anthropology

Cambridge: The Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

So you might have been thinking that the Sedgwick Museum was my last Cambridge post, since I mentioned we dropped in on the way back to the station, but nope! I meant to write this post weeks ago, right after I went to Cambridge, which is when I wrote the other posts, but I ran out of time, and then I started my job and it totally slipped my mind. But (obviously) I remembered eventually (seeing the pictures in my media library when I went to upload new stuff helped), so here it is. And I promise, then I’m done with Cambridge (at least for the foreseeable future)!

  

The Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology is right around the corner from the Whipple Museum, and next door to the Sedgwick, so it’s part of the whole museum district of Cambridge (the Polar Museum and the Fitzwilliam stand alone). It is also free, like every other Cambridge University museum I’ve been talking about. When we walked in, we had the misfortune of being right behind a group of students who were being given a tour around the museum (and I felt really bad for their guide. When she asked if anyone was interested in archaeology or anthropology, no one raised their hands. Don’t young people watch Indiana Jones anymore? I mean, I know those films don’t reflect reality, but I don’t know how anyone could watch Raiders and not think archaeology is cool), so we decided to go in the opposite direction, and start with the temporary exhibition “Another India,” about artefacts from minority populations in India.

  

This is definitely just my own ignorance showing, but I never realised that India still had native, tribal populations, so I was really intrigued and eager to learn more about them. The exhibition talked about the impact colonialism had on them, as well as displaying a really striking range of artefacts. I particularly loved the painted tiles, and the head-taker’s ornament (that skull thing), both of which are shown above, but I seem to remember it being kind of dark in there, so you couldn’t read the labels unless you were right on top of them.

  

We then proceeded up to the first floor, which reminded me of nothing so much as a condensed version of the Horniman (the anthropological bits of the Horniman, anyway). It contained artefacts from cultures all around the world, arranged roughly geographically. There was simply too much to see in the limited time available to us, so I focused on things that I thought were neat (which I guess is what I always do, but even more so when there’s a time crunch). I love Day of the Dead figures, and some of the ones they had here were pretty great (I bought a whole diorama of Day of the Dead mariachi figurines when I was in Tijuana years ago, but the glass on the case broke on the flight home, which I think my mother used as an excuse to throw them out a few years later, after I moved to Britain. They were awesome though. I’d like to get more!).

  

Unfortunately, the students followed us up here pretty shortly after, and though the guide did a great job of trying to keep them corralled in the middle of the room (I should add that these were presumably Cambridge students, or at least of a high school-university age (I am real bad at gauging the ages of people younger than me), so yeah, it’s not like they were little kids or anything), but they were still wandering around a bit being distracting, and it was time to move on. It was clear before leaving though, that this was the oldest gallery of the museum (in terms of the set-up of the displays), and probably the only section (save for the temporary exhibit) with adequate labelling, so I feel like I could have learned a lot if I had more time. Also please note the awesome totem pole that dominates the building (it can be seen in the opening picture); the guide was asking the students to guess the animals on it as we were leaving, and they got them all hilariously wrong (c’mon, at least pick animals that actually live in the Pacific Northwest!).

  

The second, and final floor, was probably the most intriguing floor in concept, if not in execution. The premise here was that anthropology and archaeology are subjects that are in constant flux, and that anthropology in particular has come a long way from its original, often racist roots, and as such, the museum was a work in progress, and the visitor should play a role in deciding what its future should be. So they asked you to look around, and then fill out a survey about your experience (though there was only one other survey in the box when I put mine in, and this at the end of the day, so I don’t know how successful this has been. Maybe if they made an actual volunteer hand them out, instead of leaving people to their own devices, so they’d feel guilted into doing it).

  

Anyway, this floor was thus mainly just an assortment of objects, grouped by type, and beautifully arranged in cases together, but lacking pretty much any labels at all, with a few exceptions for things like African masks, and the Mayan (?) head shown above right. (I think of him as Olmec, but only because that was the name of the talking head at the entrance to the Hidden Temple. I don’t know whether it was actually Olmec in origin, because I don’t have a picture of its caption (also, if I could go on any stupid game show ever, my first choice would definitely be Legends of the Hidden Temple, followed by Dale’s Supermarket Sweep, which is much better than the American version. I watched Legends every day when I was a kid)). So obviously it would have been much improved by better signage (which I guess is the whole thing they were trying to get away from, because someone talking about other cultures will always lack innate understanding of those cultures, and thus misinterpret things, but you still need to give people some context), which is more or less what I said in my survey (I also went on about Indiana Jones for a bit, because they are like my favourite movies (except that one we don’t talk about)).

  

We finished up by seeing the things on the ground floor that we missed on our way in, because students. These included a neat skeleton in a stone coffin, along with the bones of a mouse and shrew who had gnawed the body, and a bust of Jupiter (not Jesus, though they look similar, which probably makes sense, given how much of Christianity is pieced together from other religions), as well as other less interesting Roman bits and pieces that had been recovered from around Cambridge. Though this museum was basically fine, I did find it somewhat disappointing compared to what I was expecting (the Horniman sets a high bar, as does the Field Museum is Chicago, which I haven’t actually been to since I was a teenager, but remember fondly). I give them points for attempting to be culturally sensitive, but I don’t think that should come at the price of providing adequate signage in some of the galleries. 3/5.

London: The Horniman Museum

DSC01643I’ve never blogged about the Horniman before, which is a bit of an oversight on my part.  Not only does it have a hilarious name, it’s also a pretty cool museum.  I mean, just look at that walrus, who is the Horniman’s unofficial mascot.  He’s seen better days, obviously, but that’s a large part of his charm.  So, the Horniman is also in Dulwich, but it’s a fair walk away from the Dulwich Picture Gallery from the last post.  We cut through Dulwich Park, and it took over half an hour to get there (probably a bit longer because I stopped and tried out all the “exercise” equipment in the park (I don’t think the “waist twister” really does anything, but it sure is fun). Also they have these adorable cottages by the park gates that I totally want to live in and become the official witch of Dulwich or something, and grow herbs in the back and yell at people who walk on my lawn, but that’s another story).

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The Horniman is free, except for any temporary exhibits and the aquarium, but our National Art Pass got us into those for free as well (I think it was about 7 quid otherwise).  The current temporary exhibition about dinosaur families was quite obviously aimed at children, with two large play areas and a truly epic amount of prams parked outside the exhibit, but I enjoyed it nonetheless mainly because of the paintings they had in there.  I mean, we all know dinosaurs are pretty cool, but these made dinosaurs look awesome.  The dinosaur sitting on her nest looks like she’s doing dino-yoga or something. Also, the dinosaur babies were all kinds of adorable, though I don’t doubt the carnivorous ones would eat my face if they could.  Still, it definitely wasn’t worth paying that much extra for, so if you don’t have kids, I wouldn’t bother with it if you can’t get in for free.

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The aquarium is also not really worth paying for, unless maybe you have small children who have never seen fish before, as it’s rather crappy and unimpressive.  There’s really only a handful of tanks in there, and aside from maybe the seahorses and the jellyfish, nothing seemed particularly exotic.  I guess everyone loves sticklebacks after that whole business with Spineless Si on Springwatch last year, but most of the other native British fish are just not all that captivating.

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Anyway, let’s move on to the Horniman’s permanent (and free) collections.  The museum was started by Frederick John Horniman, one of those excellent eccentric Victorian collectors who amassed a hell of a lot of crap on his tea-trading exhibitions around the world.  It was originally inside his house, and I have to say that it looked super awesome, though undoubtedly the captions on the anthropological stuff were pretty racist (as was the style at the time.  Because the 1800s were only awesome if you were a rich white male).  I like rooms that are really packed full o’ shit (as anyone who’s been to my flat can attest to).  His collection eventually grew to the point that it made more sense to have a dedicated museum building, which was similarly eclectic in design and opened in 1901.

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In my opinion, the centenary gallery is the best part of the whole museum.  Not only does it give you the history of the Horniman collection, I think it is also the closest you’re going to get to the pleasantly cluttered feel of the original museum.  It’s a dark, fairly deserted gallery (mercifully, probably because it’s not really child friendly, unlike most of the rest of the museum) full of wonderful anthropological specimens from around the world.  I absolutely love its randomness, plus how cute is that cobra?  (Never mind that Kali is standing on top of that guy, about to rip out his heart or something.  Cue my best Mola Ram impression.)

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The music gallery, also downstairs, is similarly dark, and filled with a lot of instruments that don’t even really look like instruments, which is what makes it so cool. I love how many of the instruments are shaped like demons, though I’d probably be wary of playing any of them, in case I accidentally summoned something up.

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There’s also a splendid African art gallery, of which the most noteworthy object is probably the lion right by the entrance.  Love his “rawr” face!  But there’s also an Egyptian section in the back, a lot of cool tribal masks, and a selection of voodoo shrines, which I am not including a picture of in case there is a curse attached (just kidding, sort of.  If you believe in curses, a lot of the stuff in this museum will probably make you nervous, though Horniman himself lived to a decent age, and didn’t appear to have any particular evil befall him, so you’ll probably be ok), though I did think it was pretty funny that one of the shrines included the stuffed head of that annoying baby on that Dinosaurs show (does anyone else remember that show?  It kind of freaked me out when I was a kid, but I watched it anyway).

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There’s an upper level that overlooks the African gallery below, and this is currently full of photographs of an Indonesian performance troupe, and some Romanian clothing and handicrafts.  I quite like seeing the different traditional dress of various countries, and it was also interesting to learn that in Soviet Romania, traditional dress was standardised, so that a particular outfit was associated with a particular region, and that’s what they had to wear to events and public gatherings.  Dolls wearing each costume were also produced for the tourist trade, and they were on display too.

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The main thing the Horniman is known for though, outside of the anthropology collections, is the hall of natural history, which you’ll probably come to right when you walk in, if you don’t go through the museum backwards like we did.  I’ve already shown you the famous walrus, who is back in pride of place after being loaned out for several years, but there’s lots of other great taxidermy on display as well.

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The display of various dog heads was a bit much, even for me (I would have felt better about it if they’d included the whole dog, rather than just a head, as I’m quite partial to Balto), but the birds and sadly derpy monkeys made up for it.  And of course the kangaroo and some of George Stubbs’ magnificent paintings of the wildlife of Australia.  I love hearing about Cook’s voyages (especially when they mention that dishy Joseph Banks).  (I have a problem – I think that’s about the fourth time I’ve linked to that picture.)

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The Horniman also includes some special hands on rooms for children, which I did not go into, and some gardens, but it was too cold on the day we visited for me to be bothered going around them.  The Horniman is an excellently quirky museum, but it’s a bit too family orientated for it to become one of my favourites.  I like quiet, and that’s just not what the Horniman is all about.  Fortunately, the small children do largely seem to be contained to the special kids’ galleries, the natural history section, and the aquarium, so I was free to peruse the anthropological galleries with a minimum of interruption (but I do wish the anthropology stuff still had its own building, like back in the old days).  Nevertheless, I think the Horniman deserves a 3.5/5, because it’s free and there’s lots of neat stuff to be seen (and the name still makes me snicker), but it is kind of a bitch to get to, and can get very crowded and noisy, even (especially?) on weekdays.

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