, ennui, and homesickness).

Cook’s map of New Zealand, from          Wikipedia.

Admission is £14, but National Art Pass holders get 50% off. Although there were other visitors, it was pretty quiet by British Library standards and I didn’t have to queue to look at anything (huzzah!). The exhibit opened with a large map showing Cook’s voyages, and a small room about the Georgian age of exploration, and from there moved pretty quickly into Cook’s first, and most famous voyage, aboard the Endeavour (as always, no photos were allowed in here, so I’ve endeavoured (see what I did there?) to find some of the images online and available for reuse).  This is of course my personal favourite voyage, because of a certain dishy Joseph Banks, naturalist, botanist (more like hotanist, am I right?), rich guy, casanova, etc (I know I talk about Joseph Banks every time I talk about Cook, but I just love that Joshua Reynolds painting so much. And guess what? It was in the exhibition, so now I finally have an excuse to include it in a post, instead of just sneakily hiding the link somewhere).

Joseph Banks by Sir Joshua Reynolds, oil on canvas, 1771-1773.

As always, the BL excelled with the choice of objects – whilst some pieces were on loan from other London museums, a great deal of it was handwritten objects like diaries, letters, and maps that I had never seen before. I never realised Joseph Banks had such messy handwriting, whereas Cook’s, whilst lacking flourish like the man himself, was very neat and legible (which makes sense, when you think about it, since Cook attended a local school where the boys would have been trained to be clerks, where neat handwriting was an imperative, whereas wealthy Banks could have gotten away with any old messy scrawl).

Tupaia’s drawing of Joseph Banks bartering for a crawfish, c. 1769. Wikimedia Commons.

I’m also kind of in love with Tupaia’s drawings, many of which were included in this exhibition. Tupaia was a priest and navigator that the Endeavour voyagers befriended in Tahiti, and he agreed to travel onward with them and act as their interpreter (which worked well in Polynesia, as the languages all share a root, but was less successful in Australia because the Aboriginal language was completely different, though he still managed to communicate through hand signals). Sadly, Tupaia picked up a fever in Batavia which killed him and his servant as well as two dozen crew members. Honestly, I liked his drawings better than the ones by Sydney Parkinson (who also died en route home, and he only took over as artist after the expedition’s original artist, Alexander Buchan, died in Tahiti (but the expedition actually had a low mortality rate by 18th century standards!)) – they were way more full of character than Parkinson’s work (though I do love his sketches of kangaroos).

Tierra del Fuego by Alexander Buchan, Wikimedia Commons.

The exhibition definitely devoted the most time to the first voyage, which is fair enough, since it was the most iconic one, and the second and third ones got even more ethically murky and depressing, but the second and third voyages did each get a gallery, albeit smaller ones than Endeavour. I was particularly intrigued by a small display before the second voyage that explained why Joseph Banks didn’t end up going as intended (there was an argument about accommodation), and talked about how he went to Scotland and Iceland instead. This included a display of paintings from that trip, which was interesting because those are the artists that would have accompanied the Resolution if Banks had gone, so you could see how very different the images produced on the second voyage would have looked if things had gone just a bit differently (as it was, Banks’s artists did make some cracking paintings of geysers, which is pretty cool).

Drawing of a New Zealand War Canoe by Sydney Parkinson, Wikimedia Commons.

The second voyage was mostly Antarctic in nature, as Cook carried on with the futile search for the great southern continent that was meant to be hiding somewhere down there, and he did make it further south than any man had gone before, but obviously paintings of ice and snow are not as exciting as ones of previously unknown (to Europeans) people and places (though I’m not knocking polar exploration, because I love that too). They did visit Tahiti on this trip too, but it was more of a pick up provisions/reward the men for the awful time in the Antarctic type of thing than a trip of exploration.

Sea Horses by John Webber, David Rumsey Collection.

Of course, the third voyage is the most depressing of all, because this is when Cook’s personality began to change in weird ways to led to him getting killed by the Hawaiians at the end of it (he had become alarmingly hot-tempered, which led to a lot of rash decision making that pissed the Hawaiians off, and rightly so). Before that though, he did embark on another pointless search, this time for the Northwest Passage (like seriously, I’m not a fan of heat, but I would take pineapples over ice and snow any day. He should have stopped agreeing to do this shit), which resulted in some DELIGHTFUL paintings of walruses (walrii?), which they called “sea horses” and sea otters. There was a video at the end of this section that was meant to explain why Cook’s voyages are problematic today, but it seemed a little like an afterthought, which is interesting, because throughout the exhibit, I felt like the curators may have been holding back a little when writing the signage for fear of causing offence. The whole thing was just a little bland, and I think I would have preferred if they had just explained everything in more detail, and included more information from the perspective of the peoples Cook encountered to provide a fuller picture throughout, rather than dancing around cultural misunderstandings the whole time.

Sea Otter by S. Smith, after John Webber, Wikimedia Commons.

Because the start of the exhibition was just a rehash of things I already knew (which is understandable, because I know not everyone is as into Cook as I am), I was worried that it would prove a disappointment, which would have been a shame because of how excited I was to see it. In the end though, whilst I was familiar with most of the material covered here, the artefacts made it well worth my while. It’s not every day you get to see a drawing by Tupaia, or a log written in Cook’s own hand, and those things made it an enjoyable experience (I had also somehow forgotten or overlooked the fact that Botany Bay was originally called Stingray Bay due to the large number of them hanging around the ship. I am shitscared of stingrays, and never would have gone wading there had I known. Good thing (I guess) it looks pretty polluted these days, as it probably drove them all away). The Cook aficionado will find lots of fascinating artefacts here, and people who know less about him will learn something new, but not quite as much as they could have learned if the exhibition had been a bit more forthright. A large part of what makes Cook’s voyages so interesting was the clash of cultures and how Europeans reacted to the unknown (even though their reactions were often horrifically racist and contact ultimately led to governmental policies that were far more destructive than the voyages themselves); and really, by the standards of the time, Cook was a relatively enlightened man (except for on the last voyage) – without his efforts to understand the different societies he encountered, his voyages would not have been the rich source of information about the world that they were, which is worth mentioning (it seems like the exhibition dwelt more on his navigational skills, which in addition to being awesome, were also far less controversial). I’ll give the exhibition 3.5/5.

London: Crystal Palace Dinosaurs

I talked a little bit about the history of the Crystal Palace dinosaurs in my post on “Making Nature” at the Wellcome Collection, and mentioned that I would try to revisit them at some point in the future so I could blog about them. I was intending on going in nicer weather (though I only just realised I said I would try to see them over a year ago, so I don’t know what the hell my excuse was last summer, other than the fact that I was working a terrible horrible job at the time and didn’t want to do much of anything other than escape), but my friend who had never seen them kept badgering me to go with him until I finally just gave in, even though the day we picked was super cold (for April) and rainy, and to quote Gene Belcher, “I’m more of an indoor kid” even at the best of times.

   

Even though I was reluctantly going, I still always aim to be a punctual person (I think lateness is rude), so I felt like a real jerk when Marcus and I ended up meeting him there half an hour late (my fault because I wanted to get cake first, though mainly I blame the TfL website for not mentioning that a rail replacement bus service was in operation, because if the trains had been running we would have made it in time. Rail replacement my ass) and therefore tried to be more agreeable about the whole experience than I normally would, even when I was cold and wet and tired of walking around, which meant we ended up spending an hour and a half there instead of the half an hour I was planning on, and took in most of what Crystal Palace has to offer (not just dinosaurs!).

  

Crystal Palace takes its unusual name from the Crystal Palace, as in, the giant glass structure that was the centrepiece of the Great Exhibition of 1851, which was moved from Hyde Park to what was then called Penge Common in 1854 and soon joined by a number of other attractions, including the famous dinosaurs, which are the oldest dinosaur sculptures in the world. (They were made by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins under the direction of Richard Owen, who was the dinosaur expert of his day. Unfortunately, he was working with incomplete skeletons and somewhat flawed scientific knowledge, so he got a lot of things hilariously wrong, as you can probably see.)  Crystal Palace sounds like it was amazing until it fell into decline in the late 1800s, and eventually burned down in 1936.  All that you’re left with today are some statues, some (most?) of the dinosaurs, and a pretty big park, which I suppose is nothing to scoff at, but still not as great as seeing the Crystal Palace itself would have been.

  

We started with the dinosaurs, some of which have recently been restored. The collection, which also includes some prehistoric mammals, is arranged on four different “islands” which surround a lake that is apparently meant to represent primordial ooze (you can paddleboat on it these days). I loved the signage they have there now about the dinosaurs, which explains what modern palaeontologists think the Victorians got wrong (to amusing effect…please read the last sentence on the Hylaeosaurus), and also describes how Hawkins and Owen deliberately hid the dinosaurs whose reconstructions they were least confident about (yet left the Iguanodon out there loud and proud…). The Mosasaur is my personal favourite (below right) – he’s so damn derpy, but they all are really, and you have to wonder how the Victorians thought they would obtain food with those big fat bodies. Maybe just sit there with their mouths hanging open and wait for something to fly in?

  

The mammals are marginally less hilarious, though I still have to wonder about the tails on those camel-headed things, and I don’t know what they’re trying to hide on the giant sloth, because you can’t even see his face from the path. The giant elk look fine, but that’s because elk are still a thing, so they didn’t have to guess what they would look like (they originally had real antlers, but they were too heavy for the sculptures and the heads were in danger of cracking off, so they had to be replaced with fake ones). There’s also a random gorilla statue off by himself (not part of the islands), though I’m not sure why he was there, because he didn’t have a sign (other than the dinosaurs, pretty much nothing here does, which is a little frustrating when you’re trying to figure out who a headless statue was meant to be).

  

After getting our fill of laughing at the dinos, we headed off to explore the rest of the park, which meant tramping through an awful lot of mud, mainly. I was thrilled to discover there was a maze, though when we got inside, the giant puddles proved the greatest impediment to our journey, as the hedges weren’t grown in yet at this time of year and we could see right over the tops (it still took longer than I thought it would to find the centre though, so that’s something).

  

We also found a stage, so perhaps they have concerts there on occasion, though it was in such a state of disrepair that I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to stand on it. There are a couple of TV towers that loom over everything, but really the main other attractions of note are the only remaining parts of the original Crystal Palace complex, which include the aforementioned headless statues (and some with heads -still no idea who they are, though I looked it up afterwards, and apparently they’re meant to represent different countries), and those rather grand sphinxes on an Italianate wall.  They have also re-created a corner of the original structure, but it very literally is the bare minimum they could have done, and I would have loved to see more. I mean, why even bother just sticking up a couple of pieces of metal?! That’s just a tease!

  

After an hour and a half of exploring, we’d all had enough (frankly, I’d had enough after the dinosaurs, but like I said, I was trying not to complain as much as I usually do), so we headed off to a brewery in nearby Gipsy Hill (which I also didn’t complain about, even though I’m not normally very keen on drinking), passing a house that Leslie Howard used to live in on the way. The dinosaurs are a delight, and well worth seeing (in better weather, if possible), but I do wish they could rebuild more of the Crystal Palace (and restore more of the dinosaurs). There is also a tiled Victorian subway in the area that is occasionally open to the public, and a small Crystal Palace museum, which I strangely did not visit (I’m not even sure if it was open when we were there). It’s all free, and at any rate, it’s something to do of a weekend, especially if you enjoy looking at dogs in sweaters (and one with a tennis ball who followed Marcus around for quite a while, see below – I would have taken him home with us, but I think the owner might have objected).

  

London: “Somewhere in Between” and “Ayurvedic Man” @ the Wellcome Collection

I recently went to see the new special exhibition at the Wellcome Collection: “Somewhere in Between,” which runs until 27th August (my birthday!). I normally wouldn’t exactly rush out to something arty like this, but I wanted to make sure I also got to see “Ayurvedic Man: Encounters with Indian Medicine” in the first floor gallery, which ended on the 8th of April (also I had a hankering for roti canai, which was the main reason I needed an excuse to go to Euston (there’s a Malaysian restaurant near the station)).

  

Like all Wellcome exhibitions, “Somewhere in Between” is free, and was happily much less crowded than their exhibitions normally are, perhaps due in part to the open layout. The exhibition consists of four immersive installations that are the result of collaborations between artists and scientists, and are meant to be an exploration of art and science, or, I suppose, somewhere in between, hence the title.
  
The first “immersion” we ventured into was “Sire” by Maria McKinney. I don’t think I fully understood the exhibition when I was in there (I was more just like, “Ooh look, pictures of cows wearing silly sculptures. Oh, but wait, they’re being pulled by rings through their noses and they look like they might be in pain. Not great”) but after reading the exhibition catalogue, it makes more sense. Apparently the photographs are of stud bulls, wearing sculptures woven from semen straws (brightly coloured straws that are used to artificially fertilize cows with bull semen), and the sculptures themselves were inspired by genomes. So it’s a commentary on how genetic breeding has affected the modern cattle industry, but I don’t feel it was really a critique, more just that it was asking us to recognise that a lot of selective breeding has gone into creating the modern cow. As a vegetarian, I probably would have preferred more of a critique (though I don’t eat meat more because of pickiness than ethics, so I’m not really very militant about it), but it was fine, albeit not really what I would call immersive.
  
I can’t properly comment on Daria Martin’s pieces, because I didn’t get what the hell was going on. I went into two connected rooms, both of them showing videos of a woman touching a knife, but it was kind of weird (not in a good way), so I left pretty promptly. It was meant to be about synesthesia, but it wasn’t communicated very well. Martina Amati’s “Under”, whilst also a video, was a lot better; it was three video screens placed around a room showing her and others freediving, and because of the lighting and sound effects, did actually feel a bit like I was underwater, so was properly immersive.
  
But the best installation of all was John Walter’s “Alien Sex Club”, which was a maze themed around a gay sex club with a sinister side, as the threat of HIV was lurking around every corner. I loved the wallpaper in here, and Walter’s paintings (especially the tarot-esque cards on the back wall), and the cartoons, and even the creepy booths in the back with glory holes (I was the main creeper in them though – I think I’m far too good at creeping for my own good). It felt like he’d certainly put the most effort into his installation out of the artists here, and I liked that we could actually explore the maze and interact with it in a limited way. On the whole, the exhibition wasn’t as appealing to me as something history-based (rather than art-based) would have been, and I’m not sure I really got the message that most of the artists were trying to convey (the science theme seemed rather stretched), but it was free, so it was fine. 2.5/5.
  
We then headed upstairs to see “Ayurvedic Man,” based around an 18th century Nepali painting from the Wellcome’s collection, as well as many other paintings, texts, and artefacts relating to Indian medicine, specifically ayurveda, which is a branch of Indian medicine that translates as “the knowledge of long life.” This exhibition actually seemed larger than the one downstairs in the main gallery, and certainly contained much more detailed text panels than “Somewhere in Between.” I really liked the copies of all the letters exchanged between Henry Wellcome’s agent in India and Wellcome himself about the agent’s acquisitions, because they let us see colonialism in action in a way that the Wellcome normally shies away from, and were also a fascinating view into how the Wellcome Collection was initially curated (Wellcome advised against buying too much erotic art, as it was far too “common,” presumably in both senses of the word).
  
I thought the information about how British authorities attempted to deal with the plague epidemic of 1896 was extremely interesting (their public heath measures often failed due to their lack of cultural sensitivity, big surprise), and I liked the interactive cartoons about the plague measures from the Hindi Punch (though I didn’t get to explore the touch screen ones further, because a couple of guys were hogging it, and when I tentatively touched what I thought was part of a different screen (they were projected on the wall, so it was hard to tell), it turned out to be part of the one the guy was using, and he gave me such a dirty look that I just got the hell out of there).
 
Actually, everything in here was pretty interesting, not least the iPads at the end where you could explore healing recipes using one of eight healing spices in Ayurvedic medicine, and submit one of your own (I totally did, as you’ll see below, though I don’t think it was healing in quite the way they intended. It also isn’t my recipe (it’s from the excellent Taco Cleanse, but I know it by heart because I make it all the time), but I have altered it a bit to my preferences, and it is a very tasty sauce (warning, may cause stomach cramps!). And possibly TMI, but I should point out that I don’t, in fact, need a cure for constipation – I only phrased it like that because when I was writing the recipe, it had the prompt “I would use this recipe if” which I was annoyed to see didn’t turn up on the published recipe, as it completely changes the meaning!). I think this was a far more successful exhibition than “Somewhere in Between,” because it does play much more to the Wellcome’s strengths, which are of course history of medicine, and its fascinating collection of curiosities. Sorry that I’ve blogged about it too late for anyone to see it, but the upcoming exhibition on teeth in that gallery looks promising as well, if the adorable squirrel image they’re using to advertise it is anything to go by. 4/5.
  

Oxford: The Pitt Rivers Museum

At last, here’s the museum I’ve been referencing during the whole Oxford adventure: the Pitt Rivers. The museum was founded in 1884 by Lieutenant-General Augustus Henry Lane Pitt Rivers (I believe he went by Henry), who was already a military man and a collector when he unexpectedly fell into a boatload of money in 1880 (a distant relative died and left it to him), which of course meant even more collecting. I get the impression he was a Henry Wellcome type figure (or Frederick Horniman, or any of the other thousands of wealthy male collectors who seemed to be floating around Victorian England, throwing their money at exotic taxidermy and amusing statues with giant phalluses). The original collection was about 30,000 objects which over the years has expanded to around half a million.

  

The museum is located at the back of Oxford’s Natural History Museum (both museums are free to visit), so you first walk through a room full of rather delightful taxidermy (and a dodo: the dodo is just a model, but is still pretty impressive (you can see him near the end of this post), and there is an actual preserved dodo head in the museum’s collections, though it is too fragile to display), but otherwise quite a light, airy, and open space, only to pop through a doorway at the back and be met with the sheer pandemonium that is the Pitt Rivers. I really don’t know how else to describe it, but you can probably get a sense of what I mean from the pictures (though it doesn’t fully convey the assault on the senses that the museum provides – well, sight and smell anyway, as there’s also a strong smell of mothballs that pervades the air when you’re inside).
  
The museum is unusual (well, maybe I should say one way the museum is unusual) because it is arranged typologically rather than chronologically or by location, or one of the other normal ways museums are organised. This means you get lots of cases full of just guns, say, or shoes, irrespective of where or when they’re from. If things serve the same basic function, they’re all lumped together, which is interesting because, to quote the museum’s website: “This way of displaying means that you can see how many different people have solved common problems and how many different solutions have been found over time or in different parts of the world.” This was originally done because Pitt Rivers was keen on the history of design (and ethnography, obviously), but the museum just decided to roll with it even after the signage no longer necessarily reflected this.
 
  

If it looks overwhelming, it is also because it is apparently the most “exhibited” museum in the world per square metre (this was something I overheard a tour guide say, and I think basically means that they have the most amount of crap piled into a space that it is possible to have. Exhibited sounds fancier though). The museum takes up three floors, and each case has extra drawers in it that you can open (though most of the drawers are not organised in any way, and have no labels, so there’s not much point) so it is really, really a lot of crap. I spent hours there on my first visit, but having already seen it, I could afford to be a bit more economical with my time (after all, I wanted to get in a stop at the original Ben’s Cookies before we had to catch the train home) on this visit, and go directly to my favourite artefacts.

  

Naturally, that includes these fabulous puppets, located near the entrance (I feel like I need to give directions, or you’ll never find this stuff otherwise). I think Professor England or random angry Russian woman is my favourite, though of course I have a soft spot for George Washington too (frankly, I’m surprised there was just a puppet of him here, and not his false teeth, because every other damn museum seems to own a pair. Maybe I just didn’t look hard enough). I love the “scare devil” to bits too. And I’m pretty sure one of the main reasons I visited Pitt Rivers in the first place was to see their shrunken heads, very non-PC though they are (the Natural History Museum in Cleveland had shrunken heads too when I was a kid, and they scared the crap out of me back then. I used to close my eyes and run past the case where they were kept, but I somehow still grew up into a weird adult who loves this kind of stuff).

  

I do think the ground floor in general probably has the most interesting artefacts in it, and, totally not an artefact, but they have a donation box that features curators performing a sort of begging dance for your donations, which I think is really cute (though I don’t seem to have a photo of it). There are varying amounts of text in the cases – some sections have quite detailed information about the background of the objects, others just have simple labels stating what the objects are and where they came from.

  

I also quite like the first floor, especially the display on games, which includes an early Italian deck of Tarot cards; and the rather large display on body modification. Well, the tattoo section was really interesting anyway; the sections on foot binding and head shaping just made me feel a bit ill. There’s also a display of artefacts collected on Cook’s voyages, which is damn cool (really looking forward to the upcoming Cook exhibition at the BL!).

  

The second floor reflects Pitt Rivers’ greatest passion, which was his collection of firearms and other weapons (thanks to his military background, that was how he first got into collecting). Unfortunately, guns are definitely not my passion (which is probably an unusual view for an American, I know, but I actually hate the damn things), so this is the floor I spent the least amount of time on. I do like the Japanese armour and the horned skull though!

  

I swear the Pitt Rivers used to have a shop, because I remember buying postcards the last time I was here, but they are in the process of doing construction work (as evidenced by the banging and drilling I could feel under my feet on the upper levels, which actually felt like a lovely massage (my feet always hurt), but was a bit worrying in terms of structural integrity), so it seems to have disappeared (the Natural History Museum has a shop, and they do have some good dodo merchandise, but nothing Pitt Rivers related). There was a small display on Tito in Africa in a ground floor gallery, which I was briefly excited by when I mis-read it as “Toto in Africa” (and had that song stuck in my head all day as a result) but I didn’t actually look around very much because I was anxious to get food before the train (in addition to Ben’s Cookies, we also stopped at a place called Dosa Park across from the station for an early dinner before we left, because I love dosa, and get real hangry real fast if I don’t eat (and actually, it was lucky we did, because the District Line was completely screwed when we got back, and what should have been like half an hour journey back from Paddington turned into a nightmare two hours, but that’s another story.)). But Pitt Rivers as a whole is an amazing experience, though admittedly not the most culturally sensitive in parts (I think some of the labels are probably decades old), and I definitely think it is worth seeing just for the experience of standing there and gazing at their awesomely cluttered galleries (and the Natural History Museum isn’t half bad either, if you have time. They let you pet some of the taxidermy!). 4/5.

  

Bonus picture of me on my first visit here almost exactly six years ago, which I think illustrates the vagaries of British weather quite well (and also possibly how much I’ve aged).

Oxford: “Sappho to Suffrage” and “Designing English” @ Weston Library

We didn’t have any trouble finding our next destination, the Weston Library, as it was across the street from the Museum of the History of Science.  I was planning on going anyway to see “Designing English,” which was a display of some of their collection of medieval manuscripts (I’m not gonna lie, I was hoping for butt trumpet marginalia), and then it turned out that there was a suffragette display there too, so that was a nice surprise.

  

The Weston is a branch of the Bodleian Library, but isn’t actually in the Bodleian, so it is just a nondescript building compared to the magnificence of the Bodleian (or so I imagine, since we didn’t have time to visit the actual Bodleian on this trip), but you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover and all that, so I was still eager to see their displays, even though the interior was kind of blah and dominated mostly by a very crowded cafe. The exhibitions were both free to visit, so after taking a moment to admire a large, tapestry-style map of Oxfordshire and the surrounding counties (being from Stratford-upon-Avon, Marcus was a bit miffed that it wasn’t included (Update: Yes, it is, listed as “Stretford.” He found it on the photo in this post.)), we headed in (fortunately, the Weston is one of those chill libraries that lets you take your bag into the exhibition galleries, unlike the National Archives, who still stick in my craw).

  

We started with “Sappho to Suffrage: Women who Dared,” which sounded pretty great from the name alone, and I wasn’t disappointed by the choice of artefacts or women featured here. There was a nice mix of stuff from big famous names and also lesser-known but equally interesting women. So of course Jane Austen’s teenage diary was amazing, as was Mary Shelley’s manuscript of Frankenstein (even though the copy on show was only a facsimile), but I also loved learning about women like Mary Lacy, who was probably the first woman to take an exam as a shipwright and receive a pension from the Royal Admiralty (she served in the navy whilst posing as a man, but applied for a pension in 1771 under her real name, and was granted it!); and Marjory Wardrop, who fell in love with Georgia (the country) after her diplomat brother travelled there, so she learned Georgian and eventually translated the most famous Georgian epic poem, though sadly didn’t think it was fit for publication, so it wasn’t published until after her death (it totally was fit for publication, by the way, and has become the standard by which Georgian to English translations are measured).

  

There were many more wonderful artefacts, like a drawing by Ada Lovelace, the only surviving copy of a board game called Suffragetto, as seen above (a game of suffragettes vs police where suffragettes try to occupy the House of Commons whilst also defending Albert Hall against the police, while the police try to defend the House of Commons whilst occupying Albert Hall), a scrap of one of Sappho’s poems, and lots of books and illustrations by various female pioneers in medicine, botany, photography, etc. etc. (I wish I had more pictures to share, but the lighting was poor and we didn’t know we were allowed to take them til the end.) How rad is that Oxford Women Suffrage poster though?!

  

We finished looking around the exhibition just in time, as a large group of students (ironically all male, though I suppose they were high school age rather than from the university) filed in just as we were about to leave.  Fortunately, “Designing English: Graphics on the Medieval Page” only had a handful of people inside. This was also a really amazing exhibition, filled with lots of beautiful manuscripts; though sadly, almost none of the marginalia I was hoping for (one of the books had a little monster in the margins, and I’ll certainly take it, but of course I wanted to see a butt trumpet or at least an aggressive snail).

  

However, what the exhibition lacked in hilarious marginalia, it made up for with the quantity and quality of the pieces on display, as well as the accompanying text, which was both interesting and informative. There was even a giant piece of vellum stretched across a hoop so we could see exactly how it was made in the display about book production.

  

My favourite book was probably one where one monk had started to lay down the notes for a religious song (a “nowell” which had me singing “The First Noel” in my head (for an atheist, I do really love Christmas carols) though of course this song would have pre-dated that by centuries), for which he promised the lyrics would follow, but then another monk stepped in and wrote down the lyrics to a drinking song instead. But so much of this was deeply fascinating, like a book with a poem that had every rhyming couplet written in a different colour ink, so the reader would understand that it was supposed to rhyme (which shows how poetry has evolved); and a fold-up vellum manuscript for an astrologer or doctor (really, there wasn’t much difference back then) to carry around and diagnose various ailments based on the astrological sign active at the time.

  

I suppose the exhibition was meant to be showing the evolution of graphic design, but I found the evolution of English itself much more interesting, both in the aforementioned poetry book, and in prayerbooks that show the transition from Latin into the vernacular.  For example, there was a book that quoted a poem by Caedmon, the earliest English poet, who was a possibly illiterate animal husbandman who had songs appear to him in dreams – the book was in Latin, but when it got to Caedmon’s poem, it switched to English that was slightly set-off from the rest of the text. They explained the reasons for this in a more detailed way that I can’t remember, but take my word for it, it was neat.

  

It was awesome getting to see all these beautifully preserved books and manuscripts that were hundreds of years old, and I learned a lot too (though have clearly forgotten some of it – I should have written this post first thing!). I think these two exhibitions were probably the best things we saw in Oxford (Pitt Rivers is amazing, as you’ll see it in the next post, but I had seen it before, so it wasn’t quite as awe-inspiring this time around), and I recommend seeing them both, if you can (“Designing English” is only on til 22 April, but “Sappho to Suffragette” will be there until 2019). 4.5/5 for “Designing English” and 4/5 for “Sappho to Suffragette.”

Oxford: Museum of the History of Science

The second museum we visited in Oxford was the Museum of the History of Science. To be honest, after the less-thrilling-than-hoped-for Whipple Museum in Cambridge, I was prepared to give this one a miss too (I know, I’m being ruthless, but I wanted to save plenty of time for the Pitt Rivers), but we passed it anyway en route to the Weston Library, and a sign outside advertising Anna Dumitriu’s “BioArt and Bacteria” exhibition drew me in (it ended 18 March, so unfortunately, you won’t be able to see it).

  

The museum is housed in the world’s oldest surviving purpose-built museum building, and it’s free to visit, so I suppose it was worth popping in for that alone, though to be honest, the big stone heads outside the museum were my favourite part. But I’ll say no more about those (because really, there’s no point in my rambling on about them when all you have to do is look at them, and you’ll see that they’re hilarious) and move on to discussing the museum, which was completed in 1683 to hold the original incarnation of the Ashmolean. So it was pretty obvious that the Ashmolean started out as a much smaller institution, because whilst this was a decently sized building, spread out over three floors, it was way smaller than the Ashmolean now, which was fine with me, since I didn’t want to spend loads of time here anyway.

  

We started with the entrance gallery, which was small and spread out around the (tiny) shop, and provided an introduction to the collection. I’m not entirely sure what the little carved skeletons have to do with the history of science, other than being skeletons, but I’m not complaining.

  

We then headed upstairs, which meant climbing a whole lot of wooden steps. I’m only in my early 30s, but I swear my knees are starting to go, because they were aching by the time I got to the top. The upstairs gallery houses the mathematical instruments, which fortunately for me included things like globes, so it wasn’t a complete waste of time walking up there only to be bored senseless by the collection. And a lot of the instruments up here (even the boring ones) were owned by famous scientists, which is interesting in itself. I have to say that my favourite artefact up here wasn’t even in the gallery, but was a pastel drawing of the moon from 1795 which was hung up next to the stairs. The level of detail was quite impressive, and I’m a sucker for lunar things anyway.

   

The temporary exhibition, which is the whole reason I went into the museum, was downstairs, but before going in there, I got sidetracked by the donation box, which was an orrery that rotated when you put money in it (I only paid for half a revolution, as a whole year cost £2 and I’m cheap, but I got to see it in action anyway, and honestly, it wasn’t that thrilling, so half a year was plenty. The carnival style sign on it was better than the orrery itself).  The medical collection was also kept downstairs, and though it was smaller than I was hoping, there were still some cool artefacts, like that model of a nervy head (the hair was the best/creepiest touch).

  

Actually, there was lots of neat stuff down here (even the gallery itself looked awesomely old fashioned, as you can probably tell). Early Marconi radios, a microphone that Dame Nellie Melba used to perform the first radio concert in 1920 (and subsequently signed), cameras owned by Lewis Carroll and T.E. Lawrence (of course), and a blackboard Albert Einstein wrote on when he was delivering a lecture at Oxford in 1931. Really cool, although I didn’t understand a damn thing on it!

  

Finally, I made it into the “BioArt” exhibition, which I really enjoyed (I was less keen on the steward who kept following me around the rather narrow gallery, but I’m sure he was just doing his job). There were dresses woven from fabric patterned with TB and streptococcus (I would wear the streptococcus one, below), old blue TB sputum collecting cups, which were strangely lovely (and safely behind glass, since I’m not sure if they were actually used or not), and (this kind of even grossed me out) an artificially grown tooth that was really big and deformed, set in a necklace of real teeth (the artificial tooth was by far the grossest part because it was so misshapen, so of course I’m including a picture. I feel a little sick just thinking about it, which is rare for me with medical stuff, since usually the grosser the better as far as I’m concerned). I was glad I came in to see it (the exhibition, not the tooth, which I could have done without), because it was interesting stuff (or “infectiously good” as Marcus cleverly put it in the guidebook), though I had a bit of a sore throat later that week and was just a teeny bit worried that something in there was actually infectious (I’m sure it wasn’t, and I’m fine now, but it did make me wonder).

   

On the whole, I think I enjoyed this more than the Whipple Museum (yet have still given it the same score), because it was the same sort of stuff (scientific instruments), simply displayed, which is not inherently that thrilling, but the fact that almost everything here was owned by somebody famous upped the interest level, and the temporary exhibition was good. I do wish that these history of science museums were more interactive (more like the Science Museum in London I suppose) or dynamic, but maybe that’s just the nature of this kind of museum (although history of medicine museums tend to be WAY more exciting to me than this, but that could just be because I know way more about the history of medicine. Maybe if I was a science nerd, I’d be really into history of science museums too). Worth seeing because it’s free, but you won’t need to spend a ton of time here, because the signage isn’t always the best (very matter of fact for the most part) and there isn’t a lot of explanation of how things are used for those of us who aren’t scientists, which is a shame, because I think I could take more of an interest if I understood exactly what I was looking at. 3/5.

  

Oxford: The Ashmolean Museum

Diverting Journeys turned five yesterday, which is pretty exciting (though admittedly I didn’t actually do anything to mark the occasion other than eating some oreo cake I made, and I would have done that anyway, but I think it’s still worth a mention). I’m currently up to 340 posts, and the most popular is still (still!) the Arnold Schwarzenegger Museum, which I wrote in my third month of blogging, so I suppose I could have just stopped there, but I really am glad I’ve been able to have so many adventures over the years, and that a very small (and very awesome, obviously) subset of the population seems to be interested in reading about them, so a big thank you to everyone who has stuck around and still reads (and comments on, especially – I love comments!) my ramblings – I hope you’ll all stick around for the next five years, or however long I manage to keep this thing going for! Now, on with the regularly scheduled post!

  

I’m pretty lazy most weekends – even leaving my flat can be a stretch, since I’d prefer to just sit on the couch in my jimjams all day, but if I actually take a day off work, I feel like it’s a waste if I don’t do something. So it was that I decided to head up to Oxford for a day last week, and get in some good solid museuming. My Cambridge expedition last year was such a success that it seemed only right to give Oxford its turn. I’d been to the Pitt Rivers years before, and was dying to go back and take some decent photos this time around so I could blog about it (or more accurately, for Marcus to take some decent photos so I could blog about it), and also explore some of Oxford’s other museums, which I hadn’t had a chance to do on my previous visit.

  

However, I only reluctantly agreed to visit the Ashmolean, despite it being one of the most well-known museums in Oxford (maybe even in all of England), since for a museum person, I am weirdly not that into art and archaeology. But Marcus knows how to sell me on things, and it was the “dish with a composite head of penises” that did it.  Also, the museum is free, which meant I could pop in and just see the things I wanted to see without being compelled to look at all the boring stuff in order to feel I got my money’s worth.

  

But the dickhead plate, as I chose to crudely refer to it, would have to wait, because there were other objects in the museum that commanded my more immediate attention, by virtue of being on the same floor as the bathrooms (look, I’m not going to use a train toilet unless it’s an emergency, so I needed to pee by the time I arrived), the first being Powhatan’s cloak (yes, THAT Powhatan, as in the father of Pocahontas). I’ve visited Pocahontas’s grave in Gravesend (or at least the spot where she was meant to be buried), and I was also interested to see her father’s cloak (above left). Well, it was more likely just a decorative piece of fabric than a cloak, and may not have belonged to Powhatan, but it did come from one of the tribes in his chiefdom, and was from the right time period, so still pretty cool.

  

Some other really neat things were in this area too (as you might expect, since it was the highlights of the collection gallery), like the lantern Guy Fawkes carried when he tried to blow up Parliament, and Oliver Cromwell’s death mask. I feel like I should have saved this area for last though (and you’re probably meant to, since the shop is down here as well, but my bladder doesn’t give a crap about my looking around a museum in the correct order), because the rest of the collection paled by comparison, especially in terms of the density of cool stuff.

  

The Ashmolean is the first university museum in the world, started by Elias Ashmole, who bequeathed his collection of curiosities to Oxford in 1677, which included earlier curiosities from the Tradescants, who were collectors themselves (I’ve been to their grave too – they’re buried in the same churchyard as William Bligh, which is now part of the Garden Museum), and has been greatly expanded in the ensuing centuries, so the collection is varied enough that there were other interesting things to look at, including more recent objects like robes belonging to T.E. Lawrence (aka Lawrence of Arabia. You’ll see him crop up a lot in this series of Oxford posts), but I have to admit that the bulk of it was not really to my taste.

   

Their ceramics collection was sadly nowhere as full of delights as the one at the Fitzwilliam, but I did find a couple of gems, like that James II and Anne Hyde plate, and the Frederick the Great teapot that I originally thought was George III (I just went to see Hamilton (after having to book tickets way back in January 2017), and King George was one of my favourite parts, so I think I have George on the brain (definitely his song, actually most of the songs. And Peggy)).

  

The ceramics, though mostly disappointing, were exciting mainly because I felt like I was drawing closer to the dickhead plate. And indeed, my hunch would have been correct, had the damn thing actually been there! (Actually, I did anticipate this, mainly because it seems like things I’m most excited to see are never on display, but that didn’t make it any less disappointing.) We were sadly met with this sign in lieu of the plate, which is really irritating, because the website didn’t mention that it wasn’t there, like it did with some of the other highlights, and also the exhibition it was in ended last September, so where the hell is it now? I know Tokyo is a long way away, but even if they’re sending it back via ship, it doesn’t take six months! You would think a museum wouldn’t be content to let one of its star objects just float around in the ether for that long, but I guess this is one of the dangers of having such a large collection – they barely miss something when it’s gone!

  

Honestly, after that disappointment, I was ready to just leave. I had a lot of other museums I wanted to see, and a limited amount of time, and I didn’t want to waste any more of it in here. But we were in the middle of the museum when we discovered the dickhead plate was gone, so I still ended up looking around on the way out, as you do. Most of it was really boring furniture and art (like early modern European stuff, and despite the fact that I liked early modern history enough to do a Master’s in it, I’m pretty meh about the art, especially shit commissioned by various European minor royals I’ve never heard of. Give me medicine and literature any day over that!), but there was one of Stradavari’s violins, and more excitingly (to me) those charming ducks (or maybe geese, but they look friendly, which is why I’m going with ducks. Geese are jerks).

  

A lot of the rest of the museum (as you might expect from an archaeology collection) was antiquities, which again, I’m not super enthused by, but I do have a bit of a soft spot for the Ancient Egyptians, so we detoured from the path to the exit to check some of it out, inadvertently absorbing some other ancient cultures on the way. That picture of me and the derpy lion is sort of unintentionally hilarious, because of the hand-wrapped-around penis statue looming behind me (it would have been more impressive when it was made, as he would have had a four foot dong). Even though the delightful dickhead plate wasn’t there, at least there was no shortage of penises (penii?) on display, thanks in large part (ha!) to the Greeks and Romans in the hall of statues.

  

Though there are undoubtedly many treasures here (probably many more than I saw, since I skipped two-thirds of the museum), it just wasn’t really my cup of tea. Except for the really rare objects from historical eras I’m actively interested in (the early modern stuff in the rarities section), most of the rest of these kind of artefacts blur together after a while for me (probably because I don’t understand enough about the cultures they came from, which I admit is my own failing), and I can only take so much before I get cranky and want to leave. They have an exhibition about witchcraft coming up this summer that I might consider returning for (though I’ll gauge the contents online first), but I think I saw enough to get a good sense of what’s here, and know that whilst most people probably love the Ashmolean, it’s not for me (except for the big, grinning sarcophagus below. He can move in with me if he wants to. Don’t know where I’ll put him, but we’ll work something out). 2.5/5. (I know, it’s such a low score for such a big important museum, but I enjoyed it less than all the other Oxford museums, so that’s really all I can give it.)

 

 

 

 

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

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

   

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

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

London: “Rhythm and Reaction” @ Two Temple Place

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

  

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

  

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

  

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

  

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

  

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

  

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

  

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

  

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

  

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