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Hamburg, Germany: The Emigration Museum

I spent last week in Hamburg, a holiday I had booked at the start of March at a time when I was worried that we might be leaving the EU before the holiday took place, so I wanted to be sure that even if the shit hit the fan, I’d be somewhere organised enough that getting in and out of the country wouldn’t be too much trouble (having had a hellish experience using the non-EU passport queue in Rome some years ago, before I had British citizenship). I hope I’m not being too horrible about national stereotypes, but Germany seemed to fit the bill in terms of efficiency. Having already been to Berlin and Munich, I decided on Hamburg. In addition to being the home of the franzbrotchen (a type of cinnamon roll I am very enthusiastic about, of which you will no doubt hear more in a future post), it is also a former Hanseatic League city, and of course a port city with an interesting history and quite a few museums, so I was sure we’d find plenty to do.

Because it was a port that ran various ships to the Americas, it also attracted a number of immigrants on their way to a new life, including my great-grandmother (my maternal grandmother’s mother), who had travelled from the Galicia region of Poland in order to catch a ship to the US. In 1898, Albert Ballinn, the General Director of the HAPAG shipping company (HAPAG stands for Hamburg-Amerikanische Packetfahrt-Actien-Gesellschaft, which is probably why it acquired the acronym in the first place) started to have emigration halls constructed on an island near Hamburg for the emigrants to stay in as they waited for their ships, a complex that became known as Ballinstadt. This was not so much done out of the goodness of Ballinn’s heart, but rather to make extra money for the firm, prevent the emigrants from mingling with the Hamburgers, and try to prevent the spread of disease (immigrants who were obviously sick on arrival in America would not be allowed in, and had to be returned to Europe at HAPAG’s expense, so it made financial sense to try to keep them healthy). The Emigration Halls fell out of use after WWII (after they were taken over by the SS, that was obviously the end of emigration, and during the war they were used as POW camps), and became a Portuguese restaurant in the 1980s. Eventually, in 2004, Hamburg city government purchased the property and turned it into a museum on emigration.

I knew that my great-grandmother had departed Europe through Hamburg (I suspect my maternal grandfather’s parents did as well, I just haven’t found their records) so I was eager to see this museum. She died before I was born, so I never met her, but I wanted to get a taste of things she might have experienced. We took the S-Bahn out from central Hamburg to Veddel Island, and found Ballinstadt only a short walk away (which was fortunate, because it was extremely cold and windy throughout our visit). Admission to the museum is €13, though we purchased Hamburg Cards at the airport (we normally don’t buy city passes, but these included free public transport for the duration of our stay and discounts at every museum we were planning on visiting, so in this case it was worth our while) which got us €2 off. I had read in advance that none of the signage in the museum was in English, and I was bit apprehensive when I saw an English guidebook for sale at the front desk for €9.90, because I thought €11 was enough money to be spending on a museum where I couldn’t read anything, but we were provided with a booklet containing English translations for most of the main signage free of charge, so perhaps the guidebooks were for those who wanted additional information.

The museum was spread out over the three remaining dormitory buildings, and only the first building told the story of Ballinstadt, which was what I was most interested in learning about, the other two buildings being a more general emigration museum. There were small numbers on each panel that you’re meant to match up with your booklet to find the English translation of the text – though in sections where they weren’t many images or things to look at on the signage, I just parked myself on a seat (which you can spot me doing throughout the posts – my feet hurt!) and read all the room’s captions in one go. Life at the Emigration Halls definitely sounded grim – whilst the accommodations, after being expanded in 1908, were sanitary, they didn’t seem to have been particularly pleasant to live in. Emigrants were not permitted to leave the complex, and were forced to undergo regular medical examinations. There were parks, a church, and occasional concerts, so the emigrants had some opportunity for recreation, but most of their time was spent preparing for their upcoming voyage, though since they weren’t allowed off the premises, they had to buy everything at the HAPAG shop (and I’m sure they weren’t offered the lowest prices). And then of course most of them (including my great-grandmother) were travelling in steerage or ‘tween decks, which by the early 20th century were cleaner and less cramped than those on earlier ships, but were definitely still no picnic. Ballinn himself was the person who came up with the idea of using the ‘tween decks on HAPAG’s cargo ships to transport emigrants, as they weren’t fit for any other purpose (though were apparently just fine for people) – he said he would have been financially ruined had it not been for the ‘tween deck passengers (he was actually financially ruined by the First World War, and ended up committing suicide in November 1918).

All of the information about Ballinstadt was super interesting to me, but as I’ve mentioned, it was solely contained to the first hall. The second hall was the largest by far, and was initially primarily about pull-factors and push-factors that lead people to migrate. This building seemed very modern, with bold displays and interactive elements where you were supposed to insert a special card at different stations, but we were never given this card, perhaps because the screens were only in German, which we obviously didn’t speak. It was still fun to walk through and see all the different displays, especially the large ship in the middle of the hall moored inside a small indoor pond, which you could board, but I wish they could have offered something interactive for everyone, especially as it’s not difficult to provide translations for something that’s already on a computer.

I found the section on Ellis Island informative, especially the list of questions that immigrants would have been asked when they arrived (I’ve been trying my best to use “emigrants” and “immigrants” correctly throughout this post, but I find the distinction between them a little bit confusing, so sorry if I’ve made any errors), but I found that as the museum progressed, less and less of the material had translations available. By the time we entered the third hall, which contained a temporary exhibition, virtually nothing had been translated in our booklets except for the stories of various immigrants in one of the rooms, which I very much enjoyed (one of them was from a German man who immigrated to Cleveland because he was offered a job after helping to save 25 people’s lives during a maritime disaster). The last section before the gift shop contained computers where you could search HAPAG’s records (via Ancestry), and I was able to confirm that my great-grandmother did in fact come through here (I knew she had come to the US on the President Lincoln, out of Hamburg, but didn’t have proof that she had stayed in Ballinstadt. Now I know she did) in 1910 at the age of 16, travelling alone to the US. I wish I had asked my grandma whilst she was alive if she knew anything about her mother’s immigration experience, because I bet it was an interesting story.

Though I enjoyed this museum on the whole, I must admit I am perplexed as to why nothing inside the museum was in English. I always struggle with what to say about museums in foreign countries that don’t have English translations, because of course they’re not obligated to provide them – I know of few museums in the UK that bother to have signage in anything but English – and I don’t want to be the ugly American or Brit who demands them, but if they want to attract tourism, I always think it’s a good idea, because I know that I’m personally hesitant to pay to visit a museum unless I’m confident I’ll be able to read at least some of the signage. In the case of Ballinstadt, I think it really doesn’t make any sense at all to not offer English right on the signage. I know they’re trying to be a more general emigration museum than just the story of Ballinstadt, but I’m sure there are plenty of people like me out there who have ancestors who stayed in Ballinstadt and want to know more. And, as I learned in the museum, although some people ended up in South America, the vast majority of emigrants who passed through here were bound for the US and Canada, where their descendants now speak English, so I’m not sure why they’re not doing more to cater for these visitors. We were the only people in the museum for most of our visit, and when a few people turned up near the end, they were all evidently German-speaking, so I can’t imagine they’re attracting many foreign tourists as it stands.

I guess I should be glad that at least they offer the booklet for free, and that the displays were visually engaging, even if I couldn’t always understand them. Having recently visited the Migration Museum in London, I’m tempted to compare the two, but they’re such different experiences – one in established premises with informative factual displays, the other an art installation in a warehouse that focuses more on stories and emotion – that I think it’s better not to. I’ll give the museum 3/5, but I suspect that score would have been higher if I spoke German, and was able to read and use everything in here, so I’ll just have to hope they improve the interactivity for all visitors in future. Regardless, it was neat to stand somewhere my great-grandmother did and contemplate her experience here, but I think visitors without that personal connection might not have gotten as much out of it as I did.

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London: “Van Gogh and Britain” @ Tate Britain

I don’t think I even need to say how much I love Van Gogh to anyone who reads this blog regularly, but yes, I love Van Gogh! And so Marcus booked us tickets to go see the new exhibition at Tate Britain, “Van Gogh and Britain” whilst there were still tickets to be had (I assume there are still tickets at this point, since it runs til 11th August, but I also know that exhibitions in London can completely book up if you’re not careful to get in early). Because Van Gogh is such a big name that they can get away with it, admission is definitely on the pricier side at £22, though fortunately they do offer discounts for National Art Pass holders, so we got in for £11. And yes, we did have to stand in the queue you see above, even with pre-booked tickets, but it moved quickly.

The purpose of the exhibition, as you may have guessed from the title, was to cover both Van Gogh’s experiences whilst living in London (between 1873 and 1876) and his posthumous influence on British artists of the early-mid 20th century. Van Gogh moved to London when he was 20 to work for an art dealer, which lasted for two years until he was dismissed (he was developing increasingly radical ideas about art, which proved incompatible with his position) and dabbled with preaching and teaching in Isleworth and Ramsgate. Although he never returned to Britain after 1876 (he left before he had even begun painting, though he did make little sketches whilst he was here, some of which were on display), the experiences he had here clearly shaped his life and art, especially the time he spent visiting museums. The exhibition had his signature in the Dulwich Picture Gallery guestbook on show, as you can see above (I can definitely read the “Gogh” and maybe a “van”, but that doesn’t look like “Vincent” to me. Honestly, it looks more like Theo Van Gogh, but they said it was Vincent, so I’ll go with it).

The first four rooms contained a mix of Van Gogh’s paintings and paintings that he saw whilst visiting London that inspired him, some of which he copied in his own style whilst learning to develop as an artist. As you can see, calling this exhibition crowded is an understatement, but due to how things were laid out, I found that I was able to slip in and look at paintings with relative ease. However, although it was clearly beneficial for me as a blogger, and I know I often complain when exhibitions don’t allow photography, in this particular instance, I felt it would have been a much better experience without it. People were just standing in front of the paintings for ages whilst trying to get that perfect shot, and not even looking at what was right in front of them, which really annoyed me – especially because Van Gogh has a tendency to make me a bit emotional, and I wish everyone could take the time to really appreciate his talent for finding beauty in the mundane.

Like me, Van Gogh had a bit of a love-hate relationship with London. He said, “I often felt low in England, but the Black and White and Dickens [“black and white” meaning British prints] are things that make up for it all.” The exhibition contained quotes excerpted from Van Gogh’s many letters, to great effect, and even some facsimiles of his letters, the originals being too fragile to travel (Van Gogh spoke four languages, including English, so the ones here were written in English, and I enjoyed reading them). He discovered Gustav Doré’s engravings of London, and absolutely fell in love with them, collecting as many as he could afford. He even made his own version of Doré’s print of prisoners exercising at Newgate, as seen above right. There was also a painting of the Victoria Embankment (above left) about which Van Gogh said, “A couple of days ago we got a painting by De Nittis, a view of London on a rainy day…I crossed Westminster Bridge every morning and evening, and know what it looks like when the sun’s setting behind Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament, and what it’s like early in the morning, and in the winter with snow and fog. When I saw this painting, I felt how much I love London.” Which sums up how I feel when I cross over Hungerford Bridge at night. Oh, Vincent.

Like I said, it’s not hard for me to get emotional over Van Gogh, and that’s definitely what happened when I read the caption on the painting of a “sorrowing old man,” based on an earlier lithograph he did of a war veteran he sometimes used as a model. According to one of his doctors, when Van Gogh was mentally unwell, “he usually sits with his head in his hands, and if someone speaks to him, it is as though it hurts him, and he gestures for them to leave him alone.” Just like the man in his painting, which he did when he was staying at Saint-Paul Hospital. Reading that just about broke my heart.

There were lots of pieces here that I’d never seen before, including one of the hospital at Saint-Remy that I visited last year, which was one of my favourite pieces in this exhibition. I also really loved the sketch of Vincent and his brother Theo, done by Vincent’s friend Lucien Pissarro, which is thought to be the only image of the brothers together (and it’s gratifying to see that Vincent looks pretty much as he does in his self-portraits, so the picture we all have of him in our heads is probably fairly accurate).

My favourite part of the exhibition was definitely the half on Van Gogh and Britain, rather than on British artists and Van Gogh, but there were still some Van Gogh paintings to enjoy in the final five rooms, although they were heavily interspersed with those by British artists influenced by the Post-Impressionists. Obviously I enjoy the Post-Impressionists myself, but I still had to laugh at the cartoon showing “Post-Impressions of the Post-Impressionists” based on the first time these paintings were shown in London in 1910, twenty years after Van Gogh’s death.

There was a whole room devoted to Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, which was first exhibited in 1924 in the original location of the National Gallery at Millbank, in what is now the Tate. Since the painting moved with the National Gallery to Trafalgar Square in the 1960s, this is the first time it has made the trip back across town. The National Gallery was given permission to buy the painting by Theo Van Gogh’s widow Johanna (Theo died only six months after Vincent), who devoted the rest of her life to promoting Vincent’s work, and offered the museum the painting only a year before she died.

I’ve stuck to mainly including Van Gogh’s paintings throughout this post, but I had to show you this painting of a young Roald Dahl by Matthew Smith (above right), which was heavily influenced by Van Gogh’s style. In fact, the last room was entirely pieces by British painters, mainly Francis Bacon, not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I felt like I had to return to the room before it to look at some of Van Gogh’s work again so I could leave on a high note. There was some discussion in here of how Van Gogh’s mental illness affected British perceptions of him throughout the 20th century, which I thought was quite interesting, and I would have enjoyed hearing more about it, though I suppose that topic could (and apparently has, judging on some of the books on display!) fill a book.

The shop had some nice merchandise, including the very expensive, but very cute crocheted Vincent doll (I went for the cheaper miniature key chain version, but he was still £8!), and I also went home with a print of the above self-portrait. The exhibition mentioned that the last Van Gogh exhibition at the Tate, in 1947, attracted 5000 visitors a day, and judging by all the people that were there when I visited, I could easily imagine this exhibition surpassing it. I didn’t love the experience of visiting because of the crowds and the issue with people taking photos (which I know is a bit hypocritical since I had Marcus take photos for the post too, but I would have been perfectly fine with no one being allowed to take photos in this instance) – lest you think I’m exaggerating, have a look at the collage Marcus made, below. It was a fairly big exhibition, and I’m delighted I got to see so many Van Gogh pieces, including some that had never been on public display before, but I’m still glad I only paid £11, because £22 is an awful lot of money (and to be fair, I spent more than £11 on stuff from the shop, so they got the full admission fee out of me in one way or another)! Nonetheless, I think the exhibition was well done, and I especially appreciated all the text, which can be rare in an art exhibition – thanks to Van Gogh’s eloquent letters, I feel I understand certain aspects of his life better, particularly the time he spent in London.  I liked that the exhibition focused largely on the lesser-known parts of Van Gogh’s life, since I think most people who are willing to pay £22 to see a Van Gogh exhibition are familiar with the most well known parts of his life story by now, and don’t need to re-read it fifty times. And of course, Van Gogh’s art is always gloriously moving. So, 3.5/5 for the exhibition, even with the issues with the crowds.

London: Pitzhanger Manor and Gallery

 

I think we’ve established by now that I am not the sort of person that gets invited to premieres. However, because my friend works at Pitzhanger Manor, I was invited to their opening weekend (this wasn’t an exclusive event though, I hasten to add – anyone was allowed to book a spot, provided they did so early enough), and I was very happy to attend and feel like one of the special people for once, even though it takes about an hour to get to Ealing from where I live.

 

Pitzhanger Manor was John Soane’s country estate from 1800-1810 (because back then, Ealing was in the country instead of just being absorbed into the sprawl of London), and a place where he could show off his architectural skills to potential clients (Soane is known for designing the Bank of England and Dulwich Picture Gallery, amongst various other things). He actually worked on a wing of the house as a young apprentice, and this was the only part of the original 1768 building that he left intact after moving in. Soane was forced to sell the house after only ten years for a number of reasons, which I’ll get to later, and it passed through a number of hands over the years (including the daughters of Spencer Perceval, who has the unhappy distinction of being the only Prime Minister to be assassinated) before being taken over by Ealing Council in 1900. They decided to turn one wing into a library (which is one of the few acceptable uses of a historic home, presuming they leave the interiors intact as much as possible) which remained open until 1984, when it was decided to restore the house and open it as a museum. It opened in 1987, only to be closed again in 2015 for a major restoration/conservation project, and it finally re-opened on 16 March 2019, which is when I went to see it.

Pitzhanger will normally cost £7.70 to visit, but was free on opening weekend, which is one of the reasons it was completely booked up, with a queue of people waiting to get in if there were cancellations. I breezed past them all, because I was on the list (again, the same list that anyone could have gotten on by pre-booking. I’m really not any kind of VIP, though I like to pretend). I met up with my friend shortly after arriving, and she was obviously super busy and kept getting stopped by visitors to answer their questions, but she still managed to give me a little tour of the house, which I appreciated. The interior of the house is fairly empty – this is mainly because the vast majority of John Soane’s possessions reside in his house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, which is also a museum (which I still haven’t gotten around to blogging about! I guess I’m due for another visit), but the rooms have been painstakingly restored, and there are a lot of gorgeous features. My friend explained how Soane’s architectural style was heavily influenced by the time he spent in Italy during his Grand Tour, and that one of the ceilings in the house was modelled on the Italian sky.

 

You can see a bit of that sky ceiling in a corner of the photo above left, but my personal favourite feature in the house was the fabulous hand-painted bird wallpaper in the Upper Drawing Room, followed closely by the ceiling in the “Eating Room,” below left (which is what the dining room is called – maybe Soane liked to keep things casual?). I still desperately want a house with some Georgian blue and Scheele’s green interiors (though preferably sans the actual arsenic). John Soane and his wife Eliza were circulating whilst we were at Pitzhanger (or, you know, some actors playing them), so we had to get a picture with Soane that mimicked our photo with the actual Gary Oldman (which I realise most of you probably haven’t seen, because I only put it on my personal Facebook, but it’s a good one!), with Soane in place of Oldman.

But Pitzhanger isn’t just an historic home – it’s also an art gallery (the £7.70 admission price I mentioned includes both house and gallery)! The wing that used to be Ealing’s library has been turned into a gallery space, and the inaugural exhibition is by Anish Kapoor. I have to confess that whilst I certainly recognise Kapoor’s name, I’m not terribly familiar with his work, and this is the first exhibition of his that I’ve seen. I read before going that his “sculptures echo Soane’s complex use of mirrors and light and will enable visitors to Pitzhanger to see Soane’s architecture from a fresh perspective,” and I must have skimmed over the part about the mirrors, because what I was expecting from “sculptures” was certainly not this!

To be honest, at first glance I was underwhelmed, because it just appeared to be some mirrors on a wall. But after interacting with them, I realised they were actually pretty fun! I’m not sure if I necessarily saw the connection to Pitzhanger Manor, but it didn’t really matter because they were a good time, and people inside were really friendly due to obviously enjoying themselves as well (a lady offered to take our photo, as seen above).

 

The only critical comment I would make is that aside from an introductory panel to the exhibition, there was virtually no text inside, but I guess sometimes it’s better to experience than to just stand there reading something (my friend also told me they had a problem with people touching the mirrors and leaving fingerprints, so please, look but don’t touch!). The gallery is also home to the shop, which features quite a lot of merchandise inspired by the bird wallpaper, because why wouldn’t you highlight your most fabulous feature?

After finishing with the art gallery, we returned to the house to explore a few of the rooms in a bit more detail, including the basement, which talked about Soane’s desire to become a hermit (he apparently used to hide down there or wander his gardens pretending to be one, which I can certainly relate to), which is perhaps indicative of his mental state near the time he decided to sell Pitzhanger. He was feeling depressed because both his sons were ne’er do well types who had no desire to follow in his footsteps and become architects, as he was hoping, and because Eliza was suffering from ill health and disliked being in the country. I’m sorry that Soane had such a hard time of it, but I did like all the masks on the walls used to illustrate his changing moods.

Because my friend works here and gave me a special tour which is probably not the normal Pitzhanger experience, I don’t think it would be right for me to give Pitzhanger a score, as I normally would. But I will tell you what I liked and disliked. It is a gorgeous house, and it is clear that a lot of love and care have gone into its restoration. I also think the inaugural art exhibition is fun and interactive, but not very much else in the house was. There were a few areas for children to get more involved, and the Eating Room had some sound effects, but other than a few faux old books you could flip through to learn more about Soane’s life, and a neat little moving timeline diorama, there wasn’t a whole lot for adults to do other than admire the property. I think they would do well in future to try to get a few more artefacts and things in (maybe Soane’s Lincoln’s Inn Fields House could loan something?) to make the house more of an experience, because for £7.70, it is fairly small (there were only a couple of rooms open on each floor, maybe seven rooms overall?), even with the art gallery attached. Still, I’m glad I got to check it out on opening weekend, and thoroughly enjoyed my experience there, thanks in no small part to my friend.

 

London: “Room to Breathe” @ the Migration Museum

The Migration Museum is part of a project that was started in 2013 to help tell the stories of immigrants in Britain (London in particular). They have had an exhibition space in Lambeth since 2017, but I’m sorry to say I hadn’t made it there until now. They bill themselves as “the UK’s first museum dedicated to exploring how the movement of people to and from Britain across the ages has shaped who we are as individuals – and as a nation,” and though I am aware of an earlier immigration museum located at 19 Princelet Street in London, I think they have a point. The Princelet Street Museum is only open to the public one or two days a year, and I’m not even sure if they do that anymore, since their website hasn’t been updated since 2017. Believe me, since I work in a local authority-run museum, I understand all too well the many challenges facing the museum sector these days, but as a volunteer manager, I am also very aware of how many people are out there willing to give their time and effort to help museums function, and I’ve kind of lost patience with museums that almost never open to the public. If the public can’t access it, is it even serving its function as a museum? So I agree that the Migration Museum is the first proper immigration museum that people can actually visit!

The museum’s current home is a warehouse type space not far from the Garden Museum, called The Workshop (equidistant from Vauxhall and Lambeth North) – it also seems to be the future home of the London Fire Brigade Museum, as there were a few small displays set up in the downstairs area whilst we were there including one on the role of the AFS during the Blitz (interesting because I just finished reading Dear Mrs. Bird before my visit (formulaic, and Emmy got on my nerves, but it was still rather sweet) and the main character is a volunteer for the AFS). But since it’s not officially there yet, I’ll just be discussing the Migration Museum, which is located on the first floor of The Workshop, and is free to visit.

The building isn’t in the most attractive part of London (I find Vauxhall in general to feel a little like walking through a giant industrial estate) and the stairwell up to the museum wasn’t particularly promising either, but once we were inside, we were warmly welcomed and given an introduction to the exhibition. The gallery hosts one temporary exhibition at a time, and the current one is called “Room to Breathe” and runs until summer 2019 (their own vague date, not mine). From their website: “Room to Breathe is an immersive experience inviting you to discover stories from generations of new arrivals to Britain. Journey through a series of rooms filled with personal narratives and objects that bring to life the struggles, joys, creativity and resilience of living in a new land.”

You are encouraged to touch and interact with the objects in each room, which is in part set up like a house, with a bedroom followed by a kitchen. So I sat on the bed, petted the stuffed pig, had a look through some family photo albums, opened drawers, and just generally made myself at home. We were the only people in this space, so I really did feel like it was our own private room to explore, and took full advantage (I even discovered an EP of Falco’s “Rock Me Amadeus” in one of the drawers, which made me laugh, though I much prefer the version from the Planet of the Apes Musical). There were stories and experiences of various immigrants written on pieces of cloth hanging from objects throughout the room, and I enjoyed reading them all.

  

I thought the kitchen was great too, as each spice and ingredient on the shelves had someone’s personal story of immigration written on the back, as well as the reason that particular ingredient reminded them of their homeland. There were even some family recipes, and you were invited to write down your own favourite ingredient from home, though I don’t really think doughnuts and frozen custard count as ingredients, so I didn’t write anything. If you sat down at the table, it lit up and told the story of one family through a cartoon projected onto the table, which I thought was really cool. Apparently, they actually host cooking classes in this space (there’s one on Nigerian cooking on 10th April) which is a neat idea.

One of the rooms in here was an artists’ studio that is hosting different artists during the run of the exhibition. I believe Ceyda Oskay was the artist during our visit, though I think she’s only there in person on Sundays to lead craft sessions and various workshops. There was a table set up with watercolours and things where you could presumably make your own art, but there was a group in there at the time of our visit, so we didn’t really get a chance to participate, and instead headed into the school room, where we could read about people’s experiences of coming into the British educational system as immigrants, and the barbershop, where we got to sit in very comfortable barbers’ chairs, and watch someone else do the same on a screen in front of us, as they discussed their family stories of immigration (mine was a guy with a Hungarian mother speaking to his Turkish Cypriot barber).

Because the previously mentioned group was using the cafe and shop space for a conference, we weren’t able to go in to that area, so the last room of our visit was one where we were invited to write the name of someone who helped us when we needed it most on a box, and suspend it from the ceiling. Unfortunately, they were out of boxes, but the ones that were there looked really cool. There was also a board outside where you could write your story of migration, which I wanted to do, but they were out of paper for that too (they might have had more if I’d asked, but I didn’t bother). Also out here was a series of portraits of various immigrants, and I found the story of a woman who came over from the Czech Republic very relatable when she mentioned how even though Czechia was where she came from and she enjoyed going back for visits, because she’d been in Britain for so long, she felt her life was there now, and that was home. So when she goes back to Czechia she visits her family and a few close friends, but she doesn’t feel that she’s really a big part of their lives anymore, because she isn’t there, which is exactly how I feel. My life is very much in London now, and though I enjoy going back to Cleveland for visits, it doesn’t feel like home anymore. I’ve gradually fallen out of touch with all but my closest friends over the years, and I find that I have much more in common with my British friends and colleagues because I see them all the time, and we have the same sort of lifestyles. It can sometimes be hard going back “home” and feeling like you don’t belong there anymore, but that’s part of the immigrant experience, and the woman featured in the exhibition articulated it better than I am.

I know a lot of Americans cling to the expat label, but I have settled here and taken on citizenship – even though I occasionally get in moods where I talk about moving back because I get fed up with the cost of housing and how crowded everything is in London, when it comes down to it, I’m just not very motivated to return to the US. I’d hate to give up all my holiday time, for one thing! I know I’ve had an easier time of it than immigrants from many other countries, thanks to already speaking English (but harder than some due to all the visa processes I had to go through, which I was fine with because of all the other benefits of being in the EU. Sigh), but I do feel like more of an immigrant than an expat (the word expat seems to imply more of a temporary stay, where you don’t really try to interact with the locals, which is definitely not my experience), and I could definitely relate to many of the experiences discussed here. I think this is a wonderful project and a really fun exhibition to visit, and I hope they have luck in finding a permanent home because I think now more than ever, the contributions immigrants have made to Britain need to be recognised and celebrated. I’ll definitely be returning for any future exhibitions. 3.5/5.

I spotted this awesome carving on a building near the museum. I love the cat!

London: John Ruskin @ Two Temple Place


I hope you’re not sick of these annual shots of the exterior of Two Temple Place, because here’s another one. But really, I think we can all take another moment to appreciate that weather vane. I guess I’m never all that interested in the topics Two Temple Place chooses for its annual exhibition, but John Ruskin ranked near the bottom in terms of my interest levels (OK, he’s better than Eric Gill, but let’s face it, it’s not hard to top that molester), so I didn’t exactly rush out to see it. But it is free, and I’ve blogged about it every other year since discovering Two Temple Place existed, so I figured I might as well make the effort (really I blame that Ancient Egypt exhibit, which was the first thing I saw there, because it was really good and now I feel compelled to keep returning in hopes something else will match it, even though nothing else has come close).

I never know if photos will be allowed during a particular exhibition – it seems like every year when Marcus brings his camera, they aren’t allowing photography, and if he doesn’t have it, they do allow pictures, but this year the fates aligned and we had both camera and permission to use it (although photos were still not allowed of about a third of the items there due to copyright reasons).  “John Ruskin: The Power of Seeing” runs until the 22nd April, and clearly waiting a bit into the exhibition’s run to go see it did nothing to reduce the crowds, as it was really really full when we walked inside, though it probably didn’t help (hurt?) that it was a really nice day outside (for February).

  

All I knew about John Ruskin going in was that he was in with the Pre-Raphaelite crowd, and that he was disgusted by vaginas, or at least, his wife Effie Gray’s vagina, as their marriage was allegedly never consummated, so I was eager to learn more (Effie later married Millais, and had eight children with him, so I don’t think she was really the problem). And whilst I did learn more about certain aspects of his life, I still felt the exhibition was very lacking as a whole when it came to biographical detail. About his marriage to the aforementioned Effie, for example, all it said was that he had produced a particular series of drawings whilst honeymooning with Effie in Venice. Nothing about the annulment or controversies surrounding his marriage (I could understand why they didn’t want to get into the nitty gritty of his sex life (or lack thereof), as it’s a fairly hoity toity venue, but they could have at least mentioned that the marriage wasn’t a happy one).

But it certainly did go into Ruskin’s interests, which were apparently pretty much everything, including geology, art, architecture, botany, social reform, politics, literature, birds, and many others – pretty much everything except sex by the looks of it, though there are rumours out there about some unsavoury proclivities he may have had (on Wikipedia, not in the exhibition, of course). He was friends with JMW Turner and other artists, and was also a lecturer at Oxford, though apparently he suffered from mental illness as he aged, and people would attend his lectures just to mock him, which made me feel bad for him.

As you may have guessed from the long list of subjects he saw fit to write about, Ruskin was a man of strong passions, and also hated a number of things, fifteen of which were listed on the signage shown above, and this gave me the only laugh of the exhibition (not really a complaint, because I wasn’t expecting the subject matter to be funny, so maybe I should rephrase that as being happy I got a chuckle out of it at all). The things Ruskin loathed (mostly architecture-related) are mostly not the sort of things on which I have strong opinions of my own (surprising, I know), but I’m not overly keen on rail travel – it beats air travel, which I’m sure Ruskin would have hated even more, but I’m still not keen on sharing personal space with strangers for a significant length of time. Especially the type of people who talk on their phones in the quiet carriage, who are the worst.

  

For a man with such a clearly defined aesthetic, there actually didn’t seem to be all that much art by John Ruskin within the exhibition – much of it was simply by contemporaries he admired, or modern artists from Sheffield, which is where Ruskin lived and created a museum, and is from where many of these pieces were on loan. But he did produce some lovely botanical and geological illustrations – Marcus particularly admired his drawings of cleavage (in rocks, that is) – and he was clearly a man who understood ducks, judging by his delightful description of them: “you have to consider whether the bird altogether may not be more than a fat, cheerful little stomach, and a spotted waistcoat with legs to it…fat, floating, daintiest darlings.”

  

This exhibition also seemed to be a bit smaller than they usually are. I do feel like they shrink every year, but this one had definitely left out a room or two, as I distinctly remember passing through two or three rooms upstairs before arriving in the main gallery in the past, and this year there was only one room before it, and that room had a handful of objects in, but no captions. Like I always say, I wanted more information throughout, but I suspect they purposely keep captions short to try to sell their own guidebooks (which I’m sure are lovely, but I’m just not willing to spend that kind of money for something I’m going to look through once).

  

And whilst I think Two Temple Place is a fabulous building, I’m not crazy about the atmosphere. It always seems to be full of rich, snobby old white people who feel entitled to block your view of something for as long as they want to, and are wilfully oblivious to your attempts to see around them. Some of that may be because of the time of day I normally visit, but I always visit museums on a week day if I can, and I generally see a more varied audience than this. The people working there are sometimes nice, but more typically, they’re more like old-school art gallery stewards, eager to pounce for any minor infraction, which also makes me feel uncomfortable. I’d really like it if they took this amazing space and used it in a way that was more inviting and might attract more diverse audiences, because John Ruskin, British Jazz, and Eric Gill (especially Eric Gill, blech!) really aren’t big crowd pleasers.

After viewing this exhibition, I do feel a bit more sympathetic towards Ruskin, as no one deserves to be mocked for their mental illness, but I definitely don’t think he’s going to top my list of favourite artists or writers any time soon (especially if some of the rumours about him are true). As always, I wanted more content, and a more relaxed attitude from staff (volunteers?) and visitors alike. I wanted to score this somewhere between “Sussex Modernism” and “Rhythm and Reaction,” but I see I’ve given the former 2.5/5, and the latter 3/5, so that really leaves me nowhere to go. So I’ll opt for 2.5/5, because I remember “Rhythm and Reaction” as being a bit more interesting, though I liked the art here better than that of “Sussex Modernism,” especially the wall of bird drawings and that fabulous bird lampshade (below left).

 

London: “Cats on the Page” and P.G. Wodehouse @ the BL

Everybody likes cats, right? Hell, even I like cats, and I’m allergic to them (and I hate most things, but let’s ignore that for now). I also like P.G. Wodehouse – I was even a member of the P.G. Wodehouse Society for a while until I got sick of paying the (modest) membership fee – though I wish he could have just spelled his damn name Woodhouse and saved everyone some trouble. So I wanted to make sure I got up to the British Library to see both “Cats on the Page” and the small display on Wodehouse in the “Treasures of the British Library” gallery before they came to an end. I also really wanted to get a piece of bakery from Outsider Tart’s stall at the market that’s normally at King’s Cross from Wednesday-Friday, so I specifically timed my visit to correspond with that, only to find no sign of the market with no indication of why that might be on social media. I assume it was because of the shitty windy rainy weather, but at least have the courtesy to mention that to people who might have made a special trip! So I swallowed my (considerable) annoyance, and headed to the BL, since I was already there, after all (and I totally made my own blondies when I got home, but it would be nice to have cake I didn’t have to make myself for a change).

“Tabby’s Breakfast Time”

I started with the Wodehouse display, which was even smaller than I expected – just one case. But it was free, along with the rest of the “Treasures” gallery, so I can’t complain too much. It contained a very brief biography of Wodehouse that seemingly spent most of the time defending him from accusations of being a Nazi sympathiser (because he agreed to make a series of radio broadcasts over German radio during the war about his time in an internment camp), and rightly so, because I really don’t think he was, based on his delightful send-up of Oswald Mosley and his idiotic Blackshirts via the medium of Roderick Spode, but devoting so much space to it in such a small display made it look a bit as though they were protesting too much. Nonetheless, I enjoyed seeing some of Wodehouse’s personal correspondence and manuscripts of some of his books, so it was still worthwhile for a Wodehouse fan, just probably not enough to justify a special trip. But the rest of the “Treasures” gallery is great (even though I think by putting the name in quotation marks, it makes it look as though I’m being sarcastic). I don’t think I’ve blogged about it before, probably because they don’t allow photography, and I’m pretty sure the displays change frequently, but highlights of what was there when I visited included Durer prints, some of Da Vinci’s sketches, an entire Shakespeare section, and even Magna Carta.

“Cats on the Page” was also a free display, and was located on the first floor of the entrance gallery. Photography wasn’t allowed of the objects here either (presumably for copyright reasons), but I’ve tried to include some I could find online. It was about various beloved cats from children’s literature, and some perhaps more unfamiliar books about cats, including a great (and creepy) one about a bunch of cats dying and coming back to life, because they still had eight lives left (it even included a drawing of their tombs, which of course had cats on them, though sadly I’ve not been able to find it to show you). I’m not that familiar with T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, though I know it inspired the musical Cats, which is not the kind of musical I enjoy (I love musicals, but not Andrew Lloyd Webber ones), so I was surprised to see that the original illustrations were actually rather charming, and nothing like the terrifying costumes from the stage musical.

This exhibition made me think that perhaps cats are more common in British children’s literature, because I don’t remember reading that many books about cats in my own youth (other than Tom Kitten, which is of course by a British author, and those books of Garfield comic strips that I loved for some reason, even though I don’t really find Garfield funny at all as an adult. That cartoon from the ’90s was pretty good though, and don’t get me started on those Garfield fruit snacks that they stopped making years ago. So delicious!), but maybe that was more because my mother doesn’t like cats so didn’t get those picture books for me, rather than any lack of American cat books. At any rate, I had certainly never encountered beloved British cat characters like Mog until after moving to the UK.

Letter by Edward Lear

This display was actually slightly bigger than expected, with fairly detailed captions and of course lots of illustrations spread throughout the whole middle section of the main hall, and there was even a small interactive station where you could try to identify different cat noises or sit and read one of a selection of cat books. The BL are also running a series of cat themed lectures to tie in with the display, though it looks like most of the interesting sounding ones are sold out. The main exhibition at the BL is still the Saxons one I saw a few months ago, but I did notice a King Edgar (with weirdly long crossed fingers that are never explained. We have the same drawing of him with the same creepy fingers in the museum where I work, and I’ve spent a lot of time trying to search for an explanation, and found nothing) all set up for photo ops, so I had a picture with him in the end, despite feeling very self-conscious because of a bench positioned immediately opposite full of people staring at me. The cat exhibition is a nice little display worth seeing if you’re in the area before 17th March (the Wodehouse display is already gone at time of posting), but definitely don’t make a trip expecting to buy a blondie from Real Food Market King’s Cross, because you will probably be disappointed. 3/5 for “Cats on the Page” and a big fat 0/5 for the Real Food Market’s lack of communication. What’s the point of having fifty different social media channels if you don’t use any of them to tell people you’re closed? Boo-urns.

Oh, and to end on a positive note, I saw Hanson last week for the first time ever (despite being OBSESSED with them I was 12, then not listening to them for about 17 years because I thought I was much too cool for that, and re-discovering them as an adult after I no longer cared if people thought I was lame, and I realised they’ve been putting out catchy albums the whole way, and oh yeah, grew up to be pretty hot, which definitely doesn’t hurt), and they were amazing! I’ve been missing out all these years, and will 100% catch them again the next time they’re in London.

London: “Good Grief, Charlie Brown” @ Somerset House

I know that there are a lot of people who are really into the Peanuts (judging by the likes I got on the photos I posted on Instagram alone), and I certainly grew up reading the comic strip and watching the holiday specials, but I was never the sort of person who liked them to the extent that I collected memorabilia, for example, like my uncle who was obsessed with Snoopy. Still, “Good Grief, Charlie Brown” at Somerset House, which ends 3rd March, looked promising, more promising than most of the things on in London at the moment, so I decided to pop along and check it out.

  

Despite getting my Master’s at King’s, which is right next door, I’d never actually been inside Somerset House before, in large part due to the price of their exhibitions. They don’t accept the Art Pass or take part in National Rail 2-for-1, and I am not a fan of paying full price. However, after a bit of searching, I was able to find a discount code on TravelZoo that at least reduced the price from £14 to £9. Not quite half-off, but I’ll take it!
  
And actually, though I still think £14 is perhaps a bit of a stretch, it is certainly a £9 exhibition, because the gallery space was very large and spread out over three levels. The woman working at front desk advised that it might take two and a half to three hours to see the exhibition, but their website says an hour to an hour and a half, which I think is much more accurate, since we were there for around an hour and fifteen minutes in the end, though I suppose Peanuts fanatics who wanted to watch all the videos on offer could easily be there upwards of two hours.
  
The exhibition opened with some biographical information about Charles Schulz’s life. He was born in Minnesota in 1922 to parents of German and Norwegian heritage. He was quite a shy child, not helped by the Norwegian side of his family telling him not to have many expectations in life (not because they thought he was incompetent, but because that was their general mindset), but overall seems to have had a reasonably happy upbringing, with the help of his dog, Spike, who he later used as an inspiration for Snoopy (one of his first published cartoons was a drawing of Spike for Ripley’s Believe it or Not, complete with a caption about how his dog ate tacks and needles, which I sincerely hope wasn’t true!). He discovered a real talent for drawing, and after completing a drawing correspondence course, which was his only formal training, and a stint in the army, started work as a cartoonist. His first cartoon was called L’il Folks, but he was forced to call it Peanuts instead as there was already a L’il Folks cartoon in syndication. He always hated the name though, thinking it made his strip seem trivial (and L’il Folks didn’t…?).
  
The next section talked more about Schulz’s drawing technique and how it evolved, and provided examples of some of his strips that preceded Peanuts. In addition to L’il Folks (god I hate that name. I’m glad he wasn’t allowed to use it) he also contributed a one-panel strip to a Christian publication, which was about as funny as you’d imagine (not very). Schulz was forced to adapt his technique over the years as he developed a tremor in the 1980s, but somehow the shakier lines worked just as well as the clean ones.
  
From here we progressed upstairs to a massive central hall housing most of the exhibition. We’d already been treated to a selection of Peanuts strips downstairs, but there were many many more up here, with a description under each about events that had been leading up to that particular strip, and how Schulz used them as social commentary. Whilst Schulz was originally fairly conservative, he grew to oppose the Vietnam War, and was a strong supporter of women’s rights and racial equality. Whilst he always retained a fondness for the Bible, he also was referring to himself as a humanist by the end of his life, and this was reflected in his strips. Honestly, I wish they still ran more of the earlier strips in the paper, because these ones were much funnier than the ones I remember reading when I was growing up.
  
The comic strip displays were accentuated by displays of modern art that had been inspired by Peanuts – a lot of them were fairly meh, but I was quite taken with one that showed Charlie Brown and Snoopy in quite a lot of interesting situations, such as Snoopy using a toilet with Charlie Brown’s face, because, like the artist, I have a fairly juvenile sense of humour. There were also displays of retro Peanuts merchandise, including items from the “Vote for Snoopy” campaign of the 1970s (until California outlawed writing in the names of fictional characters on the ballot), and some that I owned (hand-me-downs from my mother. Inheriting isn’t the same as wilfully collecting) like a set of posters and a sheet set (which was honestly my favourite one growing up, since I, too, hate mornings), although actually the die-hard Peanuts fans back then didn’t like how the strip became increasingly commercialised, and thought Schulz was a bit of a sell-out (he even opened a Snoopy themed ice rink in the town where he lived).
  
There were yet another set of stairs leading off this gallery with two larger art installations on either side of the hallway, though I would be hard-pressed to tell you what was going on in either of them, I just wish someone had told us if we were allowed to lay on the beds or not (I wasn’t bold enough to do anything more than perch on the edge). There was also a movie room showing an hour’s worth of Peanuts cartoons with loads of comfy looking bean bag chairs spread on the floor, so this is definitely somewhere I could see people spending a lot of time if they came with kids or didn’t grow up watching all the holiday specials like I did (they’re always on TV in the US, but I’m not sure about the UK. I’ve never noticed them). I only watched about five minutes before I got bored though, because it was during one of Snoopy’s Red Baron scenes, and I’ve always found those really dull (I’m not that keen on Snoopy generally, I have to say. He’s cute and all, but I much prefer the strips with the kids and actual dialogue in them).
  
After we finally made our way across the massive upstairs gallery, we got to the bit I was most excited about – the interactive section! This included an adult sized mock-up of Lucy’s psychiatrist stand, a tracing station where you could design your own strip, and a writing station where you could finish Snoopy’s “It was a dark and stormy night” story – not quite as much stuff as I was hoping for, but still an entertaining space.
  
I think the shop is probably fantastic for Peanuts fans, with a custom selection of clothing, pins, books, and the like, but I personally think wearing Peanuts stuff is not really my style (which is also how I feel about Disney stuff, although Disney is probably worse), so I didn’t buy anything (no offence if you’re into it – this is coming from a woman with a collection of sweaters with stupid animals on them, so I’m really not in a position to judge). As we were leaving, we passed a display of wooden Peanuts characters that you were encouraged to rearrange and have a selfie with, but I found angling myself in for a selfie with them was nigh-on impossible (you probably need one of those stupid sticks), so I just had Marcus take some photos instead. I’ve always thought of myself as a cross between Charlie Brown and Lucy (as illustrated by some of the comics I’ve included in this post), so those were the two I wanted photos with.
  
Overall, this exhibition was much bigger than I thought it would be, and despite the price and my annoyance at their lack of participation in most discount schemes, I would definitely return to Somerset House for future exhibitions. Though I was sort of down on the Peanuts going in, I left with a new respect for Schulz’s skill and gentle humour – actually, some of the strips were genuinely laugh out loud funny, which is more than I can say for most comic strips (except Pearls Before Swine, which I love, and of course Georgian cartoons, which are one of my favourite things ever, but those aren’t really comic strips), so I feel like a bit of a grinch for my initial lack of enthusiasm. If you’re a Peanuts fan in London, I’d say this is a don’t-miss exhibition, but I think almost anyone who likes newspaper comics could find something to enjoy here. 3.5/5.
  

London: “The Sun” @ the Science Museum

For someone who doesn’t think of themselves as a science person, I do seem to go to a lot of exhibitions at the Science Museum (of course, I don’t think of myself as a math(s) person either, but that seems to be what half my job consists of). But I suppose I am interested in the history of science, and that tends to be what most exhibitions there are about. I wasn’t too sure how much history they’d be able to work into their current special exhibition: “The Sun: Living with our Star,” but I was certainly willing to find out.
   
Based on our experience with “The Last Tsar,” when we discovered that the Science Museum is completely deserted after about 3pm, Marcus and I decided to visit “The Sun” mid-afternoon, which meant we could go out to dinner at Gopal’s Corner (sister restaurant in Victoria to the Roti King near Euston, which I speak about a lot on account of being addicted to their roti dhal) right after (though to be honest, I can happily eat dinner at like 3 or 4, since I skip lunch most days). And clearly once again, this was a good time to visit, as we were pretty much the only people inside the exhibition, apart from one annoying man who loomed over us in a goonish fashion whilst we were using one of the interactive elements, and when I politely moved away (even though I could happily have played with it longer) so he could have a turn, he left as well. I hate people.
 
Admission is £15, or half-off with the National Art Pass, which is pretty much the only reason I am able to visit so many special exhibitions (because there is no way I’d pay full price for all this stuff. I do have to pay for the National Art Pass, but I go to so many exhibitions that it’s worth it. Though if the National Art Fund wants to reach out and offer me a free pass, I’m all ears!). The exhibition opened with the “Days and Years” gallery, which explained how people have interacted with the sun throughout history, including ways of measuring time.
   
There was a display of watches, orreries, and sundials, and a little game where you had to read one of two sundials to tell an adorable monk the proper time to go for prayers (one sundial was much easier to read than the other). An “explainer,” as they’re called (and good luck becoming one, because those jobs are almost impossible to get, despite the not-great pay and having to be on your feet all day) came over and showed us how to use the unfamiliar sundial, and talked about how the railroads standardised time, which to be honest I already knew (I watch a shameful amount of Michael Portillo’s Great British Railway Journeys, even though I hate Michael Portillo as a politician) but I appreciated the explanation of the sundial. The other interactive element in this area was a screen where you could view a sunrise and sunset at various points around the world at different times of year, which was kind of cool, but I don’t think it was quite dark enough in the gallery to get the full effect.
   
The next gallery was called “Sunshine and Health,” and this was definitely my favourite, because it talked about the role the sun played in disease, and how it was used as a treatment for tuberculosis and some forms of lupus. There was even a special light therapy box designed by John Kellogg, and a fabulous sunsuit from the 1930s (shown below).  The gallery also mentioned how and when scientists realised that too much sun was a very bad thing indeed (much later than I would have thought, around the 1980s, which kind of explains why my mother didn’t seem all that concerned when I got hella sunburned as a kid (I mean, she cared that I was in pain, but she wasn’t all like, “OMG skin cancer!”)) and contained some great posters from both the pro-sunlight and anti-skin cancer eras (obviously people have never been pro-skin cancer, but you know what I mean, from the time before when they realised what caused skin cancer).
   
There was a cute little fake beach with palm trees and sound effects so we could bask in the sun, but it would have been much improved by the addition of some sun loungers (though who knows, perhaps they tried them and ran into issues. Considering some of the things I’ve seen going on in the museum where I work, anything is possible. People are awful and this post is turning out very misanthropic). The best thing was the screen where you could “try on” various pairs of historical sunglasses and snap your selfie in them. Clearly Marcus’s selfie game is much stronger than mine.
   
Next was “Power from the Sun” which for me was the most boring gallery. I’m certainly all for solar power, but I’m not terribly interested in learning how it works, and this section was very full of scientific detail that I didn’t really understand or care about. I was fully enraged, however, by the section explaining how Jimmy Carter installed solar panels on the roof of the White House and proudly gave a speech about how they would be providing renewable energy until at least 2000, only, nope, sorry Jimmy, because Reagan had them ripped out in 1986 to support coal and fossil fuels. I can’t say that Reagan is the worst, given the current administration, but he’s certainly up there! On a cheerier note, I did like the hallway that narrowed to a point to give that sort of shrinking/giant effect when you stood in either end, and the newspapers with articles on nuclear fission from the 1950s were interesting mostly on account of the other articles they contained!
  
The final gallery was “Observing the Sun,” which talked about the different theories developed about sun spots over the years, from Galileo right through to Richard Carrington who observed the first solar flare through an optical telescope in 1859 (there was a little cartoon about him, and the cartoon version of him looked rather like Marcus, but I tend to think that about anyone with red hair and a beard). There were a lot of cool light-up images that had been taken of sun spots (although thinking about sun spots freaks me out a little. Space does in general, frankly, as do the oceans. I don’t really know why, though I suppose the close-up images of sunspots could be a trypophobia thing) and a pretty fun game where you had to guess the severity of a solar storm based on the size and appearance of sun spots (and if you failed to predict a storm, everyone on Earth got pissed off at you).
   
The absolute last room of the exhibition contained an eight minute long video of the sun projected on a large screen showing some solar flares in action, but I only watched about a minute of it before I got bored. It did look neat though – the image at the start of the post is a collage of it. The exhibition shop was OK – not as good as the one for Robots or Cosmonauts, but then again, I’m just not as interested in the sun as a subject as those other things. I did get a badge though, and would certainly have bought a print or two if I didn’t already have way too many of the damn things.
  
I enjoyed the experience of visiting this exhibition quite a lot (except for the weird guy) because it was so empty that we were free to engage with most of the interactive elements for as long as we liked (and we definitely used that sunglasses thing for about twenty minutes), but content-wise, it was a little boring and not particularly memorable (it probably doesn’t help that I avoid the sun as much as possible in the course of my everyday life. I like staying pasty, thanks). So I’ll give it 3/5, and hope their next major exhibition is a bit more in line with my interests (not that it’s all about me, but it’s obviously going to get a better score on my blog if it’s something I’m interested in).

Canton, OH: The MAPS Museum

I’ve mentioned before how my brother is not necessarily the biggest fan of museums (which isn’t to say that he won’t visit them, just that he doesn’t get excited about them like I do), but he does like military museums (if you couldn’t tell from my Belgium posts), and there is one right in Canton, Ohio that I hadn’t yet been to (though he had, on multiple occasions). So, we decided to visit it together, and go see They Shall Not Grow Old right afterwards (since I liked it so much when I watched it on the BBC I was more than happy to watch it again on a big screen) for a full-day of war-related fun (if war is ever “fun”).

  

The MAPS Museum is primarily an aviation museum (MAPS is an acronym for Military Aviation Preservation Society), but they do have some galleries on Ohio troops from all branches of the military.  Admission to MAPS is $10, and includes the option of a free guided tour, though as we had to leave at a specific time to catch the film, we opted to guide ourselves. (Also, they have one of the cutest mailboxes ever, as you can see above.)
  
We were still greeted by one of the volunteers right after entering the museum, and he told us more about some of the objects we showed the most interest in. It was nice to see such friendly and passionate volunteers (without being scary, like the woman on the USS Cod). My attention was grabbed right away by the Sopwith Triplane 1916, since the Sopwith factory was in Kingston upon Thames, which is where I work (Kingston that is, not the Sopwith factory, which has been defunct since the 1990s). According to the volunteer, it was built (or restored? I don’t remember which) by a man in Ohio with advice from former Sopwith people in Kingston. We don’t even have a Sopwith in our museum, just some models and an old time clock from the factory (I mean, that’s partially because we don’t have room for a plane, but it would still be cool), so it was good to see one here.
  
I’m no aviation buff, but the hangar was full of an interesting array of aircraft, including a couple planes you could climb into, and the gondola from a Goodyear Blimp (Goodyear have a massive blimp hangar not far from the MAPS Museum. They usually have a Christmas event where you can drive through it. It’s neat!). There are even more aircraft housed outside, which you can view in the summer, but the gates were locked when we visited. Apparently many of the planes are on loan from the Air Force, so the MAPS Museum can restore them and send them back, which is really pretty cool. Also cool (temperature-wise) was the hangar, a little too cool, frankly, as they tend to be, so my brother suggested heading into the gallery at the back to warm up a little.
  
This turned out to be about aviators in a number of wars, but primarily WWII. There were a lot of great newspaper clippings and artefacts in here – in fact, almost too many, as there was too much text to read it all on one visit. But I would rather have too much information than not enough, and there was interesting stuff, like the story of the unfortunately named Lt. Reamer “Buzz” Sewell (I can see why he went by his nickname, but it was evidently a family name, as his father was a Reamer too), who was captured by the Germans and served out the remainder of the war in a POW camp; and that of the “Romanian Princess” who helped to save 1200 airmen during the war (there was a sweet little article about how they threw her a party after she moved to the US in 1955, and she was thrilled to see all her “boys” again).
  
Oh yeah, and there were some fantastic mannequins. Just really superlatively doofy, as you can probably see. And Dilbert the parachute dummy.
  
There was also a gallery upstairs, and this was a more general history of wars that Ohio troops had some involvement in, going all the way back to skirmishes between Native Americans and some of the earliest settlers (obviously not a shining moment in Ohio’s history), up until roughly the present day (I can’t remember where exactly it finished but there was definitely stuff about the Vietnam War, and possibly the Gulf War as well). There were also displays about the Civil War, which were of more interest to me (the Civil War is great for social history, because it had such a huge effect in shaping the country America became (for better or worse) and totally changed American death practices, in addition to being fascinating from a medical history point of view), including a small display about Harvey the dog, who I encountered 5 years ago at the Massillon Museum (not the real dog, obviously (though I suppose he could have been taxidermied), but a display about him).
  
I liked the section on WWI also, though I could have done with more stories about individual soldiers from Ohio, like the one about Eugene J. Bullard, the first black fighter pilot (he fought in the French Foreign Legion because he was living in Europe when the war started, having found that it offered many more opportunities than still segregated America), and less general history, though I suppose most Americans aren’t particularly well versed in WWI (since we were only in it for about a year) so perhaps it’s for the best that it’s there. I did enjoy the display about failed WWI inventions, like the poor fellow who had to wear the giant headset shown below (captioned simply and amusingly “didn’t work”).
  
I also have to mention the story of a teacher named Eva Sparrowgrove, because it made me tear up a little. She wrote to all 310 of her former students that enlisted during the war, and made a window banner to commemorate their service, including gold stars for the 9 who died in combat.  There was a fire at her house in 1950, but another one of her former students who became a fire fighter was able to save the banner, albeit with a little water damage. Lest you worry, Eva also survived the fire and continued to teach until 1973. She died in 1985 at the age of 82.
  
The museum was more on the scale of the Wings Museum than that of some larger aviation museums I’ve visited, but had far better (and more coherent) content than Wings (though sadly, nowhere to put my ass where Damian Lewis’s ass had been). Because we did have to leave to see the film (and get frosty chocolate milkshakes after!), I didn’t read everything completely thoroughly (honestly, it was just too damn much to read), but I guess that will give me a reason to return (my brother informs me that their displays also change regularly). I think they could be a little more discerning about the amount of material they’re including (as in, there doesn’t need to be quite so much of it!) but I get the sense that they are largely volunteer-run, and the volunteers were all super friendly and helpful, so I’ll cut them some slack. 3.5/5.
  

Youngstown, OH: Arms Family Museum and Tyler History Center

When I mentioned a few posts ago that I hadn’t done anything particularly Christmassy worth blogging about, it wasn’t entirely true. I did go to a decorated historic home, but it was after I wrote the post that would go out near Christmas, and I wasn’t allowed to take pictures of the house’s interior, so this post won’t look very festive anyway. But yes, whilst I was in Youngstown, I also went to the Arms Family Museum, which is just a few buildings down from the Butler Institute on the edge of the YSU campus.

Admission to the house is normally $7, and though I can’t find confirmation of this on their website, I seem to recall that when we visited, it was a little bit more, maybe $9(?) presumably on account of their Christmas event “Memories of Christmas Past,” which runs throughout December. This also includes admission to the Tyler History Center, located across Youngstown, of which more later.

There wasn’t much about the family inside the home, other than a small display in the museum section, so I’m not even sure what they were known for, if anything, but I get the impression that they were sort of like the Seiberlings of Stan Hywet, on a much smaller scale (obviously not many are going to match the wealth of the founder of Goodyear). Like the Seiberlings, the Arms family were also ardent Anglophiles (say that five times fast), with a special interest in the Tudors (at least their architecture), and thus they collected as many old world antiques as they could reasonably stuff their home with. And, like Stan Hywet, the Arms House (named Greystone, another similarity, as Stan Hywet is old English for stone quarry – looks like the Seiberlings were more pretentious too) also goes all-out when decorating for Christmas, albeit not quite as all-out, since the Arms House doesn’t have gardens (or a glass house, or a restaurant or a gingerbread stall) like Stan Hywet. The two families would have roughly been contemporaries, though Greystone was actually built first, in 1905, whilst Stan Hywet wasn’t completed until 1915.

Anyway, enough about Stan Hywet, and more on Greystone. The ground floor of the house was adorned with vintage decorations, with a different era/theme being represented in each room. The only text in here was about the decorations, and there was a scavenger hunt where you had to try to find certain decorations in each room, which was probably intended for children, but of course Marcus and I did one together (there weren’t prizes though, just the satisfaction of having completed it, I guess). I do wish there had been more about the family – there were volunteers stationed in each room to make sure we didn’t touch anything, who would presumably have been happy to provide information if I’d asked, but I much prefer to just read it for myself. I did get the impression that 99% of their visitors were from Youngstown and come every year for the Christmas event, so maybe they just assumed everyone knew about the house already, but it’s not the best way to attract tourists, and it made the whole thing feel a bit cliquey, especially as everyone there seemed to know each other.

The decorations were mostly adorable though, and there was a lot more information (though mostly not on the house itself) once we got upstairs to the museum section. This included a room full of mid-century modern furniture manufactured in Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley, another full of the collections of Benjamin Franklin Wirt (a lawyer and Ohio state senator who loved collecting all sorts of crap), a display on the First World War (I was a little disappointed that the song they’d chosen to accompany it wasn’t “Over There” or the “Madamoiselle from Armentieres,” the latter of which has become a particular favourite since twice watching They Shall Not Grow Old), some illustrations from a Christmas children’s book that I’d never heard of (by a Youngstown-based author), and finally, a room full of Olive Arms’s architectural plans for the house, which I guess at least explained something, though not being particularly well versed in architectural terms, I would have much preferred something about the family and how they got the money to build their damn house in the first place.

Once we’d returned downstairs, we thought we had finished, but were instead directed to the “North Pole” in the basement. This was obviously aimed at children, though fortunately there was no Santa on site when we were there (he sometimes is though, I think), so we were free to put on teeny costumes and get a picture in Santa’s sleigh (the hat was about all we could fit into, and even that was a squeeze), or participate in craft activities (we gave those a miss). The shop on the ground floor had a wonderful collection of vintage decorations that you could actually purchase, and if I was richer I would have bought almost everything, but the prices were a little high and I was worried about transporting stuff back to the UK (my suitcase is always so full of bagels and cereal that I don’t have much room to spare), so I left empty-handed.

  
But we weren’t finished with the Mahoning Valley Historical Society yet, as we had to head across town to the Tyler History Center, which wasn’t actually all that far away, since Youngstown is pretty small. They had parking right outside, along with a creepy old advert for Good Humor products, since the company was started in Youngstown.
  
The museum is in quite a large building, as you can probably see, but only one floor of it is currently actually museum (they might occasionally have displays on some of the other floors, but one of them just looked like it was used for events, as it had tables set up on it). This was a reasonably comprehensive journey through the history of Youngstown, told mostly through panels, with some artefacts. It was fairly standard local history fare, but I did like many of the artefacts, especially the roller coaster car from Youngstown’s old amusement park (why is every amusement park that looked cool now defunct?!), and the old police ledger from 1932, where 90% of the arrests were for drunkenness (bearing in mind Prohibition was still in effect). I also thought the layout was quite good because the panels divided up the space and made it into more of an experience since you had to work your way through chronologically.
  
There was also a small gallery in the back that contained more of Benjamin Franklin Wirt’s possessions – at least we were allowed to take pictures of these ones, so you can get a better idea of the sort of thing he collected (other than my earlier evocative description of “crap”); mainly Eastern artefacts, and a bit of presidential memorabilia. The History Center had a shop with a freezer full of Good Humor products, which is smart if you ask me, because after reading about the company in the museum, I’m sure many people go on to crave an ice cream (I totally was, but since it was winter, I worried they might have been sitting around for a while, and it’s probably for the best that I didn’t, because we stopped for pizza at this little hole in the wall with a brick oven (literally a hole in the wall) in Akron on the way home, and I stuffed myself stupid on NY style thin crust margherita and fried provolone wedges). I did, however, buy a t-shirt for Marcus featuring anthropomorphic peppers in oil (apparently a Youngstown thing due to their large Italian population, but this wasn’t explained in the museum, so I looked it up later. I thought maybe it was peppers sauteed in oil, like some people (not me!) put on sausages or whatever, but apparently they just can peppers in olive oil, and eat them on bread or toast).
  
So I did learn a lot more about Youngstown (which to be fair I knew almost nothing about going in, other than Handel’s), and got to enjoy some Christmas decorations. I don’t think the Tyler History Center is worth the price of admission if you’re not visiting the Arms Family Museum as well, but I think they figure people will go to both properties, in which case I do think you get your money’s worth. 3/5 for the Mahoning Valley Historical Society as a whole (more signage in the Arms House though please!).