USA

Akron, OH: Akron Art Museum

img_20161229_191212528The Cleveland Museum of Art, which you may recall me blogging about a fortnight ago, is not the only art museum in Northeast Ohio.  There’s also the Akron Art Museum, located about 45 miles south of its Cleveland counterpart (actually, I wouldn’t say they’re strictly counterparts, because they focus on different things, but it is all art), which sounds far when I put it that way, but I grew up halfway between Cleveland and Akron, so they were about equidistant for me (I usually hung out in Cleveland, but I went to the University of Akron, so I have ties to both places.  However, my grandparents grew up in Cleveland, and I say “tree lawn” rather than “devil strip” so I feel much more like a Clevelander than an Akronite).  Anyway, the CMA is a large, venerable institution with an extensive collection that includes examples of many genres of art from ancient times to the present, whereas the Akron Art Museum has a newer, more modern feel (even though it was founded in 1922, only 9 years after the CMA), and focuses almost exclusively on modern art, with the exception of a small gallery of mid 19th-20th century art (which probably helps with the modern feel, as does the rather, um, interesting looking building it’s housed in, which was completed in 2007).

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Also unlike the CMA, the Akron Art Museum charges a rather hefty $10 admission fee, which is probably why I never bothered to visit it when I was attending university (also, it was still in the old building back then, which I think was fairly lacklustre).  I mean, when I could visit the excellent CMA for free, it was hard to justify paying $10 for modern art, which I tend to have a bit of a chip on my shoulder about anyway.  Fortunately, the Akron Art Museum now offers “Free Thursdays” when (you guessed it) admission is free to all, so my mother and I paid it a visit while I was in town.  (I’ll try to include all the artists’ names, in case anyone’s interested, so from left to right above, there is Viola Frey’s The World and the Woman, James Gobel’s I’ll Be Your Friend, I’ll Be Your Love, I’ll Be Everything You Need, and Vernon Fisher’s Man Cutting Globe.)

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I actually had been there once before on a Free Thursday, a couple of years before I started blogging, and remember being distinctly unimpressed. Happily, because many of the exhibits on the 2nd floor are temporary, most of the art I didn’t particularly care for was gone, and there was some exciting new stuff in its place!  (Left to right, above is George Segal’s Girl Sitting Against a Wall II (no idea what happened to the first one, if it even exists), Miles Carpenter’s Untitled (Pink Octopus) and Peter Dean’s Circus Family (which I like because it reminds me of James Ensor, but with layered paint).)

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The first few rooms mainly held paintings and sculptures that I think are there all the time, but except for the huge Chuck Close piece (not pictured), I didn’t remember most of them from my previous visit.  There are a few big-name pieces there, like Lichtenstein and of course the inevitable Warhols, but most of them were by artists I’d never heard of (which isn’t really saying much, since I’m not exactly well-versed in modern art).  I’ve included pictures of some of my favourites, like Man Eating Trees by John Sokol, above left, and Rita by Malcah Zeldis, above right, which is a rather hilarious interpretation of Rita Hayworth’s sensual dance in Gilda.

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Mickalene Thomas’s Girlfriends and Lovers, above right, didn’t photograph particularly well (well, nothing did, but that had more to do with the skills of the photographer (me) than the artists), but I can assure you that it is fabulous in person, because the whole painting is absolutely covered in sequins.  Also shown is Yinka Shonibare’s Gentleman Walking a Tightrope.

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The museum was hosting a temporary exhibit called “Our Land” that commemorated the centenary of the National Park Service through photographs of some of its parks (which were lovely), but I haven’t included pictures of them because it’s hard to photograph a photograph that’s covered in glass without getting hideous reflections (you can view some of the pieces on their website though!). (Above, Richard Deacon’s Cover and Jackie Winsor’s #2 Copper.)

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But I’ve got loads of pictures from “Intersections: Artists Master Line and Space,” (which has now ended) because surprisingly, I really loved some of the pieces.  The three sculptures above (as well as the one that opens the post) are all by Nathalie Miebach, who was my favourite artist featured here. Her work is all science-inspired, and these particular pieces were all based on hurricanes.  Basically, she takes meteorological data and somehow converts it into woven sculptures.  Some of these incorporate elements of rides that were destroyed during Hurricane Sandy, which is probably why I liked them so much (I love old-fashioned amusement park rides).

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The first picture, above, is of a piece that was not really the kind of thing you could capture successfully in a photograph (even if you’re more talented than me), but it was really cool to stand under.  It was called inside green by Anne Lindberg, and was simply made of cotton thread stapled to the walls, but it was like standing underneath a prism, and it hurt my eyes to look at it after a while.  The piece to the right of it was by Ursula von Rydingsvard, and was part of a whole room full of giant things made of cedar (including one that kind of looked like a big turd.  More so than that other turdy wooden thing a couple paragraphs up) and the final piece shown above took up an entire room (that apparently required its own security guard to make sure no one touched it), and is called Turtle, by Judy Pfaff.  It had a lot of what I think was blown glass, but didn’t really do anything.

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I’m not sure if these pieces were part of “Intersections” or not (well, the last squiggly one is, it’s by Mark Fox), because I couldn’t find them on the museum’s website (believe it or not, googling butt spoons got me nowhere), but I’m including the pictures anyway, because butt spoons (only one of them is a butt though, I think)!

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I did recall seeing the downstairs gallery before, but I looked around again anyway, for the sake of the blog.  The first painting is worth noting because it’s by William Somer, who lived in Northfield (where I’m from!).  Also it contains cows and chickens, and you know how I like that sort of thing.  The middle painting is Raphael Gleitsmann’s Winter Evening, and shows neato 1930s Akron. When I was there, I joked that Young Mother by Zoltan Sepeshy (on the right) looked like me if I stopped plucking my eyebrows, but now it kind of reminds me of the McPoyle chick from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Which made me realise that I’m only a pair of tweezers away from becoming a McPoyle.

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The downstairs gallery had a few other cool things (from left: Robert Henri’s Spanish Shepherd, William Merritt Chase’s Girl in White, and Elmer Novotny’s The Artist and His Wife), but it seriously is only three small rooms, so we went through it pretty fast. Which meant it was time to explore the final temporary installment, Jimmy Kuehnle’s Wiggle, Giggle, Jiggle. I couldn’t really photograph it from inside, but you can see it in the picture of the front of the building below.  It was basically a giant inflatable red squishy thing with a bunch of arms, and you squished and squeaked your way through it like you were in a maze, while lights flashed on and off.  The whole light thing made it kind of disorientating, and I’m not sure if I actually giggled out loud (frankly, I don’t know if I’m really the giggling type), but it was pretty damn fun nonetheless.

img_20161229_194158186Overall, I appreciated the Akron Art Museum much more this time around, and thoroughly enjoyed my visit.  I would highly advise visiting on a Free Thursday (there’s also free parking in the garage across the street if you show up after 6, which is very doable because they’re open til 9 on Thursdays) because it only takes like an hour to see, which is not really worth $10, but it’s really the only large(ish) modern art museum I can think of in NE Ohio (there’s one in Canton, but that’s even smaller), so merits a visit if you’re looking for that sort of thing.  3.5/5 for this visit, but obviously that score will vary based on what they’ve got in it, because of the high proportion of temporary installations.

 

Columbus, OH: The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum

dsc09555It’s odd that when I lived in Cleveland, I went well over a decade without visiting Columbus (I went a few times as a child, primarily to go to COSI, but never as a teenager or 20-something), and now I try to go back every time I’m in Ohio, but I suppose the joys of the North Market (I love their Belgian waffles) have won me over, plus my uncle and his partner live down there now, and they have two super cute golden retrievers and know all the best ice cream places in C-bus, so that’s another good reason to visit!  Fortunately (because I can’t drive), Marcus and my brother were also both up for a day trip.  However, me being me, I had to sneak in a museum visit somewhere between waffles and ice cream (it was pretty much a perfect day), and not wanting a repeat of the grim-yet-inconveniently-hilarious Jubilee Museum last year, I did a better job of researching my options this year.  Some of the places that looked interesting (like the James Thurber house) were closed because it was right after Christmas, but the Billy Ireland Cartoon Museum, located right on the massive OSU campus, was open, and seemed right up my alley (and interesting enough to not bore my brother).

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Not being a football fan or cool enough to have friends to party with when I was an undergrad (or a grad student, for that matter), I’d never actually been to OSU, but my brother (who is much more popular than I am) had, so he knew roughly where to go (and to get doughnuts from Buckeye Donuts down the street, which was a smart move, even though eating a doughnut right after gorging myself at the market meant I had to unbutton my jeans to make space for everything (TMI?)).  (In fairness to me, I graduated when I was 20, so I wasn’t even old enough to (legally) drink, thus there wasn’t much point in bar-hopping.)  However, as I said, the campus is huge, and was almost empty because it was winter break, so we did initially get a bit lost and had no one to ask for directions, but we eventually figured out that we were looking for Sullivant Hall and managed from there.

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The Billy Ireland Museum immediately won my heart because in addition to the museum being free, there was also a display of free cartoon-themed bookmarks and exhibition programmes (really nice ones!) sitting out on a desk when we walked in, which the student working there urged us to take (he didn’t have to tell me twice!).  To avoid disappointment (or a trip to the Jubilee Museum), be aware that the museum is closed on Mondays, and only open from 1-5 the rest of the week.  The museum consisted of three mid-sized galleries, the first of which seemed to hold highlights of their historical cartoon collection, as well as cartoons from around the world.  Don’t miss pulling out the drawers of the cabinets in here, because they held some of the best stuff, including that cartoon of TR and Taft (above left) and an early drawing from Disney’s Robin Hood (above right), my favourite Disney film!

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They even had some pieces by English cartoonists, like Gillray and Rowlandson, in addition to a selection of non-boring manga (pretty much miraculous in itself, because I hate most manga with a passion).  I do have a general policy where I don’t like comic strips where the people actually look like realistic people (my favourite modern comic strip is Pearls before Swine, in case you’re wondering. I’m basically Rat), so I didn’t spend much time with all the Dick Tracy/Mary Worth type stuff on the walls, but I would take every one of those cat comic bobble hats in that case, and wear them with pride.

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One of the main reasons I wanted to catch the Billy Ireland Museum on this visit was that they had a temporary exhibit called “Windows on Death Row: Art from Inside and Outside the Prison Walls” which sounded really interesting.  I am opposed to capital punishment, as are apparently most cartoonists and satirists (the exhibit only had two pro-death penalty cartoons, because they said that was all they could find), so it wasn’t going to change my mind or anything (though maybe it would give you something to think about if you were in favour of capital punishment?), but the artwork done by inmates was very moving (particularly the painting done by a man who was executed shortly after, and a cartoon by a professional cartoonist who was the recipient of this man’s last phone call, which depicted that conversation), and the statistics were thought-provoking.

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For example, I learned that Ohio has the seventh highest number of inmates on death row of any state (currently 142) and has executed the eighth highest number of people since 1976 (53, which trails behind Texas’s appalling 538(!), but still).  In addition to charts and polls, there were also a number of stories from death row inmates, prisoners serving life sentences, and others in the criminal justice system who had widely varying views on the death penalty, which helped bring some balance into the exhibit. I do think it’s always important to educate yourself on both sides of an issue, even if you don’t agree with one of them, and I think the museum tried their best to make that happen with the captions and other text, despite the obvious anti-death penalty bias of most of the cartoons.

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On a cheerier note, the final room contained “What a Hoot,” an exhibition devoted to the work of Mike Peters.  I can’t say I was familiar with Mike Peters’s work before seeing this (I have seen greeting cards featuring characters from his comic strip Mother Goose and Grimm but The Plain Dealer (Cleveland’s newspaper) never carried the strip when I was growing up, so I’ve never really read it), but I was genuinely “loling” (as the kids say) at some of his cartoons.

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Mother Goose and Grimm is about an old woman and her dog, Grimm, so was sort of Garfield-esque (whether that’s good or bad I’ll leave you to decide), but I think quite a bit funnier, because he detoured into other subjects, including some brilliant punny ones. There was also a whole wall devoted to presidential cartoons (I think Nixon through (shudder) Trump, but there might have been a LBJ one in there?), which I loved, and a number of other political strips that had to do with non-major events that took place before I was born, so I didn’t really know what they were about.   In addition, the exhibit contained some biographical information on Peters’s life.

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After experiencing all those different emotions in a relatively short time (laughter-contemplative sadness-laughter again), I left feeling really impressed with the Billy Ireland Museum.  As my brother said, “It was just the right size,” so that even he didn’t have time to get bored, but there was plenty there to make it well worth a special visit, and most importantly, it showed that cartoons can be so much more than the medium might have you believe at first glance.  It left me wishing there were more free museums on the OSU campus (except for a museum of biological diversity that is only open once a year, I couldn’t find any), because this was so well-done (and also wishing that British papers had a whole comics section like the PD and Akron Beacon Journal still do, because I miss reading them). I’ll post a picture below of the front of the building, so you know what you’re looking for if you go, because I don’t want anyone else to get lost (for real, OSU is the largest university (by enrollment) in America.  It has over 63,000 students!) if you decide to visit, because you really should, if you’re in the area and like cartoons! Don’t miss those Buckeye Donuts either!  4.5/5.

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Cleveland, OH: Cleveland Museum of Art Redux

dsc09619Because I went back to Ohio for a few weeks over Christmas (and now I’ll have that stupid Back to Ohio (actually called “My City is Gone” apparently) Pretenders song stuck in my head all day), I wrote and scheduled a whole bunch of posts in advance because I knew I’d be too busy eating doughnuts, ice cream, and pancakes, and hanging out with my brother to want to do much writing while I was there.  As a result, I haven’t really written anything in about a month, and I’m finding it really hard to get back into the swing of things (and this damn jet lag (which I should probably just call insomnia at this point) isn’t helping).  So I thought I’d start by revisiting what used to be my favourite Cleveland museum: the Cleveland Museum of Art.

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I first wrote about the CMA in my first month of blogging, nearly four years ago now, shortly after they had finished their extensive remodelling project, and unfortunately at that point I was so attached to the old museum that I didn’t really give the new museum a fair chance. I also think that many of the galleries had yet to re-open then, so I wasn’t experiencing the museum at its fullest potential.  Well, this was my first trip to the CMA since that last ill-fated one, and I’m happy to report that it feels like a museum I can love again!  It doesn’t hurt that the CMA is still one of only a few free museums in Cleveland, though they do get you with the $10 minimum parking fee in their garage (yikes! Try to find a metered spot on the street if you can, because I think those are only a couple bucks), and they charge for major special exhibitions, but there were none on at the time of my visit.

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The main reason I was inspired to go back was that the museum was hosting a small exhibit on early portrait photography that sounded interesting (I confess I was hoping they’d have some of those creepy Victorian death photographs, but no such luck), but the exhibit was hidden away in the  middle of the second floor galleries, which meant I got to do a lot of exploring before I found my way there.  And look, I found one of my favourite paintings on the way (that I bitched about not being able to find last time): Cupid and Psyche, by Jacques-Louis David (above left).  And that excellent saucy portrait of George Washington by Charles Wilson Peale that I also know well and love (above previous paragraph).  And the three Van Gogh paintings the museum owns (my favourite is the tree one shown above right).  It was glorious, like finding long-lost friends.

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I am also very glad that the museum seems to be ordered in a manner that makes sense again.  I think when I visited four years ago, only about half the galleries were actually open, so they only had some of the collection’s highlights on display, and they weren’t really arranged in any particular order.  Happily, the paintings are now sorted chronologically, by country of origin, and by genre again, which makes it easy to find paintings that I know are there and want to see, like the handsome fellow on the left, above (Jean Terford David, painted by Thomas Sully.  I believe his wife’s portrait is also there, but the poor woman is kind of unremarkable next to Jean’s strong jawline and dreamy tousled hair). The only exception to this was Henri Rousseau’s Fight between a Tiger and a Buffalo, which I love, but wasn’t in any of the places I expected to find it.  However, thanks to the free wifi the museum now offers, I was able to search for it on my phone, and discover that it wasn’t currently on display.  Annoying, because I really wanted to see it, but still better than me aimlessly wandering in search of it (or I guess I could have gone old-school and just asked someone working there, but if I can avoid human contact, all the better).  You will also notice that unlike at the hideous (except the armoury) Wallace Collection that I wrote about a couple weeks ago, the paintings are attractively displayed against plain walls painted in soothing solid colours, which makes them a pleasure to look at.  (The painting on the above right in Mary Spain’s Girl with Birds, but I was so busy looking at the cat that I scarcely noticed the birds.)

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And the CMA genuinely does have a first-rate collection.  You’ll notice the Picasso and the Velazquez above, but they’ve also got Monets, Manets, Gauguins, Toulouse-Lautrecs…basically all the big names, as well as an extensive collection of top-notch American paintings, like Ryder’s The Racetrack (Death on a Pale Horse) shown below left, and the portrait of Nathaniel Olds by Jeptha Wade that I included in the last CMA post, but had to include again because I love it so much (below right).

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I did eventually find my way to the portrait photography display that I had come to see in the first place, though ironically, it was pretty much the only place in the museum that photography wasn’t allowed.  It was only one room, but it was pretty interesting, mainly because I enjoy photographs of Victorians that prove that they weren’t always as stuffy as we sometimes imagine them to be, especially all the posed “joke” photographs that were apparently popular at the time, including one of a couple guys pretending to rob their friend, and another of men pretending to fight.

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There was also a small temporary display on Catholic vestments (more copes and chasubles, woot?), which I suppose was fine, but after seeing the incredible pieces of medieval English embroidery at the V&A, boring floral embroidery really paled by comparison.

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The final temporary display I saw was in the aptly named “Focus Gallery” and revolved around the 14th century Gothic table fountain (above left).  Apparently, table fountains (basically automata that spouted water at the dining table in various clever ways) were very common amongst the wealthy in medieval Europe, but eventually almost all of them disappeared, and the one now in Cleveland is believed to be the most complete surviving example.  And splendid it is too, full of dragons, and little grotesque figures that play instruments and spout water.  I presume it’s too fragile to actually see it in action, but they made a video of what it should look like when it runs, and the fact that it wasn’t in motion allowed me to study all the charming little paintings around its sides in detail.  Delightful.  I also liked the less elaborate castle themed fountain (above right).

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Because Cleveland is only a medium sized city, they don’t really have the resources to have separate museums for archeology and antiquities and all that kind of stuff, so it all gets lumped together at the CMA.  Although my description probably makes it sound like some poky local museum, which it is definitely not.  It’s a big museum, and everything is beautifully and professionally presented.  My whole point is that this is also the place to come in the CLE if you also want to see armour, or Ancient Egyptian stuff and other ancient artefacts.  There’s lots of very old Asian and Islamic art too!

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And the Christian religious art might not be in the creepy old gallery I used to love anymore, but it it still full of disturbing pieces (and some funny ones, like ol’ St. George above, who appears to be sprouting some sort of potato from his head).  That throne puts me in mind of Mr. Burns’s “chair” at Springfield University (which I would totally have in my flat, by the way).

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At some point Marcus decided he was going to photograph all the lions, only a couple of which I’ve included here (they have a surprising amount of lion-themed art), but I liked his thinking – I think picking one theme and focusing on objects relating to it is a good way to gain a new perspective on museums you’ve been to before, or just keep them interesting (I know the head on the left is not a lion, but it is a splendidly derpy face, so I couldn’t not include it, and it was in the same gallery as the lion on the right).

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The museum also had a few new technological/interactive things that I don’t recall seeing before, like a giant wall where you could select objects from the museum’s collections, and learn more about them, and some kind of motion wall thing that I noticed children jumping up and down in front of.  There were also quite a few touchscreens in “Gallery One,” which highlights some of the museum’s best pieces, and gives you a chance to discover more about the meanings behind them, and the historical periods in which they were created.  I think it’s a neat idea, even though the execution wasn’t quite as attention-grabbing as I would have liked.

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I think there were a few small galleries we didn’t have the chance to see, but I feel like I got to experience most of the museum, and have a much better appreciation of what the big remodel has done for the CMA.  Although the historic 1916 exterior is still hidden within the atrium, you do get excellent views of it from inside the atrium (you frequently have to go out on the balconies to move between galleries, so you get lots of chances to admire it) and it is a gorgeous space.  I can imagine that with Cleveland’s long and crappy winters that it is also nice to have a place to walk around and get some sunlight without trekking through ice and slush.  I have indeed completely revised my previous opinion, and can say that the remodelling process, though very irritating in the last few years I was actually living in Cleveland and wasn’t able to visit the Art Museum, was a good thing in the long run, and the museum has eventually emerged all the better for it.  4.5/5, and unquestionably the most spectacular museum Cleveland has to offer.

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Columbus, OH: Jubilee Museum and Catholic Cultural Center

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This post is admittedly a tricky one for me to write, but I’m running short on blogging material, so it’ll have to be done.  As you all probably know by now, I have no religious or spiritual inclinations, at all, but at the same time, I don’t wish to insult those who do.  So I hope this post won’t come across as offensive, or overly blasphemous, but frankly, if I could walk into this museum without bursting into flames, I guess I don’t need to worry too much about blasphemy.

When I was back home for Christmas this year (well, last year now I guess), I was so busy doing Christmassy crap around my parents’ house (homemade pierogi are a lot of work) that I never really made it out to any museums.  (I did go see an exhibition of over 900 Nativity scenes at an historic Mormon compound (not my idea), which was…interesting, to say the least, but not really worth blogging about.)  So a couple days before I had to leave, my mother proposed a day trip to Columbus, because she thought I’d be able to find a new pair of boots in the enormous mall down there (because I’m just as picky about boots as I am about everything else, but I’m happy to report I found a pair of the Doc Martens I was looking for in the sale room of a department store. Score!).  Of course, I couldn’t make the trip without seeing a museum or two as well, so we planned to visit the Statehouse whilst we were down there, because I enjoyed the one in Texas, and the Map Room looked pretty cool.  Unfortunately, just as we were approaching the Statehouse, a fire truck pulled up and blocked the street, followed by about a million police cars.  Turns out someone had left a backpack in the bushes outside, and it was being treated as a potential bomb (it definitely wasn’t), so no one was allowed inside the Statehouse.

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This was crappy, but I reckoned we could go get some food at this cool sounding market I’d read about, and maybe things would blow over by then.  Which is how we found ourselves at the North Market a few hours ahead of schedule, chowing down on excellent Liege-style waffles from Taste of Belgium (the brown smear is just sweet, delicious Nutella).

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The market is indeed pretty cool, kind of like a smaller, more upscale version of my beloved West Side Market, and I will definitely be heading back someday to eat another one of those waffles, and to try a gourmet pretzel from Brezel, and one of the giant doughnuts from Destination Donut (yay for carbs!).  Anyway, we swung by the Statehouse again after wandering the market for an hour, and the damn thing was still closed, so we had no choice but to find another museum.  Most of the other ones that sounded cool, like the Cartoon Museum and the Museum of Biological Diversity, were part of the OSU campus, and didn’t open until 1, or were prohibitively expensive, like the art museum (I mean, I find it hard to justify spending $14 on an art museum.  I could have got three waffles for that!).  What we were left with was the Jubilee Museum and Catholic Cultural Center.

Now, although I am not of a religious inclination, my mom is a practicing Catholic, so I assumed the place would at least have some appeal to her, even if I wasn’t into it.  But I don’t think either of us really realised what we were getting into.

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We pulled up outside the building, which was pretty run down, with some boarded up windows, and hesitated for a minute before venturing inside, since neither one of us was sure exactly what to expect.  We were greeted inside by a young man, who asked if we wanted the tour.  Of course, my mother said yes (and I immediately asked her what the hell was she thinking as soon as the guy was out of earshot).  So we got the full tour, beginning with their “shop” where we were welcome to take home slightly damaged religious statues for a donation of whatever we thought they were worth.  Neither one of us took advantage of this offer.

Now, me, my mom, and my brother have an unfortunately tendency to come down with a laughing fit at inopportune times, usually when some combination of us are together.  One of us will start snickering, and it sets the other one(s) off, and then we usually all end up red-faced and in tears from struggling to hold the laughter back.  As soon as this guy pointed out the second donation box (recommended donation $10 per adult), my mother lost it, and I had to really struggle to keep a straight face and listen to what the guy was saying, with my mom snorting behind me.  I managed to keep it together, for the most part, but it was a challenge when she didn’t stop snickering for about ten minutes.  It was about this point when my mother tried to ditch the tour guide by taking a really long time to look at all the prints in their temporary exhibition (Bible-themed artwork by the Japanese artist Sadao Watanabe, who somehow made a miraculous recovery from TB right around the time Streptomycin was discovered (pardon my skepticism)).  It didn’t work.  He waited for us outside the room, and then resumed the tour as soon as we’d finished.

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I’m not sure exactly what to say about our tour guide.  I don’t really like being mean about people on here (unless they deserve it), because I would feel horrible if I went on someone’s blog and discovered someone saying awful things about me.  And this guy was nice enough.  But he was very, um, earnest.  And perhaps overly enthusiastic.  And let’s face it, I get my snarkiness from somewhere, I have a snarky family.  So he was really no match for me and my mom, hence the snickering fit, but after that we tried to be polite, though we did frequently roll our eyes at each other when he wasn’t looking.  Which probably says more about what jerks we are than anything else.

And this tour was interminable.  I genuinely couldn’t believe how huge this place was, especially considering how it looked from the outside. The first floor was large enough, and then upstairs, we kept thinking there couldn’t be any more, and lo and behold, he would lead us into another room (most of them were named after priests or saints).  The tour guide did give us an extremely detailed history of the place, but I was trying not to laugh for most of it.  I do know it was started by the amusingly named Father Lutz, who I think is still alive(?) when an historic Columbus church was being destroyed, and he wanted to preserve some of the decorations.  It has grown into this behemoth, with probably thousands of pieces of Catholic art.  I mean, they had Bibles (including some pretty old ones), vestments, relics, altars, and bits and bobs I didn’t even know the names of.  I regret not taking more pictures, but I was afraid the tour might get extended if I showed an interest in something, so all the ones here are just from the entrance hall.  Really, this museum is massive.

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Unfortunately, I didn’t really get to explore it as much as I would have liked, because we were dependent on the whims of our tour guide, and the stuff HE thought was interesting.  And by the time we finished the tour, we were both desperate to leave, so there was no way we were going to go back upstairs.  But some of the highlights included a room absolutely packed full of nun dolls, staring out at us from glass cases with their dead eyes; a cool skull robe thing in a room about funerals; a chalice featuring a massive amethyst that had allegedly belonged to Mary, Queen of Scots; Papal memorabilia; and a gruesome little array of relics (though all of them were just bone fragments or clothing fibres, rather than a whole actual head, like Catherine of Siena).  I also enjoyed the little “quiz” wherein we had to guess which saint a statue was depicting, and I got it right on my first try, simply because I thought it was funny that my irreverent ass nailed a religious question (I guess all those years of Sunday School paid off).

But yeah, I have no major quibble with the objects in this museum, really (aside from disagreeing with all the dogma, and I didn’t have a chance to read all the item descriptions, so there could be errors I didn’t notice), although the tour guide quite clearly assumed we were both Catholic (fair enough I suppose, because I can’t imagine many other people want to visit this place), and got a few historical details wrong.  I mean, obviously the museum pushes Catholicism, but at least that’s clear going into it.  The sheer quantity of stuff in here was pretty astounding, and I could definitely see some of it being interesting if I’d had the chance to look things over more.  As it was, we were in there for nearly two hours, and left fairly exhausted by the religious onslaught, but with plenty to talk about for the long drive home.  As much as I (and my mother, and she’s supposed to be the actual Catholic) enjoyed laughing at this place, I do respect the fact that they’re trying to preserve historical artefacts (so we did donate something, though not $10 each, or the extra $3 each they “suggested” for looking at their Dickensian village, which had a headless guy in it), even if I don’t agree with the religious sentiments behind it.  3/5 just for the massive amount of objects in here, and the amusement we got out of the experience after leaving, though I’m certainly not in any hurry to experience that tour again.

Cleveland, OH: The Dittrick Museum of Medical History

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I can’t believe I waited this long to visit the Dittrick Museum (or this long to post about it!  I went here in September, and I’m already back in NE Ohio again for the holidays!).  I mean, I lived in Cleveland for the first 23 years of my life, I love medical history, I spent a fair amount of time hanging around the other museums in University Circle, and I almost went to school at Case Western Reserve University (twice!  I was accepted both as an undergrad, and into their History of STEM Ph.D programme, but stupidly turned down both), so there is absolutely no reason I shouldn’t have been there before.  But I guess all that doesn’t matter, now that I’ve finally remedied the situation.

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The Dittrick Museum is located inside the Allen Memorial Medical Library on Case’s campus; I recommend parking in the University Hospital visitor’s garage a short distance away, because they offer free parking for the first two hours (more than enough time to see the museum) and the metered spots on Euclid Road are usually all full.  Once you find your way inside the building, it’s a little confusing, because the main staircase takes you up to the library on the second floor, with no apparent way to get up to the third floor.  So you need to take the shaky, slightly unsafe looking lift on the far left side of the ground floor up to the 3rd floor, as directed in the lift.  (We did find a staircase once we got up there that led to the toilets, but I’m not sure how you accessed it from the ground floor.  I think it went straight down to the basement.)  The museum is free, and though university professors have their offices in the hallways all around the museum, no one is actually working at it, so you can look around without anyone breathing down your neck, which is nice.

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The museum is actually larger than I expected, with a number of different galleries/areas.  The centrepiece of the collection is undoubtedly the museum of contraception, of which more later, but they also have a number of exhibits about local and general medical history.  There was also a temporary exhibition, which was about childbirth (to tie in with the whole contraception/women’s health thing), which includes some fine (albeit a bit full-on) anatomical models.  I have to say, some of the childbirth implements there, especially the historical dilators (although the display informed me that they still use them in modern medicine; they’re just made from softer materials) made me very glad that I live in an age where the option not to have children exists.

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Case Western has a very well-renowned medical school, and many fairly prominent doctors have trained in the Cleveland area.  One of the most famous was George Washington Crile, a surgeon who performed the first operation using a direct blood transfusion, and was one of the founders of the Cleveland Clinic. (Cleveland used to also be home to Crile Military Hospital, as I found out from one of my grandpa’s letters.  However, Crile didn’t actually work there as it opened a year after he died, it was just named after him.)  There’s a wax model of his hand in here, perhaps to show the fine touch that made him a gifted surgeon.  A more notorious doctor who trained in Cleveland was the creepy Dr. Crippen, of alleged wife-murdering fame.  Even though his eyes scare the crap out of me, I still think that’s pretty cool.

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The museum discussed a variety of medical topics like anaesthesia, dentistry, and polio (complete with an infant sized iron lung), but with a special Northeast Ohio focus that as a former Clevelander, I found most interesting.

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The Museum of Contraception was located in the back section of the main room, and this too was pretty damned interesting.  Ohio is generally nowadays more known for trying to restrict women’s reproductive rights, so it was nice to come to this bastion of common sense and freedom of choice.  The collection was started by Percy Skuy, former president of Ortho Pharmeceutical (appropriately enough, since they make Ortho-Tri-Cyclen and other birth control pills), and has received so many donations that it’s doubled in size since its arrival in the museum, to include over 1100 objects.

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It contains information on birth control throughout history (some of the early attempts being not only ineffective, but distinctly unpleasant, shades of the childbirth section again), the attempts of campaigners to educate women on effective methods of contraception, and how they faced extreme opposition, especially from the horrible shit-stain of a man, Anthony Comstock, who was responsible for the ridiculous Comstock Law that allowed distributors of anything deemed “lewd” (birth control among them) to be successfully prosecuted.  Seriously, he was the worst, and someone eventually clubbed him over the head, but it wasn’t enough to kill him (more’s the pity).

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This gallery also includes some delightful contraception related art, like a display of IUDs (or maybe that was just a normal display, but it looked cool), a pearl ship given to Margaret Sanger by the Japanese people in thanks for her efforts to make birth control available to all, and an American flag containing stars made out of birth control pills, which is also available as a free postcard from a table in the middle of the museum.

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There’s a little balcony area up some stairs at the side of the museum, containing a collection of medical instruments.  While not quite as interesting as the contraception stuff, I did enjoy looking at the range of early stethoscopes, tongue depressors, and other instruments.

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But that wasn’t all!  In addition to a small room at the back currently (well, at the time of my visit) housing a collection of anatomical drawings, there were also cases lining the walls on the outside of the museum, and these contained some of the most fascinating and hilarious artefacts of the whole collection.  Part of the display was about how you would have been treated if you’d been sick in various eras in history, and obviously the historical treatments weren’t pleasant (that enema plate though! If I owned it, and if I was the type to host dinner parties, I would so serve people something chocolately off of it, just to be gross.  Maybe like a warm chocolate fondant, or a brownie pudding.  Mmmmm).

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But there was also a case on forensics, and displays on the Cleveland smallpox epidemic of 1902, which was not something I knew much about, and was definitely keen to read up on, what with my love of infectious disease and all.  Cleveland also had a diphtheria problem, and there was information on that too.  Undoubtedly one of my favourite objects, just for nostalgia’s sake, was Juno the Transparent Woman, pictured at the start of the post.  Apparently she was built in Germany in the 1940s, and has resided in Cleveland since 1950, but I remember her still being a big deal when I was a kid in the ’80s and early ’90s (at least to me).  She used to live at the Cleveland Health Museum, which was my favourite museum in my youth, and perhaps where I got my love of medical history (they had fetuses in jars, a giant tooth you could climb through, and put on a special Where’s Waldo event one year that was really fun), where she stood in a darkened room, and told visitors all about her internal organs, lighting up each one as she talked about it.  The Health Museum eventually got pretty lame, due to lack of attendance I guess, and closed in 2006, so Juno was moved here, and I was glad to see her.

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There’s also a small display of venereal disease posters on the ground floor, which I only noticed because a torrential downpour had started when we were in the museum, and we were waiting for it to die down.  Overall, the museum was much better than I had anticipated, and made me kind of angry at myself for not doing that Ph.D, as I likely would have had the opportunity to do some work on it (but then I’d still be living in Clevo, so perhaps it’s for the best).  There were a surprising number of cool artefacts, a tonne of signage, and the museum of contraception was very neat indeed.  Cleveland really doesn’t have that many free museums, other than the Art Museum, so I’m extremely glad this exists, and wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone visiting Cleveland with any interest in medicine.  I’m just ashamed it took me so long to follow my own advice.  4/5.  And if you’re in the area, you’re also very near to Little Italy (Get the gnocchi al burro at Trattoria), and Lake View Cemetery, and are only a hop, skip, and a jump (though it admittedly involves a drive down the long and horrible Mayfield Road) from East Coast Custard (best frozen custard in NE Ohio, possibly the world).

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Dayton, Ohio: Wright-Dunbar Interpretive Center and the Wright Cycle Company

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So this is what we rushed out of the Air Force Museum to see.  There are actually five different NPS-run sites scattered around Dayton, and I think about six more aviation related sites partnered with them (the NPS website is a little confusing), so there was no way we were going to be able to see them all (though if you have more time, and you pick up a special passport in the gift shop, you can apparently get a free stuffed “Wil-bear” if you get it stamped at  seven of the historic sites.  Not sure if there’s a charge for the passport).  Therefore, we settled on one the Wright brothers had actually spent time in; the former Wright Cycle Company, and the Wright-Dunbar Interpretive Center next door.

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This too, was free to visit, and we began with the “interpretive center,” which I guess is just a fairly interactive museum?  I think we were probably meant to start upstairs, but being contrary, we walked through the ground floor first, which explained the mechanics of flight with the help of a variety of hands-on examples.

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Someone had taken the trouble to build quite a few little wooden models of planes, and you could do various things to them, like putting them in a mini wind tunnel, or tilting the body of the little figure strapped inside to see how it affects steering.  Here it was also explained why the Wright brothers chose to test out their plane in North Carolina, rather than give their home state of Ohio the glory (those smug North Carolinians with their “First in Flight” license plates).  Basically, they needed somewhere that was both windy and isolated, since they were paranoid someone else was going to steal their idea.  After scouting out a number of locations, it was found that Kitty Hawk best fitted the bill, particularly the “isolated” bit.  To get there around the turn of the century required travelling by train, boat, horse-drawn cart, and possibly automobile as well; I would imagine the trek alone would have been a powerful motivator for them to perfect their airplane!

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Upstairs, we got to learn more about the early life of the Wrights.  Although they did have some formal schooling, they never technically graduated from high school, and all their mechanical skills were essentially self-taught.  As young students, they turned their hands to printing, publishing a small newspaper with their friends, which gave them the know-how to later build their own printing press (no one could ever figure out quite how it worked, but it did!).

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The museum talked about their close-knit family life, including their sister Katharine, who travelled with them and helped them promote their flying machine (she was mentioned at the tiny International Women’s Air and Space Museum in Cleveland, but it was nice to learn more about her, since she seemed like a pretty cool lady.  She was far more personable than Orville and Wilbur, and was vital to making their reputations in aviation circles, which didn’t stop Orville from breaking off all contact with her when she decided to get married.  What an ass).  The museum also discussed the life of Paul Laurence Dunbar, an African-American poet who lived a few blocks away (you can visit his house as well) and was friends with the Wright brothers.  This seemed a bit out of place with all the aviation stuff, but I suppose Dayton doesn’t have that many famous people, so they reckoned they might as well combine them all in one museum.  Besides, they were friends, so at least there’s some sort of connection.

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Also upstairs was the National Parachute Museum, which was really just one small room, but I still learned more about parachutes than I ever wanted to.  There were interactive things in here too, to explain how parachutes worked, and you could feel all the different fabrics parachutes have been made from over the years.

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Finally, we headed over to the old Wright Cycle Company.  The building is apparently kept locked (at least at non-peak times) so we had to ask at the desk to be escorted over by a ranger.  He gave us a brief tour, and then stayed and very patiently answered all of my parents’ many, many questions (since we were the only people there).  He mostly talked about the Cycle Company, and the relevance of cycling to early flight, as the steering mechanisms in bikes and planes were similar.  Essentially, cycle manufacture was the perfect business for the Wrights to be in to give them a jump on aviation.  According to the ranger, without the Wright brothers, manned flight might not have happened for another decade, which would pretty much have changed the entire history of the world, especially the First World War.  I mean, obviously he was a Wright enthusiast, but it’s still something that’s interesting to think about.

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And speaking of the Wright’s cycles, they had some pretty luxe models.  Although factory-made bikes were well in the range of the middle class, and the Wrights did carry some of those, their bespoke models cost around $65, the equivalent of around $1500 today, which is probably not extortionate if you’re really into cycling, but that’s more than 5 times as much as I’ve ever spent on a bike.  And of course, the few that have survived today are probably worth millions, but they’re all in museums, including the one we saw at the US Air Force Museum earlier that day.

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I reckon the Wright-Dunbar Interpretive Center and Cycle Company, though much smaller, might have a more widespread appeal than the Air Force Museum (or maybe not, because it’s all aviation when you get down to it).  After all, everyone has heard of the Wright brothers, and it’s neat to see where they got their start (I feel like I must have been here before at some point, but probably when I was too young to remember it).  It’s also nice that it’s free, as are most of the other NPS aviation sites around town, and I could definitely see spending a day going around and visiting them all.  Worth a stop for any history buff in the Dayton area; although the museum isn’t terribly big, it is informative, and seeing the Wright brothers’ shop is undeniably cool.  3.5/5.

 

Dayton, Ohio: National Museum of the US Air Force

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After Texas, we headed up to Ohio to visit my family.  My parents wanted to take us on a day trip somewhere, so we eventually settled on Dayton, former home of the Wright brothers, and thus the epicentre of many aviation-related attractions.  I had been to the National Museum of the United States Air Force with my parents when I was a kid, but all I really remembered of it were loads of planes, and a rather splendid collection of painted WWII bomber jackets.  The main reason I was willing to revisit it, however, was because there was a semi-secret hangar there containing a collection of presidential planes, including the plane FDR took to Yalta.  And said hangar would be closing a few days after our planned visit, so this was the only time to see it in the old, pain-in-the-ass-to-access military base before the collection moved to a new, purpose-built gallery (it’ll be opening some time in 2016).

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After spending over three hours in the car, I was more than ready to stretch my legs, and the Air Force Museum offered a good opportunity to do that.  The complex is huge, mostly made up of vast hangars, and even the walk from the car park is a fairly lengthy one that takes you past a memorial park.  Happily, the museum is free.  Even the shuttle bus to see the presidential hangar was free, but you had to register for it at a desk off to one corner of the museum, run by several strict older ladies, who made quite a ceremony out of checking our government issued IDs and assigning us each a numbered wristband (woe betide you if you lost it, I would imagine).  We had to wait about an hour until our tour time rolled around, so we had a look round the pre-WW2 gallery first.

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This more than easily filled the hour, though we started at the wrong end, as we ended up going from 1940s planes to the birth of aviation.  However, most of this section was devoted to WWI, which was just fine with me, as I’ve spent the past year researching it for the history project I volunteer with.  I’ve been piecing together biographies for a large collection of local lads killed in the war, and I know I shouldn’t play favourites, but I confess to being partial to my pilots.  For one thing, pilots had to obtain a licence through the Royal Aero Club, which meant they had their picture taken, and it’s a lot easier to relate to someone if you know what they looked like.  For another, pilots were just more dashing than soldiers, especially back in the early days of aviation, and especially the ones with moustaches (most of them).  So I read everything in the WWI section with great interest.

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There were any number of neat artefacts here, though as usual, I tended to favour the smaller, more personal things over the actual planes.  For example, Quentin Roosevelt, youngest son of Theodore, was a pilot in the First World War.  He died when his plane was shot down on Bastille Day, 1918, but he was nonetheless given a funeral and proper burial by the Germans, who respected both his fighting skills, and the fact that he was the son of a former president.  The original wooden cross that adorned his grave is in the museum, as well as some of his uniform (presumably not the one he was wearing when he died).  There was also a stuffed pigeon called John Silver.  He was a messenger pigeon during the war; despite being hit by shrapnel during a battle, and losing a leg, he still managed to deliver his message, and was nursed back to health by his unit, becoming their mascot and living well past the end of the war (he died in 1935, which seems incredible! How long do pigeons normally live?).

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On a lighter note, one of my favourite cases in the museum held a collection of “blunder trophies;” dating from the 1910s to about the 1930s, they were awarded to pilots who made stupid mistakes during flight, but still managed to survive.  These trophies were made into rather punny shapes including a “dumb-bell,” a “horse’s ass,” and a pair of old bloomers (not sure what the pun is there).

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By the time we got to the Wright brothers stuff at the end of the gallery (including one of the bespoke bikes made by their cycle company, and one of the later editions of their plane, more on them in the next post), it was time for our tour, so we headed over to our meeting place in the auditorium.  Because the Presidential Hangar was on the Wright-Patterson Air Base, which is technically only open to military personnel, it was fairly high security, hence the constant checking of our IDs, and the warnings to not take any pictures on the base until we were in the museum, unless we wanted our cameras smashed.  After the security talk, we got loaded into an old school bus, and driven the short distance to the hangars.

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Although the process was admittedly a bit of a hassle, it was well worth it, because the hangar contained FOUR presidential planes (some with hilarious president mannequins), and you were allowed to walk through them all and take pictures.  Altogether, the hangar held FDR’s, Truman’s, Eisenhower’s, and Kennedy’s planes (and Kennedy’s plane was used by a few subsequent presidents as well), and a number of other government aircraft, including something that looked suspiciously like a flying saucer.

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I’m sure it will come as no surprise to anyone who’s read my blog ever, but FDR’s plane was obviously the one I was most excited about seeing.  Known as the “Sacred Cow,” because reporters weren’t allowed anywhere near it (allegedly to try to hide the special elevator shaft allowing FDR to board in his wheelchair with ease), the plane was only used once by Roosevelt on his way to Yalta, just a few months before he died.  Even if he hadn’t died, I could see why he wouldn’t be keen on using it again.  Everything in the plane is now enclosed behind glass, which probably doesn’t help, but even still, the plane was extremely narrow.  I mean, this was mainly because the seating areas were bigger and nicer than a normal plane, but it wasn’t that opulent, and I’m not sure how someone in a wheelchair would be able to navigate the aisle.

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The planes did get progressively nicer over the years, and by the time of Kennedy’s plane (the first to be known solely as Air Force One; earlier planes had actual names, like Truman’s Independence and Eisenhower’s Columbine), things were up to the sort of standard you might expect inside a presidential jet.  Kennedy’s is by far the most famous plane here, because of those unfortunate events in Dallas.  This is the plane that Johnson was sworn in as president on, and the plane that then transported Johnson, Jackie Kennedy, and JFK’s body back to Washington, so it was pretty cool to see something so historic, even if I couldn’t quite tell how they managed to squeeze all those people in there for that famous picture of Johnson’s swearing in.  I guess the seating arrangements were changed around for subsequent presidents (and some of the seats had to be removed to fit JFK’s coffin in).

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The hangar next to the presidential one was also part of the museum, and contained test planes and other experimental aircraft.  Not actually caring about test planes anywhere near as much as presidential history, I walked through there pretty quickly, but my boyfriend seemed to enjoy it, though he was most excited for the Blackbird, which turned out to be back inside the main museum building.

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So after an hour at the presidential and test hangars, we were bussed (securely) back to the main museum, where we headed back in to see the WW2 gallery.  I love all the pin-up girl adorned planes (in addition to the painted jackets) so these were fun to look at, even if we did pass through the gallery pretty quickly, as we were getting tired at this point.

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At first glance, it appeared that this was all there was to the museum (I say all there was, but even those two galleries made for a large museum), but down a narrow hallway, we discovered the Aviation Hall of Fame (which we unfortunately just did not have time to visit), and the rest of the galleries, including Korea, Vietnam, the Cold War, and Space.

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These got no more than a passing glance, however, because as I mentioned before, my boyfriend REALLY wanted to see the Blackbird, and also a space shuttle.  Well, the Blackbird evidently did not disappoint (apparently there’s also one inside the American Air Museum in Duxford, but I think that’s closed right now anyway).  However, it turned out there wasn’t an actual space shuttle in the museum, but they had the next best thing, in the form of a training shuttle.

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This was actually quite cool, because the sides were cut away, allowing you to see the cockpit and living quarters more clearly, including, much to my delight, an astronaut toilet.  Fortunately, the volunteer there was only too happy to explain exactly how it worked; a complicated system of straps, hoses, wet wipes, and bags that made me grateful for gravity.

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We didn’t really have time to look at anything else, because we wanted to see the Wright Brothers old shop and museum before it closed (this was the disadvantage of having to drive so long to get there), but to be honest, there is a limit to how long I can spend looking at non-presidential planes, so this was the perfect amount of time to spend there, in my eyes.  We did of course make a stop in the gift shop for astronaut ice cream (it comes in so many flavours now!  When I was a kid, you could only get neapolitan. I recommend the mint chocolate chip), and they appeared to have a number of cool other aviation themed items, even aviator jackets (though you’d have to paint them yourself, which is a skill I lack, as I learned in my punk days).  This museum is incredibly large, so I think it’s awesome that it’s free, and can definitely recommend it to anyone with an interest in aviation, though if you’re not big on it, or military history, you might be as bored by it as I was as a kid (fortunately, even though I’m still not that into aviation (aside from putting my butt where Damian Lewis’s butt was), my fascination with presidential history and WWI meant there was plenty of stuff to hold my attention).  4/5.

 

 

 

 

Texas Roundup (Yee-Haw!)

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Now it’s time to talk about all the other stuff we did/ridiculous fried stuff we ate during our few days in Texas. (Translation: This is just an excuse for me to bitch about the Texas State Fair.)  I apologise for two posts in a row that are mostly angry rants, but I do love to complain, so this is what you get.   One of the things I was most excited about was attending the Texas State Fair on its opening day.  I used to look forward to the Geauga County Fair every year, so I thought a State Fair that is one of the biggest (the biggest?) in the country must be even more awesome.  Unfortunately, I was wrong.

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To begin with, the fair is expensive.  Like, super expensive.  $18 per adult, plus an additional $15 for parking.  We managed to get half price entry by bringing a 20 oz. Coke brand product (for the homeless apparently, which is really bizarre.  I would have been happy to bring some tins of beans or jars of peanut butter or something else with actual nutritional value, but collecting a nutritionally devoid beverage on behalf of needy people felt wrong.  If they had just wanted an empty bottle, like if Coke was sponsoring it and they wanted you to buy their products, that at least would have made sense.  Donating something that unhealthy made me kind of uncomfortable, but I guess empty calories are better than no calories?  I dunno, maybe I’m being too judgy), but we still had to use the stupid ticket system to buy food and junk.  Yeah, you can’t just pay with cash at the stalls like a normal fair, you have to get tickets for everything.  I mean, rides, sure, but food?  I think it was just an excuse to jack up the prices and hope you wouldn’t notice how much everything cost, because tickets.

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And can we talk about the food?  The Texas State Fair is famous for deep-frying any kind of weird shit they can put on a stick, so I imagined they’d have all the fryers fired up, and the stuff would at least be fresh.  Not so.  I don’t know when they fry this crap (I mean, it was the first day of the fair, so it couldn’t have been sitting around for that long, but that’s not what the taste would have you believe), but it was definitely not fried to order like all the stuff at the Geauga County Fair is.  If someone tried to give you an hours-old funnel cake there, you’d tell them where to shove it.  Here, that was just standard procedure (although I don’t even think I saw any funnel cakes there.  Not strange enough I guess).  My boyfriend was more adventurous than I was; after eating a stale old fried Snickers, I’d had enough, but he tried the fried coke (disgusting.  It was soaked in some kind of cold Coke syrup that made the balls all soggy and gross) and a fried chicken and waffle on a stick, which he said tasted a week old.  So we struck out on the food.  Well, except for the free pudding samples Kozy Shack was giving away.  I’ve never been a big pudding person (in the American sense of pudding), and eating a free tub of chocolate pudding that was just sitting out seemed kind of gross to me, but it was actually still cold, and damn, that shit was tasty.  Made up for the unpleasant vaguely coconut flavoured cotton candy (seriously, how do you mess up cotton candy?!  It’s just sugar!).

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The attractions were not much to speak of either.  Except for wooden roller coasters, I don’t really go on rides (because they make me hurl if any spinning or loops are involved), but I do enjoy all the baking and craft competitions they normally have at fairs.  Well, not here.  Instead, they only had grim warehouse-like expo buildings full of pushy people selling various useless crap.  There were a few attractive art deco-y buildings, some of them used by local museums, including a music exhibit put on by the historical society, which was ok, albeit too crowded, but the rest of them were just full of new cars and other boring junk.

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And the animals, which are usually the best part of this sort of thing, were limited to cattle, horses, goats, and a few pigs.  I know there’s some poultry disease going around this year, which is why none of the fairs were having chickens or ducks, but what about the rabbits?  Or sheep?  Normally the horses all have names, and are really well groomed, but these horses were nameless, and kind of dirty and sad looking, with unkempt manes.  Clearly, these were not owned by 4-H kids like the ones in Ohio, as no pride had been taken in their appearance.  They weren’t even that many animals there overall; at a fair that’s meant to be one of the biggest, I was expecting a lot more.

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Because it was the opening night, they did have fireworks and a little parade of Texas themed floats, with Texas themed music, which was cute.  And of course Big Tex was there in all his glory, and he was pretty great.  As we were about to leave, we discovered where all the cute animals were hiding; in something that was labelled a children’s barn, which is why we didn’t go in at first, but it turns out it was open to everyone, and you could buy food for a dollar a cup to feed the animals.

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The problem is that all the cutest ones had already been fed by every child there, so they weren’t much interested in eating (plus I felt bad that they’d already been harassed by everyone, though that obviously didn’t stop me petting them).  I couldn’t get the tiniest baby goats or the Highland calf to come over, so I just ended up giving all my food to the buffalo calf, as he was the only enthusiastic one (and he was still pretty adorable).  The fair was not great (understatement of the year), and if you’ve never been to an American fair before, I’d definitely head to a nice county one before wasting your time here.  It was way too commercial, and completely devoid of that homespun feel I’d usually associate with fairs.

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The only place I did like in Dallas was a doughnut/biscuit joint called Hypnotic Donuts.  We had to wait for about twenty minutes just to get inside, but their biscuits (biscuits in the American sense, just to clarify, so picture big fluffy buttermilk scone-y things, rather than dry cookies) were nearly the size of my head, and awesome (though if you don’t eat meat, you’re limited to peanut butter and honey or jam as toppings, which was not a huge problem since I usually just have honey or lemon curd on biscuits anyway), as was the Peace-taschio doughnut with brown butter icing and roasted pistachios.  My boyfriend can recommend the fried chicken sandwich on a glazed doughnut, with bonus sriracha.

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Going back to earlier in the trip, after we left the Dr. Pepper Museum in Waco, we saw signs for a Mammoth National Monument.  Being a geologist, my boyfriend is pretty keen on fossils and such, so we stopped off at this National Park Site.  For $5, we were given about an hour long tour and explanation of the site by a knowledgeable ranger (or maybe just employee? He wasn’t wearing the hat, so I dunno).  Even though the billboards kind of made it look like a tourist trap, it wasn’t that at all.  Just a legit prehistoric site where the ranger seemed to really know his stuff and the mammoth bones are remarkably well preserved, so this is probably worth a stop if you’re interested in this kind of thing.

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We also stopped at Round Rock Donuts on our way out of Austin (what can I say, I LOVE doughnuts), which you may have seen featured on Man vs Food and other shows for its super huge “Texas-sized” glazed doughnuts.  For once, this is a place that does live up to the hype.  I only had the normal sized doughnuts, but they’re served warm, and are pretty damn amazing.  I just don’t get why they’re orange.  Not in flavour, but colour.  Their website says it’s because of the fresh eggs they use, but that doesn’t explain why the glaze is orange as well.  Whatever, they’re good, and I can deal with ingesting some artificial colouring (Cap’n Crunch Berries is one of my favourite cereals, so I’m apparently ok with quite a lot of artificial colouring!).

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Continuing on the subject of fried things, Austin is the birthplace of Whole Foods, and it’s quite a hippie kind of town, with lots of health food stores (which is why it was my favourite place we went, by far.  Not that I eat healthily (see above), but health food stores generally have crackin’ vegetarian options, which is not something that be said for most of Texas).  The Whole Foods flagship store is there, and it’s giant and really nice, but there’s also Wheatsville Co-op, home of the world famous (in the veg*n blogging world) popcorn tofu (as in, fried like popcorn chicken, not covered with actual popcorn). In fact, Wheatsville Co-op was all around pretty cool, especially for those of a vegetarian persuasion (you can’t beat homemade agua fresca and Zapp’s Cajun Crawtaters!).

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Also in Austin is the State Capitol building.  This beautiful building drew our eye at night on our way back to our hotel, because it was all lit up.  We went closer to take pictures, not expecting it to be open as it was nearly 9, but it turns out, it’s open until 10 at night, although most of the public rooms are only open during the day.  Some friendly rangers (I think they were rangers this time, they did have hats) waved us in (after we went through metal detectors), and the building is just as gorgeous from the inside as the out.

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We felt a little uncertain about just wandering up the stairs, but no one seemed to mind, and it’s the best way to get pictures of the floor and ceiling of the rotunda area (and admire all the portraits of former governors, including (sigh) Dubya)  I’d like to go back when they actually have tours on to see some of the Victorian offices, but even without it, it’s a stunning building, and I highly recommend stopping by.

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Well, that about sums up Texas.  Basically, Austin was my kind of place (aside from the heat) and Dallas definitely wasn’t, but I’m glad I got to see a state I’d never been to before, even if I didn’t always enjoy it.  Next up, a few posts from my old home state of Ohio.

 

 

 

Dallas, Texas: The Sixth Floor Museum and the Old Red Museum

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When you think of Dallas, you think of the Kennedy assassination, right?  I mean, judging by the queue at the Sixth Floor Museum (the former Texas School Book Depository), I have to believe that JFK getting shot is the only thing people associate with Dallas.  Morbid as I am, and as much as I enjoyed the music of Danzig-era Misfits in my youth (and still do, around Halloween), I was actually not all that keen on seeing this museum, since I have very little interest in the history of the  second half of the 20th century, and I assumed (rightly) it would be a tourist trap.  But in the end, we thought we might as well go, since we might never be in Dallas again, which is how we found ourselves in a breezeway next to an overpriced parking lot, standing in the world’s longest queue.  Well, not really, the one at Dismaland for non-ticket holders was definitely longer, but this was probably the longest I’ve waited for something I wasn’t all that interested in in the first place (lines for rides at Disney World don’t count; I wanted to ride those).  The only benefit was that at least we were out of the sun, since it was about a million degrees outside, and I don’t really cope with heat very well.

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When we finally (FINALLY) got to the front of the stupid queue, which probably took over an hour, we then had to part with the absurd $16 admission fee, and join another line to take the lift up.  Of course, you can avoid most of this queuing if you have the foresight to book tickets online (dunno whether there’s a booking fee).  We clearly didn’t, and when we saw the online ticket people skipping to the front, we briefly thought of booking them then and there on our phones, but were quickly warned off by one of the employees, as you can apparently only book them at least two hours out from the time you want to go, and I was certainly not coming back to this place.  So we eventually got up to the Sixth Floor, with our free audio guides (they’d better be free, after paying $16 to get in), only to be met with the mass of people who were in the queue in front of us.  There was no way you could get close enough to most of the signs to read them, so we were left pretty reliant on the audio guide, which you know I hate.  Anyway, even if we could see the signs, this was a lame museum.  The only artefacts to speak of were a model of the assassination site, and a suit one of the cops escorting Lee Harvey Oswald was wearing when Jack Ruby appeared and shot him (Oswald that is, not the cop).  The actual corner where Oswald stood and fired those shots (depending on what you believe I guess, though conspiracy theories are given fairly short shrift in the museum) is behind glass, so you can’t get close to it, though you can see roughly what his view of the grassy knoll would have been from the window a few feet over.  Today the grassy knoll (really just a small patch of grass in the middle of a plaza) is full of idiots who dart between gaps in the traffic to stand on the x in the middle of the road that marks the spot where Kennedy was shot.

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The whole thing was grim really, and not because of the assassination.  I hate being forced to part with that kind of cash for something as uninspiring as this.  The seventh floor, which was the only place you were allowed to take pictures, was even more of a bust.  All it had was some murals of the Kennedys, and another window where you could try to capture the view.  This was an awful tourist trap, and I would not recommend it to anyone, which is really a shame, because they could have done so much more with a building with this kind of history.  Just take a picture of the plaque in front of the building acknowledging that this was the Texas School Book Depository, and spend the money you saved on an ice cream or something else that would actually be enjoyable.  1/5.

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I was more enthusiastic about the Old Red Museum, simply because I’d spotted the building from the highway without knowing what it was, and thought it looked really cool.  Turns out it is both a working courthouse, and a Dallas history museum.  I immediately got annoyed, however, when the guy at the admissions desk disappeared right after we walked in.  We waited around for ten minutes, and were just about to take our chances heading up the museum without a ticket, when he reappeared and sold us our $8 tickets, complete with a hefty free dose of attitude problem (I know that’s rich, coming from me).  There was a temporary exhibit on the ground floor about Mexicans living in Texas that sounded pretty good, but it was just a couple of Mexican dolls in a small room.  Dallas was not going well.

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The actual museum upstairs was a bit better, but still fairly meh.  We ended up watching a couple of the videos, just because our legs were tired from queuing so long over at the stupid Sixth Floor Museum, and we wanted to sit for a while.  One of them promisingly opened with a line about how, “John Neely Bryan was the founder of Dallas.  He would eventually be committed to a mental institution, where he died, but for now he was just a farmer.”  With an intro like that, my expectations were high, but it just gave a very boring history of the early years of farming in Dallas, and never said anything more about Bryan’s alleged lunacy.  This summed up my problems with this museum.  It promised a lot, but it didn’t really deliver.

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Sure, they had Clyde Barrow’s gun, the handcuffs used on Lee Harvey Oswald, and Larry Hagman’s hat from Dallas, the TV show, as promised on their website, but most of it was just your standard local history museum affair, albeit on a slightly larger scale (everything is bigger in Texas, after all).  I would have been fine with that if we’d only paid maybe $3-$5, but for $8, I was expecting something more.  And one of the world’s first frozen margarita machines wasn’t going to cut it, much as I find frozen margaritas the only vaguely palatable way of drinking tequila (perhaps if they’d been giving out free samples of margaritas, it would have improved my mood).

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So it’s fair to say I was not overly impressed with Dallas’s museum offerings.  I do hear very positive things about the Perot Museum, but we could go to a natural history museum anywhere; this was why we opted for things more Dallas-centric, which was clearly a mistake.  The Old Red Museum fared slightly better than the Sixth Floor Museum, because it was half the price, almost empty, and contained more artefacts relating to Kennedy than the stupid Sixth Floor thing did, but it still wasn’t anything I’d go rushing out to see.  Maybe just skip them both and buy two (or four, at least ice cream is affordable here) ice creams.  You’ll need them in that heat.  2.5/5.

Waco, Texas: The Dr. Pepper Museum

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Can I talk about blogging for a minute?  Even though I’ve only been posting once a week for a while, I’m at a point right now where even that feels like a chore (although I have no pressing obligations, so it’s not a question of finding the time to do it, because I have loads of time.  I’ve just lost interest).  I don’t know, it’s just when your stats are never quite as good as you’d like them to be and you’re not even sure people are actually reading your (admittedly overly-wordy) posts, it’s hard to summon up enthusiasm to write them.  I’m not sure why I’m telling you this, because I have enough posts stored up that I can get away with doing nothing but editing for another month or two, and I have no plans to stop blogging or anything; I guess it’s just so if you notice a slip in quality, that’s why.  Ennui.  Anyway, let’s move on from my listlessness to the always effervescent Dr. Pepper.

Thanks to David Koresh, you’ve probably heard of Waco before (unless you’re a young person, and then maybe not?).  However, over twenty years have gone by since the siege, and all that remains of the Branch Davidian compound is a small marker by the side of the road that people aren’t really encouraged to stop at.  Happily, there is another, much less depressing attraction in Waco, in the form of the Dr. Pepper Museum.

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I don’t really drink pop very often anymore (not because I don’t like it, but because it’s pretty calorific, and I’d rather save those calories for dessert), and when I do, Cherry Coke tends to be my soda of choice (only the full sugar version please, I HATE diet), at least whenever I don’t have an overpriced imported bottle of Stewart’s Key Lime or Oranges ‘n’ Cream to hand.  However, I’ve nothing against Dr. Pepper; in fact, I probably stunted my growth as a teenager thanks to my frequent consumption of “Dr. Thunder,” the Wal-Mart version of Dr. Pepper, so it was high time I knocked one back in the place of its birth.  Yes, Dr. Pepper was invented right in Waco, Texas, at Morrison’s Drug Store, by a pharmacist named Charles Alderton, aka “Dr. Pepper.”  In fact, in soda jerk slang, you used to be able to order a Dr. Pepper by saying “shoot me a Waco,” which I probably wouldn’t recommend doing today.  But to learn all this inside the museum, I first had to part with the rather steep admission fee of $8 (dollar off coupon available on their website, and I suggest you use it).

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One of the only parts of this three floor museum that seemed even vaguely worth the admission price was right by the start, inside the mock-up of an old-timey pharmacy.  They had an animatronic Charles Alderton who would long-windedly tell you the story of how Dr. Pepper came to be, which was amusing if only to hear how he spent most of his profits on cigars (Texas seems to love its animatronics).  They clearly kept emphasizing how Dr. Pepper is NOT a cola, which I would think is fairly obvious to anyone who’s ever tried it, and if you haven’t, then what the hell are you doing paying $8 to see this museum?!

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Ok, I confess part of my motive in parting with that much is that I was secretly hoping it would be like the Mr. Pibb Factory in American Dad, and it was not even remotely close, but then again, the museum is in an abandoned bottling plant, rather than a working factory.  The closest operational bottling plant was in Dublin, Texas, but that appears to have recently shut down, so I’m not sure where the soda fountain is sourcing their “all-sugar” Dr. Pepper from (more on that later).  Anyway, the ground floor of the museum, other than the animatronic Doc, mostly consisted of a collection of glass bottles from throughout history, and an old artesian well that was blocked up until recently (you can buy chunks of the bottles that were disposed of in it at the shop, if for some reason that should appeal).

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We only really knew the museum had three floors because the woman at the admission desk told us; otherwise, it wasn’t terribly clear.  We were scared to take the only stairs, because they looked like a fire exit (as in, an alarm might have gone off if we opened the door to them), and the lift wasn’t particularly well-marked or inviting, but we eventually just ended up using it.  The first (second in Americanese) floor proved to contain a temporary exhibit about promotional thermometers put out by soda companies (I’m not gonna lie, I’m intrigued by Squirt and gin, since I used to really like Squirt.  Do they even still make it?), and some weird half-assed attempt to explain how weather worked.  The Dr. Pepper memorabilia section was slightly better, even though we didn’t understand why there was a foot-shaped ashtray until we got up to the next floor.

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The rest of the floor space here was taken up with a “Western” theme, including the Dr. Pepper cowgirl (well before my time), a horse made of bottle caps (I think), and a collection of Western themed pop cans ranging from mildly to extremely racist (such as the cringing “Heep Good Soda,” complete with Native American caricature).  Alright, there was a Doc Holiday (sic) soda too, which I would drink just because I love Val Kilmer’s portrayal of him in Tombstone so much, but from what I hear he was pretty damn racist in real life too (Doc Holliday, that is), so I guess he fit in with the rest of the cans.

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We decided to take our chances on the stairs for the trip up to the top floor, and the door ended up not being alarmed, to our relief, just obviously disused (the stairwell was rundown and kind of smelled).  Here we were greeted with a video projection of “Foots,” an enterprising Dr. Pepper salesman who eventually became the president of Dr. Pepper, so named because of his enormous feet, apparently.  Which explained the mysterious ashtray downstairs, as well as all the other foot themed memorabilia (I admit to being relieved that it wasn’t just the result of some employee with a raging foot fetish).

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There were a few interactive games up here (not that fun, especially the marble one, which was really hard), and some crap about Foot’s Christian work ethic, but I rather enjoyed the cinema that was playing videos of retro Dr. Pepper commercials.  Some of those Dr. Pepper songs were damn catchy, even if it was all too painfully obvious which demographic they were attempting to appeal to with each one.

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Back downstairs, there was a shop where you could buy Dr. Pepper merchandise and that elusive sugar-not-HFCS pop, which apparently you can get all over the place as “Throwback Dr. Pepper” anyway (you’d never know from all the hype about it in the shop), but whatever, it wasn’t too expensive.  I was most excited for the vintage soda fountain, where they still make drinks with the actual syrup, but it was ultimately kind of a bust.  I mean, my float tasted good and all, but the girl making it was not very enthusiastic, and I was most disappointed that it was just served in a crappy plastic cup, instead of an actual soda glass.  Every other vintage-style soda fountain I’ve been to has used real glass, so why can’t this place, especially when that’s the vibe they’re aiming for? I don’t know, this museum was way overpriced, and not particularly impressive.  If you really like Dr. Pepper, it might be worth stopping if you’re in the vicinity to try something from the soda fountain (because who am I to tell you to turn down a delicious float; just don’t count on an actual glass), but you can probably skip the museum.  Although that said, I don’t regret going, because if I didn’t check it out, I’d be worried I was missing out on something cool.  It’s not every day you get to go to a soda museum, and it was definitely a uniquely American experience.  2/5.

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