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London: “Red Star over Russia” @ Tate Modern

Though I feel like I’ve gone to an excessive amount of Soviet exhibitions over the past year (so many that people are going to start thinking I’m a communist, which is not the case at all), looking back at it, it seems like I actually only went to two: the Russian Revolution at the BL, and “Imagine Moscow” at the Design Museum.  And in my defense, 2017 was the centenary of the Russian Revolution, which is why there’s been so many Russian themed exhibitions in the first place. So now I feel less guilty telling you that I also went to see “Red Star over Russia” at the Tate Modern a couple of weeks ago (it closes 18 February, so hurry up if you want to see it!).

  

I know I just said in my last post I probably go to the NHM less often than any other major London museum, but I totally forgot about the Tate(s). I go to the Tate(s) way less than even the NHM, because modern art and British art are not my favourites. It has to have been at least 5 or 6 years since I last set foot in the Tate Modern, and I was kind of surprised by how grubby it all seems now. The giant carpet at the entrance (the one that slopes down, with the massive ball overhead) was absolutely filthy, and I couldn’t believe how many people were laying down on it. Could they not see the bits of dog poo from people’s shoes, and residue from other people’s lunches? Blech! Even the main galleries of the museum proper just seemed kind of dirty, like all the walls could use a good wash.
  
We made our way to the ticket desk, and paid £5.65 each for entrance to “Red Star over Russia” (National Art Pass holders receive 50% off; it’s normally £11.30). When we asked the guy at the desk where it was, he told us on the third floor, which was super unhelpful, because it turns out it was actually on the second floor of the other building (the Tate Modern is now in both the Boiler House and the Blavatnik Building, which only opened a year and a half ago, so this was my first time seeing it).  We went up to the third floor, realised the exhibition was in the other building, and then had to go all the way back down to the first to find the bridge that connected the buildings, and then back up to the second once we’d crossed over, which was slightly worrying because he issued us with 1pm tickets when we arrived at about 1:20, and the tickets said they were only valid for half an hour after the stated time, so we felt the need to rush (I mean, it wasn’t all that busy, and I’m sure they would have let us in regardless if we explained, but it was slightly more stressful than it needed to be).
   
Having found the exhibition, I was pleasantly surprised to see firstly, that it wasn’t all that crowded, secondly, that this new building was much nicer inside than the Boiler House, and thirdly, that we were allowed to take photos, as many art museums don’t seem to allow it in temporary exhibitions (probably due to copyright issues). “Red Star over Russia” was divided into six rooms, each with a different theme, but most of the pieces on display came from the collection of David King, a graphic designer who eventually collected over 250,000 pieces of Soviet art, which have served as the basis for this and other exhibitions at the Tate Modern.
  
The first room “Art onto the Streets!” was one of the most visually appealing, with a graphic display of posters that splashed over the (appropriately) red walls. My only complaint in here is that I would have liked a lot more text. There was a paragraph or two on the wall explaining the theme of the room, but the only information provided for the posters was their title and artist, which doesn’t do a lot for me (and is the reason I normally avoid exhibitions at art museums. I like more context than they tend to provide).
  
The second room, entitled “The Future is our only Goal” was also very bold visually, with some fantastic posters of Stalin and Lenin, and a book with a fold-out image of a parachutist that I thought was really cool. The focus here was on mass-produced images, and as such there was a series of prints designed by El Lissitzky, as well as a number of magazine covers. There was also a video off in a side room showing clips of Trotsky and how he gradually disappeared from the Communist Party, which I found interesting more for what people at the time were wearing than for Trotsky himself.
  
“Fifty Years of History” was probably my favourite room. In fact, if it hadn’t been for this room, I probably would have felt cheated, signage-wise, but here, finally, were loads of detailed captions, along with a lot of great images from the time of Tsar Nicholas II up until the 1950s. I was most fascinated by the photograph of the outside of a gulag, because it looked so damn unexpectedly cheery – I suppose as a way of hiding the horrors that went on inside, and the contrast was incredibly jarring – presumably especially so for the people who were held inside.
  
“1937, a View from Paris” was about the International Exposition in Paris in 1937, for which the Soviets designed a massive pavilion topped with a stainless steel sculpture imaginatively called “Worker and Collective Farm Woman.” The drab name does nothing for this rather splendid art deco sculpture that was represented here by a wall-sized painting. I’m not a fan of Frank Lloyd Wright, but I know he’s a big name in architecture circles, and he said that the Soviets deserved to win all the prizes for architectural innovation for their pavilion, so I guess that’s impressive? Also interestingly, the Soviet pavilion was positioned opposite the Nazi one, which must have led to some awkwardness. (I found this post that has pictures of both pavilions: the Nazi pavilion was deliberately more imposing, but the Soviet one is much nicer to look at, not least because it’s not bedecked in swastikas, though I suppose a hammer and sickle isn’t exactly the most welcoming symbol either.)
  
The room on “Ordinary Citizens” was undeniably the most moving, dominated as it was by images of people purged by Stalin, accompanied by a book that told us more about their “crimes” (typically nothing more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time). I was especially drawn to the photo of a lovely young woman with haunting eyes named Tamara Litsinskaya, who was a 27 year old student killed for basically nothing, as far as I could tell (apparently I’m not the only person who found her photo compelling, as David King himself used her image on the cover of his book about people killed in Stalin’s Great Purge). There was also a series of photos showing the way that people were erased from images when they fell out of favour with Stalin (typically, a photo would have a whole crowd of people in it, then be gradually reduced until it was pretty much just a photo of Stalin; see example above). This room really drove home the horrors of Stalin’s regime, and I’m glad it was here to balance out all the lovely art.
  
The final room, called “The War and the Thaw” was about WWII and the post-war era, after Stalin’s death. There were again a lot of bold images in this room, like “Fascism – the Most Evil Enemy of Women” (there were two copies here to show how the image had been modified when the war moved into Azerbaijan to make the woman look more Azerbaijani). There was also a rather intriguing image of a soldier apparently making out with a peasant (exchanging a kiss was actually a sign of respect amongst Slavic peoples, so it sadly wasn’t an early celebration of gay culture).
  
Although I do wish there could have been more text in places to explain what I was looking at, there was at least a blurb on the wall of each room, and typically more information accompanying at least a few of the pieces (and quite a lot of text in the third, fourth, and fifth rooms). I enjoyed it more than I thought I would have (I know I like Soviet art, but exhibitions in art museums are often hit and miss, as I’ve said), though I’m still glad I only paid half price. Definitely worth a fiver and a bit, not so much 11 quid!
  
We went up to the tenth floor of the Blavatnik Building before we left, as I had never been, and I snapped a few photos, but it was pretty cold, and the Thames was all grey and blah looking, so we didn’t stay out long (the rumours are true, and you can totally see into the windows of all the flats nearby, but to be honest, most of them looked like show flats with no one living in them, or else rich people live much more uncluttered lives than I do!). Also kind of disappointed that I didn’t get to try the swings downstairs (shown near the start of the post), but people kept hogging them and in the end I just wanted to get home before rush hour, so I gave up. 3.5/5 for “Red Star over Russia” though!
Oh, and I have an update on something! Remember that derpy chipmunk painting I wrote about in the Franklin Park Conservatory post last month? Well, I’m happy to report that it has found a good home! Marcus contacted the artist, and when he found out it was still for sale, he ordered it. He just gave it to me for Valentine’s Day, so I am now the proud owner of “Chipmunk with Strawberry”!
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Cleveland, OH: “The Jazz Age” @ the Cleveland Museum of Art

Yes, I’m still on Ohio posts, but this is the last one, for now (though I am getting so tired of London that I’m very seriously debating moving back to the US in the next year or two (yes, even with stupid awful Trump there, sigh), and editing this post made me homesick). I love the Cleveland Museum of Art, and I love 1920s fashion, so I knew I had to make sure to see this exhibition whilst I was back home. “The Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s,” ran from September 30, 2017 – January 14, 2018 – I visited Cleveland in the fall, and it started right around the time I left, so I’m glad I was able to catch it this time around before it finished, especially because it was so popular that tickets were selling out most days.

  

I actually contemplated booking advance tickets, but they charged a booking fee, and when I looked at the website, it looked like all the time slots for the remainder of the day were still available, so we risked it. And the gamble paid off, probably because it was midday on a weekday before most people had started their Christmas vacation.  Admission was a hefty $15 (which is why I didn’t want to pay a booking fee on top of it) and parking was another $10, though that was because we couldn’t be bothered to drive around looking for a spot, and just used the museum lot (there’s often metred parking around University Circle, which is just a couple of bucks). Although I hadn’t been to a special exhibition at the CMA in years, I remember always really enjoying them when I was younger, so my hopes were high.

  

And fortunately, I wasn’t disappointed this time around either. The exhibition was held in the basement galleries of the museum, which I don’t think I had even seen since their major remodel, and they’re actually really nice.  And big!  I lost track of how many rooms we walked through. And it wasn’t just clothing – there was furniture, art, textiles, jewellery – even household objects like perfume bottles and cocktail shakers – really, anything that encapsulated the style of the period was here. (The bowl above was commissioned by Eleanor Roosevelt for FDR’s gubernatorial inauguration. And how gorgeous is that dress?! I love the goat chandelier too!)

  

I liked that we were allowed to take photographs, and that the exhibition wasn’t at all crowded by London standards (though maybe by Cleveland ones, because I really hate crowds, but people there seem to get even more fed up with a crowd than I do). It was busy to be sure, but the exhibition space was large enough that we could spread out and I didn’t have to queue to read anything, which is always a plus, because there was a decent amount to read in here (I do wish that some of the clothing had more information, but the descriptions of the furniture and art were pretty detailed).

  

This is one of those exhibitions where I want to show you all the things, because they were all so damn fabulous and displayed so beautifully. They had a lot of pieces by the Rose Iron Works, which was based in Cleveland, including this “Muse with Violin” screen. They were all on loan from the Rose Iron Works collections, which makes me wonder if there’s a secret room full of these pieces somewhere that I could go and look at.

  

I love skyscrapers built in the 1920s and ’30s (the Terminal Tower is my favourite skyscraper ever, although it is admittedly Beaux-Arts rather than art deco), so I loved the skyscraper motif on many of the pieces, like that mural and the skyscraper book desk (the desk is pretty ugly, I will concede, but I would still have it on account of how many books I could cram in that thing).

  

Another motif was methods of transport, because people were fascinated by all the new technologies. I’m not a big car or plane person, but I would absolutely carry either of those adorable purses, and oh my god, that Zeppelin cocktail set is amazing. There was also a chair with a WWI plane embroidered in the back (you can glimpse it just to the left of the yellow dress in the photo above the third paragraph).

  

There were of course a lot of cocktail sets disguised as things, like the owl shaker, above, and even more interestingly, there was a perfume set made to look like a bar set (above right), where you could mix the scents just like a cocktail to produce your own perfume (I don’t even wear perfume (or drink cocktails more than a couple of times a year, for that matter), but I kind of want this).

  

To be honest, the jewellery, whilst gorgeous, was less interesting to me than many of the other objects, and was certainly difficult to photograph (shiny + behind glass is not a great combo), so I hope you enjoy this selection of fans and cigarette holders instead (I especially love the fan with the stars and moon on it, which is of course the hardest one to see, because it’s shiny).

  

A lot of the furniture was admittedly not really to my taste (ugh, avocado green!), but it was still neat to look at, even if I wouldn’t want it in my house (I wanted pretty much everything else though (as you can probably tell). Especially that bathing suit).

 

This quilt represented the quilter’s hope of how Hoover was going to end the Depression (sorry to burst your bubble lady, but it ain’t gonna happen), with people of many different professions all looking towards Uncle Sam, who strolls in at last in the bottom right square with a big barrel of “Legal Beer.” (“Beer. Now there’s a temporary solution.”)

   

I want to keep showing you things, but we’ll be here all day, so suffice it to say it was a wonderful exhibition, with a good amount of explanation about the trends and themes of the era, and obviously fantastic objects on display, though I’ll downgrade it a teeny bit because it was so expensive, and I wanted to see more clothes! 4/5. I also REALLY wanted to buy that hat in the gift shop at the end, but it was like $95, so I had to let it go. I think it suited me though (since first writing this post, I have given into temptation and purchased an elaborately beaded flapper dress for myself (seriously, it must weigh at least ten pounds) that I will probably never be brave enough to wear anywhere. I need to start going to fancier places I guess, and then I could justify buying the hat too).

  

There was also a free temporary exhibition of Depression-era photography in a gallery upstairs which we stopped to see (I love old photos), and it was a good counterpart to the excesses of the Jazz Age exhibition, since it more accurately represented what most people’s lives were like towards the end of that era. We were meeting friends nearby later that evening, and had originally planned on going back home for a few hours in between, but then I discovered the new interactive gallery at the art museum (I think it had been there on my last visit, but it was busier then so I didn’t get to try anything out). Well, there went those plans, because we ended up spending almost two hours in there, which worked out well because it meant by the time we grabbed dinner, it was time to meet my friends, and we saved ourselves a drive home and back again.

  

They had a bunch of different stations which all seemed to have slightly different games on them, and because there were only a handful of other people there, we were able to try them all. They had computers that scanned your face to track your reaction to different works of art, and others that followed your eyes to see how you looked at a piece of art, which you could compare to how other visitors looked at the same piece.

  

There were also games where you had to decide what various objects in a painting were meant to represent, and an activity where you got to mash up your face with a painting (by the way, I’m super jealous of people in America who can use that face match thing in the Google Arts and Culture app, and I’m really annoyed that it’s not in the UK). As you can probably tell from the above photos though, the most fun game of all was Match a Pose, which is just what it sounds (and looks like), with points given for how accurately you matched the painting. This was pretty much the best thing ever, and I spent way, way too much time doing this, but all the games were great. Go at a quiet time and play them all, you won’t be disappointed!  I love the Cleveland Museum of Art anyway (as I said at the start), and by adding so much interactivity to an art museum, they’ve made the experience practically perfect (if they lowered the price of parking, it would be very close to perfection indeed).

 

 

Stockport, Greater Manchester: Hat Works

How could I not visit the “UK’s only museum dedicated to the hatting industry, hats, and headwear”?! So after leaving Manchester, we headed straight for Stockport to see Hat Works (passing a McVitie’s factory en route, though I sadly couldn’t find evidence of a factory shop. I was hoping to obtain a sack of defective caramel digestives that had been rejected due to having too much caramel or something). Apparently there is parking right around the corner from Hat Works, which we noticed belatedly after parking in a garage halfway across town. But no harm done, we needed the exercise anyway (including the hike up a giant set of steps, because Stockport is hilly) after eating grilled cheese for breakfast for the second day in a row.

  

I’m a bit confused as to what Hat Works’ official admission policy is, because the website states that admission is £5, but the woman at the desk didn’t charge us anything. They do offer guided tours, so perhaps the admission fee only applies to those? Anyway, I’d just assume you have to pay the fiver, and then you’ll be pleasantly surprised like we were if you don’t. We had to drive back to London before rush hour, so we did not have time for a 90 minute tour, and opted to just wander by ourselves instead. The museum is spread out over two levels (both located below the floor that you enter on), and is much bigger than I was expecting based on some of the reviews.

  

The exhibition level is where all the hats are, and it was a delightful array of headgear indeed (though seriously, why would a clown have a hat with a skeleton inside? Clowns are creeps). The lighting was pretty dim for conservation reasons, but as promised, our eyes did eventually adjust, so it was easier to see all the splendid hats, which even included some worn by celebrities (if you consider Fred Dibnah and Ainsley Harriott celebrities, that is (in fairness, they did have one of Judi Dench’s hats too, I’m just not a big Judi Dench fan.)). I quite liked the ones shaped like things, like cauliflowers and cakes, though I’m not sure how they’d look on.

  

Happily, I did get to see how I would look in a variety of other hats, because they had an amazing hat dress-up corner. I confess that a large factor in my deciding to visit the museum was my love for trying on hats, since I figured they’d have to have at least a couple out for that purpose. It was way more than a couple – there was a whole shelved wall full of hats, probably thirty different ones! I’m sure they were intended for children, but we were the only people visiting the museum, and frankly, some of the hats were on shelves that a child would have struggled to reach (even I struggled with the topmost ones), so I think they really wanted me to be able to take full advantage. Best hat corner ever!

  

I also really enjoyed the displays curated by various staff members at their partner museums, and I loved the one guest curator’s idea of having a “hats and cats” museum instead (the sample stuffed cat wearing a hat was pretty great, though I strongly suspect real cats would be not so enthused about hats). All the vintage hat ads were cool too, and may have inspired me to start wearing the cloche I acquired a few years back, but have never worn out of the house because I fear unruly youths will mock me and snatch it off my head.

  

The floor underneath the hatstravaganza contained old hat factory machinery (the building is housed in an old factory, though I wasn’t real clear on whether it was actually a hat factory. I think it may have just been a cotton mill). This is where the guided tour would have paid off, because tour groups are allowed access into a couple special areas that we weren’t, and got way more information about the machinery than what was provided on the signs (judging by the group that was going through while we were there), but to be honest, my interest in hat manufacturing is nowhere near as great as my interest in looking at and trying on unusual hats, so I was content with just reading the signage.

  

There was also a mock-up of an old hatter’s cottage, which was pretty depressing, and perhaps authentically cold, as well as some information about the history of hat makers (not enough info about them going mad from mercury poisoning, but there was a bit). Basically, like everyone else who was working class in Victorian Britain, they had grim lives, with the added benefit of potential insanity, and male hatters were incredibly resentful of female hatters because they drove wages down. By this point it was already cutting it close for us getting back home at a reasonable hour, so I didn’t spend as much time in here as I probably should have, but the hat exhibition floor was definitely my preferred floor anyway, and I had ample time to look at that.

  

The gift shop sells, as you might expect, a variety of hats for men and women, though I declined to purchase one on this occasion, since I already own that cloche that I’m not wearing. I did get a postcard of what was allegedly the Duke of Wellington’s hat from Waterloo (the big feathery thing) which is also on display inside the museum (see below). I was pleasantly surprised that the museum was so much larger and hattier than I was expecting, and even if I had to pay £5, I would have been quite content with what I got to see in return, because it really was an excellent hat museum (as well it might be, if it’s the only one in Britain). 4/5 for the Hat Works, and it’s not the only museum in Stockport – I might have to go back some day to tour the old air raid shelter (and investigate the biscuit factory further – I want those defective extra caramelly digestives that may or may not exist)!

  

Manchester: John Rylands Library + General Manchesteriness

I want you to think those are the creepy kind of adult twins who still dress identically, but really it’s one woman accidentally transformed through the  “magic” of Photoshop.

The John Rylands Library was recommended to me on the strength of its historic toilets, which is a pretty good way to get my attention. It is an excellent-looking building (and I don’t have a decent looking picture of the front of it both because of how it is situated on the street, and because it was sleeting and incredibly windy, so we did hurry inside), so interesting toilets were just the icing on the cake. The library is free to visit (and to join, though it’s a reference library, so you have to do all your reading there), and is so much more chill than your typical archives or reference library. We merrily wandered in with our bags, and no one approached us at any time to yell at us for touching things or just breathing the wrong way (which is what it sometimes seems happens at the National Archives).

  

The interior of the old building is very Gothic, as you can probably see (it also has a modern extension, which is where you enter). It was founded by the uniquely named Enriqueta Rylands, widow of John, in her husband’s memory (she was 42 years younger than him, so spent quite a long time in widowhood). It was designed in 1889, and construction was finished in 1900. It is now part of the University of Manchester, serving as its official library, and even though I actually think the Maughan Library at KCL was the best damn part of that school (which isn’t saying much, because I hated it there, but the library is admittedly awesome), I think John Rylands may well have it beat (because of the historic toilets, though that said, the Wetherspoons across the street from Maughan Library has fantastic toilets too).

 

John Rylands has a couple of exhibition spaces, and one of them was hosting an exhibition on the Reformation which I have to admit I didn’t find terribly interesting, so I didn’t spend much time there. The other exhibition showcasing some of the highlights of the collection was much cooler, especially the medical stuff, including a pair of forceps invented by a Manchester physician (the Chamberlen family of London are credited with inventing the first forceps, but like jerks, they kept the invention to themselves, causing thousands of women to needlessly die until their secret was revealed. So other physicians had to independently come up with the concept of forceps, made to their own different designs), and some drawings he made of a deformed pelvis (the mother eventually died in childbirth as a result, though not until after her seventh baby). They also have the world’s oldest surviving fragment of the New Testament, dating to the 2nd or 3rd century (CE, obviously), for which fragment is an apt term, but it’s still cool to see something that old.

  

The historic reading room was also pretty rad. There were people actually using the space to work in, but there were also a bunch of signs down the middle of the room talking about the history of the building, and an opportunity to put on a silly hat and take photos. My favourite thing was the automaton outside the reading room of Enriqueta Rylands taking tea with a dragon.

  

And I’m not gonna lie, the historic toilets were pretty great too (they also have modern ones, for people who don’t like to pee in historic surroundings). They have these giant wooden seats, and the old fashioned pull chains, which I just love. I always feel like I’m really accomplishing something when I yank down one of those chains. They were a bit draughty, but that was part of the charm.  The library gets an enthusiastic 4/5 from me, not least because of the loos.

Because there isn’t a lot else to say about the library, this gives me a chance to talk about some of the other, non-museum stuff we did in Manchester (and also gives me an excuse to show you what I think is a rather hilarious photo collage of me eating a brownie sundae at Ginger’s Comfort Emporium). Manchester is fairly well known for its Christmas markets, which are scattered throughout the city, and I do enjoy a Christmas market when I’m in the right sort of mood, so I was keen to check them out.

  

The main, central market was only a couple of blocks from our hotel, so we ended up stopping by three or four times (creepy Santa made it even better). The first time was around 10 am on a Monday, right when the market opened for the day, which was great because there were no crowds at all. I decided a giant stroopwafel and a grilled cheese would be a perfectly acceptable breakfast, and enjoyed the grilled cheese so much that I came back for another the next morning before we left.

  

I also couldn’t resist trying a hot Vimto, which seems to be a local (or at least a Northern) specialty, along with something called “Hot Blobs,” which I wasn’t brave enough to sample (it’s apparently hot white wine with sugar and lemon). The hot Vimto was surprisingly tasty though, kind of like hot Slushpuppie syrup, and I did not reclaim the deposit on my souvenir mug, because that Santa-adorned beauty was going straight home with me.  Avoid the “hot” cinnamon rolls though: when we bought them they were freezing cold, and at least a day or two old. I still ate them, because cinnamon rolls, but I wouldn’t have wasted money on them if I’d known.

  

Manchester is also where Alan Turing lived and worked after the war, and was sadly where he was arrested in 1952 for “gross indecency” (which was simply having consensual sex with another man, because homosexuality was still illegal at the time). This set in motion the chain of events that would lead to him committing suicide just two years later. He has since been formally pardoned (fat lot of good that does him now), and Manchester has tried to make amends by commemorating Turing on a number of buildings, and with this excellent statue on a bench in Sackville Gardens, right in Manchester’s gay village. A passing lady was nice enough to take a picture for us, and we also grabbed a picture of this nearby mural, which features an…interesting interpretation of Turing.

  

The last thing I need to tell you about is this “memorial to Vimto” which is very probably my favourite thing in Manchester. Vimto doesn’t seem to be big in Southern England, but I’d actually been drinking it before I moved here because it is apparently very popular in the Middle East, and I used to buy it from the hummus stall in the West Side Market (yes, they have a hummus stall AND a falafel stall. Is it any wonder I love that place?). Despite hating blackcurrant, I actually quite like a Vimto on occasion (though it will never replace orange or cherry soda in my affections) – I reckon the raspberry helps to hide the ickiness of the blackcurrant – so I was pretty excited to see this statue, and it doesn’t disappoint. Just look at all those giant fruits! The other statue is of a constipated-looking Archimedes who we found right near Vimto for no apparent reason.  Manchester is a pretty rad city, and I’d definitely like to go back someday, though preferably during less awful weather (if that’s ever actually the case…I kind of suspect the weather is awful year-round, but I’d go back anyway).

 

Manchester: The People’s History Museum

Manchester wasn’t only at the forefront of the movement for women’s suffrage; it was also a hotbed for labour movements due to its position as “Cottonopolis,” home to the milling industry, and thus one of the birthplaces of the Industrial Revolution, along with all the abuses of workers’ rights that went along with it. Manchester still seems like a pretty progressive place (a bee is the symbol of the city because it represents industriousness and working towards the collective good,) and it is home to the People’s History Museum, which is about “Britain’s struggle for democracy over two centuries.”

  

The museum is located inside a former pump house that was fully restored in 2010, complete with a modern four story addition that looks out over the river Irwell. The permanent galleries are located on the first and second floors, and there’s a gallery for temporary displays on the ground floor. Even though it was only a ten minute walk away from our hotel, by the time we reached the museum, I was so grateful to get out of the sleet and wind (flagpoles were actually bending) that I probably would have paid whatever they were asking, but happily, admission is free, though donations are encouraged.

  

We began our journey through the museum by punching into an old-fashioned time clock, just like mill workers would have done (and me, for most of my working life, having only had salaried jobs in the past year or so), and entered the gallery on people’s history from the late 1700s until 1945. The opening section was all about the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, where 15 people were killed and hundreds injured when cavalry charged the crowd during a protest for voting reform. It then segued into famous Georgian supporters of reform, like Thomas Paine (they had his desk, and a lock of his hair!) and John Wilkes, who was apparently notoriously ugly (he was cross-eyed in the portrait they had of him).

  

There were actually a fair few interactive elements, like doors and bundles you could open that sometimes produced sound effects, and some opportunities for dressing-up (as you’ll see), which I was grateful for, because I have to admit that I have never been the biggest fan of labour history. I mean, sure, I appreciate the fact that people fought and died for the rights we enjoy today, but whenever I had to study it in school, it just seemed like an endless list of names, dates, and worst of all, obscure acronyms, which is exactly the kind of history I hate. As a former punk, I actually feel kind of guilty about this, but I’m primarily interested in how people lived (and died! Especially how they died, if I’m being honest), and I don’t want to just memorise lists or numbers (for someone with two history degrees, I’m actually pretty bad with dates). So I was glad the museum tried to dress up labour history a bit, but there were still sure a lot of names and dates and strikes that I’d never heard of.

  

But it wasn’t all labour history at the museum, fortunately. There was also information about political and social movements (though I’m admittedly not overly interested in those either), like the suffragettes; the socialist movement, the communist movement, and the effect WWI had on society. There was also a small section on British fascism, and I was struck by how stupid their leader, Oswald Mosley looked. The guy wore black turtlenecks and waist belts, like he was trying to look like he came from the future or something. Even without the appalling beliefs, how could anyone follow an idiot like that?  Now I really see what P.G. Wodehouse was getting at with Roderick Spode and his “Black Shorts”.

  

And there were some fantastic posters and political cartoons in here (and even more cartoons in the temporary display, as you’ll see later).  I don’t think Churchill would have particularly agreed with being “comrades in arms” with Stalin though…

  

I especially enjoyed the section relating to the formation of the Labour Party, mainly because it contained this amusing cartoon of a young flapper being wooed by the hip Ramsay MacDonald (with his superb moustache) who was apparently down with the kids, while David Lloyd George and Stanley Baldwin lurk awkwardly in the background, looking like old fuddy-duddies (or the Monopoly man). There was also, rather randomly, Clement Attlee’s pipe on its own special wall, which I thought was kind of hilarious.

  

The gallery upstairs covered the years from 1945-the present(ish, it seemed to stop around the 1980s or ’90s), and contained a lot of splendid stuff too, though I do find late 20th century labour history even more boring than early 20th century labour history (I guess because the changes were less dramatic?). I liked the puppets, and you could actually move around Thatcher and whoever the guy next to her was meant to be (Marcus thinks it’s Neil Kinnock, but I have no idea), but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t figure out how to open and close their mouths, much to my dismay (it’s hard to put on a puppet show if you can’t make the puppets talk).

  

This gallery also contained some of the museum’s collection of political banners, which they restore on site (you could peer in on the conservators hard at work in their glass-walled office, which made me feel really bad for them. It’s bad enough my office is on the way to the public toilets and I have to keep my door open, so I often have museum visitors gawping at me or sometimes randomly stopping to chat with me even though I try to give the impression of being hard at work, but I couldn’t deal with people staring at me all day every day). At the end, there was a re-creation of an early Co-op supermarket, and a room with a free-play jukebox so you could listen to protest songs (and a few greatest hits) from the last few decades.

   

And then there was the temporary exhibit, which was my absolute favourite part of the museum. It was called “Savage Ink,” which I initially hoped was about tattoos, until I found out it was actually about political cartoons, which was probably even better. I love political cartoons, when done well, and there were some real gems in here. I actually tend to prefer British cartoonists (Peter Brookes is my favourite); I think they capture the absurdity of Trump better than many American cartoonists, and this was no exception – the two delightful pieces featured below are both by British artists.

  

The “shart” in the one on the left makes me lose it every time. There were also older cartoons, including pieces by Gillray, Hogarth, the Cruikshanks (Isaac and George), et al, and cartoons from throughout the 20th century, though I have to admit that I was more familiar with the figures depicted in Georgian cartoons than I was with ones in British political cartoons from the 1980s (which is why I didn’t know who the other puppet was meant to be).

  

They also offered visitors to chance to contribute to a collaborative comic strip, and though I declined to take part due to my total lack of drawing ability, I did enjoy looking at the efforts of previous visitors.

  

The final section of the museum, located in what I imagined was a restored part of the pump house, due to the large industrial looking space with impressively high ceilings, contained photographs of ordinary people in Manchester in the 1950s, some of their identities presumably unknown, since there was a request to get in touch with the museum if you recognised any of the people in the photos.

 

I was kind of excited for the shop, hoping it would be rather like the one at the Tolpuddle Martyrs Museum, with lots of political t-shirts and badges and things (since I’d noticed a Tolpuddle Martyrs tea towel on the way in), but it was a little disappointing. I didn’t see a single t-shirt, and the only badges were ones with the name of the museum on them (which you can make yourself on the badge-making machine in the upstairs gallery, for a £1 fee). We did manage to get a couple of good postcards, and I noticed some nice greetings cards too, but it wasn’t quite what I’d been hoping for. Still, I found the museum enjoyable for the most part, particularly “Savage Ink,” but I have to admit that some of the material inside the permanent galleries was a little boring for my tastes, mainly because some of the displays seemed to assume a level of knowledge that I didn’t possess, due to not being particularly interested in this facet of British history (and not growing up in this country, when I would presumably have been forced to cover some of this material at school). I did appreciate their attempts to make the museum fun and interactive (the inclusion of so many cartoons meant that I learned something just from looking at those, even when I skipped the museum’s signage) – the artefacts on display were generally excellent – and it’s not their fault that my eyes glaze over when I try to read about labour movements. 3.5/5 for the museum.

Manchester: Manchester Museum: A Visit Interrupted

Truth be told, I wasn’t all that enthused about visiting the Manchester Museum. From the name, I initially assumed it was a local history museum, and was amenable enough, but then Marcus told me that actually, it was a natural history and ethnographic museum, and I became much less keen. Nothing against ethnography or natural history (my love of taxidermy is well known), but I could see that stuff anywhere, and Manchester had so many unique and interesting sounding museums that it seemed a shame to waste time on this one. But after leaving the Pankhurst Centre, we found ourselves with an hour to kill before we could check into our hotel (and put our car in the lot), so we needed to go somewhere with parking to kill time, which pretty much ruled out anywhere in the city centre. Since Manchester Museum is on the university campus, there was a parking garage right around the corner, and the museum was free, so that sold us.

  

The Manchester Museum was bigger than I expected, and our visit time was going to be limited no matter what, because we were due to meet friends later that afternoon, but it turns out that it was more limited than even I expected (as the title gives away), so this will by necessity be a partial review (but I still wanted to blog about it, because Marcus took lots of photos).  We opted to start with the permanent galleries rather than the temporary exhibitions, so headed upstairs to see the ethnographic collections. I loved their sign about the statue of Ganesha, because it explained that he is holding a bowl of his favourite sweets, which made me feel a real affinity with him.  In addition to religious artefacts from various world cultures, there was also a small section on weaponry, particularly archery equipment, in the back of the gallery.

  

And there was also an ancient Egypt section, which is pretty much de rigueur for this kind of museum. One thing I did like was that one of the sarcophagi was open over glass, so that you could see the mummy inside (the mummy had apparently been a victim of a Victorian unwrapping – the kind that was the inspiration for the performance I witnessed at the National Archives’ Halloween event).

  

But after muddling through all the uninspiring stuff, at last we got to natural history, and that’s where the museum started to shine. Because there was so damn much taxidermy, two whole floors of it, to be exact! And we all know that I love taxidermied animals way more than any vegetarian has a right to.

  

Though the animals, on a whole, seemed to be pretty well done (and nothing like the gems in the National Museum of Ireland), which, given my love for bad taxidermy, was admittedly something of a disappointment, I did of course manage to find a few derpy examples, which I present here for your enjoyment.

  

OK, the baby elephant was more adorable than derpy, but he was such a cutie that I had to include him (though I felt really bad that he was in there. I sincerely hope he died of natural causes). Other highlights included a couple of plaster casts from a man and dog who died in Pompeii, and the skull of “Old Billy,” an allegedly 62 year old horse. I mean, I don’t know exactly how long horses normally live, but I thought it was more in the 30 year range, so this seemed far-fetched, but it seems to be verified in various places, so maybe Old Billy was just an extremely ancient horse. Of course, he lived from 1760-1822, when it presumably would have been easier to run an old horse scam without anyone checking up on it, but he was just an old barge horse, so I’m not sure if anyone was actually exploiting his age for monetary gain or not.

  

The upper hall of taxidermy eventually led into the “Vivarium,” which holds the museum’s collections of living animals, primarily reptiles, amphibians, and insects. This area was pretty crowded with parents and children (it was a Sunday when we visited, and Manchester Museum seems like the go-to weekend place, probably because it’s free, and most kids like looking at animals), so it was hard to get a peek at most of the cases, but I did spot this excellently lazy lizard.

  

And sadly, that is where my experience of Manchester Museum comes to an end, because as I was about to pass from the Vivarium into the next gallery, a fire alarm started going off really, really loudly (as they do, I guess, but this really seemed close to a permanently damaging level of sound).   So we were all directed down the nearest staircase, where people got to the bottom and then just sort of milled around confusedly in front of the fire door, instead of, you know, going out it, so Marcus and I had to take the lead and push our way outside. In fairness to the people just standing about, the exit wasn’t particularly well marked, and there were more stairs leading into the basement from where we were, so it wasn’t completely obvious what we were supposed to do. Also, because we were in the first group down, there wasn’t a staff member by the door yet to direct people out.

  

After evacuating the building, we stood around the front for a while, but the alarms didn’t show any sign of letting up, and they really were hurting my ears, so we gave up and headed back to the car (it was nearly time to check into the hotel by then anyway). I’m pretty sure it was just a drill, because I didn’t hear anything more about it, so I assume the museum is still fully intact.  But as a result of the alarm, I missed the rest of the permanent galleries, and the temporary exhibitions, one featuring art by Reena Saini Kallat, and also one on memories of Partition, about the creation of India and Pakistan. So I guess I can’t fairly score this one, because I didn’t see the whole museum. I will say that the natural history section was enjoyable, and it’s certainly much bigger than other museums of this type, but it’s not really anything you couldn’t see in any other major city (except maybe Old Billy), there’s just more of it. Good for killing time, but not worth a special trip if your time in Manchester is limited, at least as far as the permanent collections go, though I can’t comment on the temporary stuff, since I didn’t see it.

Manchester: The Pankhurst Centre

It’d been a few years since Marcus and I had managed to go somewhere on our anniversary, so I thought it would be nice if we could swing a short break somewhere this year. I initially wanted to go somewhere picturesque, but then thought about the reality of England in late November: terrible weather + loads of places that close for the season, and decided it would be best to do a city break instead. Manchester seemed a likely candidate, since I’d never been, and in addition to Christmas markets (which I can often be Grinchy about, but I secretly enjoy them if they’re not too crowded), it also had a lot of museums that sounded really interesting. Inspired by Joy’s post, one of the museums I wanted to make sure to visit was the Pankhurst Centre, which I thought might be tricky due to their limited opening hours, but fortunately, they are open from 1-4 on the fourth Sunday of each month, which just happened to be when we’d arrive, so we were able to head straight there on our way into Manchester, and arrived just as they were opening.

Because the Pankhurst Centre is right next to a hospital, we were able to find parking in their car park and headed swiftly over to the museum in the midst of horrible windy sleety weather (that would plague us throughout our stay, but I’ve come to understand that that’s just what Manchester weather is like). We were the first people to arrive that day, so the woman working there gave us a nice little introduction to the house, and turned on the film for us in the middle room of the museum (the whole thing is only three rooms, but it is free). This was a 13 minute film about the suffragette movement, including an initially rather amusing anti-suffragette filmstrip from the 1910s about all the evils of the suffragette movement and the kinds of punishments that the husband of a suffragette thought they deserved.  However, it did get a lot less hilarious when the film moved on to the perils that befell the actual suffragette movement, including force-feeding, because of course the “punishments” in the amusing filmstrip weren’t so amusing when you consider that even worse punishments than the ones depicted in the propaganda filmstrip happened in real life (the ones in the anti-suffragette film were mostly about public shaming, rather than torture, because including the ways that suffragettes were actually treated might have generated public sympathy for them).

This room also contained a lot of signage about the history of women’s suffrage, and though it was pretty wordy, I stuck with it, because it was interesting stuff. I learned a lot about the Pankhurst family (maybe I’m just being dumb, but for some reason I always thought that Emmeline and Christabel were sisters, and Sylvia was Emmeline’s daughter. So it was nice to finally get the relationships straight – Emmeline was the mother, and Christabel, Sylvia, and the lesser known Adela were all her children, as well as two boys that died fairly young), and the history of the Women’s Social and Political Union, or WSPU (from putting together an audio tour of Wimbledon, I knew that we had a WSPU shop, and that during WWI, they decided to focus on the war effort and temporarily put suffrage on the back burner, but I didn’t know much else about it. Turns out that they sold all manner of amazing suffragette merchandise including a board game, these rad Christmas cards, and of course those “Votes for Women” sashes, plus other goods, like soap, to finance their activities).  There was a whole informational poster devoted just to Sylvia, and her typewriter was there too.

Emmeline and her family lived in the house in the early 1900s, and in 1903, the WSPU was founded here. The house was nearly demolished in 1979, but was fortunately saved by protests from women’s groups, and turned into a museum and women’s centre. The back room of the museum is the only one decorated to look as it would have when the Pankhursts lived here – this is meant to be the parlour where the WSPU began (though there was a women’s suffrage movement active in Manchester since 1867 (supported by Emmeline’s husband, Richard) and suffrage groups active nationwide, most groups were more concerned with getting the vote for working class men. It was the WSPU that turned the focus exclusively to women, and started using more radical tactics, such as destruction of property, arson, and hunger strikes).

I was so charmed by this suffragette doll when I saw her in Joy’s post that I had to be sure to grab a photo of her when I was there, and I can report that she is just as delightful in person. The parlour also contains a really neat suffragette handkerchief, and a sign explaining that they have traditionally been able to pay rent on the house using a suffragette sash, so there were a few handmade examples of those in here too.

Naturally, I was hoping there’d be a “Votes for Women” sash available for purchase, because I’d love to have one to wear around the house so I can occasionally break into a Mary Poppins-inspired “Votes for Women, Step in Time” song and dance routine (plus who wouldn’t want a sash? Sashes are great!), but though they had a range of “Votes for Women” merchandise, including aprons and tea towels, alas, there was no sash, so I settled for an enamel pin, which I look forward to wearing. This house, though small, was really nice and informative, and I’m so glad it’s here, both for its history as the birthplace of the WSPU, and the work it does for modern women by serving as a women’s centre. It’s only open for a few hours on Thursdays, and the second and fourth Sundays of each month, but I would definitely recommend stopping by if you can, because I learned a lot about the Pankhursts and the WSPU, and the museum is clearly run by lovely people. I hope they eventually have the resources to expand it a bit, and perhaps acquire more modern signage, but it’s still a delight as is. 3.5/5.

London: “Harry Potter: A History of Magic” @ the British Library

“A phoenix rising from the ashes in a 13th-century bestiary” (c) British Library

Sometimes I feel like I’m too negative. Not often, mind, because I’m generally quite comfortable with being a pessimistic glass-half-empty kind of individual, but for the purposes of this blog, I feel like people get sick of my opening every post with, “I’m not really a such-and-such fan, but I went to this exhibition anyway.” But much like the apocryphal George Washington, I cannot tell a lie, and I am truly not the biggest fan of Harry Potter. I liked the books just fine, but I only read the series through once, maybe twice (unlike books I love, which I will happily reread on a yearly basis), and I never had any interest in the films. Some of this could be because I was just a bit too old when the books came out in the US to have gotten REALLY into them (I was far more into reading terrible romance novels when I was 13, so my best friend and I could laugh ourselves stupid at the sex scenes), but some of it is also probably just being contrary after they turned out to be so popular, because of course I’m far too “strange and unusual” (to channel Lydia Deetz) to have been into something so mainstream. Because let’s face it – witchcraft and magic are exactly the kind of things I normally like.  All of this is a roundabout way of explaining why I went to see the new Harry Potter exhibition at the British Library, despite knowing it would be the most annoyingly crowded and nerdy thing ever. You see, the description of it implied that it would not be solely about Harry Potter, but also about the historical magical texts that inspired JK Rowling, and I am definitely keen on historical magical texts. Also, from a blog traffic perspective, I thought it would be something that enough people are interested in reading about that it might drive a few more visitors my way.  (Photography was not allowed inside the exhibition, so the object photos are not mine, and are credited accordingly.)

“The snowy owl, in John James Audubon’s The Birds of America 1827-38” (c) British Library Board

“Harry Potter: A History of Magic” runs until 28 February 2018, and costs £16, though I was able to get half-price entry thanks to my National Art Pass. Though I typically just turn up to BL exhibitions, in this case I thought it would be wise to pre-book, and I’m glad I did, because there was a sold out sign hanging up by the time we arrived. I deliberately booked a weekday slot, hoping it would be less crowded, but obviously, because it was sold out, I wasn’t that lucky. We arrived early, so after killing some time in the free new “Sounds” exhibition (where you can use headphones or sit in these cozy pods to listen to various recordings from the BL’s extensive collection (I was surprised by Amelia Earhart’s voice – for some reason I had pictured her as sounding like Katherine Hepburn, but she was much more earnest and less posh than that)) we headed over to the Harry Potter exhibition, which evidently sometimes even has queues to enter judging by the rope barriers we had to wind our way around, despite entry being only via timed slots. Once our tickets were scanned and we were inside though, it instantly became much more atmospherically magical.

Gilded Bezoar Stone (stones that grow inside the stomach of the bezoar goat, once thought to be an effective antidote to poison) (c) The Board of the Trustees of the Science Museum, London

The exhibition consists of a number of small rooms, each one themed around one of the subjects taught at Hogwarts. So there was Herbology, Potions, Divination, Astronomy, Care of Magical Creatures, and a few more that weren’t instantly recognisable to someone who hasn’t read the books in a decade or so (the guidebook tells me they’re Alchemy, Charms, and Defense Against the Dark Arts, which I probably should have known). Potions was the first room, but we were encouraged to walk around the exhibition in any order we liked, and seeing as Potions was insanely crowded, I headed off to the other rooms instead. I know I’ve said this before, but I am totally the kind of annoying museum visitor who refuses to queue – if there’s a wait to look at something, I will just peer into the gaps and strain to see over people’s shoulders. This was no exception, and I’m sure I pissed off a few of the ardent Potterphiles, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to spend hours waiting inside an exhibition I paid to see.

The Celestial Globe in the Astronomy Room (c) British Library Board

Each room actually did an excellent job of carrying the theme forward – the BL is usually pretty good at providing atmosphere, but this was exceptional. Each theme was introduced with a giant spellbook opened to the relevant page, and there were objects suspended from the ceilings of each room: flower pots in Herbology, cauldrons in Potions, and most delightfully, teacups in Divination. The Astronomy room contained a glowing star map on the ceiling, and a giant interactive celestial globe in the centre of the room, and there was a Snitch noisily flitting along the walls of another room (Charms, maybe?). There were also a number of interactive elements, including a Potions game that I didn’t get to play, and computerised crystal ball and Tarot card readings in the Divination room (can you tell Divination was my favourite?).

The Ripley Scroll (which contains imagery relating to the Philosopher’s Stone) (c) British Library Board

I would say there was actually a good mix of Potter-specific items, and generic witchy ones. There were portraits of various Hogwarts professors hanging on the walls and some of JK Rowling’s preliminary sketches for the books in the display cases. I also liked the pencil (charcoal?) sketches by Jim Kay because they were actually based off the books rather than the films (the films really didn’t get much mention here, which I appreciated). Additionally, there was a video showing a claymation model of Dobby being brought to life, which I actually found quite charming, because despite Dobby being hideously annoying in the films (I’ve seen bits and pieces when they were on TV, but have never sat and watched one through), I actually really liked him in the books, so I was glad someone was making him likeable again. And Care of Magical Creatures contained some great illustrations of various monsters and dragons and things described in the books.

“A mandrake being pulled out by a dog, in Giovanni Cadamosto, Herbal” (c) British Library Board

As far as specifically witchy artefacts went, there were quite a few awesome things in here. Gorgeously illustrated botany books lined the cases along the walls of the Herbology section (I particularly liked the ones showing the mandrake root, and the actual dried mandrake root on display as well, because I’ve often heard the legends about mandrakes looking like little men and screaming when you pull them out of the ground, but had never seen a real one), and Alchemy was dominated by a giant medieval scroll showing how to create a Philosopher’s Stone that would turn base metals into gold, and even grant immortality (of course some crucial steps were left out, so no one could come back and blame the author when their Philosopher’s Stone didn’t work). I thought the “Invisibility Cloak” on display was funny, if a bit cheeky, but the Divination section was by the far the best, as it included many items borrowed from the Witchcraft Museum in Boscastle (which I have visited, but sadly never blogged about, as it was during my pre-blogging years, and I took barely any photos. It’s excellent though!) – most notably an awesome fortune telling tea cup (it explained how to read the tea leaves left in the cup), Tarot cards, Chinese fortune telling bones, and “Smelly Nelly’s” crystal ball (so-called because she wore strong perfume, not because she had B.O., though perhaps she wore the perfume to cover up the B.O….I hope she doesn’t somehow put a curse on me for saying that) and just generally the kind of stuff I think is neat, even though I don’t quite believe in it.

“Small black crystal ball, used by Paignton witch ‘Smelly Nelly'” (c) Museum of Witchcraft, Boscastle

If only I’d be allowed to run riot in this exhibition by myself, I would have had the best time. As it was, my fun was severely hampered by the sheer number of fellow visitors, but I understood that it would be insanely busy coming into it, so I can’t say I wasn’t prepared (I was hopeful I’d be wrong, but I sensed I wouldn’t be). Other than the crowds, my main criticism is that although the exhibition did contain a good amount of historical witchy paraphernalia, it didn’t necessarily make the connection between Rowling’s books and said magical history. It was more, “here are some artefacts, here is some Potternalia,” with common themes between them, but no real connections drawn between the two. I don’t even know if Rowling personally consulted the texts that were on display, or if they were just examples of the sorts of things she might have studied whilst writing the books. Because the Harry Potter bit was the part of the exhibition that interested me least, I wasn’t that bothered by this, but it does make the exhibition description a little misleading, not that I think visitors will mind too terribly (most of them seemed to be in their “happy place,” which was really kind of sweet, albeit dorky (not that that’s a criticism, I’m plenty dorky myself, about other things)). I also hoped for more generically witchy things in the shop, but aside from a few pins and prints, it was pretty Potter-tastic, so I didn’t end up buying anything. Nevertheless, for atmosphere alone, and for the awesomeness of the things on display, even though the content was a bit lighter than other exhibitions at the BL (we were out of there in 45 minutes, even after backtracking to see things we’d missed on our first pass through due to queues, whereas I stayed in Maps and Terror and Wonder for a good hour and a half each), I think it deserves 4.5/5. Potterphiles (if that’s even the correct term – I can’t be bothered to look it up) will likely get more out of it than I did, what with all the original JK Rowling sketches and stuff, but even if, like me, you’re just into witches and fortune telling and stuff, I think it is still well worth seeing, and I’m glad I made the effort.

“A broomstick belonging to Olga Hunt” (c) Museum of Witchcraft, Boscastle

London: “Living with Gods”@ the British Museum

Anyone who reads this blog regularly will know that I am not religious in any way, shape, or form, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not interested in religion from a cultural perspective (I took a World Religions class as an undergrad and really enjoyed it, though that may have been because it was taught by the nicest professor ever. Seriously. I only ever took the one class with him, and he still sent me a graduation card, which is something that none of my other professors did, even the ones I knew really well). So I was definitely intrigued by the British Museum’s latest exhibition, “Living with gods: peoples, places, and worlds beyond” (lack of capitalisation theirs). When I realised I had somehow gone about three years since last visiting the British Museum (I think I just take it for granted because it’s free and always there, and also, I’m rarely in central London anymore, so I can’t just pop in like I used to), I figured I might as well go check out “Living with gods,” even though you have to pay to see it. Fortunately, now that I find myself in steady employment, I finally got around to renewing my National Art Pass, which means I get to see half-price exhibits at pretty much every London museum again!

I picked a Wednesday to visit (fortunately, I have at least two weekdays off every week, so I still have plenty of time to visit other museums and avoid the worst of the crowds), and was a bit perplexed at first when we weren’t allowed to just enter the museum, but were instead funneled through some weird shed for a more in-depth bag check than was usual. I at first assumed these were just some new security measures, given the rise in terrorist attacks, but thought it was rather a shame that the shed and gates were marring the front of the otherwise grand and imposing museum. However, once I got inside, I heard some people excitedly talking amongst themselves about the Queen being there, and all became clear when I got back home and checked Instagram, and saw that yes, the Queen had indeed been there that day opening a new gallery. So fortunately, I think the time-consuming increased security checks will probably not be a permanent feature.

Wooden figure of Subhadra from the Hindu pantheon. Image copyright held by the Trustees of the British Museum.

The exhibition costs £15, so boy, was I glad I had the National Art Pass!  I knew the main special exhibition at the museum was about the Scythians, but I was still dismayed when directed to the small gallery upstairs, on account of the high price. And I was indeed right to be disappointed, because the exhibition simply wasn’t very good. I was really excited by part of the description given of it on the Art Fund website:  “Rather than concentrating on the enormous variety of what is believed, the focus is on the similarities of practice and expression which recur across millennia. As such, the neurological and psychological aspects are considered, as well as the external manifestations of the mystical within different societies,” which to me seemed to imply that it would explore the psychology of belief, and why different cultures often developed similar belief systems that were formed independently of each other. Instead, it was pretty much just a collection of religious objects from different cultures, with barely any attempt made to tie them all together.  (Photographs were not allowed inside, so all the high-quality photos of objects in the exhibition are not my own, and credited accordingly.)

Lion dog. Image copyright held by the Trustees of the British Museum.

I suppose every room did have a “theme” of sorts, but these were just written on the cloth panels that made up the “walls” of the exhibit, and weren’t really reflected in the objects chosen for each section in any noticeable way, with similar types of objects being found in all of the rooms. That said, there was some cool stuff here, most notably “Lion Man,” who opened the exhibit. He is a 40,000 year old carving found in Germany of a half-lion, half-man creature (who is actually rather cute), and is thought to be the oldest representation of an animal that doesn’t exist in nature. I think they probably should have left him for last, because he really was the high point.

Mexican Dia de los Muertos devil. Image copyright held by the Trustees of the British Museum.

But not the only object I really liked, obviously. I’m including photos of some of my favourites, including derpy lion dog, and this wonderful devil used in Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico (I’m partial to Dia de los Muertos imagery anyway, and he was really fantastic). They also had a big old carved cart from India, used in Hindu celebrations (which is where the word “juggernaut” comes from, because a giant version of the cart was pulled through Jaggannath during their yearly chariot procession, which was misinterpreted by British observers (they thought that worshipers were deliberately throwing themselves in front of the cart as a sacrifice, when really the crowd was just out of control, and some people inevitably got trampled) and the word “Jaggannath” also got corrupted in translation). I learned also that “Hinduism” as a term was a product of imperialism, because Hindus didn’t necessarily see themselves as part of one religion but rather worshiped their choice of a pantheon of gods, and people living in different areas had completely different forms of worship, but the British lumped them all together for census purposes.

Happy godless cosmonaut poster (not its official name, just what I’ve chosen to call it). Image from https://sites.williams.edu/engl-209-fall16/essay-3/our-authority-over-the-bible/.

There were some hilarious angel carvings in here too, but of course, me being me, I was most drawn to the Soviet art that promoted atheism, especially the goofily grinning cosmonaut, above, who is proclaiming, “There is no God!” and a big mural showing all the secular customs that Soviets could adopt to replace religious ceremonies. I was also interested in the artefacts relating to the cult of Chairman Mao, including some weird mango badges, because apparently he gave away mangoes to people at some point, and they practically treated them as holy objects (probably because they were starving, on account of Mao being a real piece of shit). Really, this exhibit was more like a very disjointed collection of the weird and wonderful than any kind of cohesive display or commentary on human psychology or the anthropology of religion.  I also found the advertised “immersive sound and light effects” to be quite lame. There was simply normal dim lighting and a few sound effects that remained the same throughout the exhibit, rather than an actual immersive experience. The cheap looking cloth panels that served as walls didn’t really bring any atmosphere to the table either. If this was a free, or reasonably cheap exhibition, I would have been satisfied with simply looking at interesting objects, but for £15 (or even the £7.50 I paid) I expected lots more. This definitely did not live up to its promise, and it was also a real let-down that the shop attached to the exhibition wasn’t even selling happy godless cosmonaut posters (or anything with the cosmonaut, for that matter. Not even a postcard). The British Museum is always worth a visit, but save your money by skipping this exhibition and just seeing the free stuff, as there’s plenty of weird artefacts to look at in the permanent galleries!  2.5/5.

Canton, OH: The Pan-American Exposition @ the McKinley Museum

I blogged about the McKinley Museum about four and a half years ago, back when this blog was all shiny and new, and that post was based on a visit from 2011 (I was anxious to get a lot of posts up quickly when I started blogging, so I covered pretty much everything I’d visited in the relatively recent past). I’ve been to the McKinley Museum a few times since that post (and yet I still don’t have a better picture of the monument than the one I used in my initial post, as you may notice), because I think it’s actually pretty entertaining (see the vacuum chair, street of yesteryear, spinny thing, and interactive science displays from my original post), but this is the first time I’ve seen a temporary exhibition there that I thought made it worth blogging about again. So here we are.

  

Admission to the temporary exhibition (which runs until February 2018) is included with general museum admission, which is $10 (I think it was only $8 on my first visit, but things haven’t really gotten any better for museums in the intervening years, so I can’t begrudge them the extra $2 too much). I was visiting with my mom, and of course we walked around the rest of the museum as well, which was much as I remembered it. The upstairs part is still the history floor, with a timeline of Canton’s history, illustrated by many fun and interactive objects, and the picture of a young McKinley inside one of the displays gave me the chance to show my mother a young Rutherford B. Hayes, who unlike McKinley (who was sadly never attractive) was straight-up smoking hot until he got old and beardy (I also think he could have done better than ol’ Lemonade Lucy, who frankly seemed like kind of a dud). The street of yesteryear is still amazing (and I am still too damn scared to slide down that fireman’s pole), and of course, the McKinley room is still there, with animatronic William and Ida McKinley (they’re real blurry in that picture because they’re in motion). This time, there was actually a guide in the McKinley room as well, and he told us many fascinating things about the objects in the room, even going so far as to take my mom’s camera behind the velvet rope so he could take pictures of McKinley’s presidential desk from the front, which is the side the public doesn’t normally get to see (sadly, I forgot to get the photos from my mom, so I can’t show them to you). He also told us a story about how McKinley’s barber’s great-grandson came to the museum one time and talked about how his great-grandfather was killed under mysterious circumstances – he went out one day for a walk and never came back, and the family thinks it may have been because McKinley told him presidential secrets that someone didn’t want to get out (maybe Marcus Hanna was responsible…? I’ve been unable to verify the barber story, but it’s still intriguing). Anyway, he was an interesting guy, and clearly very keen on McKinley, and it was nice to see that kind of enthusiasm in a museum.

  

But onto the Pan-American Exposition exhibition (wow, that’s hard to say). The museum’s special exhibition space is simply one smallish room (I remember it being full of antique ornaments when I visited around Christmas), and most of the exhibition was in the form of blue and white posters on the walls, but they did have a few cases full of relevant artefacts as well.

  

The Pan-American Exposition, held in Buffalo, New York in 1901, is primarily famous for being the place where McKinley was assassinated. The assassination tends to overshadow the exposition itself, which is unfortunate, because from what I learned in this exhibit, it sounded amazing! Just look at some of the attractions: A Trip to the Moon, which I picture as being like an interactive version of that creepy Georges Melies film which freaks me out so much that I can barely watch the Smashing Pumpkins’ video for “Tonight, Tonight” (Billy Corgan doesn’t help matters); the Upside Down House, which was a fully furnished Victorian mansion, flipped upside down; Venice in America, which was a gondola ride through the whole damn park (they had a film taken on the ride, and it looked rad); and Darkness and Dawn, which followed the journey of a “departed spirit” from hell to heaven. Of course, this being turn-of-the-century America, there were some hella racist exhibitions too, like a mock-up of an old Southern plantation and lots of “happy” slaves, and some offensive stuff involving Native Americans.

  

Like all World’s Fair type events, many things were created specifically for the exposition, including, apparently, Ohio’s unusual state flag (we’re the only state to use a pennant or “burgee” shape), which I feel is something I’d learned about during Ohio History in 4th grade, and then promptly forgotten; and of course, a most enticing range of souvenirs, many adorned with buffalo. They erected a number of buildings for the event, though the only one that survives is the New York State Building, which is now the Buffalo History Museum. It also was an opportunity for inventors to showcase new technologies, like the x-ray machine, and incubators for premature babies. Interestingly, the fair started in May 1901 and ran until November, despite McKinley being assassinated there in September, so even though his death is all people know about the expo today (if they know anything about it at all), it wasn’t even enough to close it down at the time.

  

Of course, this being the McKinley Museum, they talked a lot about the assassination too – when the anarchist Leon Czolgosz (who lived in Cleveland for a while) queued to shake McKinley’s hand, and then shot him twice in the stomach. There was video footage of McKinley’s last speech, which took place just a couple of hours before he was shot, as well as the last photo ever taken of him. But the most interesting thing had to be the many ironies of McKinley’s treatment, which were covered here. In a place showcasing new technology, including, as I mentioned, the x-ray machine, and electric light bulbs, McKinley’s treatment was primitive. His doctors refused to use the x-ray machine on him, as they didn’t trust the technology, and the operating theatre at the exposition hospital didn’t have electric light, even though the outside of the building was covered in light bulbs!  He was operated on by a gynecologist, as he was the only doctor available (the official exposition surgeon was operating on another patient at the time, and refused to leave mid-surgery, which was kind of a shame as he was actually a really good surgeon for the time, and had previously saved the life of a woman with gunshot wounds almost identical to McKinley’s). McKinley rallied at first, but gangrene set in and he died a week later from what would today be a highly survivable wound with proper treatment.

  

To illustrate all this, the museum had copies of a number of telegrams between his doctors discussing McKinley’s condition, so we could see that at first he was expected to make a full recovery (Teddy Roosevelt, McKinley’s vice president, who was on holiday when McKinley was shot, actually returned to his holiday because he thought McKinley would be fine), and then he rapidly declined. Although it was small, it was a very interesting exhibition, and I’m glad I got to see it, because there doesn’t seem to be a lot of information about what the exposition actually contained out there on the internet, and it was nice to see photographs, souvenirs, and descriptions of the attractions, even though it made me wish more than ever that I could go to some kind of excellent Victorian exposition of this nature (why don’t we still have things like this? I mean, sure, there’s health and safety regulations, and people aren’t likely to be all that impressed by light bulbs, but I would still be extremely happy with an upside down Victorian house and a dark ride to the moon).

  

We finished our visit to the museum by checking out the basement science gallery again (which still has animatronic dinosaurs and a collection of small (live) animals like frogs and snakes, but did seem to have been rearranged a bit since my last visit) and playing with all the excellent interactive science games, which also appeared to include a few new machines I didn’t remember, like a green screen where you could choose a natural disaster background and pretend to be a meteorologist reporting in front of it (we had a lot of fun with that one, and played around with it for a good fifteen minutes). (I had to also throw in a couple pictures of the new mannequins in the street of yesteryear, above, because I loved them so much.) And of course, no visit to Canton is complete without a stop at Taggart’s for ice cream (it’s right down the road from the museum) – I went for the chocolate chip ice cream pie with caramel sauce, which was most delicious, and I think Tina Belcher may have sat at our booth at one point, because it had the word “butts” carved into it.

I’d still give the museum 4/5 for sure, just for its eclectic mishmash of anything and everything Canton (plus dinosaurs), and the Pan-American Exposition exhibition, though on the small side, was actually very informative and well-worth seeing, so I’ll give that 3.5/5, and I’ve no doubt I’ll be back to this museum again within the next couple of years!