Bristol

Bristol: death: the human experience @ Bristol Museum + Bonus Taxidermy

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A brief, but only mildly irritated rant, because I feel some explanation is needed: I know you can’t tell, because the title text on my blog shows up in all capitals, but the name of this exhibit is written in all lower case letters, both on the museum’s website, and at the exhibition itself (and you’ll probably notice that I reluctantly follow their model when I talk about it later in this paragraph, hence the need for an explanation).  I don’t know if they’re playing around with being e e cummings or what, but c’mon now, things are capitalised for a reason.  I’d sooner go back to the rather charming Georgian (Germanic?) habit of capitalising most nouns than lose it altogether.  That aside, death: the human experience was my main motivation for going down to Bristol in the first place, because I am a morbid individual who’s into shit like that.  Although I did take my time in getting down there, in hopes of slightly warmer weather, the exhibit ended on the 13th of March (sorry for not getting this post up while it was still on), so there came a point when I couldn’t wait any longer, and we just had to be cool with driving through sleet.

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The neat thing about the exhibit is that it was operating under a pay what you can afford/what you think it’s worth system, which was convenient as I can currently afford very little, and tend to think most exhibits are way overpriced.  The Bristol Museum itself is free anyway, so although we did choose to donate something, it wasn’t strictly necessary (if you weren’t bothered about supporting the museum), as the donation box was in a fairly low-pressure environment (there was a staff member standing nearby, but she wasn’t right on top of you, and didn’t seem to be paying much attention to whether people were donating or not).  I actually really liked the opening section of this exhibit, which was a long, dimly lit gallery filled with objects that make people think of death, like skeletons and vultures.  I liked it less when a shitload of students piled in the door right after we arrived and were breathing down my neck, but fortunately the woman working there saw my obvious irritation (I did sigh loudly and make a comment about all the young people.  I’m kind of a jerk) and instructed half of them to go around the exhibit in the opposite direction, which greatly eased traffic and earned my gratitude.

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However, the rest of the exhibit wasn’t really anything remarkable.  It consisted of about five other small galleries, each dealing with a different aspect of death, from different cultural funerary practices, to death throughout history, and the various ways people die.  I reckon if I hadn’t seen SMRT in Prague, and the National Museum of Funeral History in Houston last year, I might have been more impressed with Bristol’s effort, but it did pale in comparison.  For example, they had one of the Ghanaian fantasy coffins in the Bristol Museum, which was cool, but there was a whole room full of them in Houston.  And the National Museum in Prague devoted a whole large gallery to ancient burial practices, whereas here there was only room for one small case.  I’m not knocking it; they did the best they could with the space they had available, it was just on a much smaller scale than the other museums.

Which is not to say I didn’t learn anything or enjoy myself – I thought the description of the objects that members of the museum staff buried their relatives with was very sweet (someone buried their grandfather with mint imperials, because he always had a bag to hand, which reminded me of my grandma, who we buried with a pack of Dentyne gum, as she was constantly chewing it (oddly, although Dentyne is not sugar-free, she kept almost all of her teeth, so maybe there’s something to be said for it?)).  For some reason, learning that people in the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland are given a piece of chocolate to take the bitter taste of the poison out of their mouths depressed me more than anything else in the museum.  Not that there’s anything depressing about Swiss chocolate (though I do prefer Belgian), I think it just made me picture the process of assisted suicide too vividly.  I also liked that there was a sort of “decompression” room at the end that was full of pamphlets about death, including one to help you plan your funeral arrangements.  I suppose I’m not at an age where most people start to worry about these things, but I’ve always felt hyper-conscious of my own mortality, and I definitely think death shouldn’t be a taboo subject, so I’m glad that the museum was encouraging people to talk about these things.  I liked their message, and the content, I just wish there could have been more of it, but like I said, I might just be spoiled by visiting a lot of exhibits of this nature.  3/5 for death: the human experience.

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But, since I don’t know when I’ll be back in Bristol, I might as well talk about the rest of the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery.  Typical of the museums in many smaller cities, where there’s not dedicated ones for art and natural history and all that jazz, the Bristol Museum was kind of a mishmash that included local history, an art gallery, the Ancient Egyptians, and a good bit of natural history in the form of taxidermy.  If anyone remembers the Irish Natural History Museum from way back at the start of my blog, when I wasn’t yet in the habit of including many pictures, you will know how much I love derpy taxidermy.  (I mean, I definitely talk about how much I love taxidermy in many other posts too, but that was probably the first time.)  This wasn’t quite on the level on the National Museum of Ireland, which is like a Victorian wonderland of bad taxidermy, but there were still some prime specimens here.

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The museum’s mascot appears to be a gorilla called Alfred who lived in the Bristol Zoo during the Second World War, and apparently hated men with beards, among a number of other things.  Well, the poor thing got stuffed after he died, and ended up here, with beardy men staring at him all day long (my boyfriend included).

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The aye-aye was probably my personal favourite, just because I reckon it’s the closest you can get to a Sumatran Rat Monkey in real life (warning, that rat monkey link is fairly gory, in a claymation kind of way, but aren’t Lionel and Paquita adorable together?  I love Braindead.  It’s gotta be in my top five favourite movies), but I am also partial to that handsome bird with the pompadour hairdo.  I am probably fonder of taxidermy than a vegetarian has any right to be, but I comfort myself with the fact that most of the stuff in museums has been sitting around for a while, so it’s not like these animals were killed recently or anything.

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I love dried bats, because they pretty much just turn into adorable little balls of fluff with papery wings, but the award for derpiest animal has to go to that otter.  Or possibly the fox, though his natural regal fox-bearing probably saves him from looking quite as dim as the otter.  Ok, I should probably stop talking about the taxidermy now, I just love it so damn much.

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The rest of the museum really wasn’t much to speak of: a bit of modern art, a decent Egyptian section, a Banksy near the entrance, and a handsome mustachioed aviator hovering over it all, but I feel I do need to mention the toilets, just to see if anyone else thinks this is as weird as I do.  I’m guessing the toilets were still semi-Victorian in nature; if not the actual fixtures, then certainly the stalls themselves.  The bottom half of the stalls were wood, no problems there, but the top halves had glass panels in them. Between the stalls.  Not frosted glass, mind, just normal, sort of patterned glass, that meant you couldn’t see through them super clearly, but could nonetheless get a pretty good view of the person in the stall next to you’s face, at a time when you really don’t want to be making eye contact with a stranger.  The panels were probably a bit above waist level when you were standing, which meant you could just see from head level when seated on the loo, but even that is weird (I mean, I know men just pee out in the open, but they’re used to it).  I definitely did a double take when I walked in and realised I could see the people next to me going about their business (and they could see me doing mine), but I really had to pee, so I rolled with it.  It still weirds me out though.  I don’t care if they’re Victorian or not, you could at least replace the glass with more wood or something.  All this is to say that using the toilets here may not be ideal if you’re shy about these things.  So to recap, fairly normal, albeit slightly generic museum, very strange toilets.  2.5/5.

 

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Bristol: Glenside Hospital Museum

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It’s appropriate that this post falls near my third blogging anniversary (which was last Sunday, by the way!), because this is Bristol: Take 2, wherein I finally visit the Glenside Museum that I mentioned three long years ago.  In that post, I said it was open on Wednesdays and Fridays, but either I had it wrong, or they’ve changed their opening hours, because it is actually open from 10-12:30 on Wednesdays and Saturdays.  The museum is part of the campus of the University of the West of England (catchy name), and is housed in what was the hospital’s chapel, a rather imposing grey Victorian building.

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Though there is a parking lot right next to the museum, the museum says on their website that they don’t offer parking, so I’m assuming it was only for students and faculty of the university, or else museum volunteers.  However, we easily found parking on the street right around the corner from the museum (we visited on the Wednesday though, it may well be more crowded on Saturdays), so it wasn’t a major issue or anything.  Upon entering the museum, the first thing that hit me was the whiff of authentic smells.  I somehow doubt they were intentionally piped in, I think these were AUTHENTIC authentic smells, if you get my drift.  The second thing I noticed was the mannequin guarding the door, which initially freaked me out as I thought it was a real person (not because she looked particularly realistic, just because when you briefly glance at a person-shaped object, you assume it’s a person.  I’m not yet as bad as my poor mother, who once said, “excuse me sir,” when she bumped into a department store mannequin. My brother and I will never let her live it down).  Terrible awesome mannequins would be a hallmark of this museum.

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The museum is run on a donation only basis, and as there was no one at the front desk, it was very much a no-pressure arrangement.  While I appreciated that aspect of it, I did find it odd that none of the staff/volunteers acknowledged our presence at any point, despite there being a considerable number of them running around the building, and apparently making very smelly food for lunch (separate from the authentic smells, this was some kind of revolting meat-stink).  I don’t want someone following me around the whole time, or watching my every move, but it might have been nice if someone had at least greeted us and maybe gave a brief overview of the museum or something. The only encounter I did have with the people working there is when one of them pushed past us to show someone else something in one of the cases (from what I overheard, it sounded like the guy might have been staging a play version of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and wanted some ECT related props to use in it), which was just a bit rude, as they were talking loudly and pretended we weren’t there.  That was really the only off-putting aspect of Glenside though.

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Because, the museum was far bigger than I had been anticipating, and packed with lots of cool old medical stuff.  Glenside was originally called the Bristol Lunatic Asylum when it opened in 1861, and it remained a psychiatric hospital (though the name eventually evolved into the less-offensive Glenside) throughout its 130 year history, until it closed in 1994 (that’s minus the three years it served as a war hospital during WWI).  The first gallery of the museum was a bit too text-heavy when explaining the history of the hospital, but that gave way to a corridor with lots of smaller rooms full of psychiatric stuff of varying degrees of creepiness.  For example, I really liked the set of cards depicting various types of mental illness; a lengthy explanation was provided, but I think the gist of it was that they were made so illiterate people in India had a pictorial representation of the symptoms, in case their family members displayed any of them.  And those vintage light-up brain diagrams were right up my alley (and they still worked!).

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But I was super creeped out by the lobotomy/electroshock therapy room (apparently in the UK, lobotomies are called leucotomies, which doesn’t make them sound any better).  I can’t even watch the aforementioned One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (I had to see it once for a psychology class, and never again), and I’ve mentioned before how reading The Bell Jar at a formative age imbued me with a complete and lasting terror of ECT.  I also know there’s books on the history of lobotomies out there, and despite my fascination with almost every other gruesome aspect of medical history, I just can’t bring myself to read them.  So yeah, though I still looked at the ice pick that was jammed into someone’s brain, and some mannequin dioramas depicting lobotomies, I tried not to think about them too much, and I was relieved to leave that room behind me.

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Not that Victorian straitjackets and padded cells were much cheerier, but at least it didn’t involve someone excising vital chunks of the brain.  And I was actually really interested in the display of drugs used historically to treat mental illness.  And the display of bedpans, because that was very much back on weirdo-Jessica territory.

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I should mention that aside from the first room, with its text overload, captions were otherwise fairly sparse in the museum, so it didn’t take a tonne of time to look around all the other rooms.  To be honest, it was still longer than I was imagining we would spend there; going by the website, I was somehow picturing the exhibits to be smaller and crappier than they actually were.

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In addition to the macabre bits, there were also aspects of this museum that were poignant, as you would expect from a Victorian mental institution.  There were photographs and biographies of some of the patients, as well as recollections of the hospital from some 20th century patients (one just remembered it smelling of urine, which maybe explains the authentic smells aspect).  I was also struck by the account of a hairdresser at the hospital who commented on how overjoyed some of the patients were to have their hair styled, simply because they weren’t used to anyone taking care of them, or making them feel like a person, including one woman who always requested a golden rinse for her white hair to make it blonde (I was kind of picturing Betty White in her Golden Girls era when I read that).

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I mentioned earlier how Glenside also took in injured soldiers during WWI, when it was known as Beaufort War Hospital.  They also had displays relating to the war years, including what I believe was a temporary display on postcards (with children’s activities) and what they meant to soldiers.  They had also done profiles of some of the soldiers who stayed in the hospital, which were quite interesting to me as they were very similar to the work I’ve been doing on the WWI project I volunteer with.

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The building was maybe a wee bit odd in that it still had all the accoutrements of a church up, but with displays all in front of them.  There was even a display right in front of the altar, of art made by various museum volunteers, and this stuff was surprisingly good.  I say surprisingly because if someone asked me to produce a piece of art, it would look like a non-artistically-inclined 5 year old made it (I was that 5 year old, and things haven’t improved much in adulthood. All my friends and family know better than to ask me to help with any craft projects, unless they don’t mind wonky scissor work).  But their work was alright, and I especially liked the tapestry showing the history of medicine in Bristol, with a square devoted to the first cholera outbreak.

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Aside from the rather cold (well, more non-existent) reception, I really enjoyed this museum.  I don’t know if it was necessarily worth the three year wait, but I am glad I eventually got around to seeing it, because those mannequins were just as menacing as I was hoping, and the museum ended up having a fair bit to offer beyond them.  Even if psychiatry freaks me out more than other branches of medicine, there were still some very cool objects here, although I will concede they could perhaps be better organised or displayed in a more appealing manner (for me, that dated look (and the mannequins!) is a large part of the appeal, but I know I’m in the minority).  Still, for a free museum (with dismayingly limited opening hours), it was A-OK.  Not quite up to the standard of Dr. Guislain’s, by which all psychiatric museums are measured (by me), but then few things are.  3.5/5.

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