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London: “Inspiring Walt Disney” @ the Wallace Collection

Let me preface this by stating that I am not a big Disney person. OK, I do still love Disney’s Robin Hood and the songs from The Little Mermaid, and I did go to Disneyland Paris like ten years ago when we got a cheap deal on a day pass in January and I rode Phantom Manor about twenty times in a row because the weather was terrible and there were no queues, but I’m not one of those adults who still watch every Disney movie and take all of their vacations at Disneyworld with special themed outfits for each day and decorate their houses with Disney merchandise. You know the ones (I certainly know the ones, since I’m basically describing someone I went to high school with who seems to always be popping up in my Facebook feed with Disney crap). I liked the films when I was a kid, but most of them just don’t hold up well when you watch them as an adult, in my opinion. My point in saying all this is that I wasn’t inclined to like this exhibition just based on the Disney connection – they were actually going to have to work to impress me!

“Inspiring Walt Disney: The Animation of French Decorative Arts” runs until October and costs £14 (£7 with Art Pass). I booked in advance because that seemed to be the thing to do, but when we got there, the exhibition was almost completely empty. (The rest of the Wallace Collection, which is free to enter, was fairly crowded.) The man at the desk handed us each an audio guide, and we were off. I know I’ve set myself up as a Disney cynic in the opening paragraph, but I have to admit that I was tickled right at the start when the audio guide turned out to have a surprise guest narrator who was none other than Angela Lansbury, aka Mrs. Potts. Fortunately, as far as pacing was concerned, most of it was narrated by someone with a faster speaking voice, so we weren’t standing around all day, which I hate. It was still a bit long-winded in places for my tastes, but at least it was easy to skip around.

Apologies that there’s not photos of everything I would have liked to take a picture of, but we were told conflicting things by different staff members regarding photography, so we were only able to photograph some of the exhibition. Anyway, in 1935, Walt Disney travelled to Europe with his brother Roy and their wives, in part to source ideas for future films, and whilst there he fell in love with French castles and 18th century French decorative arts. And because the Wallace Collection’s, er, collection features French decorative arts (amongst many other things), this exhibition contained objects from their collection that may have inspired Disney’s animators, particularly when they were making Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast, which were the main focus here, since they both feature inanimate objects coming to life and are both set in roughly the same historical era (not that Disney is exactly known for its historical accuracy).

Fortunately, apart from the two films I mentioned at the start, Beauty and the Beast is probably the Disney film I’m most familiar with. I was 6 when it came out, which I think is a pretty ideal age for Disney, and I could relate to Belle because she had brown hair and loved reading, just like me, so I watched it a lot, even though the part where they put Belle’s father in the caged madhouse cart thing freaked me out. So I loved the sketches showing how the drawings of each anthropomorphic character evolved. Mrs. Potts was particularly cute – she was originally wearing a tartan tea cosy, but they changed her to be a more elegant fine china. The original Cogsworth was shit scary though. You can see him on the Wallace Collection’s website if you scroll down.

Of the French decorative art pieces on display here, the best were probably the pair of Sevres vases pictured above (which were on loan from American museums, so weren’t even part of the Wallace Collection), which were made to look like adorable castles, and inspired many Disney castles, but there was also furniture (some with animal feet, which may have been what inspired Disney to give life to inanimate objects in the first place), clocks and candlesticks (aka Cogsworth and Lumiere) and paintings.

Apparently, The Swing by Fragonard, which is the painting above left, was a particular favourite of Disney animators, and appeared in a number of different guises, from a flashback scene in Beauty and the Beast showing Belle’s childhood, to a background painting in Frozen. I’ve watched Frozen exactly once and was distinctly underwhelmed, so I hadn’t noticed it (and I haven’t seen Beauty and the Beast since I was 13 and spent a summer babysitting a little girl who was OBSESSED with it, so don’t particularly remember it in that either), but I suppose it is interesting the way they hide these “Easter eggs” in different films.

I feel like my general lack of enthusiasm for Disney is probably making it sound like I didn’t enjoy this very much, but the opposite is actually the case. After dealing with crowds at most London museums, the fact that we were practically the only visitors was a delight, and I really enjoyed looking at some of the original sketches and the objects from the Wallace’s collections. Disney fans would love the “behind the scenes” look, I think, and the decorative art pieces made it appealing to even cranky people like me. 3.5/5.

Vienna: Kunsthistorisches Museum incl. Iron Men

The Kunsthistorisches Museum is the final location in Vienna I’ll be blogging about. I wanted to visit primarily to see the Kunstkammer, because Kunstkammer and Wunderkammer are music to my ears (Wunderkammer admittedly more so, because wonder!) – I love a cabinet of curiosities. However, when we bought tickets, the ticket man tried to upsell us into seeing their Iron Men exhibition, which runs until 26 June, and because it was only €3 extra (on top of the hefty €21 base admission) and because I love armour, I gave in, so that was where we headed first.

And I’m so glad we did, because this was probably my favourite thing that we saw in the whole of Vienna. It was such an amazing exhibition. Not only were the objects on display excellent and unusual, the interpretation was fantastic as well. They told us the things we really want to know about armour, like how do you move in it, and how does it stay on your body? The only thing missing was how you poop when wearing it, though they actually might have covered that somewhere and I’ve just forgotten.

To illustrate my first two questions (don’t worry, not the third), they had a series of videos showing a modern man doing stuff in armour, my favourite of which featured him climbing up ladders, doing a somersault, and a “bonus move” of doing the little side jump and heel-click that I can’t master even in normal clothes. He also put on the armour to show how it was held together by leather linings and straps, which is what fitted it to the body, but because the leather has deteriorated so much in most surviving armour, all we can usually see is the steel that was left behind. Happily, they did have a few pieces here that still had straps intact so we could get a better idea of how it worked.

I was also delighted to see that (one of) my ancestral homeland(s) of Slovenia was responsible for some of the finest pieces in here, like the eagle helmet above the preceding paragraph. I hadn’t seen much armour from there before, nor did I really know what was going on there in the medieval era, so it was nice to get some idea from the descriptions of armour and tournaments. The most interesting part was probably the section on jousts of peace, which were were done purely for fun, and for which competitors wore amusing masks, like devils, birds, the excellent lion shown above, and creepiest of all, ones painted to look like people, which you can see below.

There was so much here that was absolutely fascinating, from the techniques used to make different colours of armour (peep that gorgeous blue armour at the start of the post), to the clothes they were wearing under the armour, and the way fashions changed over time. Particularly loved the pointy toed boots with the removable tips so the wearer could enter a room in style but take them off for battle, and the suit of armour with removable ruffles on the sleeves. Honestly, they spent so much time on the construction and style trends of armour that this felt almost like a fashion exhibition, and that is certainly not a complaint coming from me!

I think it’s pretty clear that I think this exhibition is a must-see if you’re in Vienna, and I could go on about it a lot longer, but in the interest of time, and as I had to in real life (since we were flying back home that afternoon and had an airport to get to), I’ll cut things short and move on to my original reason for visiting, the Kunstkammer.

 

The Kunstkammer takes up almost an entire floor of the museum and contains the accumulated treasures of a number of Habsburg rulers, mainly those who ruled in the 16th and 17th centuries. We made the mistake of walking in at the wrong end and deciding to walk back to the entrance so we could see everything in order. This was…not a short journey. I think it’s impossible to visit, walk through that endless parade of rooms stuffed with exquisite objects, and not conclude that the Habsburgs were both far too wealthy and in power for far too long. Not saying that most of their collection wasn’t gorgeous and worth preserving, but it was far more stuff than any one family needs.

 

Because our time was so limited and there was so much here, I decided to focus primarily on the things that interested me most, which means automata! The ones here were unbelievably intricate and fabulous and included a ship that moved across a table whilst musicians played on board, with the ship’s cannon firing as a finale; a spectacularly creepy archer that also moved forward whilst his eyes rolled around in his head and he fired a bow with a real miniature arrow; a moving musical carriage with a rearing horse; a few different clocks with moving figures, and more! Though I wished we could have seen them live in action, I suppose it wouldn’t be great conservation-wise if they had them constantly up and running, but they did have the next best thing in the form of videos showing them in motion, available to watch on tablets in each room. They are happily also available on the museum’s website, so you can watch them too.

There were also lots of exceptionally detailed figurines and much less exciting silverware and glassware, save for a glass dragon that shot water in the face of the unsuspecting user if they pressed the wrong button when dispensing their drink (below left). You would need to spend hours here to be able to read all the signage and take everything in properly; as we had less than an hour in the Kunstkammer before we needed to leave, it was only ever going to be a whistle-stop tour. Still, I think I did manage to see all the best bits!

Lest you think this is all there was, let me assure you that the museum did have a number of other galleries. We quickly walked through the Roman and Egyptian collections (the Egyptian galleries, as you can see, had beautifully decorated themed interiors, as did the rest of the museum). There is also a picture gallery, which most famously contains a number of Bruegels, including The Tower of Babel. Although we were trying to hurry, we ended up walking through the whole of the picture gallery as well, because there was only one entrance/exit so we had to circle through all the rooms to leave. Consequently, we had to skip the entire top floor of the museum, which contained the coin collection and possibly another gallery, but I’m not that invested (ha) in coins anyway, so no major loss.

 

Basically, the moral of the story is don’t be like us, and allow yourself a whole day here if you want to see everything properly, because three hours was nowhere near enough time. I would also advise not using the toilets in the basement – there was a massive queue for the ladies’ because there were only two stalls (I thought the British Museum was bad at peak times, but at least they have about twenty stalls, so you’re in with a chance) and some woman jumped the queue just as I got to the front, which I was definitely not happy about (I did express my displeasure in English, which she clearly felt free to ignore). It’s an expensive museum that would almost certainly be free if it were in London, but at least we got our money’s worth out of the Iron Men exhibition, which I could not have loved more. 5/5 for Iron Men, 3.5/5 for the rest of the museum.

Vienna: Central Cemetery & The Funeral Museum

I couldn’t visit Vienna without visiting a cemetery, and Central Cemetery, which is one of the biggest in Europe, caught my eye immediately, not least because they have a funeral museum within the cemetery. Central Cemetery was opened in 1874 as an interdenominational cemetery, which was somewhat controversial at the time (the Catholic church was NOT happy). Despite its name, Central Cemetery is far from central (it’s in Simmering, which is literally the end of the line on the U Bahn and you still have to take a tram from there to reach the cemetery), so to attract burials, the Viennese authorities decided to create a “celebrity section” of composers, which involved digging up Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Salieri, Strauss, and Schoenberg from their respective cemeteries and re-interring them here. Mozart was spared that, presumably because he’s already buried elsewhere in Vienna, but there is a memorial here to him.

Other than the composers’ corner (and the museum of course), the main attraction of the cemetery is the massive chapel pictured at the start of the post, St Charles Borromeo, which was completed in 1911. It’s equally impressive inside, with art nouveau mosaics and stained glass and a beautiful starry ceiling. I had to laugh at the hand sanitizer bottles shoved in to the holy water fonts though.

I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about Falco, who seems to be the cemetery’s leading attraction. Of course I know “Rock Me Amadeus” and “Der Kommissar”, but I’m not exactly familiar with his entire oeuvre. However, every single Austrian seems to be, judging by both his impressive grave and memorial benches and the sheer amount of people who apparently make a pilgrimage to his grave. His was the easiest to find in the cemetery – all we had to do was follow the crowds!

Other famous burials include Hedy Lamarr, who has quite an unusual memorial consisting of wires with balls strung on them (perhaps something relating to her scientific work?) and Manfred Deix, who I hadn’t heard of previously, but who had my absolute favourite monument in the cemetery. He was a cartoonist, so I assume the cat was based on one of his drawings. I looked at some of his work on the long U Bahn ride back into town, and I like his style!

Marcus has a couple great-grandparents and various other distant relatives who are buried here, so we spent some time looking around the Jewish section for those, and can I just emphasise again how massive this cemetery is? It is incredibly huge; each section stretched on for what felt like miles, and the ground between the rows was not particularly well tended (though still nowhere near as bad as most British cemeteries), so I found myself stumbling a lot as we searched the sections his ancestors were meant to be in. We never ended up finding most of them, possibly because this section was bombed during WWII, but we did, however, find someone with Marcus’s exact name (except for Marcus was spelled Markus), which was kind of exciting, in a creepy way. (I might have forgotten to use my cemetery voice and yelled out, “Holy shit, it’s you!” when I spotted it.)

And on to the museum. The Funeral Museum is housed in the bunker-like basement of an otherwise rather charming building near the cemetery’s entrance (I should say one of the cemetery’s entrances…there’s at least six different tram stops and entrances all outside the perimeter of the cemetery) and costs €7 to enter. Given that the website was all in German, I wasn’t entirely sure if we’d find any English inside the museum, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that everything had an English translation, including a large interactive screen with tonnes of information on the history of the cemetery.

Though this museum wasn’t anywhere near the scale of the National Museum of Funeral History in Houston, and focused primarily on Central Cemetery itself rather than death-related traditions around the world, it was still a pretty cool little museum. We learned a lot about 19th century funerary practices in Austria and enjoyed looking at displays of mourning jewellery, caskets, adorable miniature models of the cemetery, a collection of uniforms worn by funeral attendants, and even a knife for stabbing the heart of a corpse (I guess to prevent vampires?).

The museum clearly also had a sense of humour about itself, because in addition to an excellent collection of death themed cartoons in the last gallery, they also had a quirky little shop selling amusing t-shirts, tote bags, LEGO hearses, and even honey made in the cemetery! I would have loved to buy some of the honey, but because we had hand luggage only, I wouldn’t have been able to take it back, so I settled for a tote bag and some postcards.

 

Other than there being far too much walking, this was a very nice experience. Loved the museum and the cemetery itself. It seems clear that Central Cemetery is meant for the living as well as the dead, as the cemetery also contained a bustling café and another little shop by the entrance full of black humoured merchandise, and was probably one of the busiest cemeteries I’ve been to (which sounds weird to say, but you know what I mean), with most of the visitors seemingly fellow tourists, though there were some people obviously visiting deceased family members as well. It’s just nice to see a cemetery being used as a gathering place in true Victorian style! Even though it’s a little bit of a pain to get here, I highly recommend visiting if you find yourself in Vienna. It’s not the most picturesque cemetery I’ve ever been to, but it’s certainly one of the largest, and the museum is the icing on the (soul) cake.

Vienna: Imperial Carriage Museum

If it wasn’t already clear from my last post, just let me say that if you like the Habsburgs, you are going to love Vienna. To stick with the Imperial theme, after seeing the underwhelming Anker Clock and eating an exceptionally large Kaiserschmarrn with caramelised walnuts that unfortunately left me disgustingly full for the rest of the day (Kaiserschmarrn is also Imperial, having been a favourite of Franz Joseph I, hence the name, so it was in keeping with the theme), we headed out to Schonbrunn Palace. On our last visit to Vienna, although we walked around the grounds and ate that giant pretzel I mentioned in my last post, we didn’t actually pay to go inside the palace, as it was obscenely crowded. This time, we set out with the best of intentions and fully meant to see Schonbrunn, but when we got there and saw the price and the crowds and thought about how much we hated Charlottenburg and the fact that this just looked like more of the same, well, we just couldn’t bring ourselves to do it. Instead, we headed over to the much more appealing sounding Carriage Museum, which is a very short walk away from Schonbrunn, despite what the misleading signage in Schonbrunn’s gardens would have you believe.

Despite being right by Schonbrunn and containing all Habsburg stuff, it is actually run by the Kunsthistoriches Museum, so it’s not included on any Schonbrunn ticket package (not that we bought one anyway). It’s €12, and you can buy tickets at the museum – it certainly wasn’t very busy when we were there, which was extremely refreshing after the crowds at the nearby palace. I said that I would talk more about Sisi in this post, and I wasn’t lying, because even though Sisi has her own dedicated museum (which we did not visit), that is clearly not enough for the Viennese, and the Carriage Museum is also basically the Sisi show. That’s her wedding dress you can see above right.

“Who the hell is Sisi?” you may rightfully be asking if you’re not Austrian, because I certainly didn’t have a clue. Well, the museum was here to tell you, and even went so far as to bill her a 19th century Princess Diana, so apparently beloved is she by the Austrian people. Her proper name was Empress Elisabeth of Austria, wife of the comparatively unremarkable Franz Joseph I (except for his love of Kaiserschmarrn I guess), and after reading the museum’s description of her, I’m still not quite sure why she was so beloved, as she seemed incredibly vain, high maintenance, and frankly, a bit of a nut.

I mean, just look at her extraordinarily creepy mourning dress, or at least what you can see of it in the above picture. 19th century mourning dress typically included a crepe veil for women, so nobody was going to see your face anyway, but Sisi took it upon herself to have a mask made of black feathers that covered her entire face like some kind of scary bird woman, and then still wore a veil on top of it (honestly, I think it’s kind of awesome, but her obsession with mourning is really the only thing I can get behind. Well, that and the horse chapel I talk about later). She spent hours on her beauty regimen and refused to have any photographs or paintings done after the age of 32 so she would be seen as eternally beautiful, which, as a 36 year old, I honestly find kind of insulting. I’m not that decrepit yet! It also sounded like she had an eating disorder – she would go through periods of starvation followed by binge eating, and she was described as too thin by acquaintances. In fairness to her, I don’t think she had the easiest life – Franz Joseph was supposed to marry her older sister, but fell in love with the beautiful Sisi instead, who was unprepared for life at the Austrian court. She had multiple children die in tragic circumstances (including a murder-suicide), had a difficult relationship with her husband, who was cold and businesslike, and was eventually assassinated by an Italian anarchist at the age of 60. Perhaps her violent death has something to do with her exalted posthumous reputation.

But this was still a carriage museum, not exclusively the Sisi Museum, and there were lots of fabulous carriages too, most of which belonged to, you guessed it, Sisi. Or more broadly, the Habsburg family, who managed to amass quite a collection over the years. The frequent tragedies that befell the Habsburg line in the 1800s also meant that they had some fab mourning carriages painted true priest black, rather than just a very very very very very dark blue.

My favourite thing was that absolutely fabulous leopard print sleigh, shown above left, though I was less keen when I realised the leopard print was actual leopard skin. I also learned that the Habsburgs built carriages with springs under their seats for comfort, but none under the coachman’s seat, even though the coachman would be expected to sit outside for hours in all weathers driving these people around. That is just a straight-up dick move, and almost made me glad most of them were assassinated. Seriously, clearly you can afford springs, so why not give everyone springs? Because they were assholes, that’s why.

The main reason I was drawn to the Carriage Museum in the first place was because they were hosting a temporary exhibition on masks and epidemics, which, even after experiencing a pandemic, is still very much my jam. The exhibition turned out to have been put up during the first lockdown in 2020, so only incorporated artefacts that were already in the museum’s collections, and was fairly small, but still interesting. I wish I could have read the Viennese equivalent of the Bills of Mortality that was on display here, but alas, I do not speak German (all the signage here was in English as well though, so it wasn’t an issue for the bulk of the museum). I also liked Sisi’s collection of horse paintings. She apparently considered horses her only friends, and had a whole chapel decorated with horse paintings, which sounds totally bonkers. I wish it was still around, because I would have loved to have seen it.

The museum took us right up into the modern era, with a Hapsburg automobile and even a custom racing car. I loved the old auto – naturally, the Hapsburgs didn’t have anything so plebian as a license plate number, just an image of their coat of arms on the plate, and the car was decorated in Imperial colours, as were many of the carriages.

I actually enjoyed this museum quite a lot. Although I don’t think I would have liked Sisi much as a person judging by the way she treated her servants (in addition to the coachman thing, she also forced the woman who styled her hair to wear white gloves at all times and save every hair that fell out of Sisi’s head whilst styling it, and then Sisi would yell at her if she thought there were too many hairs), learning about her was interesting, and I loved all the mourning carriages and reading about what was inside each carriage, though it would have been even better if we’d actually been able to see inside them (some of them had beds and reading lamps. Luxury, though not for the poor coachmen of course). 3.5/5.

And because I’m sure you’re dying to know what happened with the giant pretzels at Schonbrunn, well…after a far too long slog around the gardens where we failed to find the pretzels I remembered, we headed over to the Easter Market set up behind the palace. They were selling giant pretzels, but they weren’t the same ones from my earlier visit, not being quite as large nor delicious looking, and unfortunately, the stall was cash only, which meant we had to find a cash machine that charged a fee to use it (I hate that scammy shit. Those machines are illegal in the UK now, so it’s sad they still have them in Europe). I mean, I still ate the pretzel, and it was a good pretzel, but not at all the heavenly item I remembered from my first visit. The market had other delicious looking foods, like Kasespaetzle, but unfortunately, because I was so damn full still from breakfast, I just couldn’t eat any, much as I wanted to, so Schonbrunn Palace was sadly mostly a bust, except for the slightly disappointing pretzel.

 

Vienna: Kapuzinergruft (Imperial Crypt)

This trip to Vienna was my first time back in continental Europe since well before Covid – I think the last time I went anywhere besides Britain or the US was when I visited Oslo and Gothenburg back in summer 2019 – so though I was much less worried about travelling than I had been before I’d had Covid (because I think I’m unlikely to catch it again so soon), I was still feeling anxious about visiting a non-English speaking country for the first time in so long, and wanted to ease myself in with somewhere on the well-beaten tourist track. Marcus and I had visited Vienna once before, but since that was all the way back in 2010, and we couldn’t remember actually doing much apart from seeing the Josephinum (I would have loved to go back there to blog about it, but it’s currently closed for renovations), eating a giant pretzel in the gardens of Schonbrunn, and making frequent trips to the Manner Wafer shop, we figured we were probably due for a revisit.

 

So, we managed to find some cheap last minute flights and a deal on a hotel (which thankfully turned out to be pretty nice), and headed off to Austria. We were originally intending on going to the late opening at the Welt Museum the evening we arrived, but even though we hadn’t done much other than sit around an airport all day waiting for our flight, we were too tired to bother, so after a quick stop at a nearby supermarket for food, we crashed out at the hotel and saved sightseeing for the next morning, when we got up bright and early to have time to see the Imperial Crypt before the Anker Clock did its thing at noon.

Other than the infamous Habsburg jaw, my knowledge of the Habsburgs is patchy at best, so I wasn’t really that sure why they were all just shoved in this crypt in a fairly nondescript church in the middle of Vienna rather than some kind of bigger mausoleum somewhere, but I wasn’t going to pass up the chance to look at some rad skeleton and skull décor. Actually, when I heard it was a Capuchin crypt, I was picturing something more like the one in Rome, where the actual bones were arranged into art pieces, but of course that treatment wouldn’t be suitable for emperors, so their bodies are all firmly contained within extremely elaborate caskets.

Admission is €8, which gains you entrance into the depths of the coffin-lined temperature controlled crypt. Lest you be worried about any kind of a smell, these coffins are welded shut and encrusted in so many death-themed geegaws that nothing would be able to seep through (plus the earliest sarcophagi are from 1618, so those emperors must be good and skeletonised by now). The crypts provide a free map in English that lists the names of all the people “resting” here, but that’s pretty much it. There’s almost nothing about who these people actually were, so if you’re not au fait with the Habsburgs, as I am not, you’ll be pretty clueless.

I’m not entirely sure if all that matters though, with tombs as fabulous as this. It was really worth looking closely at each one, because the detailing was incredible. So many derpy lions and skulls and creepy veiled ladies. Lesser names got a small, roughly chronological spot along the main galleries, but Maria Theresa (probably one of the most famous Habsburgs – she was Marie Antoinette’s mother, and a formidable ruler in her own right) and her lesser known husband Franz I got an entire mausoleum (pictured at the start of the post) with painted ceilings and marble detailing that was the centrepiece of the crypt.

As we moved towards the 19th and 20th centuries, the sarcophagi got noticeably less ornate. Guess the Habsburgs finally had to cut their budgets in the age of assassinations and revolution. You can’t go to Vienna without hearing about Sisi (much more on her in next week’s post), and she was here in a casket decorated with delicate ironwork, but I don’t think we even photographed it because we didn’t learn what a big deal she was until visiting the Carriage Museum that afternoon. The casket below with the sombrero (apparently also a traditional Austrian hat) belonged to the ill-fated Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico, who only reigned for three years before being executed, though he had no business being in Mexico in the first place. The last Imperial funeral was for Empress Zita, who died in 1989; though she and her husband had been deposed following WWI and exiled to Switzerland in 1922, her body was allowed to return to Austria and rest in the crypt. I think the most recent addition to the crypt was one of Zita’s sons who died in 2011.

Although I would have appreciated more English text in the free handout to learn who these people were, since the German text seemed far more comprehensive, I very much enjoyed looking at these completely remarkable and no doubt insanely expensive tombs. I don’t know if the tombs were always open to the public or if it is a more recent development, but somehow I can’t picture them allowing plebs in during more turbulent times when the Habsburgs were still clinging to power. Though there were other visitors, including a man who photographed literally every single coffin using a camera that made a super loud and annoying noise after each photo, it was still empty enough that it didn’t feel overly touristy. Well, that or the Viking Cruise people had already been through before us – we had to fight through hordes of them in a nearby square en route to the crypt. 3.5/5.

London: Fashioning Masculinities @ the V&A

The V&A recently starting opening seven days a week again (since Covid, they’d only been open Wednesday-Sunday), and since my preferred day for museuming is Tuesday, I was keen to pay them a visit (I hadn’t been since seeing Faberge in November). The Beatrix Potter exhibition was fully booked on the day I wanted to go, so I ended up booking “Fashioning Masculinities: The Art of Menswear” instead. Most fashion exhibitions are geared more towards women’s clothing, and though obviously I love ogling fashions I would actually want to wear, I was intrigued to see an exhibition of men’s fashions for a change, particularly as the theme of the exhibition was exploring concepts of masculinity and gender through fashion.

The exhibition cost £20 (£10 with Art Pass) which seemed a little steep for the smallish gallery they normally have fashion exhibitions in, so I was pleasantly surprised when we arrived and discovered it was actually in the Sainsbury Gallery, their fancy newish underground exhibition space. I was somewhat dismayed when a large group of fashion students arrived at the same time as us (even if they hadn’t been wearing their student badges, I would have been able to tell from the fleekness of their eyebrows. Do kids even still say on fleek?), thinking it would be very crowded, but the spaces are so large and open it was actually not bad at all inside, and we were easily able to navigate the exhibition without having to queue.

The museum warned that there would be nudity in this exhibition, and they weren’t shy about jumping into it right from the start, with various photographs of nude men, clothing featuring penises, and a video of a naked man gyrating around (not that any of this was a problem for me). The first room of the exhibition was focused mainly on contemporary designers and some of their gender bending designs, such as skirts and shapewear for men. It also talked a bit about homosexuality in the mid-late 20th century and the way the gay community played with popular conceptions of masculinity.

After the first room, the exhibition focused more on men’s fashions throughout history, starting with the early modern period and progressing through to the 20th century, along with modern styles influenced by historical fashion. Needless to say, I generally preferred the historical fashions – those giant ridiculous shoes certainly aren’t doing that pink outfit any favours.

This segment of the exhibition was focused primarily on the role of colour in men’s fashions prior to the 19th century, when things took a turn for the drab. This was largely due to the invention of industrial dyes – before that, most dyes were made from natural materials, which could be expensive to make, so wearing brightly coloured clothing signified wealth (by the time the Victorians rolled around, this was no longer the case, so the upper classes could live out all their goth desires and still flaunt their wealth). For example, there was a fad for the colour yellow, which in China was only permitted to be worn by the emperor and his family, but when it became popular in the West, they quickly developed a version for the export market (which was still out of the reach of the lower classes).

Though I loved the colourful clothes, I also loved the 19th century part of the exhibition, which contained a massive wall of drab black suits and explained how the shape of the suit evolved over the course of the Victorian era. I’m not a tailor, so I don’t exactly understand how all this works, but what I got from the interpretation panels was that men’s coats were originally laboriously constructed from many different pieces of fabric, but as they started to become mass produced, tailors developed a way to reduce the number of pieces of fabric used by carrying the weight of the bottom part of the coat in the waistband. This allowed them to develop longer “skirts” on the coats, which invariably became narrower, as that was seen as a more masculine silhouette (and honestly, I love a long slim-fitting coat, and would totally wear some of the ones on display).

I also loved the 20th century part of the exhibition, which featured a display of tuxedos, including one worn by Marlene Dietrich (I’m embarrassed to tell you how much I paid for a pair of woolen Marlene Dietrich inspired suit trousers with matching waistcoat, but I get compliments every time I wear them, so maybe it was worth it); a display of photographs of mods taken in the ’60s, and the Edward VIII inspired trend for fair isle knits. (I know the man was a Nazi sympathizer, but I absolutely love that portrait of him with the dog, and I’m not going to turn down a fair isle jumper either.)

The denouement of the exhibition was a room containing a few dresses that were all famously worn by men, including Harry Styles. This seemed a fitting end – through showing us examples of fashion throughout history that don’t fit into the narrow constructs of modern masculinity (as defined by the more conservative elements of society), the whole exhibition seemed to be leading us to the conclusion that masculinity can be defined however you want it to be, and anyone can wear any clothing they like, though in the real world, obviously some people are still going to have prejudices, and this is probably easier said than done if you don’t happen to live in a big city or liberal area (based on the reactions I used to get to my unusual hairstyles in my youth, including one man who told me I should be dragged into the street and shot for having a blue mohawk). All this being said, I ended up enjoying this exhibition much more than I thought I would, given the focus on menswear. There were some great outfits here accompanied by good interpretation, the latter of which seems increasingly rare these days. It runs until November, so you’ve got plenty of time to go and see it if you find yourself in London. 4/5.

 

London: Port City @ Museum of London Docklands

I will take any excuse to go to Museum of London Docklands because it is only a short DLR ride away from Greenwich Market, home of my beloved Brazilian churros, so when I saw that they had a new exhibition called Port City, I thought, “Churros plus maritime history?! Sign me up!” I normally work on the days the churro stand is there, so I don’t get to visit often, but I had a day of TOIL to use in early March, so I took full advantage and planned to head out east. However, my luck being what it is, there was a Tube strike that day. Fortunately, the DLR was still running so we did manage to get there via a more convoluted route, but because we had to leave for the museum earlier than we were planning due to the longer journey time, I didn’t have time to attire myself in a vintage-inspired nautical outfit, as I otherwise definitely would have. I know, no major loss to the world, but I do like to theme my clothes if possible!

 

Port City is a free exhibition located in Museum of Docklands’ relatively small temporary exhibition space, the same one where I saw the Havering Hoard, Secret Rivers, and many others. It runs until 8 May 2022 (and apparently opened back in October – where have I been?). The exhibition “traces more than 200 years of extraordinary experiences and intense activity on a river that has always been essential to the city’s survival”, though seemed to focus mostly on the 20th century.

 

Obviously, the Thames is a hugely important part of London and probably dear to every Londoner’s heart (certainly my own), but we often don’t think of London still being a major port, not least because we’re inland, but also because most shipping operations these days happen at a “mega port” about thirty miles outside the city, so it was interesting to explore that side of London.

 

My absolute favourite thing in the exhibition, though excessively imperialist by today’s standards, was a map of the world from the perspective of Britain as the centre of the still fairly flourishing empire of the 1920s. I spent about ten minutes examining it on account of the little animals with talk bubbles drawn all over the map, particularly the polar bears. I had just remarked on their being incorrectly located in the South Pole when I noticed one of them had a talk bubble saying, “It’s a long way to Tipperary” and another saying, “This is all wrong! We belong at the North Pole!” Nice.

 

There were some interactive elements to this exhibition, though sadly the ambergris pictured above was not one of them. I excitedly reached my hand in the hole to touch it, only to be blocked by plexiglass that was invisible from the side. However, there were a few boxes filled with authentic smells of the docks, some of them surprisingly pleasant. We were the only people in the exhibition, so I was able to pull my mask down for a bit to give them a good old whiff.

I also loved the wall of nautical inspired phrases and London place names. You could pull out different bricks to read how these terms came to be, and I spent a good long while pulling out all of them. By the way, the horrible sounding Mudchute, a stop on the DLR that I’ve mentioned before, was named after muddy engineering overspill, so it was just as unpleasant as the name implies (I don’t think the overspill is there these days, but I suspect it’s still not particularly nice).

 

Before we went into the museum, Marcus commented that the statue that used to stand out front was no longer there, and neither of us could remember who it was depicting. Turns out it was of the slaver Robert Milligan who helped to create West India Docks, the area the museum is in, which was initially built to house sugar processed by enslaved people in the West Indies, and his statue was understandably removed in 2020. So it was helpful that the exhibition mentioned it and saved us the trouble of looking it up!

Apart from the odd snippet of pertinent facts like that, the exhibition was largely object and image driven, with only small amounts of information on the signage, so although it was quite visually engaging and interactive, I would have liked to see more text. I think it would have been interesting if it focused a bit more on the early history of Docklands, as that was a relatively short section before jumping into more recent history, and I tend to prefer Georgian and Victorian history to the 20th century. Also, though it’s a depressing subject, it might have been nice if they’d included more information on how areas like Canary Wharf have turfed out the poor and been turned into the hideous high-rise monstrosities they are today (I absolutely loathe Canary Wharf and Canada Water, in case you couldn’t tell). However, as it was a free exhibition, I really can’t criticise too much, and being the only people inside was an added and delightful bonus, though for the sake of the museum and the very friendly and enthusiastic staff member who greeted us, I do hope their visitor numbers pick up. 3/5 (the churros, as always, were a solid 5/5).

London: The World of Stonehenge @ the British Museum

“Stonehenge! Where the demons dwell. Where the banshees live and they do live well.” OK, now that I’ve gotten that Spinal Tap song out of my system, which is what pops into my head as soon as anyone mentions Stonehenge, I can talk about my personal experience with Stonehenge. I have been there only once, for summer solstice in 2009. Even though I dabble in witchery, I am not at all the sort of person who is into the Druids or stone circles or any of that crap, nor do I do drugs, so this was an unlikely place for me to be, but it was something Marcus had always wanted to do (even though he is REALLY not into any of the above), and at the time, he was about a month out from having heart surgery and doing some things from his bucket list in case he didn’t make it (but don’t worry, he is totally fine now!) so we drove down with a friend of ours. Now, this was the first summer I had spent in the UK, so in my head I was thinking, “summer solstice, longest day of the year, must be warm, right?” WRONG!

After queuing in traffic for about three hours and walking from the event carpark, which was an insane distance, probably a good two miles, away from the stones, we reached the site and sat down on the grass to watch the sunset, me wearing only jeans, ballet flats, and a light three quarter sleeve jumper. As soon as the sun went down, I was absolutely bloody freezing, and getting increasingly annoyed by the behavior of everyone around me, basically a bunch of hippie/festival types getting drunk and drugged out of their minds and climbing and hanging off the stones in a really inappropriate manner, so Marcus and I walked the two miles back to the car so we could try to get some sleep. Said car was equally freezing and for whatever reason, Marcus didn’t want to turn the heater on, so I spent a completely miserable night shivering to death whilst our much more outgoing friend was by the stones having the time of his life. We finally left the next morning, stopping in a Little Chef so I could use their toilet because the port-a-loos at the ‘Henge were even grosser than a Little Chef toilet (also the only time I’ve ever been to a Little Chef) and I already had a horrendous sore throat, which would develop into the worst cold I’ve ever had in my life. I was sick for about a month, and lost a stone (as in fourteen pounds, not a Stonehenge stone). And that is why I have never been back to Stonehenge.

 

But that terrible experience wasn’t enough to stop me going to see “The world of Stonehenge” at the British Museum, since I wouldn’t even have to leave London for that (also the toilets at the British Museum, whilst not always the cleanest, are still a hell of a lot better than port-a-loos). The exhibition, which runs until 17 July and costs £20, or £10 with Art Pass, is all about the culture of the Neolithic people who created the monument, although since it is prehistory we’re talking about, much of the content is speculation based on the archaeological finds from the area.

 

I’m never going to be the biggest fan of stones, which made up a large percentage of the artefacts here, but I am a fan of sea monsters, like the ones above right, and of the moon and stars, and skeletons, and weird little figurines with removable phalluses, all of which featured here. Unfortunately, photography wasn’t permitted of one of the best objects in the exhibition (though it didn’t stop pretty much everyone in there from taking a photo), the Nebra Sky Disc, which shows the Pleiades and is the oldest surviving star map, but it is the background image in the BM’s exhibition page, so please do click the link in the above paragraph if you’d like to see it.

 

Just as I was surprised by the intricacy of many of the ancient objects on display at the BM’s excellent Peru exhibition, so was I surprised by the craftsmanship of many of the artefacts here, craftsmanship not necessarily (perhaps wrongly) being the first thing you think of when you think of Neolithic people. I mean, an arrowhead is usually just an arrowhead, but the signage described the ones pictured above as “exquisite” and damned if they weren’t. I was also fascinated by the story of Seahenge, which was uncovered on a beach in Norfolk in 1998 after a shrimper found a Bronze Age axe head and a tree stump. Crazy that there was an elaborate prehistoric monument just hiding under the sea for all those centuries.

 

It is incredible to think that people actively used Stonehenge as a revered site for over 1500 years, and that the arrangement of the stones underwent major changes over time, and I’m always up for reading about burial practices, as the site originally served as a cemetery. Although I’m not one to feel the “power” of the stones, anything that old and mysterious is still kind of impressive, and I did love seeing all the objects associated with sun worship. I think I’d pass on actually wearing the ear discs though, which were the size of a chocolate digestive! I used to have stretched ears, although I only went to a 2 gauge, and even that was an incredibly unpleasant process that my ears have never fully snapped back from, so ain’t no way I’m getting those holes biscuit-sized.

I think it’s clear that I was actually fairly impressed by this exhibition, but if I had a complaint (and it’s me, so of course I have to have a complaint), it would be the usual one I’ve had since social distancing stopped being a thing – way too many people. I saw a sign saying that the exhibition was sold out for the day as we went in, which I knew meant trouble, and indeed, it was extremely crowded. I’m not overly concerned about Covid these days, being fully vaccinated and boosted, though I do still wear a mask inside public spaces, it was more the fact that I hate queuing and having to shove my way in to get at look at things, and there was definitely some of that, though the exhibition was fortunately large and spread out enough that I was able to move to less crowded bits for most of it to avoid queuing for long. I still would have enjoyed it much more with fewer people around though! As it is, I’ll give it 3.5/5. Definitely a better experience than visiting Stonehenge itself!

London: Dürer’s Journeys @ the National Gallery

Back in London (I mean, I’ve been back in London for ages, but I’ve been posting about Cleveland for the past couple of weeks) at yet another exhibition about an early modern artist, Dürer’s Journeys: Travels of a Renaissance Artist at the National Gallery. I don’t exactly frequent the National Gallery – I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve been there – and I honestly don’t think I’d ever been inside their annexe for special exhibitions before, so this was all new to me. The exhibition runs until the end of February and costs £20 or £10 with Art Pass – the price probably goes some way towards explaining why I hadn’t been to a special exhibition there before this, though admittedly I regularly pay that much at the V&A without complaining too much. I guess I just prefer the V&A as a venue (the proximity of Ben’s Cookies probably doesn’t hurt either).

 

I mainly know Dürer from his most excellent sketch of a rhino, but if you’re expecting to see that here, prepare to be disappointed. You will, however, get lots of lions instead, in various degrees of derpiness, which is almost as good. The premise of this exhibition was charting Dürer’s journeys around Europe, including the Alps, Venice, and the Netherlands, and the artists he discovered there, which is all well and good, but if you’re from Germany, even back in the 16th century, I don’t know that a journey to the Netherlands is really worth bragging about. Basically, this seemed like an excuse to bulk out the exhibition with pieces by Dutch and Italian artists who were Dürer’s contemporaries and charge £20 for it.

 

This isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy parts of the exhibition, but I felt that for someone like me, who didn’t really know much about Dürer going in, a bit more context would have been appreciated. Particularly strange was the way the exhibition just sort of ended. There was a room about his painting of St. Jerome with some work by other artists that had clearly been inspired by it, but no signage to conclude the exhibition or indicate the end was nigh. Nothing like, “Dürer died in 1528, and left behind a body of work including blah de blah,” or “Dürer’s legacy is yadda yadda”, just a room full of paintings much like all the others and an arrow pointing to the exit. I actually did a quick stroll around the museum to see if there was another room around the corner that I’d missed or something, it was that abrupt.

 

But amongst the pieces that were there, I was definitely preferred his woodcuts and engravings to his paintings. The paintings were technically proficient, they were just a little boring compared to really detailed woodcuts of Death or the Apocalypse (except for the painting of the cardinals above the last paragraph, where Dürer stuck himself in the background. I like how he’s staring directly at the viewer (long haired beardy guy) and he actually looks kind of hot!). Also, Dürer absolutely sucked at drawing children. They were so, so creepy, and I loved it. I honestly think I prefer terrible art to good art, whatever that says about me. And despite the rhino not being included, we did actually see quite a few animal sketches in the end, including a baboon with a glowing pink ass, which I certainly can’t complain about.

   

But for £20 (or even the £10 I actually paid), I was expecting an exhibition that told more of a story. Whilst most of Dürer’s pieces were great, I like to leave an exhibition feeling that I’ve learned something, which was not the case here. This was possibly my own fault for not paying more attention, but most religious art makes my eyes glaze over (unless someone is being actively martyred or carrying their own severed breasts on a platter. That I can get behind!); since most of the non-Dürer art was generic Renaissancey religious stuff (that was all I saw on the whole of my visit to the Louvre, just an endless corridor of religious art. Ugh. I’m sure there’s good stuff there somewhere, but I never found it!), my attention span was limited. I can only give it 3/5 at best, and that’s being generous and taking the pink baboon bum into consideration.

 

Cleveland, OH: Cleveland History Center Revisit

The only other museum I visited during my trip to Cleveland was the Cleveland History Center, also located in Cleveland’s University Circle (museum and university district), and also strictly enforcing mask wearing. I went to visit this with my mother the day before I left, when I was already stressing about the flight, the Covid test, and having to say goodbye to everyone (complete with the inevitable guilt trips about living so far away), so visiting a museum was actually a very nice distraction for a couple of hours. The Cleveland History Center, formerly the Western Reserve Historical Society and Crawford Auto Aviation Museum (you can see why they changed their name) is up there with the Cleveland Museum of Art in terms of my most visited museums in Cleveland. I went to the art museum loads in my teens and twenties because it was free and a good way to spend a Sunday afternoon, but I went way more to WRHS as a kid because it had something for everyone. Not to play into gender stereotypes, but it typically would be my father, grandpa, and brother looking at the cars, whilst me, my mother, and grandma checked out the fashion gallery and the 1911 Hay-McKinney Mansion, which is attached to the museum. Except for the car collection and the mansion, which weren’t open during our visit, the Cleveland History Center primarily hosts temporary exhibitions, all included in the $15 admission price, along with unlimited rides on the carousel (yes, a museum with a carousel inside! Shame it wasn’t there when I was a kid, or I’d have loved this place even more).

 

Because we’re both interested in historic fashion, we started with the Chisholm-Halle Costume Wing, which was home to “Amanda Wicker: Black Fashion Design in Cleveland” at the time of our visit. Amanda Wicker was a Black fashion designer who moved to Cleveland in 1924, where she lived until her death in 1987, and was very active in supporting the Black community, both by working with groups like NAACP and the National Urban League, and by mentoring Black women who were interested in fashion design. There were only fifteen outfits in this exhibition, so it was a bit more spread out than usual, but the clothes here were gorgeous. I loved the dress with the fur shrug and the wedding dress, which had a beautiful collar.

  

The next couple of galleries were a bit confusing, because they weren’t obviously a part of any of the exhibitions, but they were also different than the things that were there the last time I visited. I assume they were just a rotating display from the museum’s permanent collections, but a bit of context might have been nice. At any rate, it was a display of hats from now-defunct area department stores and paintings by local artists, though this didn’t seem to be a part of the Cleveland artists exhibition that was in its own gallery quite a distance away, so who knows? I especially liked the painting of the West Side Market, done shortly before it opened in 1912.

  

We did go to see “Honoring Our Past: The Golden Age of Cleveland Art 1900-1945” next, which I had read about in The Plain Dealer before our visit. I’m kind of obsessed with all the art deco posters of Cleveland made to advertise various air shows and the Great Lakes Exposition back in Cleveland’s heyday in the 1930s, which the museum has hanging above their car/plane collection, so I guess I was hoping for more of that sort of thing, but that was not what I got. Instead, it was art by people who lived in Cleveland, but not necessarily images of Cleveland, which meant a lot of it was fairly meh landscapes. However, there were a few pieces I did like, especially Margaret Bourke White’s photograph of the Goodyear Blimp Hangar. I love her photography – I have her photo of the Terminal Tower whilst it was still under construction hanging on my wall at home.

 

There were also quite a few pieces here by William Sommer, who lived near to where my parents live, in the Brandywine Valley of Ohio (not to be confused with the more famous Brandywine Valley in Pennsylvania), and we enjoyed trying to see if any of his landscapes matched up to areas we knew, but I think they would be unremarkable if you weren’t familiar with the area. I did like the art deco tea set though (not by William Sommer).

 

“Women and Politics: Empowered to Vote, Empowered to Lead” was a small exhibition about the women’s rights movement in Cleveland. There were some great artefacts here, particularly the fab outfit worn by local women’s rights activist Mertice Laffer to a suffrage parade in 1914 (below), the collection of first lady dolls, and the homemade banners. There was an old-school voting machine on display as well, which honestly would have confused the crap out of me if I had to use it. I can see why it came with an instruction manual for first time voters! Honestly, I’ve never voted in person in America, so I don’t even know what the system is, but judging by the overseas voter ballots I have to fill out, I get the impression it’s more complicated than in the UK (I was still in anarchist “the whole system is evil and I’m not taking part in it” mode when I moved to the UK thirteen years ago, so I didn’t actually vote for the first time until I was well into my 20s, and it’s always been by postal ballot for US elections. I have voted in person in British elections since becoming a citizen in 2016, however).

 

Because the auto museum section is currently undergoing renovation, the only other exhibition here I hadn’t already seen was on motorcycles, but my interest level in those is pretty damn low, so I didn’t really take pictures. How great is that Cleveland Car poster though? Finally, even though I get pretty bad motion sickness, I knew my mother wanted to ride the carousel, so I agreed to go on once with her. The carousel is from Euclid Beach Amusement Park, a beloved Cleveland institution that went out of business long before I was born, but my grandparents had a book about it that I used to read all the time, and it’s exactly the sort of old-timey amusement park I wish I could have visited. I guess the carousel is the closest I’ll get, and I love that the interior is decorated with illustrations of Cleveland landmarks (I ended up right next to the Garfield Monument in Lake View Cemetery, one of my favourite places in Cleveland, though it wasn’t at all intentional because I picked my spot based solely on the horse I wanted). It wasn’t moving all that fast, so it wouldn’t have been that bad had some creepily overzealous employee (or volunteer?) who approached my mother and I before we got on to bore us with facts about the carousel that were already on the signage, not been standing alongside the gate leering at me for the entire ride, so that I had to studiously look away from him at the mirror next to me which meant I felt a bit sicker than I would have otherwise, but I was basically fine. Just a little woozy. Creeper then proceeded to follow us off the ride and start trying to tell us even more about the collections, and when we finally lost him (or so we thought), he reappeared one final time, when my mother for some reason felt compelled to tell him my whole life story, so I sincerely hope he doesn’t turn up on my doorstep in London. Ugh.

 

Other than the creepy volunteer or whatever he was, this was a fun visit, and a good way to spend my final day in Cleveland for a while. This is another museum in Cleveland I’d definitely recommend visiting – we haven’t got too many of them, but the ones we do have are mostly pretty decent!