London: The Charterhouse Museum

dsc00346_stitchI was flipping through a copy of Time Out London a few weeks ago (because I still prefer the print version to their website), when one of the photos in their “Instagram Posts of the Week” (or whatever it’s called) section caught my eye, because the caption underneath read something like, “a picture of the Charterhouse, London’s newest museum.” I think I may just be automatically drawn to the word “museum” at this point, but my interest was piqued enough that I investigated further.  Turns out that the Charterhouse, built in 1371, and variously serving as “a monastery, private mansion, boys’ school, and an almshouse” (according to the museum’s website), has recently opened a small section of its building to the public “for the first time since its foundation in 1348” (again, from their website. I guess they’re including the plague pit years in that timeline). There is a small museum, and visitors are welcome to tour the chapel as well when it’s not being used for a churchly function.

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Nothing (well, other than the promise of ice cream) gets me out of the house faster than the prospect of a new, free museum to visit, so Marcus and I ended up heading there later that week. It’s right around the corner from Barbican Station, in a rather secluded square that would probably be quite lovely if there wasn’t loads of construction going on, and a pervading smell of chicken shit from all the mulch being put down (confession: I actually don’t really mind the smell of manure or mulch.  It reminds me of the county fair, and thus weirdly gives me a craving for frosty chocolate milkshakes and french waffles).  It wasn’t a corner of London I’d ever had the occasion to visit before, and even with all the construction, I was pleasantly surprised at how nice and historical it all looked (especially because I hate the Barbican Centre so very much.  It’s a hideous piece of Brutalist architecture, and the tunnel you have to walk through to get to it is grim, but the Charterhouse is in a different area entirely).

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We received a friendly greeting upon entering, and were told we could either go through the door marked “Museum” first, or go through the chapel entrance first and then see the museum.  We opted for the former, and ended up seeing the museum in reverse chronological order (I think it does flow pretty well either way, but if you’d prefer to go forward in time, then see the chapel first and go into the museum that way).  The museum was located inside two very long, narrow rooms, but by keeping all the objects tight against the walls so they didn’t stick out past the partial partitions erected between each section, and by having white walls with lots of windows, the gallery never felt particularly crowded or claustrophobic like the one at the City of London Police Museum, even though there were more visitors here than there were at the Police Museum (though still only a handful).  So, props to them for good design.

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Because we were travelling backwards through the museum, we began by learning about its present-day occupants; the Brothers.  The term is one that has stuck around since the Charterhouse’s monastic days, though it no longer has religious connotations (mass is still held in the chapel every day, but attendance is not obligatory).  Rather, the Brothers are a group of 60+ year old men “in need of financial and social support, who are selected from a wide variety of professions” (they must also be in good health at time of application. Because there is an application process involved…they’re not just selecting seniors at random or anything, which was kind of what I thought at first). They live together at the Charterhouse, which provides them with a sense of community, since they take meals together, and are welcome to participate in various activities. Traditionally, Brothers have always been men, but now women are welcome to apply as well, though they will still be called “Brothers.”

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Next, we learned about the boys’ school, which was here from the 17th century until 1872, when it was moved to Godalming.  It had some fairly famous pupils over the years, including William Makepeace Thackeray, John Wesley, and Robert Baden-Powell (of Scouting fame).  Not unusually for the time, corporal punishment took place here, with “swishings” being the method of choice, using a bundle of twigs like the one pictured above. As you may be able to read in the caption, the school actually tried to do away with beatings in favour of monetary fines, but the boys voted against it because they felt that paying fines wasn’t “honourable.”

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Next came the section on Thomas Sutton, who was responsible for both the boys’ school and almshouse that exists to the present day.  Sutton was a Tudor businessman who got rich from coal mines, money lending, and other investments, and, as many wealthy people did back then, he left a number of charitable bequests in his will for the good of his soul.  Because the Charterhouse had been dissolved as a monastery under Henry VIII, and turned into a mansion, Sutton was able to purchase it and establish an almshouse for 80 Brothers, as well as a school for 40 boys.  He also left money to a few other people and institutions, the most intriguing of which was mentioned on a sign in the museum, “£100 to the poorest fishermen of Ostend…In recompense for an episode earlier in Sutton’s career which weighed on his conscience.” Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t see how you can mention an intriguing tidbit like that and not give people the whole story somewhere, but I couldn’t find anything about it, and a bit of googling has gotten me nowhere.  I can’t be the only one who wants to know what the “episode” was!

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Anyway, leaving the poor fishermen of Ostend behind, I entered the next corridor, which was all about the monastery that stood here from the 14th century until Henry VIII got his greedy fat paws on it.  Like many monasteries, the Carthusians at the Charterhouse seemed to have a damned impressive medieval plumbing system, and the manuscript describing it stretched out along the length of the whole room.  I was also interested to learn that the monks were strict vegetarians, and they had a separate “flesh kitchen” away from the rest of the monastery for when they had to cook meat for visitors. Being a vegetarian myself, with a fairly strict no meat in my flat policy (well, visitors can eat it if they must in the form of a takeaway or something, but they can’t cook it here using my pans and utensils.  It’s not even an ethical thing so much, I just really honestly find meat super disgusting, and don’t want it stinking up my flat, or gunking up my pans. I had enough of that when I had housemates), I quite like that idea, if I had somewhere to put it, but obviously people would have to cook their own damn meat in it (I’m not doing it for them!).  It would save having to listen to my old flatmate whining whenever he comes for a visit because I won’t let him cook bacon for breakfast.

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They also had a splendid little scrapbook people could look through in the monastery section, full of medieval illustrations (including one of people being stabbed by “Death the skeleton” which I just loved), but the best thing of all is something we didn’t photograph: the skeleton of an actual plague victim.  Before it was a monastery or anything else, this was the site of a burial pit for the victims of the famous 1348-1349 bubonic plague outbreak (aka the Black Death), and modern archeologists have unearthed the skeleton of a young man who died during the pandemic (I imagine they found more than one, but only one is in the museum).  It seems rather curious that the monks would choose the site of a relatively new plague pit for their monastery, but maybe they reckoned it would give them plenty of souls to pray for (since it’s estimated that half of the population of London died during the Black Death).

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Thus concluded our museum visit, but there was still a splendid little chapel to see. The room outside the chapel was full of memorials to the great and good who had some connection to the Charterhouse, including Thackeray, and Wesley, and also one to Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island.  As soon as we entered the ante-chapel, a volunteer came running up and said he was about to take his lunch, but his replacement hadn’t arrived yet, so he could quickly show us around if we wanted, which was nice of him.  He gave us a brief history of the chapel (the ante-chapel dates back to 1512, but the large chapel had been demolished during the dissolution of the monasteries, and a small chapel was tacked on to the Charterhouse for the use of the person living in the mansion.  When it became Sutton’s Hospital, the chapel was expanded, so most of it dates to the 17th century, with the exception of a bay on the side that was built specially for the pupils of the boys’ school (presumably to keep them out of the hair of the other parishioners), and pointed out some decorative details.  One of these was the monument to John Law (shown above right), Sutton’s executor, who died a mere three years after him (so he must have done some speedy work).  I loved the skull, and thought I’d like a memorial plaque just like it, until I saw Thomas Sutton’s monument.

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Damn, now that was a monument!  It took up most of a wall, and included not only a skull, but also some delightful little figures of Peace and Plenty, and a whole panel showing the Brothers and Scholars who existed thanks to Sutton.  And a life-size effigy of Sutton himself.

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But that’s not the only Sutton-y touch in the chapel.  There were also greyhound heads at the end of every pew, because apparently the greyhound was Sutton’s personal symbol.  So now I guess I need a personal symbol as well (in addition to a splendid monument, though I’d like mine built before I die so I can see how awesome it is. Also my sacrilegious ass would have to be somewhere other than a church.  Maybe a library or museum…or gelateria), I’m thinking maybe spy crow?

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So despite my decidedly non-religious inclinations, even I could appreciate this gorgeous little chapel, in particular the memento mori-esque monuments.  These are the only areas of the building normally open to the public, though they do offer Brother-led “behind-the scenes” tours for a fee of either £10 or £15 (depending on the length of the tour), which sound like they might be worth doing someday, since you get to see some Elizabeth I related rooms, and some areas used by the medieval monks.  Visitors (of a more religious bent) are also welcome to attend services at the chapel, which are held daily.  As you can probably tell, I learned a lot from this little museum, and very much enjoyed my time here.  The balance of signage to artefacts was excellent, the layout was good, and the chapel was wonderfully quirky.  The only thing I can suggest at the moment is to include the story behind the bequest to the Ostend fishermen (if it isn’t one of those things that’s been lost to history… I do realise they might not have included it because there was only a passing reference to it in the will, and not an actual explanation or anything), because I’m dying to know if there’s an amusing anecdote behind it.  Other than that, it is an excellent start for “London’s newest museum.” 4/5.

ETA: I posted this in the comments, but in case you don’t feel like scrolling down that far, I have discovered the story behind the fishermen of Ostend, in case anyone else is interested, thanks to an obscure entry in the Biographia Britannica found on Google Books. It still isn’t terribly clear, but as far as I can work out, he purchased “two prizes” of boats laden with cod some years before he died, for which he paid £200 – basically, I think this incident occurred whilst England was at war with the Dutch, and the boats were basically stolen from Ostend fishermen by English privateers, so he was essentially trading in stolen goods, and clearly felt guilty about it for the rest of his life. So he was trying to make up for it by giving back the value of the boats that he had taken, because there is a clause in the original will that states “I desire the same men, or their children, to have the same, if the true owners may be found out, if not, then I will the same £200 to be given among the poorest fishermen of that town.” He later changed the amount to £100 because Ostend had been destroyed by a siege, and he reckoned there weren’t enough fishermen living there anymore to need that much money. So not as generous as it initially appeared, nor as juicy of a story as I was hoping, but at least the mystery has been solved.

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See what I mean about the construction?!

London: “Sussex Modernism” @ Two Temple Place

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Despite trying to stay relatively well-informed about the London museum scene (or as well-informed as I can be without having to leave my house much or actually socialise with people), I only first discovered Two Temple Place last year, when they were hosting an exhibition about Ancient Egypt (the only time the building is open to the public is when they have an exhibition on, which happens from late January-April each year).  I really enjoyed both the house and the exhibit, giving it a lofty 4/5, so I was eager to visit this year when they re-opened with a new exhibit, even though this year’s exhibit, “Sussex Modernism: Retreat and Rebellion,” didn’t sound particularly to my taste.

img_20170222_143451088To reiterate from last year, Two Temple Place was built by super-rich American William Waldorf Astor in 1895, and the building is really rather fabulous (tycoons back then did gaudy right).  Fortunately, we got a few good shots of the interior last year when photography was allowed, as we weren’t permitted to take pictures of the exhibit this year due to copyright issues (most (all?) of the pieces here were on loan from various galleries around Sussex, including Salvador Dali’s Mae West lips sofa, which we saw at the Brighton Museum last year), so I’ll be reusing a few of those old shots in this post (although the metal cow sculpture photo is new; I don’t think the sculpture was even there last time).

DSC00622As always though, Two Temple Place is free, and they let us borrow a guidebook to walk around with again too, which is a much appreciated touch.  They do always seem to have nice, enthusiastic volunteers.  Since I didn’t need to do as much oohing and aahing over the house this year (having gotten that out of my system last year), I was kind of hoping the exhibit would have some impressive art to marvel at instead (but knowing how I feel about most modern art, I didn’t hold out much hope, which was probably a good thing. Saved myself disappointment in the end).

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Going into the exhibit, I knew next to nothing about Sussex modernism, so I was ready to learn! Unfortunately, as you’ll see, I didn’t really end up finding out enough to make sense out of the movement. But one of the things I did learn was that there was an artist called Eric Gill who moved out to Ditchling in the early 1900s, and he attracted a small community of fellow artists/protegees, including David Jones and Ethel Mairet.  However, Eric Gill was not a terribly sympathetic figure; to be blunt, he was straight-up disgusting. He not only had incestuous “relationships” with his daughters and sisters, but apparently had sex with his dog as well.  And that was really all about Eric Gill that I needed to know…clearly I am never going to be a fan.

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But as far as the rest of the Sussex modernists go, there didn’t seem to be that much biographical information provided, or if there was, it wasn’t memorable enough to stick with me (it probably didn’t help that I had never heard of any of the main artists featured here).  There was a bizarre, but amusing story included as an intro to the exhibit, about the poet Ezra Pound, and some of his artistic friends.  Apparently, they decided to throw a dinner party for some elderly artist that they admired (who also lived in Sussex), so they served him a whole roasted peacock, and presented him with a coffer they’d made with a naked woman carved on one of the sides. The elderly artist was evidently quite uncomfortable with this, and always kept the side with the woman on it turned towards the wall when he displayed the coffer (I would have been far more uncomfortable with the roasted peacock than the nude on the coffer, personally).  My issue with this anecdote (and most of the rest of the exhibit) was that it was never adequately explained who the artist was (they provided his name, which I’ve forgotten, but I have no idea what he was famous for), and other than it being a story about what happens when old and new artistic movements clash, and taking place in Sussex, I didn’t really understand what it had to do with the rest of the exhibition, since Ezra Pound wasn’t mentioned again.  Basically, the whole exhibit left me in a state of general confusion, because nothing was explained quite thoroughly enough, and I left feeling that I still didn’t really know what the defining traits of the Sussex modernists were (and not being able to take photos didn’t help, since I couldn’t review the pictures later to see if I’d missed some vital bit of information).

DSC00604Which is not to say that everything was so crazily modernist that I couldn’t tell what the pieces were meant to be, or anything (the exhibit contained various works of art produced by the modernists; mainly paintings, but some sculpture as well).  I just don’t think I always picked up on the meanings behind them, or what the ethos was of the Sussex modernists.  Some of the artists were atheists, yet they seemed to produce mainly religious art commissioned by several local churches. Eric Gill made a lot of nudes, and used his teenage daughters as models, which is really creepy when you know about his sexual proclivities. Some of the artists focused on their experiences in the First and Second World Wars, and produced sort of dystopian stuff, or art about the invasion of modernisation in the countryside. I understand that artists can produce different styles of art and still be part of a community, but it felt more like the art had been selected simply because all of the artists had spent some time in Sussex, not because they were actually all friends, or even contemporaries, or part of the same artistic movement. As for the art itself, it mostly wasn’t my cup of tea, but I did enjoy some of it, most notably a ceramic cat, a beautiful little bright blue painting (print?) depicting the night sky, and a photograph of Henry Moore hugging his sculpture Mother and Child (well, one of his sculptures with that name anyway, since he appears to have used it about 50 times for different pieces. I mean, if you can take the time to chisel out a damn sculpture, surely you can put in the effort to think of a unique name whilst you’re doing it). There was also a strange surrealist video playing in one of the rooms that intrigued me; the end of the film featured a lobster bursting from the menu of a fancy restaurant.

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Like last year, the exhibit was both in the ground floor gallery, and all the upstairs rooms, but I don’t think it took anywhere near as long to look at, because the descriptions simply weren’t as detailed (or as interesting, to me anyway) as the ones last year.  I have to say, if I hadn’t visited last spring and saw all the neato Egyptian stuff, I don’t know if I’d be particularly impressed with Two Temple Place after this.  I mean, the house is still gorgeous, but the exhibit was nowhere near as good as last year’s.  As it stands though, I know what they can do, so I am still planning on visiting next year’s exhibit, whatever that may be.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think this year’s exhibition was terrible or anything, it just wasn’t really my kind of art, and there was also an odd lack of continuity within the exhibit itself (and that disjointedness has carried through to this post, since I think I’ve failed at making it completely coherent). Maybe even the curators weren’t too sure how to tie all these artists together outside of Sussex, or they just assumed that anyone coming to see it would already have some background knowledge on the Sussex modernists that I clearly lack. For a free exhibit though, I think it’s probably alright if you like that style of art (though please, no one ask me any questions about what exactly that style is, because I still can’t tell you!), and worth a visit just to get a look at the interior, if you haven’t seen it before. 2.5/5.

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London: “Wounded: Conflict, Casualties, and Care” @ the Science Museum

dsc00120I was originally intending on mentioning this exhibit at the end of the “Robots” post, because I thought there was no way I was going to have very much to say about “Robots” other than “there were a shitload of robots.” But then I ended up running on for 1400+ words, as I do, and whilst I didn’t want to spend two weeks just talking about temporary exhibits at the Science Museum, neither did I want to shortchange “Wounded” because it really was a very nice little exhibition.  So here we are.

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“Wounded” opened in summer 2016, and will run until January 2018.  It is a free exhibition, but is somewhat hidden on what they call “Floor G,” which is not actually the ground floor, rather, up a short flight of stairs from the ground floor (I think there is lift access, but probably only from one particular set of lifts, because the Science Museum is built weirdly like that). This “hiddenness” is probably a good thing, because it is blissfully quiet up there compared to the rest of the museum (for the most part…bit of foreshadowing there).  (For real, don’t underestimate the value of a quiet gallery in the Science Museum, because it is normally absolutely crawling with school groups, and the place gets loud!  I briefly worked there some years ago (temp job during the London Olympics), and would spend my breaks retreating to either the Wellcome galleries on the 4th and 5th floors, or if I didn’t have time to get up there (because they can only be accessed by one set of lifts, or a hard-to-find flight of stairs), I’d go to this strange old-fashioned gallery on the 2nd or 3rd floor that was just full of old-timey farming dioramas, and never had anyone in there.  I’m not even sure if it still exists, to be honest, but its silence was much appreciated at the time.)

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Anyway, “Wounded” tells the story of medicine in the First World War, which is basically exactly the sort of thing I’m interested in (I guess more specifically it’s meant to be medicine at the Battle of the Somme, hence the July 2016 start date, but it seemed to cover medicine throughout the war years. I’m not sure whether this exhibit has any connection with Emily Mayhew’s book of the same name, which I just started reading, as they cover the same subject matter, but I don’t recall seeing any mention of it inside the exhibit.  Then again, I might not have noticed, because I didn’t know that the book existed until I spotted a copy at the library last week). Where I think “Robots” failed a bit by having the quality of the signage not quite match up to the glories of the robots on display, here I think the Science Museum got things just right, because the amount of text relative to artefacts was just perfect.  And it was really interesting stuff, too!

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The first room dealt mainly with the reactions of soldiers to war, and included a good selection of “lucky charms” that they carried with them into battle (I thought the black cat pin was cute, but a rather curious choice as a good luck symbol).  It also had an early gas mask, and mentioned that soldiers who weren’t familiar with them would often panic from the chemical smell coming from the gas masks themselves, believing that they weren’t working.  Because, as the exhibit said, gas attacks did just as much to destroy morale as they did bodies.

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The next room was probably the most interesting (to me, anyway). It was about battlefield medicine, in particular the four different stages of the casualty evacuation chain, from getting hauled off the field by stretcher bearers (who were trained in basic first aid), going to a dressing station (where they would do their best to stabilise a patient, but were really only equipped to deal with relatively minor injuries), progressing to a casualty clearing station (located behind the front lines, these could perform major operations, such as limb amputations), and finally to an actual hospital – typically a hospital ship or train would transport the patient back to Britain for further treatment or convalescence (the hospital trains were a necessity because incoming troops and supplies took priority over wounded soldiers, so sometimes trains carrying casualties would have to wait for days to move along the tracks, and the soldiers could easily die en route if the trains weren’t fully medically equipped).  This was where the exhibit probably related most to the Somme specifically, because early in the war, on the Western Front, casualty clearing stations were the first port of call for medical treatment, and they were really more for minor things like changing dressings, rather than performing operations. Any serious injuries would have to be dealt with in hospitals away from the battlefield, but so many men were dying before reaching this point that the RAMC realised there had to be a better way.  Thus the four stage system was born, and it was pretty much up and running just in time for the Battle of the Somme.

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The exhibit also discussed medical innovations during the war, such as blood transfusions (doctors were able to store blood thanks to the use of sodium citrate as an anticoagulant), and one technique that actually harked back to the otherwise dark days of Victorian medicine: the Thomas Splint.  Before traction splints were used, 80%(!) of soldiers with fractured femurs ended up dying from their wounds, many before even reaching a dressing station, mainly because the broken bone was located by the femoral artery; when they were being transported by stretcher, it would inevitably be jarred at some point, and it would sever the artery and they’d bleed out. Robert Jones, a Welsh surgeon, realised that a pioneering splinting technique invented by his uncle, Hugh Owen Thomas, the century before, could help stabilise femur wounds during transport; after this splint entered general use, the mortality rate from femur wounds dropped to 16%.

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Then came what should have been the most poignant section of the exhibit; the one dealing with the treatment and rehabilitation of soldiers who had received life-changing injuries. Unfortunately, this was also the point when a group of schoolchildren entered the exhibition, along with their teacher.  However, they weren’t actually looking at the exhibits, or being taught anything.  Rather, they were just running amuck, yelling, and occasionally stopping to point at pictures of injured soldiers, going, “Look, they only have one leg!” and “Look, they’re missing an eye!”  I sincerely hope these children don’t do this when they see disabled people in real life, and I was really annoyed that their teacher was letting them behave like this in a very serious exhibition, and doing nothing to stop it.  These kids were about 7 or 8, so certainly old enough to know better, and it could have been a good opportunity to teach them about compassion, but this teacher was just completely checked out, and didn’t care what they did.  I mean, really, the whole rest of the museum is open for kids to run through and act as obnoxiously as they like, so the teacher couldn’t have kept them out of this one exhibit that they would have had to go out of their way to enter?! OK, rant over.

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Mercifully, they did eventually leave (I was glaring at them the whole time, which might have helped), and I was finally free to give the displays the attention they deserved.  There was a fair bit of material relating to St. Dunstan’s Hospital for blind and wounded soldiers, including Braille watches and typewriters, which were really cool.  These were part of the attempt to help blinded soldiers adapt to their new life by giving them work to do so they could feel useful again.  There was also a collection of scrapbooks with illustrations done by convalescing soldiers, and some information on pioneering plastic surgery techniques developed during the war (though this is covered in more detail at the Hunterian Museum et al, so they didn’t dwell on it here).

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The prosthetics were also very interesting (Wimbledon War Worker’s Depot, which was located up the street from my flat, made prosthetic limbs and splints, though none of these seemed to be from there). Apparently one prosthetic arm from America was particularly in demand because it looked very good, but only officers could afford to buy it, and they soon realised that it was too heavy to be of practical use, so most of them ended up mouldering away in drawers somewhere. Siegfried Sassoon’s poem, “Does it Matter,” was printed on one of the walls, and it made me tear up a little (poem here, please read!). (I have a soft spot for most of the War Poets, particularly that rather dishy Rupert Brooke (who died from an infected mosquito bite, poor guy. Denied even the “glory” of dying in battle).)

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The exhibit ended with a small display of objects belonging to modern wounded soldiers, including a t-shirt ripped by shrapnel, and a small stuffed monster that one soldier used to personify his PTSD, which helped him cope with it.  There was also a short video about modern soldiers, which I didn’t have time to watch, because I had already spent way longer than anticipated looking around this excellent little exhibit.  Even though I have always been interested in medical history, I still managed to learn quite a lot in “Wounded.”  I think the Science Museum got it just right this time; informative, poignant, and entertaining.  Definitely stop by to see this if you find yourself near the Science Museum; I think it needs a little love!  4/5.

London: “Robots” @ the Science Museum

dsc00001“Robots,” at the Science Museum, is one of those rare exhibitions that I rushed out to see the same week it opened.  This was partly because I like robots (though I like animal robots the best), and partly because the Science Museum have been hyping it up for months on their Instagram account, but mostly because the week after it opened was half-term, and I can’t stand a crowd (sometimes when I say that I can’t stand things, I like to go full-on Lina Lamont from Singin’ in the Rain for emphasis). Also, after that unpleasantly overbooked Robot Sex night I talked about last week, I really needed some kind of non-disappointing robot event to lift my spirits.  I’m happy to report that “Robots,” while not quite living up to all the hype, didn’t actually disappoint either.

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Because I was still worried about crowds, it being opening week and all, we booked our tickets the night before for one of the earliest time slots in the morning (it takes a lot to get me out of the house before 10, especially in winter, so I was obviously keen), which meant we were able to stroll right into the exhibit.  I’m glad we did go early, because there was quite a queue built up by the time we left, which was just before noon.  “Robots” costs a very hefty £13.50 (without donation), so I was pleased that we were able to use our National Art Passes to get in for half that (the Science Museum also accepts National Rail 2-for-1s).  The first thing that greeted us when we entered the exhibition proper was a very creepy robot baby that moved eerily like a real baby (something about the fact that it was wearing a safety-pinned towel instead of an actual diaper made it even creepier, like it was a neglected robot baby or something).

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However, once we were past creepy-baby, the exhibit was off to a promising start, with a stroll through the history of robots, via the very earliest forms, including clocks and automata (which I suppose are a form of clockwork too).  There were also some fine early articulated prosthetics made by armourers, and some nifty anatomical wax models (my kind of macabre).

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Unfortunately, then the exhibit briefly moved back into the realm of things that freak me out (admittedly not that hard to do, since I’m terrified of stupid shit like butterflies. Even dead ones), because there were some 16th century religious automata, including a monk that bore more than a passing resemblance to Nosferatu that apparently can make his way across a table whilst making praying motions, and a crucifixion scene where Jesus moves his head around and cries tears of blood (fortunately, these things weren’t actually working.  Due to my Catholic upbringing and accidental viewing of a few religiously-themed horror movies, I spent most of my childhood living in fear that one of the Jesuses (Jesi?) on the couple of crucifixes my parents had hanging up would start moving, so this crucifixion automaton would have pretty much been my worst nightmare).

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But after I turned the corner and saw the Silver Swan, all the other automata were forgotten.  I have wanted to see the Silver Swan, which normally resides at the Bowes Museum in County Durham, for years, so I was thrilled it finally came to me.  They still turn it on every day at 2 in Bowes, when it’s there, but I’m not sure if they start it up in this exhibit (I suspect not, because there were no signs indicating that they did), though they did have a video of it in action (here’s one I found, please watch!).  Even without being able to see it move, it is still a thing of beauty, made in 1773, and composed entirely of silver (and glass rods for the water).

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There was an abrupt end to the history of robotics as we entered the hall of 20th and 21st century robots (according to the exhibition guide, actually three separate galleries, but they all flowed together), because after a very brief note about the rise of automated machines in factories, the exhibit sort of just stopped talking about technological developments in order to focus on the robots themselves.  The word robot was first used in print in 1920, in Karel Capek’s play R.U.R. (as I mentioned in my last post), though it was actually coined by Capek’s brother, who was also a writer.  From the ’20s onward, there seems to have been a real interest in creating humanoid robots (though why this was wasn’t adequately explained), and my absolute favourite in the entire exhibit is from that early period – the large seated fellow on the right, above.  Even though all the other robots had names, he didn’t get one, which made me feel bad for him, and he looked slightly sad, yet sweet (he kind of reminded me of Bert from Sesame Street).

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To represent the more sinister side of robots, there was Eric, a re-creation of the first British robot, built in 1928.  He can apparently walk and talk (as could the original), and I’m sure he means well, but I think if you give a robot pointy metal teeth, you’re just asking for trouble.  There was also a robot from Terminator, though as Marcus said, he wasn’t from one of the “good films.”  Sandwiched between Eric and the only moderately evil-looking Cygan was George, the poor dopey Wallace-esque (of Wallace and Gromit) robot shown at the start of the post (probably my second favourite, and the one I bought in badge form at the gift shop, since there were no “unnamed humanoid robot” badges.  I like my robots derpy, metallic, and nonthreatening, I think). The rest of this section was a bit of a waste of space, as it consisted of a wall of toy robots, with no text, when I think the exhibit could have been better served with a more thorough explanation of why these early robots were made.

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We then proceeded into the world of 21st century robots (who seemed to often have full lips, judging by these two femme-bots).  Apparently, the robot on the right worked at a reception desk at King’s College London from 2003-2015.  Even though I attended King’s from 2008-2009, I have absolutely no recollection of this robot whatsoever (and I’m quite sure I would have noticed and remembered a receptionist bot), and I didn’t get to ask her a question this time either, because her keyboard was being hogged by a small child.

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This section was probably the most construction-oriented of the exhibit, with a display case of robot limbs and brief explanations of how they were made.  But some of the robots were so horrifying that the explanations provided didn’t suffice (is there really an adequate explanation for a robot so terrifying that it makes you make the same face as the guy in Munch’s The Scream when you see it?!). Case in point: the robot on the left, who was meant to show how humans reacted to various facial expressions, but I don’t think you could obtain accurate results from any scientific study where someone was left in a room alone with that robot (plus wouldn’t it have been easier to just show people a video of actual humans making those expressions?).  The one on the right was meant to scan your face and ape your movements (I guess), though he didn’t seem very good at it, so they might as well have given him two eyes instead of making him a scary Cyclops.

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The last part of the hall o’ robots didn’t really provide any information in the captions other than the name of the robot, their country of manufacture, and their capabilities, but most of them were actually working and interacting with visitors, which was pretty neat, and somewhat made up for the lack of info.  Except poor Harry, who never seemed to play his trumpet.  He was the one I was most excited to see in action, and I don’t even think he was turned on (I did find this video when I got home though. He’s part of a quartet!).

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I was also disappointed that Pepper (on the left, above), who the Science Museum showed giving fist bumps on their Instagram, didn’t appear to be doing it in person.  She was talking, but thanks to the horde of people surrounding her (the exhibit wasn’t actually that crowded, but everyone who was there seemed to congregate around the interactive robots), I couldn’t get close enough to hear what she was saying.  No matter, it left an open space in front of Amico, who was another of my favourites, thanks to his expressive eyebrows (what can I say, I am a complete sucker for expressive eyebrows.  I mean, his acting skills (or lack thereof) are not the reason I’m a fan of a young Roger Moore (but it’s not just his raised eyebrow I like…I also can’t resist his taste in knitwear)).

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I’m just going to show you a bunch of photos now (rather sloppily arranged, as is my wont), because there were so many robots, and my commentary on each individual one will get very tiresome, but I don’t want to leave pictures of any good ones out.  They are of varying degrees of creepiness, which seems directly proportional to how human-like a robot was (i.e., the realistic ones were creepiest by far. Those child ones with the big heads are scariest though.  No contest).

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As I’ve said, most of the labels in here didn’t go into detail about the development of the robots or anything, which was probably fine in an exhibit for popular consumption (since I know pretty much nothing about engineering, I certainly didn’t want to read some long, boring technical description), but might disappoint the more technologically-minded.  Although I didn’t care so much about the technical side, I would have appreciated more discussion of the historical aspects, as the exhibit seemed to skip from the 18th to 20th centuries without much explanation of what brought robotics to that point (the initial section on automata was the only one that had a good balance of explanatory text to artefacts).  But I think most people were just there to see a shitload of robots, and on that, the Science Museum certainly delivered.  This certainly made up for my disappointing evening at the British Academy, though it was a little light on content for a £13.50 exhibition, so definitely try to snag yourself a discount.  It’s on until 3 September, so there’s plenty of time to see it, but it appears that the Silver Swan will only be there until April, so maybe best to get there before then.  3.5/5.

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London: Embroidered Tales @ the Brunei Gallery & A British Academy Late

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Sometimes this blog takes me to new and fascinating places I never would have discovered otherwise, and sometimes it leads to a real dud of an evening.  Unfortunately, this post is about the latter sort of occurrence.

I suppose this visit to the Brunei Gallery had its origins in a giveaway I entered on Goodreads about a year ago.  I ended up winning a copy of Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, and received my copy in time to take it on a transatlantic flight with the best of intentions, hoping I’d be able to read most of it on the flight and then review it, as I was asked to do.  Well, unfortunately, I didn’t count on how very long (656 pages), and let’s face it, dull, this book would be.  I ended up only reading about 50 pages, watched crappy movies for the rest of the flight, and abandoned the huge, heavy book at my parents’ house (in favour of reading books from the library there that I can’t get from the libraries in Merton. This is what I mostly use visits home for (besides seeing friends and family, of course): binge-reading, and eating all the doughnuts and ice cream), never to be reviewed or read again. I still feel kind of guilty about it (and I think the fact that I never reviewed it is why I haven’t won a giveaway since), so when I saw that the Brunei Gallery (which I’d never heard of before) was hosting an exhibition entitled “Embroidered Tales and Woven Dreams” featuring textiles from the Near East and Central Asia, I thought it was a chance to redeem myself by at least learning something about the regions along the old Silk Road.

The Brunei Gallery is part of SOAS (short for the School of Oriental and African Studies…I only knew of it from watching University Challenge, and based on the picture I’d formed of it from its UC teams, I was surprised to see that most of its students appeared to be young people, rather than retirees), which is near Russell Square and the British Museum, and is fortunately free, or I’d be even more annoyed by this experience than I am already. I was initially relieved when we stepped through its doors and left all the hustle and bustle of the university behind us, but was soon dismayed when I realised just how odd this “museum” was (and for once, I don’t mean odd in a good way).  No pictures allowed inside the gallery either, so this was a flop of an experience all around.

Quite frankly, I’ve never seen anything like it.  Because this “museum” had no labels on anything.  None.  The first room we entered was a large space ringed with textiles, and they had signs with information about the regions the textiles were from, so I didn’t think too much of it at first.  But then when I went into a smaller, more traditional museum-style room featuring objects from their special collections, and there still weren’t any labels, I realised there was definitely something off here.  Although I often bitch about glaring spelling and grammatical mistakes on signs, or somewhat inadequate signage, I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a complete lack of labels before.  And now I realise just how much signs make (or break) a museum.

The exhibit primarily consisted of a load of the creepiest mannequins I’ve ever seen (creepier even than the ones at Demolition World, because these ones had more lifelike faces, and there were just so damn many of them that I felt surrounded. I usually like creepy mannequins, but these were really bad) grouped in sinister clusters, with various textiles draped over their lifeless bodies.  Also, there were a few larger pieces of fabric that were hanging on the walls. I can’t even tell you if they were antique textiles, or modern examples, or where exactly each piece was from, because there was absolutely no indication given inside the exhibit (I suspect they were modern, because they were just sitting out on the mannequins, not in cases or anything, but I don’t actually know).  It was really annoying because some of the signs with the country/regional information (again, the only text in the whole of the exhibit) described specific types of cloth from those regions, but then there were no items of clothing around the sign that seemed to fit what they were talking about, which made talking about them pretty damn pointless.  I mean, some of the textiles were neat to look at, like one with birds and elephants on it, and another that appeared to be showing some Hindu gods, but most of them were from the Islamic world, where I believe depictions of people and animals are frowned upon (this is just going by what I’ve read in the past, certainly not from this exhibit), so they just consisted of geometric patterns; I’m sure each region uses its own particular pattern, and maybe the patterns have different symbolism, and there are different ways the cloth is produced, etc, etc, but with no information provided here on how specific pieces were made, or when, where, or why, it was really quite boring. Even the special collections section, which had some beautifully decorated Arabic books and prints, wasn’t really any more interesting, because again, I had absolutely no idea what I was looking at or what it meant.

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There was what appeared to be a professor showing a group of students around whilst we were visiting, and she was giving them information about the textiles; judging by that, I have to believe that this gallery is set up mainly for professors to lecture in here to their students, or for people who already know a lot about cloth – not for the general public, because I got absolutely nothing out of the experience. With all that’s going on in the world now, and especially all these ridiculous and appalling “Muslim bans” Trump keeps trying to enact, I think this exhibit could have been a nice opportunity to educate visitors about different cultures, and try to bridge some gaps.  Instead, it was a waste of a museum space, all for the want of a few captions.  This is genuinely one of the worst “museums” I’ve ever visited, and it’s all the more annoying because it didn’t have to be this way; the displays would have been perfectly…well, not good, but acceptable (creepy mannequins and all!) if someone had just told me what the hell I was looking at.  1/5.  Oh, there’s also a Japanese rooftop garden on top of the gallery (pictured above), but I’d save yourself the walk up the stairs in winter, because it was just a bunch of sad, wet gravel under a gloomy grey London sky.  Perhaps it’s better in summer, but I won’t be rushing back to SOAS to find out.

To round out this evening of let-downs (well, we grabbed a pizza in between, and that was fine, so it wasn’t all bad), we headed to see “Love, sex and marriage…with a robot?,” a free night of lectures and performances about the ethics of “artificial companionship” at the British Academy, which I’d booked a few weeks beforehand and was genuinely excited about (it was free, but you had to book tickets in advance).  Unfortunately, I was being overly optimistic about a free event in London, yet again.  Even though it was ticketed, the British Academy had released far, far too many tickets.  Apparently the lecture hall could only seat 120, and at least double or even triple that number showed up (I don’t want to overestimate crowd sizes here, but it was genuinely very busy).

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The activities were divided between a few different rooms, with performances in one room, and lectures in another, but they didn’t have enough seats between them to accommodate everyone.  We made the mistake of going to see a performance first (of a love scene from Karel Capek’s play R.U.R., which introduced the word “robot”), because we weren’t that interested in the first lecture. However, when it came time to see a lecture we were keen on, the lecture hall was still full of people who had showed up for the first lecture and refused to vacate their seats, so only a few people were able to enter (and the queue was easily a hundred people long, it stretched through the whole upstairs).  So we went to watch another performance (a robot and scientist improv, which was a cute idea, and I liked how smiley and enthusiastic the scientist was, although it somewhat failed in execution), but almost half the audience rudely left in the middle of the performance to queue up for the next lecture (I didn’t because I felt really bad for the performer on account of how rude everyone else was being) so we had no hope of getting into that either.  Because the other performances were repeats of the ones we’d already seen, we gave up and left at that point, despite being urged to just “enjoy the other activities.” (For the record, the other activities were buying drinks at the bar, making stuff with Lego, or drawing (bearing in mind this was an adults-only event).  Look, I’m 31 years old, I didn’t get dressed and pay to come into central London in horrible rainy weather so I could play with Lego all night, when I could have been warm and dry in my jimjams at home watching the last Spy in the Wild.  I didn’t even like Lego very much when I was a kid.)  So I don’t know any more about the ethics of love robots than I did when I started.

I am (hopefully not unfairly) laying the blame for this squarely on the British Academy.  They knew how many people their lecture theatre could accommodate, so why did they release so many tickets?!  I wasn’t the only one annoyed either, as I could hear others loudly complaining, and one woman even yelling at the security guards (which was uncalled for, it wasn’t their fault).  The security guard explained that because the whole building was open, the organisers thought it would be all right, but did they seriously think people would be happy to pay to stand around drinking all night, and not watch the lectures?  Or that people would voluntarily leave the lecture hall so that others could come in?  They might understand robots, but they sure don’t understand human nature.  If they did want to overbook out of fear that some people wouldn’t show up, they could have at least alleviated the problem by holding lectures in different rooms, so that people wouldn’t be able to monopolise one seat for the whole evening, kicking everyone out of the hall after each lecture, so that other people had a chance to come in, or issuing tickets at the start of the night for each lecture, and limiting them to say, two lectures per person, so that everyone would have a chance at seeing something.  This was another pointless disappointment, because judging by the lecture descriptions, this event had the potential to be really good, if only they’d been more organised.  But don’t worry, I have something better to blog about next week, to end this round of damp squibs!

 

London: The (New) City of London Police Museum

dsc09918_stitchLongtime readers may have a vague recollection of my post on the old City of London Police Museum, written way back in April 2014.  Well, sometime in late 2016 (or maybe mid-2016, because I did hear about it a while ago, and kept saying I ought to check it out, but it’s taken me until now to actually get ’round to it), they closed the old museum, which was located inside a working police station, and re-opened in a gallery next to Guildhall Library.  Interestingly, I think this is the same gallery that the Clockmakers’ Museum (which I blogged about in January 2014) was formerly located in, as it appears that the Clockmakers’ Museum has since been relocated to the 2nd Floor of the Science Museum (meaning both those posts are now outdated, but I suppose that’s one of the hazards of long-term blogging).

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Assuming the new City of London Police Museum is where the Clockmakers’ Museum was (I’m like 80% sure that it is, simply because I know that was also in Guildhall Library, and they can’t have that many museum spaces attached to the library, I don’t think), they have really completely transformed the space – in my opinion, not for the better.  I remember the Clockmakers’ Museum being one large, rather elegant room, with wooden floors and beautifully presented clocks in glass cases all around the space (because you weren’t allowed to take pictures in here back then, I have no photographic evidence, but that’s the impression it made on me, anyway).  In contrast, the Police Museum is downright claustrophobic-feeling in parts, because they separated what was one big room into a number of tiny rooms, and in spots where there were other visitors standing, we literally couldn’t move around each other without bumping into things. Plus the floors are black, and the ceilings are black, and most of the signs are black; taken all together, it gives the room an oppressive atmosphere.

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But I suppose I shouldn’t waste too much time comparing it to another museum entirely, when the more pertinent question is: how does it compare to the old City Police Museum?  Well, admission is still free, fortunately, and the objects have actual labels now, which is nice, but almost everything else compared negatively with my experience of the former Police Museum.  (If you actually clicked the link at the start of the post and read my old post, this might seem a bit repetitious, but bear with me.)

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The old museum was also small, but it was absolutely crammed full of stuff (which is probably why they didn’t have room for labels), and I was expertly guided around it by the delightful Bob, who was a retired police officer (OK, the tour did end up taking three times as long as I was anticipating, but it was so interesting that I stuck with it).  Because Bob had actually been on duty during various London calamities – most memorably, the Moorgate Tube Disaster – he was able to go above and beyond what any sign could convey, with actual anecdotes and his own theories about what could have caused the Tube Disaster.  Obviously, you can’t put hearsay on a sign (well, I mean, you can, but not if you want to be considered a reputable museum), so although the new museum probably did a better job of sticking to the facts, it was quite bland and dull by comparison. It also contained the merest fraction of objects that the old museum did (I assume they wanted to move at least partly to free up space in the Wood Street Police Station, but they must still have to store all the old stuff somewhere) – although they kept many of the highlights, such as the Olympic gold medal won by the City Police team at tug-of-war, the helmet of an officer caught in an IRA blast (helmet absolutely destroyed, but it saved the officer’s life), and one of the early police hats (a reinforced top hat that officers could stand on to peer over fences and such), the old museum had loads of police ephemera, like an entire wall of Jack the Ripper newspaper clippings, that apparently didn’t make the cut.

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The old museum kind of had objects from different historical periods all stuck together, but the new museum is divided up into a series of chronological rooms, from the early days of the night watch, up until the modern policing era.  Which is fine, but there’s an awful lot of text relative to the amount of artefacts.  One new feature, that I’d read about before visiting, was a re-creation of Catherine Eddowes’ (one of Jack the Ripper’s victims) last night alive, which she spent at a City police station (she was arrested for drunkenness and brought to a cell to sober up.  Shortly after being released at 1 in the morning, she was killed by the Ripper, presumably an easy target on account of her intoxication, so the police afterwards took some flak for releasing her in the middle of the night).  For some reason, I was picturing this as an actual cell you could walk through, with perhaps a projection of Catherine on the wall telling her story.  Instead, it was a set of goggles mounted on a wall that you looked through to see a video of a woman dressed in Victorian clothing pacing around a cell.  This was certainly less than thrilling, especially as I had been hoping for authentic smells.

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The only other real “interactive” feature (other than trying on police hats, which is always a joy) was a test you could take to see if you were a super recogniser, but it seemed to be having trouble connecting to the internet, and wouldn’t load (I have taken super recogniser tests before online, so I guess this wouldn’t have told me anything new, but it still would have been fun to do, had it worked). The rest of the museum only highlighted a few notable police cases; other than Jack the Ripper, there were also the Houndsditch Murders, which I won’t discuss in detail here because it’s in the old post, and the aforementioned Tube Disaster; and very briefly touched on things like the suffragettes (it was kind of bizarre, frankly, because they just had a sign saying that some people consider suffragettes heroes today, but they used to be considered terrorists. The museum provided no real context or detailed description of the suffragette movement) and the IRA bombings. It also contained a wall of old uniforms (I quite liked the women’s uniform from the ’70s, which included a polka dot blouse and a stylish wool coat, though I can’t imagine that was the ideal kind of outfit to be fighting crime in) and “weapons” (including a wooden hair pick and a nasty-looking homemade metal stabby thing. I would have loved to know more about the stories behind those, but alas, that information wasn’t here). The most interesting thing was probably the statistics on the sides of the walls leading into each new section, which showed how many people lived and worked in the City during the given time period (the population of the City (aka the Square Mile) has dropped dramatically from the time of Victorian slums, and only about eight thousand people actually live there today), as well as how many crimes of each type were committed (in addition to murders and robberies and such, it also included things like animal cruelty).

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So although I should have been glad that the museum had the opportunity to move into a new, slightly larger space, it unfortunately left almost all its character in the old museum.  Compared to Bob’s stories about sifting through piles of animal bones on the banks of the Thames to try to find the remains of a murder victim, collecting meat orders at the end of the a shift from the Police Box near Smithfields, et al, the new museum is sadly watered-down and banal.  I think the problem isn’t even the vast decrease in objects on display, so much as the lack of personality, which was something that abounded in the old museum, thanks to Bob and presumably the other guides as well. Leaving the old museum aside for a second, I also have to think how this museum compares to the many, many police museums I’ve seen around the world, and again, it performs unfavourably.  Considering that most police museums are housed in large, freestanding buildings (usually former jails or police headquarters), and contain excellent grisly displays (which are most definitely not present here. They even managed to talk about Jack the Ripper without actually describing what he did to his victims.  C’mon now), I find the lack of space and attention given to a police museum in London, one of the most famous and otherwise museum-rich cities in the world, rather appalling, and I really hope this situation can someday be remedied, because this new museum is certainly not the answer (granted, the City Police are only responsible for policing the Square Mile, so I can kind of understand why their museum isn’t huge, but I don’t think the Metropolitan Police even have a museum, other than the Black Museum that the public isn’t allowed in, so this is really all London has to offer, police museum-wise).  A real disappointment. 1.5/5.

 

 

London: The Design Museum

dsc09845Back to blogging about London again! So, it was the day of the presidential inauguration, and rather than sit at home feeling simultaneously infuriated and dispirited (before this whole mess, I wouldn’t have said it was possible to feel both those things at once, but apparently it is!), I turned, as I so often do when feeling down, to a museum.  The old Design Museum, which was in Bermondsey, was not somewhere I had ever been, mainly because they charged (hefty) admission to all their exhibits.  However, the new Design Museum, located on Kensington High Street, which I think only opened around last November, not only has a couple of free galleries, but is also much more conveniently located for me (and is dangerously near to purveyors of delicious cookies and muffins. If ever a day called for a chocolate chip muffin, it was that one (I may have eaten cookies’n’cream ice cream for breakfast too.  Don’t judge!)).

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Appropriately enough, the museum is housed in a very designery-looking building, but it wasn’t purpose-built, having originally been constructed in the 1960s for the Commonwealth Institute, which apparently hosted a permanent exhibition on (appropriately enough) the nations of the Commonwealth, until it closed in 2003.  So although the building has always included a museum space, the interior was given a complete revamp before the Design Museum moved in (of which more later).  The museum currently features two exhibitions that charge admission fees: “Fear and Love,” which looks interesting, but costs £14, and “Beazley Designer of the Year,” which costs £10.  Needless to say, I didn’t see either on this visit (though I will consider coming back and paying for the Soviet exhibit opening in March; it sounds pretty good!), but instead stuck to the free permanent gallery, and the three free “displays” (really only two, because the one was just a small selection of photographs of the building’s interior being constructed.  Big whoop).

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Ironically, although the design of the museum looked very grand when we walked in, I wasn’t all that impressed with the practicality of it.  For one thing, all the free exhibits were on the second floor, so you had to walk up three sets of stairs to get to them (either one of the floors counted as a sub-floor, or we somehow came in on the “lower ground floor” or something, because there were definitely three sets of stairs).  And there was only one set of stairs per floor, which were inconveniently located on the opposite side of the building from the staircase you just climbed up, so you have to walk around the entire damn building twice just to get up there (there are emergency staircases on the sides of the building, but I’d still hate to be in this place if a fire broke out).  And because all the other exhibitions were located on the ground floor or in the basement, except for a cafe and a few other empty rooms I could see that they probably rent out/use for classes, it made for a lot of wasted space, which doesn’t seem like good design.

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However, once I actually got up to and inside the “Designer Maker User” permanent gallery, I was a lot more impressed.  It was very visually appealing, for one thing, and much bigger than it seemed at first glance (all you can see when you approach is the wall full o’crap from the start of the post, and a timeline, and I was worried I’d be done with this place in five minutes.  It opens up and winds around a lot once you get inside).

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It was meant to be showing the highlights of the museum’s collections (mainly 20th century inventions or innovations), divided up into areas focusing on the designer, maker, and user, but to me, at least, there wasn’t really a clear delineation between these things.  There were objects scattered throughout the entire exhibit with information about their designers, so it all felt like it was focusing most on the “designer” aspect, with a brief nod to the “user” (I assume by “maker,” they meant the manufacturers of these products?  I didn’t get much of that aspect at all).  However, that wasn’t really a huge problem, because the objects in the collection were interesting enough in themselves, especially when the history and evolution of the design had been provided, like with Harry Beck’s Tube maps (those seem to pop up a lot in London museums, unsurprisingly) and how they influenced the New York Subway map, or the classic fitted kitchen, which was first invented in post-war Germany.

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I have to say, for such a new, modern looking museum, I was kind of surprised that there weren’t more interactive displays.  There was a video screen, shown above, that “dressed” you up in fashions of the past (though I could only get it to bring up that ugly 1980s outfit, even though I walked back in front of it a couple times), and a few other computer screens here and there, but not really to the extent I was expecting.  It seemed like there were more activities encouraging you to draw or write things using good old paper and pencil.  Which is great, nothing wrong with that, it just seemed a little out of keeping with the museum’s otherwise ultramodern character.

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We spent about half an hour walking through “Designer Maker User” (that lack of commas really irks me) before heading over to the small side gallery housing “Designers in Residence.” This was, for lack of a better term, just weird.  There was a coat made out of hair that had been collected from schoolgirls (by a woman who was working on the project with them, so less pervy than it sounds) and more felted hair that you could touch.  I did touch it, because I can’t resist a “touch me” sign, but I felt like I needed to wash my hands after. (Speaking of, I was hoping the bathrooms here would be really odd, like the all-black seatless toilet in Bob’s Burgers, and they were definitely designer-y, if that makes sense, but not quite as out there as Bob’s toilet, which was kind of a shame. Even though I have no desire to use a seatless public toilet (I’ve been forced to do it in Italy on multiple occasions, and it is not fun.).) There was also some other ugly “futuristic” looking clothing in here. Let’s just say that I wasn’t real thrilled by this section.

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The final free display (since I’m not counting those lame photographs of the building) is a pop-up called “New Old,” which is only there until 19 February.  I had read an article in the paper about it the week before, so this was what I was most excited to see. It featured the attempts of designers to meet the challenges presented by a “rapidly ageing society,”and there was definitely some cool stuff in here, though plenty of creepy dystopian stuff too (although we appear to be rapidly moving towards Orwell’s 1984 now, so maybe it’s all fitting).

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The creepiest thing was definitely this concept called “Spirit,” which seemed to be envisioned as a series of robotic implants that would sort of take over your body.  There was an insulated pod where you were supposed to talk into a microphone as a computer asked you questions (I initially thought the pod was for privacy, but then when Marcus started laughing at me, I realised my answers were appearing on a big computer screen as I said them, for everyone to read. D’oh!), and this “friendly” voice to keep people company was somehow meant to eventually evolve into hearing aid type implants, and most disturbingly of all, a kind of matchmaker service, wherein it would learn all about you and store the information in a database, and then you’d get an implant in your stomach that would create the feeling of butterflies whenever you met someone who was compatible with you.  I didn’t quite understand how this aspect of it was supposed to help an ageing population specifically, but whatever.  There was also that seal pup robot that has already been used in some nursing homes (though he was too cute to be creepy, or maybe I just have a soft spot for animal robots.  Has anyone else been watching Spy in the Wild on BBC1? I want spy crow as a pet!), and this gross metal structure that was supposed to improve people’s quality of life by giving them access to an outdoor space, but it was so small and grim-looking that it would just depress me if I had to sit outside on that instead of actual grass.

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More useful, I think, were things like a completely collapsible wheelchair, a (relatively) discreet bodysuit that aids mobility, and a convertible scooter.  Apparently every day between 12 and 3, there is a random person sitting at a table in there who you can ask one question of, and they ask a question of you in return (I suppose to show how we can learn from other people’s life experiences, and to show how older people still have an important role to play in society), but I was there just after 3 so I missed them.  Had I known, I would have gone in this exhibit first.

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Relatively poor practical design of the museum aside, I thought that the permanent exhibit and the “New Old” pop-up both exceeded my expectations (which were admittedly not that high).  I guess I initially found something off-puttingly pretentious about the whole concept of a design museum, because I presumed it would just feature really out-there designs, and though there was some of that sort of thing here (like the hair coat), I also learned how design, both good and bad, shapes the world we live in, and I am now convinced there is a very valid reason for the Design Museum to exist.  I’ll give it 3.5/5, because there is some room for improvement, but for a museum that just opened in this location a few months ago, I think it’s doing quite well.

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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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