Oslo: The Kon-Tiki Museum

After visiting the fabulous Fram Museum (“the best museum in Norway”), obviously anything else was going to struggle to compete, particularly another maritime-themed museum, but as the Kon-Tiki Museum was right next door, we headed there next anyway. The museum costs 120 kr to enter, but is free with the Oslo Pass – considering the Fram Museum cost the same and was at least three times the size, I think it’s probably only worth going with an Oslo Pass or combined ticket.


I was vaguely familiar with the story of Kon-Tiki, but I think it might be more well-known to older people who would have seen the film and lived through the whole tiki bar craze of the ’50s and ’60s. Basically, Thor Heyerdahl was a Norwegian explorer who had spent time studying the peoples of South America and Polynesia, and believed that Polynesians were originally South Americans who had journeyed across the Pacific Ocean by raft. To prove that this was possible, he built a raft from balsa and bamboo, and in 1947 sailed it from Peru to French Polynesia with a crew of five other men, which took 97 days. Although his theories about Polynesians being descended from South Americans were not entirely accurate, it was still an epic voyage, and did accurately reflect their sea-faring capabilities. Also, not to be shallow, but Thor Heyerdahl was kind of cute, so there’s that (I didn’t think I had a Scandi-fetish, but maybe I sort of do).


The Kon-Tiki Museum houses the Kon-Tiki boat, as you might expect, and also Ra II, made of papyrus, which was used for one of Heyerdahl’s Ancient Egypt themed voyages (for someone who was reputedly afraid of the sea, he sure made a lot of anthropological sea voyages after Kon-Tiki). But in order to try to live up to the glorious standard of interactivity set by the Fram Museum, it also had some slightly more interactive bits, which I’ll get to momentarily.


When we walked in, we were greeted by not only by the Kon-Tiki, but also by a giant replica moai, a tribute to Heyerdahl’s fascination with Easter Island. There were panels on the walls containing more information about the inspiration behind the Kon-Tiki voyage, and the voyage itself (everything in the museum had an English translation). Apparently he was advised not to do it because seasoned sailors suspected that the boat would simply fall apart, estimating that the ropes that held it together would last no more than two weeks once exposed to water. Fortunately, this was incorrect, but Heyerdahl and co. still had a moment of panic at the two-week mark when the ropes starting making funny noises, before realising that the ropes had simply worn grooves into the wood, which prevented them from snapping.

After learning all about the Kon-Tiki, we proceeded down a ramp into the bowels of the museum, home to the “aquarium” and “caves” we were promised on the brochure. The aquarium wasn’t real – it was just a glass case made to look like it was full of water, and contained some fake sharks and things (much better than a real aquarium actually, as I didn’t have to feel bad for the fish), and the caves obviously weren’t real caves, but they were fun to walk through, and even contained a few slightly scary surprises. They led into a room full of Polynesian artefacts acquired by Thor Heyerdahl over the years, which is apparently one of the world’s largest collections of Polynesian art. A word of warning – the caves do take you back into the main bit of the museum when you exit, so make sure you see everything on the lower level first before you go through. There was also a film room showing Kon-Tiki, the 1950 movie about Heyerdahl’s experience, but we had a lot to do that day so we gave that one a miss.

We exited the caves into Heyerdahl’s library (complete with a wax figure of Thor himself. Norway seems to excel at the making of waxworks – slightly disappointing, if, like me, you prefer badly done ones, but I have to admit they were impressive), and a room of facts about his life. He seemed like an interesting guy, sort of a David Attenborough-esque figure. During his Ra expeditions, where he sailed across the Atlantic from Morocco to the Caribbean, he encountered a disturbing amount of pollution in the ocean, which led to his involvement with environmental causes. He worked with the UN on some of his voyages, so tried to have crews made up of members from each continent (save Antarctica, obviously), and burned another ship, named the Tigris, in protest against continued war across Africa. He died in 2002 at the age of 87.


The final room of the museum contained the Ra II (the one to successfully make the crossing. He had to abandon the original Ra only 100 miles before reaching the Caribbean islands) and information about his later voyages. The shop had some cool tiki merchandise, if you’re into that kind of thing (I am, and am looking for a replacement for my tiki glass with a butt that I accidentally broke, but no butts were to be had, sadly), but at sky-high Norwegian prices, which are only to be expected, I guess.

I was definitely interested to learn more about Heyerdahl’s life, and I loved the cave part of the museum, but in terms of getting your money’s worth, the Fram Museum delivers so much more. However, since we didn’t actually pay to get in (well, we did, but as part of the Oslo Pass), I thought it was still a reasonable museum, and definitely one to see if you want to warm yourself up after visiting the Fram (or just, you know, going outside in Norway for most of the year) by reading about warmer climes. 3/5.

Oxford: The Pitt Rivers Museum

At last, here’s the museum I’ve been referencing during the whole Oxford adventure: the Pitt Rivers. The museum was founded in 1884 by Lieutenant-General Augustus Henry Lane Pitt Rivers (I believe he went by Henry), who was already a military man and a collector when he unexpectedly fell into a boatload of money in 1880 (a distant relative died and left it to him), which of course meant even more collecting. I get the impression he was a Henry Wellcome type figure (or Frederick Horniman, or any of the other thousands of wealthy male collectors who seemed to be floating around Victorian England, throwing their money at exotic taxidermy and amusing statues with giant phalluses). The original collection was about 30,000 objects which over the years has expanded to around half a million.


The museum is located at the back of Oxford’s Natural History Museum (both museums are free to visit), so you first walk through a room full of rather delightful taxidermy (and a dodo: the dodo is just a model, but is still pretty impressive (you can see him near the end of this post), and there is an actual preserved dodo head in the museum’s collections, though it is too fragile to display), but otherwise quite a light, airy, and open space, only to pop through a doorway at the back and be met with the sheer pandemonium that is the Pitt Rivers. I really don’t know how else to describe it, but you can probably get a sense of what I mean from the pictures (though it doesn’t fully convey the assault on the senses that the museum provides – well, sight and smell anyway, as there’s also a strong smell of mothballs that pervades the air when you’re inside).
The museum is unusual (well, maybe I should say one way the museum is unusual) because it is arranged typologically rather than chronologically or by location, or one of the other normal ways museums are organised. This means you get lots of cases full of just guns, say, or shoes, irrespective of where or when they’re from. If things serve the same basic function, they’re all lumped together, which is interesting because, to quote the museum’s website: “This way of displaying means that you can see how many different people have solved common problems and how many different solutions have been found over time or in different parts of the world.” This was originally done because Pitt Rivers was keen on the history of design (and ethnography, obviously), but the museum just decided to roll with it even after the signage no longer necessarily reflected this.

If it looks overwhelming, it is also because it is apparently the most “exhibited” museum in the world per square metre (this was something I overheard a tour guide say, and I think basically means that they have the most amount of crap piled into a space that it is possible to have. Exhibited sounds fancier though). The museum takes up three floors, and each case has extra drawers in it that you can open (though most of the drawers are not organised in any way, and have no labels, so there’s not much point) so it is really, really a lot of crap. I spent hours there on my first visit, but having already seen it, I could afford to be a bit more economical with my time (after all, I wanted to get in a stop at the original Ben’s Cookies before we had to catch the train home) on this visit, and go directly to my favourite artefacts.


Naturally, that includes these fabulous puppets, located near the entrance (I feel like I need to give directions, or you’ll never find this stuff otherwise). I think Professor England or random angry Russian woman is my favourite, though of course I have a soft spot for George Washington too (frankly, I’m surprised there was just a puppet of him here, and not his false teeth, because every other damn museum seems to own a pair. Maybe I just didn’t look hard enough). I love the “scare devil” to bits too. And I’m pretty sure one of the main reasons I visited Pitt Rivers in the first place was to see their shrunken heads, very non-PC though they are (the Natural History Museum in Cleveland had shrunken heads too when I was a kid, and they scared the crap out of me back then. I used to close my eyes and run past the case where they were kept, but I somehow still grew up into a weird adult who loves this kind of stuff).


I do think the ground floor in general probably has the most interesting artefacts in it, and, totally not an artefact, but they have a donation box that features curators performing a sort of begging dance for your donations, which I think is really cute (though I don’t seem to have a photo of it). There are varying amounts of text in the cases – some sections have quite detailed information about the background of the objects, others just have simple labels stating what the objects are and where they came from.


I also quite like the first floor, especially the display on games, which includes an early Italian deck of Tarot cards; and the rather large display on body modification. Well, the tattoo section was really interesting anyway; the sections on foot binding and head shaping just made me feel a bit ill. There’s also a display of artefacts collected on Cook’s voyages, which is damn cool (really looking forward to the upcoming Cook exhibition at the BL!).


The second floor reflects Pitt Rivers’ greatest passion, which was his collection of firearms and other weapons (thanks to his military background, that was how he first got into collecting). Unfortunately, guns are definitely not my passion (which is probably an unusual view for an American, I know, but I actually hate the damn things), so this is the floor I spent the least amount of time on. I do like the Japanese armour and the horned skull though!


I swear the Pitt Rivers used to have a shop, because I remember buying postcards the last time I was here, but they are in the process of doing construction work (as evidenced by the banging and drilling I could feel under my feet on the upper levels, which actually felt like a lovely massage (my feet always hurt), but was a bit worrying in terms of structural integrity), so it seems to have disappeared (the Natural History Museum has a shop, and they do have some good dodo merchandise, but nothing Pitt Rivers related). There was a small display on Tito in Africa in a ground floor gallery, which I was briefly excited by when I mis-read it as “Toto in Africa” (and had that song stuck in my head all day as a result) but I didn’t actually look around very much because I was anxious to get food before the train (in addition to Ben’s Cookies, we also stopped at a place called Dosa Park across from the station for an early dinner before we left, because I love dosa, and get real hangry real fast if I don’t eat (and actually, it was lucky we did, because the District Line was completely screwed when we got back, and what should have been like half an hour journey back from Paddington turned into a nightmare two hours, but that’s another story.)). But Pitt Rivers as a whole is an amazing experience, though admittedly not the most culturally sensitive in parts (I think some of the labels are probably decades old), and I definitely think it is worth seeing just for the experience of standing there and gazing at their awesomely cluttered galleries (and the Natural History Museum isn’t half bad either, if you have time. They let you pet some of the taxidermy!). 4/5.


Bonus picture of me on my first visit here almost exactly six years ago, which I think illustrates the vagaries of British weather quite well (and also possibly how much I’ve aged).

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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