London: The National Army Museum

After being closed for several years for a complete revamp, the National Army Museum has recently re-opened. Having never visited the old museum, I can’t say how this new version compares, but I can at least give you my thoughts (of which there are many) on the new museum.


I should confess that I have a bit of a history with the National Army Museum. I very briefly volunteered there a couple of years ago, but compared to the work I did on the local history project I also volunteered on, it felt like the stuff they were giving me to do was simply busywork, and I couldn’t stand working in an open plan office. So I quit after about three weeks, but in my short time there, I had gotten to look at a plan of the new museum, so I had some idea of what to expect.


Sadly, the grand vision I had viewed didn’t seem to reflect the reality. First of all, there was the museum building itself. It is not attractive, but under ordinary circumstances, this might have gone unnoticed. However, the museum is located right next door to the stately Royal Hospital Chelsea (see above images), which in addition to being huge, is also very easy on the eyes (and contains a number of intriguing sights that are visible from outside the gates, including a statue of a Chelsea pensioner raising his cane in the air, as though he’s about to go Andrew Jackson on somebody’s ass, a cemetery with a tombstone featuring a carving of a helmet from a suit of medieval armour, a bench with a sculpture of a Chelsea pensioner dozing on it, an adorable statue of an elephant dressed as a Chelsea pensioner, and of course the pensioners themselves, who still wear those distinctive long red coats when they’re out and about), so the museum’s ugly modern boxiness is glaring in comparison. Clearly, any renovations only took place on the museum’s interior.


And unfortunately, the interior didn’t immediately catch the eye either. While I did enjoy the statue of a desert rat that I spotted on the lower level, and there are bright colours in some of the upstairs galleries, the thing directly in my eye line upon entering was the museum’s shop, which was small and drab (the museum is free, so you would think they’d make more of an effort in the shop to try to bring in some revenue). The museum is spread out over 3-5 floors (depends whether you count sub-floors as their own floors, or whether the cafe, which was on its own level, counts as a floor), but the only actual gallery on the ground floor is the “Soldier Gallery.” This is one of the galleries I vaguely recalled reading about when I was a volunteer, the conceit behind it being that people enter through one of two gates, based on whether or not they think they could be a soldier, learn more about the life of a soldier in the gallery, and then have to go through the same gates at the end of the gallery, so they can see if their answers changed.


I think this probably worked better in concept than in execution, because I was not overly impressed with this gallery. The most immediately obvious problem was with the appearance of the space itself. There was very dim lighting in here, which gave everything in the gallery a weird and unpleasant yellowish-brown tinge.  The other problem was what I perceived as the dumbing-down of the museum. Most of the text in here was fairly limited, and included quotes from soldiers on these huge, large-print signs. Which I suppose is nice for people with visual impairments, but it made me feel like I was walking through the museum equivalent of a picture-book (not knocking picture-books (especially Frog and Toad, who are the subjects of my latest tattoo), I just expect a little more text in a museum that wants to attract adults as well as children). They had clearly tried to introduce a fair number of interactive elements, but the trouble was that most of them were being repaired, or were in use by the many, many children also visiting that day.


The other issue was that though this section had a number of fascinating objects, the museum appeared to be doing their best to hide them!  Instead of being an artefact-driven exhibit, this was image driven, and all of the actual artefacts were shunted off into ill-lit cases around the gallery, so photographs, computer screens, and those huge text bubbles could take centre-stage.


This was a real shame, because among the object cases, I found stuff like a penny that had saved a soldier’s life by taking the impact of a bullet during the Battle of Waterloo, Wellington’s shaving mirror, the actual frost-bitten fingers and toes of a soldier who’d lost them whilst climbing Everest, the taxidermied body of Crimean Tom (a cat from the Crimean War), and the leg bones of a soldier who’d had his leg amputated and saved the bones so he could be buried with them when he died (so I have no idea why they’re in this museum). Unfortunately, all these awesome things were accompanied by the bare minimum of text, and in many instances, I had to hunt to find even that, because all the information was placed to the sides of the cases, with no numbering put on the objects, so you had to squint at the pictures to match things up. Not an easy feat given the poor lighting, and objects like the leg bones and bullet, for example, were hidden away in a hallway so dark that I’m pretty sure they didn’t want visitors to actually notice them at all.


Progressing upstairs, we entered the art gallery, which despite also being very dark (perhaps more understandable in this case to preserve the paintings, though most art museums manage to have brighter lights than this), was probably the best gallery in the museum, because it felt the most like a traditional museum gallery. Also, there were a lot of really cool paintings, including many from the First World War, and even a couple from the American Revolution, which I was even more interested to see than usual, because I was reading Nathaniel Philbrick’s excellent Valiant Ambition at the time. No complaints about this gallery!


However, it segued into a gallery about the history of the British Army, and there were more issues here. For something that was meant to tell us the history of the army, it was remarkably light on actual history. There was a timeline at the start, but it petered out somewhere around James II, and I never really learned how the army evolved into what it is today (and all the difficult-to-decipher pie charts on the wall (they used too many damn colours!) didn’t really help matters). Most of the exhibit was dominated by these cases full of mannequins wearing various regimental uniforms (a small child was terrified by them, and refused to approach them, which I am mean enough to have found funny), but only the type of uniform was listed on the case; for additional information, you had to turn to a computer screen.


The same applied to the artefact cases on the back wall, only they were even worse. These didn’t have an object label of any kind, it was ALL on the computer screens. This is the same issue I had with the In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres, but I’ll repeat myself, because that was a while ago. While trying to boost interactivity with touchscreens is great in theory, the problem is that if you only have one screen for each display, only one person can look at it at a time, and if they hog it, as people are wont to do, you won’t get to learn anything. Also, the contents of each case were divided between a couple of different touchscreens, and it wasn’t always clear which screen you needed to scroll through to get the information you wanted. I can’t help but feel that a much more sensible solution would be to put basic information right on the cases, like a normal, old-school museum, and have additional information available on touchscreens, for those who want it. That way everyone will at least have some idea of what they’re looking at, and will have the option of learning more if they choose to do so.


There were two galleries on the top floor, “Society and the Army,” and “Battle.” I preferred “Society”, because it was the only space in the museum that was well-lit (you could actually read all the labels, and everything had a label! Brilliant!), and I have to confess that getting to try on a royal guard outfit, and looking at that hilarious Sgt. Potato poster didn’t hurt either. I’m not quite sure if they did enough to show how the army impacts the rest of society when there’s not a war on, but it was a better attempt than most of the other galleries.


“Battle,” I feel, was mostly aimed at people who really like looking at heavy-duty weaponry and already know a fair bit about how those weapons work, because the labels were fairly basic and left me in the dark (literally, because we were back to the poorly lit galleries again), and that’s what 70% of the cases in here contained, but there was some cool stuff in the pre-WWI sections, particularly in the Napoleonic Wars case, because it contained not only the amputation saw used to hack off the leg of the Earl of Uxbridge (he of the famous (possibly apocryphal) anecdote whereupon he remarked to Wellington after being shot, “By God sir, I’ve lost my leg,” and Wellington replied, “By God sir, so you have.” Uxbridge also apparently remained “composed” throughout the anaesthetic-less operation, only remarking that the saw seemed rather blunt) and a bloody glove used to staunch the flow during his amputation, but also the skeleton of one of Napoleon’s actual horses! And, this was one place where there was a brief mention of British atrocities committed during various imperial wars (which otherwise pretty much went unmentioned). There were also a number of activities that looked really fun here, such as a drum where you could practice various cadences, a cut-out tank to crawl into that appeared to have some kind of video game inside, and some muskets where you could see how fast you could reload and shoot ten bullets, but yet again, these were all being monopolised by children, or, in the case of the guns, not even working.


The final gallery was “Insight,” located in the lower ground floor. If it hadn’t been for the desert rat sculpture also down there, I’d say don’t waste your time – it was pretty lame (I don’t even have any photos from it, the ones below are from “Battle”). It mainly just consisted of maps on the walls showing where British Army bases are located around the world (I didn’t even realise this at first, because it wasn’t explained until halfway through the exhibit) and a handful of objects, and again, very crappy lighting (the museum’s main decorative scheme, I guess).


Because I hadn’t visited the National Army Museum in its previous form, I can’t say for sure if it’s actually worse now than it was before, but I strongly suspect that may be the case, given how much I enjoy an old-fashioned military museum (see the Winchester museums, the Army Medical Services Museum, et al, for evidence of this). I think it would have been so much nicer if they had a couple highly interactive, child-friendly galleries, but then kept a couple old-fashioned galleries, with decent lighting and labels, for all the amazing objects in their collection, so that people who wanted to could actually admire and learn something about these objects in peace. While I understand that interactivity is what packs in the crowds these days, having interactive elements at the expense of actual history not only dumbs down a museum – it also makes it lose part of its essence.  If the National Army Museum is an example of where most museums are headed, then that is truly a depressing thought, since I learned remarkably little here. 4/5 solely for the awesomeness of the objects in their collection, but only 2/5 for how they were presented, so I guess 3/5 overall. With the army’s fascinating history (which you wouldn’t know from visiting this museum), and all the money undoubtedly poured into this, this museum should be so, so much better than it is.

London: “Imagine Moscow” @ the Design Museum

In my original post on the Design Museum, I predicted that I would probably go back when “Imagine Moscow: Architecture, Propaganda, Revolution” opened, and indeed, here we are (it opened 15 March, and runs until 4 June 2017). Unfortunately, my National Art Pass expired since my last visit, but there was no way I was about to pay £9 for what I imagined would be a small exhibit, so Marcus and I bought a couple of cheap single tickets into town so we could take advantage of the National Rail 2-for-1 offer.

“Imagine Moscow” is inside the Design Museum’s basement gallery, which is certainly a heck of a lot easier to get to than the ones upstairs (I guess you get what you pay for). I’m happy to report that the toilets down here are also even closer to the ones in Bob’s Burgers than the ones by the upstairs gallery (still not quite there, but they were slightly claustrophobic completely walled-in greyish green cubicles). No photography was allowed inside the exhibition, and there’s no exhibition guide available online (I think they want you to buy one), so this is going to be based on my probably faulty memory, but here goes.

After the Russian Revolution, Lenin, and later Stalin, wanted to redesign Moscow in a more communist style, and this exhibition showcases six of these proposed designs (which obviously never came to fruition), illustrated with sketches, blueprints, and other Soviet art (which was the part I was most excited about). It was all contained within one large room/gallery, but the way to move around it was somewhat confusing. From the very vague map on the wall (I wasn’t even totally sure where the entrance was on the map, so I didn’t really know where I was supposed to start), I got the impression that we were supposed to go around in a clockwise manner, but when I got to the opposite end of the exhibit, I found out that was where the exit was, so I ended up having to backtrack to see everything, and walk through the exhibit again to get out. So don’t do what I did, is what I’m saying…leave Lenin’s Tomb (or whatever it was called) for last.

As you can probably tell from the photos on the exhibition website (if you clicked the link at the start), there wasn’t a terribly cheery atmosphere (not surprising given the subject matter). The walls were all a dreary black, and the lighting was dim, so it was kind of a downer being inside.  I also felt that many of the captions were awkward to read…instead of putting labels beneath each item, they put them all together in the corners of each room, so you’d sometimes be reading a label for things that were on a different wall, which made it hard to keep track of what you were actually looking at. Still, the information that was provided was very interesting.

For example, I learned that some of the plans for Moscow included a city in the sky, which would have consisted solely of skyscrapers, though judging by the sketches, I’m not even sure that they would have been structurally sound; a somewhat regimented sounding “holiday city,” built on the Black Sea, where people would be served in the cafeteria by conveyor belt, so even on holiday they weren’t being inefficient; and a library city.  Clearly, it was the last plan I was most intrigued by.  I hadn’t realised, given how repressive Stalin et al were, that early Soviets put an incredibly high value on education; they even turned trains into mobile libraries, so that everyone could access knowledge, and printed books in over a hundred languages, so that all the people of the diverse regions that made up the USSR could read them. Of course, the Soviets being the Soviets, there was a more sinister ulterior motive behind this, which was that if everyone could read the same material, they would buy into the propaganda, and all begin to think the same, but still, I love the idea of a library train, and there was some fantastic posters here that they used to encourage people to read.

I was also fascinated by the idea of the “Palace of the Soviets.” This was meant to have been built on the site of a beautiful, historic Russian Orthodox Church that Stalin had dynamited, and would have been a “shrine” to communism. However, Stalin died before it was built, and Khrushchev basically said “to hell with it” and built a giant open air swimming pool instead, which, in anywhere but Russia, would have sounded much more fun.  They had a video of people swimming in it, and there was actual snow and ice all around the pool.  I mean, I assume it was heated, because there was steam rising off the water, but it still looked awful. The pool was closed in the ’80s, and after the fall of communism, the Russian Orthodox Church received permission to the rebuild the original church, so I guess it kind of has a happy ending (not that I’m into religion, but I do support historic buildings!).

The communal living plans were equally intriguing, not least for the planned daily schedule posted on the wall.  There were a number of things I found perplexing, from the scanty amount of time allocated to meals and exercise (most of the day was meant to be spent working down the mines), to the fact that they got up at 6, worked eight hours, but didn’t have lunch until 3 (they must have been starving!) and dinner at 9:25, even though they were meant to go to bed at 10 (maybe Soviets had tougher digestive systems, but for me, eating right before bed is a recipe for indigestion and poor sleep), but the oddest of all was that they only got five minutes for a shower, but were meant to spend 8 minutes washing their hands at one point! I wouldn’t be surprised if the creator of that schedule ended up being “purged.” Communal living was meant to liberate women from the drudgery of housework, so that they could take jobs outside the home, but of course there was a more sinister motive to this too. The ultimate aim was the destruction of the family unit, which was seen as a threat to communism, and the establishment of communal child-rearing, so that everyone’s first loyalty would be to the state. Fortunately, this was mostly a failure.

Though there wasn’t quite as much Soviet art here as I was hoping, most of the objects chosen were pretty great (even if it wasn’t clear what some of them were thanks to the confusing labelling). My favourite thing was probably a plate that said in Russian something to the effect of “He who doesn’t work, doesn’t eat,” but it was on this colourful, fun-looking children’s plate with a cartoony picture of a smiling Lenin right in the middle. Talk about mixed messages. I loved most of the posters too (you can see some of them on the exhibition website), especially the ones showcasing powerful women workers (of course employed in grim looking factory work). The most striking piece had to be the giant copy of Lenin’s finger that was originally meant to have been part of an enormous statue of Lenin that would have stood atop his tomb and pointed out across Moscow. The finger was at least ten feet long.

Although the exhibition wasn’t very large, and certainly not worth £9, I definitely got my £4.50’s worth out of it.  It didn’t rely too much on visitors having any background knowledge of architecture or design (which I lack, so I was glad this wasn’t the case) and there were some absolutely fascinating facts in here, and it was neat to see the city that could have been (though fortunately wasn’t because most of the plans looked awful), though I think I would have gotten more out of it if I’d ever actually been to Moscow. Other than the famous landmarks like the Kremlin and the Red Square and St. Basil’s and stuff, I have very little idea what modern Moscow actually looks like, and they didn’t have much information on this inside the exhibit, so I couldn’t really compare things to see what the difference would have been.  But I’ll still give it a 3.5/5, and continue hoping that library trains become a reality in Britain (minus any dystopian ulterior motives, of course).


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.

Cambridge: The Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences

I have to confess that the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences was pretty much my concession to Marcus. Not that he didn’t enjoy all the other museums, but the Sedgwick is one I probably would have skipped if I was on my own, because other than the occasional dinosaur bone, earth science doesn’t exactly thrill me. But it was right next to the Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology, and on the way back to the train station, so there was really no reason not to visit (note that unlike the Whipple Museum, for the Sedgwick, you really do have to walk around to the back for the main entrance, but it’s worth it for the splendid staircases).


Except for the impossible-to-miss Iguanodon, first impressions of the Sedgwick were not great. It appeared to be a room full of case after case of well, rocks. Still, I spent a while studying the Iguanodon, and was interested to learn that while undoubtedly more accurate than Owen’s hilarious, albeit rather charming version at Crystal Palace, the Iguanodon at the Sedgwick is also outdated according to modern theories that have the Iguanodon walking on four legs, rather than two. However, they’re chosen to leave him in his current position to show how theories change over time, and he certainly looks more imposing this way.


Happily, after quickly making my way past all those cases of rocks, I was excited to find that there was more dinosaur stuff at the back of the room, including the excellent painting shown above, and the giant Plesiosaur on the right that looks a lot like how the Loch Ness monster is meant to look, if, you know, it was real (which it’s not). Even cooler was the fact that a lot of these fossils were purchased from the famous Mary Anning.


I was also glad that there was a whole other section to the museum, completely hidden from the entrance, that contained more interesting stuff than just rocks. Such as loads of plant and animal fossils, included some collected by Charles Darwin and other famous geologists, and even re-creations of what some of the animals would have looked like. Check out the largest spider that ever lived, which I am clearly more than a little disgusted by. I don’t even know how you would go about killing something like that…the horrible crunchy squish that would result makes me feel a little sick just thinking about it.


But the best section was still to come. It was the second half of the first room, which we came back to last. First of all, there were some more awesome skeletons, including one of a hippo fossil found near Cambridge (because 120,000 years ago, the same species of hippo that now lives only in Africa used to live in Britain as well), and a Giant Irish Elk.


Then, there was a whole display devoted to Charles Darwin (in addition to the fossils he collected that I already mentioned). It detailed his years as a geologist, which is what he was at the start of his career (he also attended Cambridge, which is why he was featured here) before getting into biology, and focused mainly on his voyage on the Beagle, with many, many artefacts from that voyage (he distributed his collection to various friends upon his return, but a lot of the things he collected seemed to have ultimately ended up here). I’d just been reading up on Darwin (well, sort of indirectly through the story of his beard in Victorians Undone, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in the Victorians, medical history, or the history of the body generally), so I thought this was all really interesting, and quite relevant to what I’d just been reading, since it talked a bit about his health complaints.


The final section of interest (to me anyway, though I think Marcus was most impressed by the collection of rock hammers belonging to famous geologists) was a whole case full of information about the role of the members of the Sedgwick Club in WWI (the Sedgwick Club being Cambridge’s geological society named after pioneering geologist Adam Sedgwick, who is also the museum’s eponym). It talked about how geologists were used to supervise tunneling operations throughout the war, since Flanders has different bedrock than France, and different methods were needed for each type, especially when calculating the number of explosives needed to blow up German trenches from underneath!  It also mentioned a few prominent geologists from that time, and how they served; the one that caught my eye was Gertrude Elles. Elles grew up in Wimbledon, which was neat in itself (since I live there), but she was also remarkable for being a female geologist in the Edwardian era, and for serving with the Red Cross during the war, for which she was awarded an MBE.


Even though I wasn’t the most enthusiastic visitor at first, by the end I was glad that we had found things we could both enjoy in the museum, and I was excited that I even managed to learn something new about the First World War!  Plus everyone likes dinosaurs (don’t they?!) and the museum is of course free, so it’s certainly worth at least dropping in, because you might discover something interesting (amongst all the rocks, or maybe even the rocks themselves if that’s what floats your boat). 3.5/5, better than expected, and worth the effort just for those fabulous bison on the staircase.

Cambridge: The Whipple Museum of the History of Science

Though I’m really more of a fan of medical history, I also try to show an interest in the history of science from time to time (admittedly not enough of an interest to do that Ph.D I was planning on when I realised there’d be only history of science and no history of medicine classes available for my first year, but still, an interest), so I definitely wanted to see the Whipple Museum of the History of Science whilst we were in Cambridge.


We were a little confused by the entrance; because the museum is located inside the Physical Chemistry building, we thought maybe the main entrance was for students only, and we were meant to use the back entrance for the museum (incidentally, I still don’t really understand how the whole Oxbridge system works. I thought students joined a college, and only took classes within that college, but it appears they just have some normal university buildings as well. I guess it’s one of those weird upper class British things I’ll never wrap my head around. Like their fondness for horse racing. Or fox hunting). So we walked all the way around, passing the Museum of Zoology on the way (which had an excellent whale skeleton that we could see from the outside, but it’s under construction so not open to the public at the moment), and ended up having to ring a doorbell for access, only to be gently chided by a somewhat annoyed man who obviously had to run from somewhere upstairs to answer the door. So learn from our mistake, and just go in the main entrance, unless you need step-free or group access. Then you still have to go around to the back.


Due to what was apparently our foolish misstep, we had to walk through the whole museum to get to the room where we were meant to start, though honestly I don’t think it mattered that much, because lots of the collection was just miscellaneous crap, with no real narrative (also, the museum’s not that big). And I’m not just using “crap” here to be pejorative; the museum itself admitted that some of its collections were junk.  Like a display of shitty plastic protractors that got taken off the market after a teacher realised they were basically worthless, and were screwing up students’ measurements.  Apparently they have a policy of collecting all things relating to the history of science, whether valuable or not, and even proudly displayed an old Telegraph column written by shaggy-haired douche canoe Boris Johnson, criticising their collecting policy. I can’t help but feel that if BoJo thinks it’s a bad idea, then it probably isn’t.


But amongst the junk, there were also some beautiful and historically important artefacts. Like one of Herschel’s telescopes (I went to his house, remember?). Or the grand orrery (a moving model of the motions of the Earth, Moon, and Sun) which is the dome-shaped thing on the right side of the first picture in this post. They also have a whole collection of frog-related things, which obviously I loved.  And I was really taken with the case of anatomical models, shown above, made by the Frenchman Dr. Auzoux in the 19th century to combat the shortage of bodies for medical dissection.  In retrospect, they were probably my favourite things in the museum.


I also really liked the labels in the first room, because they explained in detail why every object had been selected for display, and they had sound reasoning for every choice, even the “junk” (although with the museum being British, I feel like they didn’t actually say “junk.” Rubbish, maybe?). Take that BoJo!


Unfortunately, for me anyway, the second gallery wasn’t as successful as the first. It was eye-catching, but it was divided by different branches of science, with loads of the same sort of objects from each branch, and I’m just not enough of a sciencey person to have really understood what they were and given them the appreciation they deserved. I did find a pretty cool anatomical illustration in one of the drawers though.


I have to admit, I saw the sign for the “Victorian Parlour” when we walked in (since we came the wrong way), and I was pretty much just biding my time until I could get upstairs and check it out. It promised to be a room where you could interact with everything, and whilst that wasn’t quite true (there were signs on a few things saying not to touch them), they did have a whole chest of drawers full of games + hats to try on, which is always a bonus.  I do think it was aimed at a younger audience than me, because it wasn’t quite as much fun as I was hoping, but I still did try out most of the games, as did an older lady who was there at the same time as me.


The Globes Gallery was to the rear of the Victorian Parlour, and it was fine if you like globes. I mean, I like old globes where the countries are all wack, and “here be dragons” and that kind of thing (which I think is actually a modern conceit, but you know what I mean), but most of these were astronomical globes, which don’t do that much for me. I took Astronomy in high school and everything, but I’ve never been that into space, save for a fondness for the moon that probably dates back to my brief Wiccan phase (OK, I have moon sheets on my bed right now, and my favourite commercial when I was a kid was that creepy McDonalds’s moon one (funny because I hated McDonald’s food, even back then), and I even have a small moon tattoo, so I guess I REALLY like the moon, but that still doesn’t mean I’m thrilled by celestial globes).


Honestly, aside from the Polar Museum, this was the Cambridge Museum I was most excited about, but unlike the Polar Museum, it didn’t really deliver. I liked the first gallery a lot, but everything else was downhill from there, and it’s probably telling that my favourite objects in here had to do with medical history, because I will always love that more than the history of science. But I could definitely see science enthusiasts enjoying this museum more than I did; it wasn’t bad, it just didn’t thrill me like I was hoping it would. I think it would definitely be improved if instead of the “more is more” approach of the second gallery, they followed the example of the first, and put fewer things out, but with better and more explanatory labels, so that visitors of a less scientific inclination understand what they’re looking at. 3/5.

Don’t stand there confused like I was…this IS the correct entrance.


Cambridge: The Fitzwilliam Museum

The Fitzwilliam is probably Cambridge University’s most famous museum, and rightly so, because it’s also by far the largest (at least of the ones I visited).  So I knew I wanted to see it, but I also knew that with the busy day we had planned, I wouldn’t have time for a thorough perusal.  Fortunately, the Fitzwilliam is an art museum, and art museums are the easiest sort of museum for me to deal with in a hurry, because there’s usually not much to read, and I’m not really one for contemplating art, so I can breeze through, only stopping to look more closely at things that really catch my eye (especially if the museum is free, like the Fitzwilliam is, so I don’t feel like I have to look at boring things just to get my money’s worth).


And the first thing that caught my eye was the museum’s interior, which, as you can probably tell from the photo opening the post, is incredibly ornate, and really rather gorgeous.  The second thing I noticed were the large cabinets meant to house Wunderkammer, which were prominently displayed in the first room. Because I am way more into cabinets of curiosity than old European paintings, I spent a healthy amount of time studying the inlay on these cabinets, as well as the treasures that would have been kept within (which included a wee ceramic frog).


I was pretty much able to dispense with the whole of the first floor in record time, because other than the Wunderkammer, it was all just boring old-ass European art (much of it religious). OK, there was a bit of modern art too, but I’m not any more a fan of that than I am of Italian Renaissance painters, so I didn’t feel the need to linger.


The only significant amount of text up here was in the temporary exhibit “Madonnas and Miracles: The Holy Home in Renaissance Italy,” which runs til 4 June, and did not allow photography.  This was a fairly interesting exhibit about how Catholicism crept into every aspect of early modern Italian life, including the home. The most memorable object in here was a creepily realistic Baby Jesus doll that was made for some sort of famous nun hundreds of years ago (I can’t remember the exact details) and resided at the convent until just a couple of years ago, when the convent was destroyed by one of the recent earthquakes. However, the doll survived, and the nuns agreed to lend it to the exhibition, so here it was, staring up at us eerily like a real baby.


Moving on…I need to talk about the gallery full of English ceramics on the ground floor, because this was the best part of the museum by far (the Fitzwilliam’s ceramics game was strong in general, as you can probably tell from the Italian-made bust of an old woman a few paragraphs up).  I already had a fondness for antique Staffordshire figurines (I still really want the Red Barn Murder set, but considering one sold for almost £12,000 in 2010, that’s never going to happen), and also royal memorabilia, specifically really old and crudely drawn memorabilia, like the plates shown above, so my expectations were high as soon as we entered this gallery and I got a taste of what was inside, and happily, the Fitzwilliam exceeded them.


My favourite royal family plate had to have been the William and Mary one, above left.  I’m hard pressed to even tell you which one is William and which is Mary (OK, I think William is the one with the moustache, but still). There were so many fabulous things here that I could have happily spent my entire visit in just this room. I want to show you everything, but I’ll restrain myself to just a few more pictures (and how sad are those poor chained bears?  I want to free them!).


Here’s some of those Staffordshire figurines I was talking about. I have a crude knock-off of the tiger one, but in mine, it looks as though the tiger is merely sniffing the soldier’s head, rather than an active mauling (though I have to say that the tiger in the real one still looks remarkably sweet for being a vicious man-eater). It’s based on a real-life event that took place in India in 1791 where the soldier, Hugh Monro, later died of his injuries, so I guess I shouldn’t be so flippant about it, but that tiger is very cute.


And here is Isaac Newton (looking rather foxy), and a piece showing the murder of Jean-Paul Marat by Charlotte Corday, though surely if you know anything about his assassination, it’s that he was stabbed in the bath, so I’m not sure why he is fully clothed and just sitting on the ground. Perhaps a nude Marat would have offended Georgian (early Victorian? not sure when it was made) sensibilities too much, but obviously violence was just fine.


There was so much more splendid stuff, including a giant owl jar (I’m not including the photo because I’m in it, and I look terrible), but I’d better move on to the rest of the museum. Or what we saw of it anyway; based on what was in the gift shop, I feel sure we missed some kind of modern print room, and there was also a sign in one of the rooms telling us to check out the exhibit on Victorian life in Gallery 33, which I was more than happy to do, but we found Gallery 33, and it only had random (not delightful, or Victorian) pottery in it, so I’m not sure what they were talking about.


There was a hall of armour, and though this would probably normally be my favourite part of the museum, it was completely overshadowed by the excellent English ceramics (except for that modern sculpture of a skull in chain mail…it didn’t photograph well on account of the case, but man, it was cool).


We concluded our visit with a brief stroll through the Roman and Egyptian stuff.   I normally love sarcophagi, but they simply paled by comparison to those charming damn ceramics (I’m sorry, I realise like 80% of this post is about stupid ceramics. Maybe I should just re-title it “The Pottery Post”).


So, while I would like to return to the Fitzwilliam one day and be able to spend more time there, I honestly don’t feel like I missed out on anything on our fairly quick visit (to be fair, we probably spent twice as much time here as any of the other museums, except maybe the Polar Museum, which was small, but I felt like I needed to read everything in it). I’m obviously completely and totally captivated by their ceramics collection (and not just the English stuff; there was a pretty good German room too), but I think there are probably many things here worth seeing, especially for people who know more about art than I do (which frankly, is not that hard to do.  For a museum person, I am shamefully uninterested in most art). 4/5; it’s clearly a world-class museum, but I was really only interested in maybe 40% of what was inside (which is my problem, not theirs, but I’m the one giving the scores). Oh, and don’t miss the decorative gold pineapples on the railings outside the museum – I thought they were a nice touch!

Cambridge: The Polar Museum

Ever since learning of its existence through Bill Bryson’s The Road to Little Dribbling, I have wanted to visit the Polar Museum, aka The Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge.  My love for doomed polar expeditions has been well-documented on this blog, and the thought of seeing artefacts that actually came from Scott’s failed Terra Nova Expedition was irresistible.  And there were lots of other museums in Cambridge that looked great too, but somehow I just never got around to going.  However, I just started a new job (I’ve been unemployed for over five years; basically the entire time I’ve been writing this blog, and then some. So this job is a really big deal for me, but it’s also totally not the type of thing I thought I would ever be doing, and I’m genuinely not sure how long I’ll be doing it for, because it is hard physical work!), so on my final week of freedom, I wanted to venture out of London, and because it was too late (and expensive!) to book anywhere abroad, I settled for a day trip to Cambridge.


Getting up there was actually a cinch…it took about as long (45 minutes) to get from our flat to King’s Cross (10 miles) as it does to get from King’s Cross to Cambridge (55 miles) on the direct train (getting around London is always the hardest part). Marcus and I had about six and a half hours in Cambridge before the museums shut, and a long list of museums to potentially visit, so I thought it would be best to start with the Polar Museum, both because it was closest to the station, and the museum I most wanted to see (we ended up making it to five museums in the end, as you’ll eventually see, which I think is really pretty good going. My feet were killing me by the end of the day, but it was worth it).


Happily, the Polar Museum is free, as are all the museums that are part of Cambridge University (there are a couple of museums in the city of Cambridge that do charge admission), so this was shaping up to be a very budget-friendly trip.  We were greeted by a couple of volunteers at the admissions desk, who instructed us to begin in the entrance hall (back out the doors we came in) and work our way clockwise around the museum. So we dutifully trooped back outside to admire the beautiful entrance hall ceiling that I had missed on the way in.  It had maps of the North and South Poles on it, with ships from all the major polar voyages painted in on them, which I loved, and strained my neck trying to read all the labels (you can see one of the maps in the first set of pictures). The museum proper began with a section on the native peoples of the Arctic (since obviously there is no native human population in the Antarctic), and displayed some of their traditional crafts (I want some traditional Greenlandic boots, or at least I would if they weren’t probably made from baby seals. Maybe they could use faux fur for mine?).


At the time of our visit, the museum was hosting a small exhibition of Dick Laws’ art (it looks like the exhibition ran slightly over, because the website says it was on until 25 March, and we were there on the 26th). Dick Laws was a marine mammal scientist who travelled to the Antarctic to study seals and whales, and he was also a keen artist who produced some very cool (literally) little paintings.


But it was the main room, containing artefacts from almost all the major polar expeditions of the 19th and early 20th centuries that I was most keen to see, and man, this did not disappoint.  This room was a veritable treasure trove for polar history nerds like myself.


It touched on a few of the earlier expeditions, but it really had loads of stuff relating to John Franklin’s ill-fated attempt to find the Northwest Passage. I mean, a surprising amount, given that the Erebus and Terror just mysteriously vanished, along with all their crew. Most of it was admittedly from the search parties that went out looking for Franklin, but Inuit recovered items from one of Franklin’s ships before it sank (mostly made of metal, like the set of spoons bearing Franklin’s crest), and some of those items eventually made their way back into English hands. I thought the coolest thing was one of the actual letters left in a cache by Franklin’s men before the ships had been lost, explaining how they had spent their first winter in the Arctic (a letter was also left by Franklin’s men after Franklin died (of natural causes) and the ships had been abandoned, but the museum only had the facsimile of that, the real one apparently residing at the National Maritime Museum (but I’ve never actually seen it there. Hopefully it will make an appearance in the special Franklin exhibition at the National Maritime Museum this summer, which is also meant to have artefacts recovered from the wreck of the Erebus! I can’t wait!)).


And then there was Scott, the museum’s eponym (well, the research centre’s eponym anyway. Does anyone else get namesake and eponym confused? I had to look it up for this post to make sure I was using it correctly). I thought the Franklin collection was impressive, but this was even better, probably because although Scott and the four men chosen to head for the South Pole with him all died, their other teammates (shipmates?) survived, and the tent Scott et al died in was discovered soon afterwards (they were only 11 miles from their nearest depot, which was full of supplies), so pretty much everything could be recovered.  One of the (many!) great tragedies of Terra Nova is of course that Scott was just pipped to the Pole by Roald Amundson, as Scott discovered upon reaching the Pole himself, and he was then stranded in a tent on the return trip by a bad storm and frostbitten feet. So he died knowing that he failed to accomplish his goal of being the first man at the South Pole.


But out of tragedy comes a hell of an interesting story, and some amazing artefacts.  The most poignant things by far were the actual letters and diary entries written by Scott and the men who accompanied him on the doomed dash for the Pole when they realised they were going to die. Lawrence Oates, who I wrote about in my very first post, developed bad frostbite early on, and felt he was holding the others back, so essentially sacrificed himself by wandering outside during a storm, where he froze to death (he died on his 32nd birthday, if you needed it to be even sadder). The museum had a letter from Edward Wilson (one of the other men who would die) describing Oates’s heroic death to his family. There was also a letter from Scott to his own family, bidding them all farewell, which was terribly sad.


Speaking of Oates, the museum had his actual sleeping bag, which was slit so he could get his damaged frostbitten feet in and out of it, a pair of Scott’s polar goggles, and actual food from the expedition, including a massive tin of Colman’s mustard powder, and a product made by Bovril specifically for the voyage that contained pemmican on one side, and cocoa on the other (the staples of the explorers’ diets were basically ship’s biscuit, pemmican, and cocoa, and they usually combined the pemmican and biscuit with water to make a stew called hoosh. It’s a shame that the European-made pemmican, unlike the native stuff, was simply dried meat and fat, with none of the traditional dried berries that might have at least helped to stave off scurvy (one of the missions to find Scott was aborted because they were trying to save another man who had developed scurvy. Vitamin C was actually discovered in 1912, just slightly too late to have done Scott’s expedition any good)).  I think it’s fascinating how many special products were produced especially for various polar expeditions (and I think they should bring back a special “polar edition” Colman’s mustard powder tin. I’d buy the hell out of that (another of my weird food quirks is that I hate actual pre-mixed mustard, but I love Colman’s mustard powder. I dump an inappropriately large amount into my rarebit sauce)).


They also had a small case of stuff from Shackleton, but I’ve been kind of down on him since I learned he ordered Mrs. Chippy shot (I know explorers killing their animals to survive is par for the course (Scott even took ponies with him with the intention of killing them for meat once they’d reached a certain point, because ponies are meatier than dogs), but they weren’t at breaking point yet, and they didn’t even eat the poor cat. They just shot him. I don’t know, if you read Mrs. Chippy’s Last Expedition you’ll probably share my outrage), and anyway, Scott was really the main 20th century explorer they focused on in the museum. All they had from Mawson’s expedition was his theodolite (but I think most of the Mawson stuff is in Adelaide, which makes sense, since he was Australian. I wonder if he saved the soles of his feet after they peeled off and he had to stick them back in his boots to be able to go on walking. Now that’s a gross artefact I would LOVE to see!)


The museum concluded with a small display about modern scientists in Antarctica, but it was kind of an afterthought, because clearly everyone is coming to see the actual artefacts.  And rightly so, they are awesome!  I was incredibly pleased with this museum, and when I left, I talked about how it was a 4.5/5 museum (I think it was a bit too small to be 5/5, but they did a great job with the space they had, I’m just always hungry for more!), and that’s what I’m sticking with; even after seeing the other Cambridge museums (some of which were excellent) it was still my favourite, simply because I’d read so much about the things here, and it was amazing to be able to see them in person. And they had an adorable husky statue outside, which didn’t hurt either.  This museum is a must-see for any polar exploration fan!




London: Grant Museum of Zoology

Like the Petrie Museum which I visited some time ago, the Grant Museum of Zoology is part of UCL, and is one of those unusual lesser-known museums around London that you occasionally hear about on offbeat travel shows, or blogs that showcase weirdo destinations (like my own). So, perfect for me then, you might think, right? Well, I had actually been to the Grant Museum once before some years ago, and was so unimpressed that I was in no hurry to go back and blog about it, hence its absence from my blog (until now).  However, I recently needed to kill some time in the vicinity of Bloomsbury, and rather than wander around the British Museum as I normally would, I decided to give the Grant Museum another chance.


And I’m so glad I did, because it turns out that the Grant Museum I saw, in a basement gallery, was just temporary housing whilst they were preparing a new museum space, which opened back in 2011. Meaning my experience of it must have been from 2010 or even earlier…I think I’ve been living in London for too damn long!  Anyway, the first time I experienced the Grant, it also wasn’t under the most auspicious circumstances.  As I recall, Marcus and I had attended a public lecture somewhere in UCL, and a cocktail reception was held in the Grant Museum afterwards.  All I remember is being crammed into a corner of a tiny museum with about two hundred other people, whilst clutching a glass of cheap wine and struggling to see into the cases around the mass of people. I think we bolted down our wine, and left as quickly as was humanly possible.


The new(ish) Grant Museum is fortunately in a larger space, one where, despite a few narrow rows of display cases, it is actually possible to read the labels, and you know, breathe comfortably (it probably helps that it’s not full of people clamouring for free wine, or not when I visited anyway. I probably still wouldn’t want to take my chances with a wine reception there though).  The museum is free, and whilst still not terribly big, there’s enough stuff crammed into the cases to keep a visitor entertained for a while.  Like a whole jar full of moles. Or one of bats. (I’ll ignore the one full of centipedes, because bleurgh.)

The Grant Museum was founded in 1828 by Robert Edmond Grant, who was kind of a big deal in the world of zoology.  Charles Darwin was one of his students, and Grant helped influence his theories on evolution (though interestingly, Grant’s own views were formed in part by his admiration for the work of Erasmus Darwin, Charles’s grandfather. So really Charles Darwin was being influenced by his own grandfather, albeit indirectly). It is the only remaining zoology museum in London attached to a university (and probably the only exclusively zoological museum in London?  The Hunterian Museum has some zoological specimens, but its focus is more on its human specimens), which unfortunately means that it was full of some incredibly annoying students at the time of our visit, but you can’t win ’em all.


Once the students (finally) cleared out, it was blissfully quiet, however, and we were able to look around without risking catty remarks from the young people.  The cases were completely crammed with stuff, as you can probably tell, and the specimens were a good mix of “awws” and “eews.” I didn’t spend too much time looking at the cases of disgusting crabs and insects, but there were some pretty adorable preserved baby mammals (and the elephant shrew, which is not really adorable).


There weren’t quite as many labels as I would have found ideal, because it seemed like only the prize specimens had them, and even those were just a sentence or two.  There were a few weird looking things that I couldn’t identify that only had a hand-written sticker on the jar, and I’m not even sure if those contained the actual name of the animal, or were just some random word for classification purposes.


The museum offers a deal whereby on becoming a “friend” of the museum (starting at £15 a year), you get to “adopt” one of the specimens, and have your name on it.  However, it appears that all the best specimens have sadly been taken, some apparently by famous people (there were animals that had been adopted by Bill Bailey and Tony Blackburn et al (I mean, I don’t even think Tony Blackburn is all that famous, but I used to listen to “Pick of the Pops” if I was in the car on a Saturday, so I know who he is), but those are probably fairly common names, and may not have been the actual celebrities, though I could definitely see Bill Bailey wanting to adopt a cassowary heart so maybe it was actually him. Not that it matters, I’m not a fan or anything), so I hope they consider offering more specimens for adoption, since only a few of the remaining specimens had “adopt me” tags attached.


But anyway, let’s ignore the “adoption” aspect of the collection for now, and get back to what was actually on display. There was a case full of specimens from extinct animals that I particularly enjoyed, which included the bones of a dodo, and the skeletal hindquarters of a quagga. There were even some bones from extinct animals so obscure I’d never even heard of them, like the thylacine, which was part of Robert Grant’s original collection (thylacines were Tasmanian marsupials that kind of resembled wolves, without actually being related to them, because, marsupial).


The thing pictured on the right, above, was a hall of microspecimens, aka, the Micrarium, that would be too small to display without a microscope, so they blew up photographs of them, and put them on the walls of a small nook.  It pretty cool, especially because it had a mirrored ceiling so you could view them from all angles, although only one or two people can squeeze in there at a time.


And I can’t neglect to mention that they had the penis bone of a walrus (and a few other, much less impressive penis bones), because it was huge and hilarious (sadly, that has of course been adopted too.  I imagine it was one of the first specimens to be snapped up).


As you can probably imagine, since you all know how much I love in stuff in jars, I quite enjoyed this place, even though, as I said, they could do with more labels, fewer students, and perhaps a way to access the upper tier, because there were specimens all the way to the ceiling, but no good way to see them without uncomfortably craning your neck.  3.5/5 for the Grant Museum.

While we were on campus, I remembered that so is Jeremy Bentham, whose auto-icon (basically a stuffed version of him, with a wax head. I think his actual skeleton is inside the stuffing, which is excellently creepy) I have always wanted to see, so we figured out where it was (the South Cloisters at the end of the main building) and popped in to check him out.  He’s actually rather charming (the hat helps), and well worth braving the hordes of even more students for. Apparently his actual head is in a box somewhere in the building too (though it’s in a wooden box, so you can’t actually look at it, or at least I don’t think you can), but I didn’t know that at the time, so didn’t look for it, which probably means a return trip is in order.


London: The RAF Museum

There’s a reason I haven’t been to the RAF Museum before now, and it is this: London is a bloody big place, especially when you’re using public transport, and Colindale is absolutely nowhere near where I live.  In fact, it took so long to get there, I was tempted to write “London(ish)” in the post title, but that isn’t strictly fair, because Colindale is as much a part of Greater London as Wimbledon is (even if it did have me wondering if it would actually be faster to get to the RAF Museum’s Cosford location than their “London” one). As usual, my main motivation for finally taking the plunge was food-related. Namely, bagels.  Bagels are one of my favourite foods, and it is nigh-on impossible to get a decent one in London (I absolutely hate cream cheese, so I tend to either eat bagels plain, or with peanut butter or marmalade, but most bagels here are treated solely as vehicles for fatty toppings, and aren’t actually tasty enough to eat by themselves).  I’ve tried all the Brick Lane “beigel” places, and found them seriously lacking (and when a chunk of whatever one of the employees was gnawing on flew out of her mouth and into my bag one time, that was it for me. I’m gagging a little just thinking about it), and some place in Camden run by an American that was supposed to offer “authentic New York bagels” was even worse – they were soft and flabby. I’d been hearing good things about Carmelli’s for years, but Golders Green is a hell of a long way to travel just for bagels.  But if I combined that trip with a visit to the RAF Museum, which is only a couple stops farther up the Northern Line, I could just about justify it.


But more on the bagels later, let’s talk museum!  The RAF Museum was a short hike from Colindale station (fine on the way there, a bit too long on the way back when I was tired from walking around hangars all afternoon), and pretty much looked like a big construction site, because that’s what it is right now.  Two of the halls (Battle of Britain and Sunderland Halls) are currently closed for renovation (so I’ll probably have to do a redux at some point), but that’s OK because there were still five halls left to see, even though we had to walk past quite a lot of construction to get to them.  The museum is free, though they charge a fee to sit inside a couple of the cooler planes, or to go on the Red Arrows 4D “experience.” A sign outside had recommended that we start with the WWI Hall, but since we weren’t too sure where it was at that point, we just headed straight into the main building, which meant we inadvertently saved the best for last (we asked the guy at the admissions desk who halfheartedly tried to sell us a guidebook where to start, and he vaguely waved his hand in the direction of the hangar entrance, and didn’t mention anything about the WWI Hall, so we initially thought maybe that was closed for construction too. I got the impression that the staff weren’t tremendously enthusiastic about the museum).


I’ve been to a fair few aviation museums before, most memorably on this blog, the National Museum of the US Air Force in Dayton, where I got to go on FDR’s presidential plane, and Wings in Balcombe, where my ass touched the same place as Damian Lewis’s (it’s kind of a long story, if you haven’t read it yet).  The RAF Museum, at least the main building, was more old-fashioned and in need of updating than even Wings.  The aircraft didn’t appear to be arranged in any particular order as far as I could tell.  There was a neat shark-style WWII plane (the Curtiss Kittyhawk III) right when we walked in, next to the old gondola from “His Majesty’s Airship R33” (circa 1919…I don’t think the king ever flew in it, it was just named after him in the way that ships are, since it was considered a ship of the air. It did carry a band at one point though, to promote the sale of Victory Bonds, but people on the ground wouldn’t have been able to see or hear them, so pretty pointless really).  It just seemed like aircraft from the first half (or so) of the 20th century were scattered all over the hangar, with no real rhyme or reason to them.


Even worse was the signage.  I know I’m usually an advocate for old-fashioned signs, but these were particularly terrible examples.  The labels on the actual planes weren’t so bad, but there was additional signage about various RAF engagements on the walls, and this was just appalling –  boring, overly wordy, and neglected (there were whole sections of the text completely missing where it had given up the ghost and just peeled off the walls.  At one point, there was a section on nuclear power, and I was quite surprised to see it, because the signs genuinely looked like they pre-dated the nuclear age).  I can certainly see why they’re re-doing some of the other hangars, and I hope this one is next, because it sure needs it!


Actually, they do appear to be in the process of renovation, because there were sections closed off where they were removing the carpet in an attempt to make the hangars look more like hangars, apparently (though the carpet is the least of their problems). The singularly uninviting looking cafe in the middle of one of the halls certainly wasn’t helping with that authentic “hangar” atmosphere either.  After the hall of miscellaneous aircraft (in which there were admittedly some cool things, like a flying boat that had actually been turned into a houseboat at some point, before being restored), there was a room of helicopters, which was still remarkably unengaging, but at least there was a theme.


The hall of mainly WWII aircraft was better, in fact, it was the best part of the main building. There was a large display about American pilots who came over to Britain during the war, both American units which were stationed here, and Americans who joined the RAF prior to America entering the war, which I found quite interesting, despite it suffering from many of the same problems as the text in the first hall.  My favourite plane here was undoubtedly the massive Lancaster Bomber…you’ll see why at the end of the post (hint: it has something to do with my absolutely juvenile sense of humour).


This section was also more engaging because there was actually a plane you could crawl into (you can go inside the Spitfire too, but only if you pay a tenner first.  I think I’ll stick to the free planes, thanks), and a couple other aircraft you could peer inside (including a Chinook you could walk through the back of).  I also thought the small display about ejector seats was reasonably diverting.


After passing through the lame gift shop (the only postcards they had were those “Events from the Day you were Born” ones that looked like they’d been sitting around for a good twenty years.  They were all yellowed, with curled edges), we left the building in search of the WWI Hall that appeared to be somewhere around the corner (judging by the map outside that said it was still open, since the staff certainly weren’t volunteering any information), but on the way, we encountered the “Milestones” building, so stopped inside.  This apparently contained “milestone” aircraft from the last century or so of aviation, though there was nothing by the Wright Brothers (a 1909 Bleriot was the earliest I saw), save for a yellow line on the wall to indicate the length of their test flight at Kitty Hawk.


Having not learned our lesson from the disappointing first building, we climbed up to the enticingly-named “Control Tower,” only to be met with an empty room (that admittedly had good views of the hangar, but I was hoping for something more…interactive), but on the way up, we encountered a wall of “Flying Aces,” so I’m presenting to you the best moustache of the lot, so you can save yourself the bother of climbing all the way up there too.  For all that this were meant to be about “milestones” of aviation, and the hall clearly having been updated more recently than the main building, this was still not particularly impressive, and the displays concluded with a weird section sponsored by Oman about the relationship between it and the RAF, which read more like a tourist advertisement for Oman than anything else (didn’t convince me to go there though).


The final hangar currently open to the public is the WWI Hall, located, appropriately enough, inside the UK’s first aircraft factory building.  It has been very recently redone, thanks to a HLF grant, and it shows, because this was amazing compared to the rest of the museum. It actually still had the look of an historic building on the inside (my favourite part was the authentic “Thomas Crapper” pull chain toilets in the bathroom.  I love those.  It feels like you’re really accomplishing something when you pull the chain), but managed to incorporate modern, interactive, and entertaining elements.


The hall contained a number of really old planes, with display cases in the middle that explained more about the RFC and RNAS (the precursors to the RAF) uniforms, as well as other elements of early military aviation. The surprised fellow above is actually demonstrating a flight mask, as well as some early “electrically heated” clothing that apparently the pilots could only bear to turn on for a few minutes at a time, because the clothing got so hot, they risked burning themselves (it looks like that poor “surprised” pilot might have just burned himself in a delicate area)!


This hangar also had the interactive elements that were so sorely lacking in the other hangars.  In addition to a few activities including a game that involved matching up aerial photos of terrain with the actual terrain to see if anything had changed (surprisingly difficult), there was also a mock-up of a biplane, complete with gun and and communicating tube, so you could satisfy your inner Henry Jones Sr, only without blowing up your own tail fin (because there wasn’t one); and an old-school flight simulator that I quite happily flung myself around in for a while (it honestly felt like I was going to pitch myself out the side, because there was no seat belt or anything, but that was half the fun).


There was also that much needed personal touch in this hall.  Whereas the other hangars had just included long dull lists of the accomplishments of various well-decorated RAF pilots, this one actually had amusing anecdotes, like one from a pilot and his friend who flew over a beach and pelted German sunbathers with oranges, which was pretty hilarious (he said they laughed so hard, they almost fell out of the plane).  I love that kind of stuff.


If the WWI Hall is an example of where the RAF Museum is headed, then I definitely want to come back when they reopen the Battle of Britain and Sunderland Halls, and see what other delights they have in store (to be honest though, I was kind of relieved that not all the hangars were open when we visited, because we were there for ages, and I was exhausted by the time we left.  I didn’t want to see two additional ones!). I do hope they can afford to redo the main body of the museum too, because it is sorely in need of it!  Even with what’s there now, it is the kind of museum that takes hours to see, and might be better to make two trips if you’re very keen on historic aviation and don’t want to wear yourself out.  Because it is free, I can’t complain too much, but the difference in quality between old and new is too striking to ignore.  So, 4.5/5 for the new WWI Hall, but only 3/5 for the museum as a whole.  Oh, and about those bagels…Carmelli’s is where it’s at.  There were only a few flavours available (mainly just different types of seeds, which was OK, since I do really like seeded bagels, though I like blueberry ones even better), but they were fresh out of the oven, and pretty damn delicious.  I might have to make the trek out to Golders Green again sooner than expected, because now that I know I can get good bagels, I’m gonna want them all the time!

As promised, here’s that Lancaster Bomber. I think the big “Poos” speaks for itself, really.



London: “Electricity: The Spark of Life” @ the Wellcome Collection

Before I start with “Electricity,” I wanted to mention that this past Monday marked four years since I started blogging!  I didn’t feel the need to make a special post about it or anything, but sometimes I anthropomorphise Diverting Journeys a little bit, and I didn’t want my blog to feel bad that I didn’t acknowledge its birthday somewhere. Now with that out of the way, on to the Wellcome!

Since most special exhibitions in London cost £12 and up, and I have a constant need for new blogging material, I am grateful that the Wellcome Collection can be depended upon to provide an ever-changing series of interesting, and always-free new exhibitions.  The latest is “Electricity: The spark of life,” which opened on 23 February, and runs until 25 June.  The only downside is that the Wellcome doesn’t allow photography inside its galleries, so I never get to show you all the cool stuff on display!

I managed to get to the Wellcome a bit earlier than I would normally get up and out of the house, and was rewarded with an exhibit that while no means empty, was positively tranquil compared to the madness that ensues at lunchtime.  I think it also helped that there didn’t seem to be quite as much content in “Electricity” as there normally is in their exhibits, or at least, it was far more spread out than normal.  I am always impressed by the way they seem to completely rearrange the configuration of the gallery space for each new exhibition.  Instead of being fairly open-plan, as Bedlam was, this was more like a shotgun house style arrangement of large rooms that were closed off from one another, save for the entrances and exits to/from each (I initially thought it was railroad apartment style (probably thanks to reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn about twenty times), but apparently a railroad apartment usually has a hallway, and the configuration I was thinking of is actually a shotgun house.  You learn something new every day!).  I actually preferred this, because when someone was blocking the displays and moving around at an irritatingly slow pace, it was easy to speed past them and leave them in the room behind me so I didn’t have to encounter them again, because there was really only the one path through the exhibit.

Because Henry Wellcome (the collection’s founder) was a pharmaceutical man, the exhibitions here generally have some kind of medical slant, and based off the description of “Electricity” on the museum’s website, which states, “this exhibition contemplates the contradictory life-giving and death-dealing extremes generated by electricity,” I was expecting it to be mostly about electricity and medicine; things like electrotherapy, ECT, accidental electrocution, and even the electric chair (although killing people is admittedly the complete opposite of what medicine is supposed to be about).  This was actually only a very small part of the exhibit, which turned out to be more about how electricity changed everyday existence, particularly in Britain. (Side note: Like me, Henry Wellcome was an American who moved to Britain as an adult, and I notice he is listed as “American British” on his Wikipedia page.  Now, I know Wikipedia is not a terribly reliable source, but I’ve been (jokingly) referring to myself as Anglo-American since I got British citizenship, and it seems like that might imply that you’re an American with English ancestry, which I definitely am not. So which is it? Can I keep using Anglo-American, or do I have to settle for the unwieldy and un-alliterative American British? Thoughts?)

The first things worth noting in the exhibition were the many, very entertaining short videos.  Normally, I don’t bother to watch videos in a museum, because they’re either too long, not particularly interesting, or there’s too many people crowded around them.  Well, the exhibit wasn’t very busy, as I said, and these videos were all around two minutes in length, so I couldn’t use that as an excuse.  When I saw the guy next to me was standing there chuckling whilst watching the first video of the exhibition, I had to see what was so damn funny for myself, and then I was sold on the rest of the videos.  The one that was causing all the laughter was from the 1950s, and showed a group of people in a laboratory receiving a shock from an electric eel.  The next one was a clip from the dishy Colin Clive version of Frankenstein of the scene where he’s bringing the creature to life.  Other videos included one of a 2.25 mile motorised walkway built in Paris in 1900 which showed adult Victorians behaving much like jerks of today, and hopping on and off and deliberately walking the wrong way on it, which was unexpected and delightful to see (and I thought motorised walkways were supposed to be the future (as in now)?  Why are they now all confined to airports and Tube stations?), and another of the electrically-lit cabaret scene of Weimar-era Berlin. But the video highlight had to be the Buster Keaton short about an electric house with a robot arm that grabbed books in the library, a bathtub that ran on a track (why?!), and escalator style stairs that of course went hilariously wrong and tipped everybody out the upstairs window into a conveniently placed swimming pool. (Here’s the full 22 minute film, if anyone’s interested…we were shown a heavily condensed version.) Maybe I was just relieved that there wasn’t a video of Topsy the elephant (ugh, though I will watch the Bob’s Burgers version.  Poor Tina), but these were all great.

There were also a few art installations, though one of them was closed for repairs. I did however, get to see the giant 3D frog projection, inspired by Galvani’s experiments with electricity, and it was pretty cool (frogs are one of my favourite animals, after toads. And bats. Frog and Toad forever!). (I wanted Marcus to try the spirit photography booth that I had so enjoyed on my last visit, but that was out of order too.  It wasn’t a great day for technology at the Wellcome Collection.)

The narrative of the exhibit took visitors from ancient times, when people knew that electricity existed, but didn’t really understand what it was, to Benjamin Franklin’s experiments with lightning in the 18th century, to the electrification of Britain and building the National Grid, onwards to the 1920s and ’30s and the concept of the electrified and automated house (as parodied in the aforementioned Buster Keaton film) that would make life much easier for the British housewife (there was even a women’s electrical board set up to show women how electricity could make cooking and cleaning easier, and they printed helpful tips on tea towels.  I’d quite like to get my hands on one of those).  I thought there was a good amount of text, though the exhibit did seem at times to lack a comprehensive historical narrative, instead kind of skipping around to highlights of the electricity timeline (I believe each room was meant to be unified around a loose theme, but that was only apparent in some of the rooms).

Memorable artefacts included a display on how Bovril got its name (obviously “bo” from bovine, but I didn’t realise that “Vril” was taken from a creepy sounding Edward Bulwer-Lytton novel about a master race powered by a weird energy-fluid called Vril. This certainly doesn’t make Bovril any more appealing, nor did the early newspaper advertisement that showed cartoon cows being electrocuted to obtain their energy), an 18th century “thunder house” and “thunder ship” that were used to demonstrate the power of electricity, and a drawing of an electric plant done by a young engineer named Sebastian Ferranti, in which he had doodled happy smiling faces on all the machinery.

All in all, I think I enjoyed this more than Bedlam, but less than Forensics. Although it was still somewhat lacking, it had a better narrative than Bedlam, and I picked up enough intriguing facts (especially the one about Bovril) to impress friends with later that day.  I think the gallery housing the exhibition was decorated rather sparsely this time, and I suppose that does keep the focus on the artefacts, but I definitely think they could have done something cooler using the theme of electricity, perhaps something like the entrance to the exhibit, pictured at the start of the post.  It was still pretty alright though, even without more interesting decor or the medical focus I was anticipating.  3.5/5.