Ohio

Akron, OH: Perkins Stone Mansion and John Brown House

Despite attending the University of Akron for four years, there are still a surprising amount of museums in Akron that I haven’t visited until recently, and the Perkins Stone Mansion is one of them.  It’s usually closed for the season by the time I’m home for Christmas, so I wanted to make sure and squeeze in a visit while I was there in September. It is a stone house (as you may have guessed from the name) built in the 1830s by Colonel Simon Perkins, the son of the founder of Akron. The area was once known as Mutton Hill because Perkins kept sheep, which is where John Brown (of Harpers Ferry/Bleeding Kansas fame) comes into the picture, as he was hired to manage the flocks and was given the house across the street to live in while he did so, from 1844 to the early 1850s. Both houses are included on the tour, but let’s begin with the Perkins Mansion, shown above.

  

Just like at Sherman House, we arrived just as a tour was starting, so we simply paid our $6 admission and joined the tour, without having time to watch the introductory video. We ended up watching it at the end of the tour instead, but I kind of wish we’d gotten to watch it beforehand, because the tour might have made more sense. My mother has been there a few times before, and commented that the quality of the tour varied dramatically depending on what tour guide you get. Unfortunately, I don’t think we ended up with one of the better ones. She was perfectly nice, but said off the bat that her degree was in architecture, not history, so she couldn’t tell us much about the history of the house, and she wasn’t joking. She made some pretty glaring errors both about the type of furnishings that would have been common in a house at that time, and just general historical ones; for example, she stated that John Brown was captured by the Confederate Army, which is odd, since the raid on Harpers Ferry took place two years before the Confederacy was founded (he was actually captured by U.S. Marines, though many officers who would later become prominent in the Confederacy were involved, like Robert E. Lee and J.E.B. Stuart). I didn’t say anything about it at the time, so as not to embarrass her, but I’m mentioning it here because it would be one thing if she was new, but she said she had been working there for over a year, and I would hope that the historical society equips its employees/volunteers with at least a basic grasp of the historical facts relating to the property in the future.

 

But I digress…we did indeed begin with the Perkins Stone Mansion, and she did at least give us some background on the architecture, including the unusual inclusion of the widow’s walk, which is far more common in New England, where, you know, you can actually look out to sea (I guess in Cleveland you could at least look out over Lake Erie, but you’d be hard-pressed to see it 40 miles away in Akron). It was probably there because the Perkins family was originally from Connecticut, which, like I mentioned in the Sherman House post, was pretty common, because NE Ohio was originally part of the Western Reserve given to Connecticut after the Revolutionary War.

   

Also like Sherman House, it was a fairly standard historic home tour, with even less to distinguish it, because unlike William Tecumseh Sherman, the Perkins family isn’t particularly well-known, even locally (hell, I studied history at U of Akron, and except for a few things named after them on campus, I’d barely heard of them either). Unfortunately, most of the furnishings aren’t original to the house, so except for a few portraits and things, we were mostly looking at random Victorian (or American equivalent) crap (well, not crap maybe, but nothing terribly memorable aside from that clock above the previous paragraph). Once again, we played the “guess the ye olde implement” game in the kitchen, and I was kind of shocked when our guide couldn’t identify wool carders, given that they were prominently displayed and labelled over in the John Brown House (they weren’t part of the game, but the other people on our tour spotted them and asked what they were).

 

To be fair to our guide, she was giving us information about the Perkins family the whole time, but because I hadn’t watched the video, I had no idea who the hell the various family members were that she kept referencing (but I’d like to know who the guy in that middle portrait above is. He almost looks like Andrew Jackson, but with a ridiculous expression). Not only did they found Akron, but the Perkins family also had a lot to do with its growth. Apparently one of the women founded a children’s home that later became the Akron Children’s Hospital, and one of the men (maybe Simon?) convinced BF Goodrich to come to Akron, which is part of the reason why Akron became such a big rubber town (there’s also Goodyear and Firestone there).  The guide also told us some story about how one of the daughters came back to live in the house after she was married because her father didn’t want to lose her “feminine touch,” so he gave her and her husband a couple of rooms there, but it confused me because I thought she mentioned that one of the other daughters remained unmarried and lived in the house her whole life, so there would have already been a woman living there. She did kind of blur successive generations of the family together, so maybe I’m mistaken about who was actually living there at any given time.

  

After we finished with the Perkins house, we headed over to John Brown House, which is located across a busy street. To get there, we passed the field where sheep are kept in the summer, to stay true to the house’s heritage (though sadly, they were already gone at the time of my visit), and a nice wooded area on the grounds (which used to include most of Akron, but are now limited to a few acres), including the tree shown above left, which she said was planted by the Perkins family, and might be a poplar. I don’t know much about trees, but I’m not convinced by poplar. If anyone can identify it, please let me know! The house also has a couple of outbuildings, namely an office and a laundry/pool house, but they weren’t open to the public when we visited, so we couldn’t see inside either.  There was also once a pool on the grounds (hence the pool house), but the Summit County Historical Society decided to cover it up when they took over so they didn’t have to pay for upkeep, so instead of a lovely pool area there is just a grassy rectangle.

  

John Brown House was more interesting, both because of the John Brown connection (he actually lived in Ohio for 35 years, spending time in Kent, Richfield, and Hudson) and because there was actual signage in here to tell us about John Brown’s life (I love the cartoon version of him, above). I didn’t know that he had travelled to London whilst working for Simon Perkins to attempt to sell their wool, and although Perkins wasn’t publicly involved with abolitionism, there is evidence that he may have donated money to Brown at some point to help his cause. Although Brown comes across as kind of a flake about everything except abolition, he was actually a pretty diligent shepherd, even staying up all night with the sheep during lambing season. Unfortunately, his business sense didn’t match his shepherding skills, and he was eventually fired when the business failed, and they got kicked out of the house, which was a pity for his family because his long-suffering wife (2nd wife, actually) said it was the nicest house she’d ever lived in (they moved up to North Elba in New York, to the cabin that I blogged about some years ago with the incredibly nice and knowledgeable ranger working there who really put this tour guide to shame).

  

We watched the video when we returned to the visitors’ centre, which did clear up some of the confusion I had about the Perkins family, and told me a lot more about their sheep business. I also appreciated all the sheep themed merchandise in the museum shop, because I’m kind of a sucker for farm animals (we went there right after visiting the Howe Meadow Farmers’ Market, which is very nice and was where I was able to procure an excellent shirt with Ohio turned into a chicken on the front). Although the Perkins House isn’t terribly interesting in and of itself, John Brown House does have a fascinating history (mainly because of John Brown), and I was glad to see it at last. However, I think they really need to do something about the training of their guides, because the quality is evidently vastly inconsistent (my mother says she once had a guy who was actually from the area, and he was awesome, but the others have not been from around there and don’t seem to know much about Akron or the house). I’m not blaming the guides themselves so much as whoever is training them (or not, as the case may be)…if it was free, it’d be one thing, but a paid attraction should aim to provide a consistent experience. So I’ll give them 2/5, and hope that they improve in the future. I’d be willing to try it again with a different guide just to see how the experience changes.

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Lancaster, OH: Sherman House Museum

I’ve been dying to see more presidential sites in Ohio, but none of them are anywhere near where my parents live. So, knowing we’d be in Columbus, I was googling attractions down there, hoping to find some previously overlooked presidential site (Taft’s house is the dream, but it’s all the way in Cincinnati), and I found what I guess is the next best thing: the childhood home of another famous Ohioan, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman, which contained furniture once owned by the Grant family (as in Ulysses S). Granted, it was in Lancaster, which is about 30 miles south of Columbus, but 30 miles is nothing in America, and if we’d come that far south, why not go a bit farther?

Like the more famous Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Lancaster, Ohio appears to be mostly a farming community (judging by all the cornfields), but going by the lack of buggies, I don’t think the farmers here are Amish (Ohio’s Amish communities mostly live further north). I did guess that Lancaster’s downtown would be historic and adorable, and I was not wrong. This included Sherman’s house, easily identifiable by the cannon mounted out front.

  

Unfortunately, I don’t have many pictures to show you because when we walked in, there was a tour already in progress (with only one other couple on it), which we joined immediately after paying ($6, or $10 if you want to see the nearby Georgian Museum (which was confusingly built in 1832) too, but we only had time for the Sherman House), so we weren’t sure whether you could take pictures or not until we got to the museum space upstairs, so we didn’t (but as we were leaving, I spotted a sign that said non-flash photography was fine, so turns out we could have after all). The house is only viewable via guided tour, which I was initially fine with despite our tight schedule (we had to meet my uncle for happy hour in Columbus that afternoon), because I didn’t possibly think it could take more than an hour. How wrong I was.

  

Anyway, our tour guide was affable enough, showing us around and pointing out any special features of the rooms, but it felt more like any generic historic home tour until we got to the Sherman Museum upstairs. He did talk a bit about Sherman’s family, but because I didn’t know a whole lot about Sherman’s background, I didn’t really know who he was talking about until I saw the family tree quilt in the museum. But apparently, like most families who emigrated to Ohio when it was still the Western Reserve, Cump’s parents (Cump was Sherman’s childhood nickname, apparently derived from the Tecumseh bit of his name (itself taken from the Shawnee Chief Tecumseh, who Cump’s father admired), and I like it, so I’m going to use it) came out from Connecticut in the 1810s and lived a pioneer lifestyle for a while until Ohio began to develop and grow, and they were able to double the size of their house. However, with eleven children, it would still have been quite a small house, and after Cump’s father died middle-aged and in debt (he was a lawyer who served on the Ohio Supreme Court, but had apparently loaned out money to tax collectors who worked for him who had yet to repay him), his mother was forced to allow most of her children to be raised by family and friends, including Cump, who was taken in by wealthy neighbour Thomas Ewing, as Cump was reputedly the most intelligent child.

  

Cump grew up to attend West Point Academy, where he excelled but had a lax attitude towards the rules, which prevented him from graduating at the top of his class. He married Ewing’s daughter Ellen, his foster sister, and they seem to have had a somewhat acrimonious marriage as all Ellen wanted to do was move back to her hometown of Lancaster, whereas it seemed Sherman couldn’t get the hell away from the place quickly enough. After serving in the Second Seminole War, he was denied the chance to see active duty in the Mexican-American War, which left him so salty that he resigned his commission and became a banker in San Francisco instead. The bank failed in the financial panic of 1857, and he subsequently became the head of a military academy in Louisiana, which he was happy enough doing, but then the Civil War happened.

This is where the story of Cump gets kind of shady (if fighting in “Indian Wars” wasn’t shady enough). He wasn’t actually opposed to slavery at all; in fact, he offered to buy Ellen slaves when they moved to Louisiana, but she refused because she didn’t think it was a good business transaction, bringing her white servants from the North with her instead. He only fought on the side of the North because he believed so damn much (to hear our tour guide tell it) in the Union, and he didn’t think the South had the right to secede. So yeah, he would have totally been a slave owner if his wife hadn’t opposed it on financial grounds. He’s not exactly an abolitionist hero or anything. His whole famous Union Army career followed, including the March to the Sea, etc. etc. – it’s all detailed here in the small museum, right down to the replica of his army tent, which included a writing desk and chest that actually belonged to him.

  

The most interesting thing in the museum, for me, was the picture of Sherman with Father Pierre De Smet, because I am a huge Laura Ingalls Wilder nerd, and the town she lived in in Dakota Territory was named De Smet for this priest. Cump met him in his post-war career, which included more “Indian Wars” out west (of course, because I guess being named after a Native American means you should kill as many of them as possible. One of his “brilliant” ideas was to kill all the buffalo so that the tribes would starve. Ugh). After he’d had his fill of killin’ he moved to New York, and was the person responsible for deciding that the Statue of Liberty should be placed on what became Liberty Island. This was also where he acquired the Grant’s parlour furniture, which is indeed in Sherman House’s parlour – probably the most interesting room in the house itself, containing as it does photographs of the family using the furniture, the last portrait of Sherman painted from life, and a partial set of Shakespeare themed chairs that Sherman had made for his home in New York (it sounded pretty swanky). The rest of the house was fairly standard historic home, as I said, with the obligatory “guess what this old-timey object was” game in the kitchen, and stenciled walls in one of the bedrooms upstairs in which a mistake had deliberately been made in the print, to show that “no one is perfect except God.” Our guide was fine (except for a few odd, slightly sexist jokes, like when he said I should cover my ears so I wouldn’t be shocked when I “learned” that poor people in the 1800s only owned one pair of shoes), but very talkative, especially at the end of the tour, when he talked for about half an hour to give us the entire rundown of Cump’s life story (which is probably the same thing I’ve done in the post, sorry about that), which meant we were late meeting my uncle, but it wasn’t really the guide’s fault since we didn’t say we were in a hurry or anything, and he was just trying to be informative, which he certainly was…just a little TOO informative.

  

So I basically learned that Sherman was a fairly terrible human being who only fought on the side of the North because he loved the Union more than practically anything, but I guess by the standards of the time, he was fairly normal, and certainly better than some, because despite his personal views on slavery, he did help win the Civil War (but then killed a bunch of Native Americans…OK, he was mostly terrible). Despite his many, many flaws, it was neat getting to see the house he grew up in, because I am quite interested in the American Civil War from a social history perspective, though it did seem like all his personal possessions were in the museum rooms or the front parlour, and everything else was either stuff owned by his parents (which was fine) or just items from the right time period that had been donated. Surprisingly, for a town this size, Lancaster does have a genuine museum “district” which in addition to Sherman House and the aforementioned Georgian House also includes the Ohio Glass Museum and the Decorative Arts Center of Ohio, which was free and hosting an exhibition on Victorian photography that I would have loved to visit if we hadn’t already been running extremely late, so I think this town is well worth a visit (via my uncle’s partner, I also found out that they have a very tasty looking doughnut shop, which I unfortunately didn’t learn until it was too late). Sherman House was an interesting experience, albeit not quite what I was expecting….just make sure you leave yourself plenty of time if you’re planning a visit. Lancaster is quite near to Hocking Hills, which I still haven’t been to (and wasn’t visiting on this trip, hiking in 90+ degrees Fahrenheit?! No thanks!), but it’s an area pretty well known for being gorgeous, so you can probably do an extended trip and see all this stuff if you fancy it. 3/5 for Sherman House.

 

Columbus, OH: Thurber House

Despite what I said in the last post about being happy it’s finally autumn, the truth is a little more complex. Even though I do love it, fall is always a difficult season for me because spending it in the UK just makes me homesick for fall in the US. Since I hadn’t made it home in October for a couple years, I was planning on going this year…until I received a job offer. Though I was excited and grateful for the opportunity, I was feeling down about not being able to go home, until I realised that I had two weeks before I had to start, so I booked an extremely last minute (but surprisingly cheap) flight to Cleveland, and settled for being there in the latter half of September instead of October. Which was basically fine, except for the weather, which climbed above 90° Fahrenheit for all except the last few days of my trip. I do not cope well with heat. Nonetheless, I had a lovely time (thankfully, everywhere in Ohio has air conditioning, except my brother’s car, as we discovered to our dismay one extremely hot day), and even managed to visit some new-to-me historic homes and museums. The first of these is Thurber House, in Columbus.

  

I find myself stopping by Columbus pretty much every trip home now in order to visit my uncle and his partner and their two adorable dogs (and eat frozen custard with them at Whit’s), so I’m starting to get a good idea of the museum scene down there, and this time decided to finally visit Thurber House, because it’s closed during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, which is exactly when I’m normally visiting Ohio, so I don’t usually get the opportunity. James Thurber was an American writer, illustrator, and humourist in the first half of the 20th century, and although he was nationally famous in the 1930s and ’40s (he wrote for the New Yorker, and is the author of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”) I’m not sure how well known his work is these days outside Ohio. I definitely remember reading some of James Thurber’s pieces at school, though I recall his illustrations more vividly than the stories themselves. Even though he was blind in one eye as the result of a childhood accident involving an arrow (ouch!), and went blind in the other one later in life, he created the most charming illustrations (especially of dogs) to accompany his humorous stories, some of which are brought to life in statue form in the garden.

  

Thurber House is where James Thurber lived with his family between 1913-1917, while he attended OSU, and it is open daily between 1-4. They offer guided tours for a small fee on Sundays, but the rest of the time the house is free to visit via self-guided tour, with the use of a detailed brochure to help you along. Not that you really need it, because the house isn’t terribly big, but there is a lot to read inside, particularly on the ground floor. There was also an exhibition of Funky Winkerbean comic strips when I was there, which despite its stupid name, is one of the most depressing comic strips ever, but its creator, Tom Batiuk, is from Ohio (Akron, actually), which is probably why they were there.

  

Anyway, the signs in one room contained information about Thurber’s life, and the house (it’s even been visited by ghost hunters, who claimed they verified Thurber’s somewhat facetious belief that there was a ghost in the house (see Thurber’s story “The Night the Ghost Got In” for details (but be aware that the link goes to a pdf, as that was the only place I could find the story for free))), as well as copies of some of Thurber’s best-loved short stories. I’m particularly partial to the one about “Muggs, the Dog That Bit People” mainly on account of Thurber’s drawing of Muggs, which was also available in t-shirt form in the gift shop.

  

Upstairs was a little odd. Some of the rooms were done up roughly as they would have been when the Thurbers lived there, but others were now office space, and there were people sitting inside them working (Thurber House is also a non-profit literary centre). Though we were encouraged by the woman at admissions to go inside the offices and look around, and even ask questions of the people working there if we wanted to, I felt awkward doing that, so I just peered inside as discreetly as I could, and then headed for the rooms without people in them, which included a room full of Thurber memorabilia: manuscripts, illustrations, etc.

  

I also liked Thurber’s old bedroom, which is fortunately not an office either. It had some of his old class pictures in it, and the closet was special too, because it was filled with the signatures of visiting authors. I only saw a few names that I recognised, but the sign telling visitors not to autograph it unless they are asked made me want to develop a professional writing career simply so I can put my name in there when I return. Apparently some of the writers have even spent the night in James Thurber’s bed! The Thurber House also supports a writer-in-residence; the top floor of the house has been turned into an apartment so writers can stay and work there, which I think is pretty cool (even (especially?) if there is a ghost living up there). I spent some time looking at the walls next to the stairs and in the upstairs bathroom, which were covered with photographs of famous visitors to the house, including Burgess Meredith (who was from Cleveland!), who I think was adorable because of his work in The Twilight Zone and Grumpy Old Men (I can’t even watch the second one all the way through because he dies in it).

   

The shop had some good t-shirt designs (Marcus bought the aforementioned Muggs one, I declined because they only had basic man-cut ones, and I’m not a fan of the neckline or thick fabric of those), but the most charming part of the museum was undoubtedly the garden(s). The one behind the house was full of dog statues, and there was a unicorn in the garden in front of the house, based on another of Thurber’s stories, which was written on a plaque by the statue.

  

Although the office situation was a little bit outside my comfort zone (though I’m sure the people working there were perfectly friendly, I am just not the type to barge into someone’s office and start making conversation), the rest of the house, and the gardens especially, were a delight!  I appreciate that it is free to visit, and I very much enjoyed learning more about James Thurber and his stories (and I really must get my hands on one of his story compilations, I want to read more!). 3.5/5, well worth the visit for the statues alone!

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.