London: Cars – Accelerating the Modern World @ the V&A

I think we’ve established at this point that I have very little interest in cars, either in driving them or looking at them. But the social history of how they’ve shaped the world is interesting, and Marcus seems to be interested in cars generally (if the amount of time he spends watching Car SOS and Wheeler Dealers is anything to go by, because I can’t understand the appeal of those programmes otherwise) so we decided to go see “Cars: Accelerating the Modern World” at the V&A, which runs until 19th April. Tickets are normally £18, but are half price with National Art Pass.


The exhibition is located in the new(ish) Sainsbury Gallery, which I had only been to once before, for the Dior exhibition last year (which I never blogged about because I got in for free as part of a friends and family thing thanks to my friend who works there, and also because it was in the middle of all my Scandinavian posts and I just couldn’t be bothered to write about it). It is accessible either from the “Sackler Courtyard” (which they really might want to consider renaming, and also, you know, stop accepting money from the Sacklers altogether) or from the main part of the museum if you go all the way to the basement, and it is super nice, but the amount of money that has clearly been spent on it makes me feel a bit ill, compared to both how much money the museum I work at has, and how much the V&A pay their staff (not very much, like every museum, as you may have seen from the recent Guardian article about the head of coffee at the Tate being paid more than the curators. This was certainly not news to anyone who works in museums – we know how piss-poor our pay is). I don’t feel the space had quite been used to its fullest potential, like it had been in the Dior exhibition, and I also kept forgetting to look up at the row of cases that are well above head-height, which meant some of the captions made no sense to me whatsoever (maybe put a little arrow on the signage to help people out?).

According to the V&A’s website, the exhibition was divided into three sections, with the themes of “Going Fast,” about how the increasing speed of cars in the early 20th century influenced both design and health and safety; “Making More,” about how Henry Ford’s assembly line ultimately changed the nature of work and the world; and “Shaping Space,” about the impact of cars on the environment and globalisation, as well as the way they shaped how maps look today. These are obviously all huge topics, so the exhibition couldn’t hope to do more than an overview of each, and I feel that the “Making More” section was the most effective in getting its point across.


This was about the whole litany of ways automation made the labour force worse off – by breaking down the manufacturing process into an assembly line, where each worker only had to do one job (rather than the previous system, where each man had to know how to do everything), Ford was able to hire unskilled workers that could be paid much lower wages and made to work ridiculous hours. He even supervised their home lives, sending his agents to employees’ houses to inspect their living conditions to see if they were sanitary enough (not in the interest of improving public health, just to see if they were conforming to his standards). I already knew Ford was an awful man and a huge racist, but his impact on the world was even more horrible than I thought, because of course the assembly line spread to other industries and effectively undid many of the gains unions were able to make in improving working conditions in the early 20th century. This section also included things like the automated kitchen, which was designed by a German woman to make housekeeping more efficient so that women would have more time to pursue their own interests, and statuettes of the “average man and woman.” A competition was apparently held by a Cleveland newspaper to find a woman whose body most conformed to that supposed average (not a man though, I guess they didn’t have to submit to the indignity of having their bodies measured and scrutinised) – unless it was the now-defunct Cleveland Press, I suppose they must be referring to the Plain Dealer.


I was quite taken with poor Graham, from the “Going Fast” section, who was meant to represent the ideal body type for surviving a car crash. Apparently, if our bodies evolved based on our likelihood of surviving a car accident, we would all have flat faces, extra padding around the head and neck, and multiple nipples to pad our chests and help protect our internal organs. I think I’d rather just stick to public transport than end up looking like that! There was also, pleasingly, some fashion here, showing some of the styles influenced by the popularity of driving in the days of open cars, where drivers had to protect their clothes and hair from dust and dirt. So there were quite attractive things like cloches, but also the rather hideous hooded bodysuit you can see above right.


I suppose of all the sections, I was least impressed by “Shaping Space,” but as it was such a massive topic to cover, I think it was fairly understandable that the V&A barely made a dent in it. I’m sure multiple books can be written on what the oil industry has done to the Middle East alone, let alone how it changed the structures of power in the rest of the world. On a less serious note, there was also information on how cars becoming more affordable brought travel within the reach of ordinary people. My favourite thing in the entire exhibition was probably the Michelin map that showed the Michelin Man performing the native dances of various European countries. I also thought it was really interesting that the birthday song now sung in Iran was originally developed by a car company for one of their adverts (and depressing to think that all the groovily dressed women in the colourful late ’60s advert would soon be forced back into hijab. Don’t get me wrong, it’s one thing if women freely choose to wear it, but no one should be forced to).


I did like that although there were obviously some cars on display, they weren’t necessarily the main focus, and each section had a good mix of art, objects, and cars, so we weren’t just looking at cars the whole time, and we were able to get a more complete picture of the ways the automobile industry shaped society. (And seriously, how fabulous are those paint samples from the mid-20th century? I want most of those paint colours in my house!) I would definitely still recommend this exhibition to the non-gear heads like myself – if you’re interested in social history, you’ll get plenty out of it, just try to get half-price tickets if you can, because I don’t think it was a £18 exhibition (few are). 3.5/5.


Whilst we were at the V&A, we also popped in to “Filthy Lucre: Whistler’s Peacock Room Reimagined,” which is free to visit, and is there until May. I had never even heard of Whistler’s Peacock Room, but apparently the artist was commissioned to design a special room for an art collector to house his collection of ceramics. The collector never paid Whistler the full amount he was owed, so Whistler got his revenge by making the room as gaudy and ostentatious as possible. This was a version of it done by an artist named Darren Waterson, but it was a decaying version where things were all broken and in a state of disrepair. I can’t say I quite got the point of it, but it was still kind of fun to walk through, so check it out if you’re there!


Gothenburg, Sweden: The Volvo Museum

And so we come to the Volvo Museum. “Not just for petrolheads,” they said. “Something for everyone,” they said. They lied.


I could already tell it was going to be an ordeal from the journey there. We had to take a tram from central Gothenburg practically to the end of the line, get off, and wait for half an hour at a horrible bus station for the bus out to the museum (I have never seen so many cigarette butts in my life, and there was a girl with a litter picker ostensibly working there, but she completely ignored every single one of the cigarette butts. I really didn’t understand). The only redeeming feature of the bus station was that it had a 7/11, which in Scandinavia function as purveyors of surprisingly tasty cinnamon rolls and all manner of Daim. I’ve yet to meet a Daim bar I didn’t like, and even the fairly gross sounding lemon variety was surprisingly delicious (the best are the Daim/cornflake clusters though. Highly recommended!). After finally boarding the bus, we were taken on a marvellous journey through a vast industrial wasteland (I swear it was full of fish processing plants. At least that’s what it smelled like) for another half an hour or so before at last reaching the museum, which is located inside a giant glass building that is Volvo headquarters. It is on the seafront, which is much less glamorous than it sounds, because the Gothenburg seafront just means being pelted with wind and rain whilst you run to shelter. Oh, and if you visit on a weekend, you have to book the bus in advance, which is why we were sure to visit on a weekday.


Admission to the museum is 100 SEK (about £8.50), and if you’re really keen, you can buy an annual pass for 250 SEK (I can’t imagine who would possibly want this. Even petrolheads would probably be satisfied after one visit). By this point, I’m sure you are asking yourself why I chose to visit this museum at all. Well, I sort of felt that I had to. It doesn’t get more Swedish than a Volvo Museum, the place was listed on Atlas Obscura, and really, when am I going to be in Gothenburg again (based on my experience, probably never)? Also Marcus wanted to see it, so there we were.


I will at least say this for them: they give you a lot for your money. I swear a model of every Volvo ever made was in here, and there definitely seemed like some duplicates. Unfortunately, as someone who has virtually no interest in Volvos (or any car, for that matter), this was way too many cars. I could appreciate the aesthetic qualities of some of the earlier models, but by the time we got to the ’60s (the cars are grouped roughly by decade), I was perfectly happy to give up. The most interesting parts for me were the signs talking about what each decade meant for Sweden, and the videos of old Volvo commercials, which were at least entertainingly dated (there was about a ten minute long one about some guy wooing a beautiful woman with an ugly-ass car. It was so long I missed the end, but I’m sure they probably got married because of the power of the Volvo).


One highlight, if you can call it that, was the car owned by Ingvar Kamprad, founder of IKEA, and driven until his death in 2018. You can see my expression of awe above. I would have so much rather just gone to an IKEA Museum, but apparently that’s in Almhult, which appears to be sort of in the middle of nowhere, so it was Volvo we were stuck with. I also, to give credit where credit’s due, liked the moustachioed mannequins, and the stuffed German Shepherds and black labs posing as police dogs in the back of the Volvo-made police cars.


Unfortunately, and contrary to what the brochure seemed to promise, this museum contained virtually nothing interactive – just room after room after room full of cars, but that didn’t stop parents from bringing their equally as bored as me looking children there. Unless you have the sort of child that REALLY loves cars, Volvos in particular (my brother was one of those weirdos, though I don’t think he particularly likes Volvos), I would strongly advise against this. I suppose there was a bell they could ring (super annoying) and a fire truck and bus they could climb in, but that was basically it.


The museum building does contain a shop (for all your Volvo-branded needs), and a small café, so I guess at least you won’t starve if you’re stuck here whilst waiting for a bus, because yep, they only come every half an hour. I made sure to time the end of our visit with the next scheduled bus, because it was seriously ridiculously cold and windy outside, and I did not want to have to sit in that sad little bus stop for any longer than necessary.


However, we had a little time to kill after finishing the museum, and since I didn’t want to go outside until we had to, we walked around the free introductory gallery, which seemed like a sort of afterthought, as it was filled with seating for events and kind of off to the side. I’m glad we did, because the best thing in the whole damn museum was here, better even than Ingvar Kamprad’s car: Roger Moore’s personal Volvo, which was used in The Saint. Because I have read Roger Moore’s autobiography (yes, I’m weird. I also have one of the sewing pattern catalogues where he modelled sweaters when just starting out), I knew that he deliberately purchased the same car himself as used in The Saint, both because he got a discount, and because he thought they could use it for shots where they needed an additional car. They did have a model of this same car in the museum, with a little metal version of The Saint logo, but this was his actual car! So definitely don’t miss this bit!


The bus didn’t come exactly on time, so we still did have some time sitting in the wind tunnel bus shelter, and then of course the scenic trip back to Gothenburg (not that our hotel was any better. Seriously the smallest hotel room I have ever stayed in. Literally only one of us could stand up at a time, and the other one would have to sit on the bed. The only good thing about it was that they had free make-your-own waffles for fika in the afternoons. I can forgive a lot for the sake of waffles). I suppose they did technically have something I was interested in, namely, Roger Moore’s car, but was it worth the trip out there, and the hour or two spent slogging around the rest of the museum? No. So I’m giving it 2/5, and warning you that if you’re not a “gearhead” “petrolhead” or “dieselhead” (all of which they used in their advertising, in the context of it not just being for those people), you will probably be much happier having skipped it and stayed in Gothenburg eating waffles instead (and I’m not even a big fan of Gothenburg, in case you didn’t get that impression already).

Apparently this is the hilariously named Assar Gabrielsson and Gustav Larson discussing Volvo. Woot.


Canton, Ohio: Canton Classic Car Museum

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If you think I typically enjoy car museums, you’d be wrong; however, if you think the Classic Car Museum in Canton is anything like a normal car museum, you’d also be wrong.  I’ve been to a lot of museums in Canton, and they all seem to share a delightful sense of quirkiness; looking at the above photos, you can quickly see their car museum is no exception.  I was greeted at the door by Norm, who I later found out was having his 86th birthday that day.  He was just an exceptionally sweet and lovely guy who was eager to help with any questions (plus I have a total soft spot for old people because of my awesome (now deceased) grandparents).  Admission was $7.50, which I initially thought (anticipating the museum would be quite small) was a bit spendy, however, after actually experiencing all the museum had to offer, I think it was a fair price.

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Now, I’ve been to a lot of museums in my time that were essentially just random collections of crap, but right from the start, this was one of the most extensive and eclectic (and in a nicer building than most).  On their website, they essentially promise something for everyone, and they weren’t lying.  The first room was large and open, but the walls were covered in old signs, and there were cases everywhere filled with old toys, hood ornaments, and pretty much every other kind of old, random junk you could think of (in fact, they had a case of “mystery items,”of which you were supposed to guess their use).  There’s even a scavenger hunt that you can do, which was surprisingly hard given the number of objects to be found.

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Since it is close to Christmas, they’d put up a few trees, and draped boas and Santa hats over their collection of cardboard cutouts of old movie stars.  I jumped a little when a mini-Bruce the Talking Spruce who was evidently motion activated starting suddenly singing at me (is Bruce the Talking Spruce just a Cleveland thing, or do other cities have similar anthropomorphic trees?  I’m not counting that creepy-ass talking oak tree In London’s Winter Wonderland because Bruce was adorable but that oak tree freaks me out).  Speaking of creepy things, there was a clown who looked like his face was melting stood in one corner, amongst other, slightly less frightening clowns.  Coulrophobes beware!

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The next room was the “Canton History Room,” with the usual sorts of things about local businesses and local history, but of course, William McKinley lived in Canton, and you must all know by now how much I adore presidential history.  (Also, everyone please take note of the McKinley and Hanna political cartoon above, apparently drawn by a William Jennings Bryan supporter.)  Thus, the McKinley display case was an absorbing find.

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It was only one small case, but there was a lot crammed into it.  You can see his top hat above, but I’m including a few more highlights below…

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The picture on the left is of Katie McKinley’s baby bracelet.  Both the McKinley daughters died in childhood; little Ida as an infant, and Katie at the age of 4, from typhoid fever, thus the bracelet was probably a poignant reminder for Ida (Sr.) and William.  In the back of the photo on the right, you can see a sort of assemble-it-yourself paper doll of President McKinley.  That’s the kind of paper doll I would have loved as a child (though those historical American Girl ones weren’t too bad either!).

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Above you’ll see some kind of odd attempt to make the largest flag in the world, which appears to have taken place outside the McKinley memorial, and finally, a memorial plaque made for McKinley.  I was already super excited about all of this, but the next room had a hat rack full of old fashioned hats that you could put on for a photo op.  I’d just watched the film Laura, with Gene Tierney and Clifton Webb, and so my choice was inspired by one of the chapeaux Laura donned in the film, though I am sadly nowhere near as attractive as Gene Tierney, especially with my chin wodged on a wooden cutout and making a stupid face.

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Like the rooms that preceded it, this one was also full of curiosities.  Judging solely by the plaid “invalid style” blanket next to him, I believe there was a life sized cartoonish FDR mannequin, but he could have equally been George Bush the younger.  You’ll probably already have spotted the Frankenstein racer and the mummy at the start of the post, and there were a lot of hatters’ head mannequins modelling the styles of yesteryear congregated in one corner.

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Being a fan of the grim and morbid, I was pleasantly surprised to see a small mock-up of a funeral home set up, I suppose, because there was an antique hearse next to it (I should mention that there were cars throughout this whole gallery, but there was so much other stuff I could effectively just ignore them.  But if like a normal person, you have come to a car museum expecting cars, then don’t fear, you will see plenty of them!).

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I kind of love the picture on the right, a dark reminder to “Drive Carefully.” I almost hate to tell you, for fear of putting you off visiting, but there were more clowns in here, in the form of a puppet show that jangled around when you pressed a button.  I don’t like clowns myself, but I promise that except for the melting face one I described earlier, most of the ones here were really not that scary, and none of them are real, so please don’t let them deter you!

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I was amazed to find that there were still more rooms after this; like the TARDIS, the museum was bigger on the inside.  The next room was mostly cars, but I didn’t care because they had Neil Zurcher’s car.  For those of you who aren’t from Northeast Ohio (or over the age of 50, probably), Neil Zurcher was this old guy on a local news channel who drove around in a snazzy car on “One Tank Trips;” basically a segment on slightly offbeat places in the local area that you could get to and back from on one tank of gas.  I think largely because I spent a tonne of time over my grandparents’ house, and often watched TV with them or read whatever books they had laying around, I am very familiar with his work (and in fact, have discovered quite a lot of places around Ohio myself through his books), so it was kind of neat to see his car.

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(That picture on the right is of Bobby Kennedy, before and after airbrushing.  Just thought it was kind of interesting).

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I apologise for the even crappier than normal quality of the above photos, but seriously, aren’t those the ugliest Beatles dolls you’ve ever seen?  Paul is straight-up scary, not to mention Ringo, who wasn’t attractive under the best of circumstances!  And I have an FDR doll that I dearly love, but I think I’d also love to have the one on the right.  Still no wheelchair, but he is wearing a hat, and that is a splendid suit!

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(And yes, that is a guitar made out of a toilet seat behind Elvis’s antler-bedecked head).  As you can see, I had at last wandered into a gallery that was mostly cars, but still with touches of whimsy throughout.  A close-up of the balcony (and part of my finger) is below , and you might spot some familiar faces…

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I found a children’s mechanical reindeer ride, with dimes already laid out for my convenience, so I had to try it, but it felt unfortunately like riding some weird vibrating machine (if you get my drift), and left me with very itchy thighs.   It may have been part of the memorabilia from a long defunct local amusement park called Meyers Lake, along with some awesome-looking arcade machines and games that were sadly no longer working (or maybe they were, but they were blocked off by a rope).

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There was a small shop at the end of all this, from which I purchased a few postcards from lovely Norm (and “all this” meant wandering through about six huge rooms, plus lots of little nooks), but I capped off my visit with a stroll down a side hallway, where I finally espied a typed portrait of FDR made by an inmate that was mentioned on their website.

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I really, really enjoyed my time at this most unusual “car museum.” Sure, a lot of it probably was junk, but there were some gems hidden amongst the collections, particularly all the wonderful presidential artefacts, and I think most people would probably have a good reminisce over all the nostalgic old toys.  And of course, there are the cars too, I mustn’t forget those. Apparently, the collection was curated by both the late Marshall Belden Sr, and his wife, which explains why there is a mix of cars and well, everything else (so a big thanks to Florence Belden!).  I promised Norm I’d spread the word, so that’s what I’m doing here.  Please pay them a visit if you get the chance and you like old stuff arranged with an “old general store” aesthetic, as it really is more than just a car museum!  4/5

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