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London: The Cartoon Museum Redux

This is my last museum post for the foreseeable future, based on a visit I made a month ago before everything started to close down, but I would like to continue my weekly posts – I’m not going to kid myself into thinking they’re boosting anyone’s morale (other than maybe my own), since I’m quite a negative individual at the best of times, but I think it’s good to stay in the habit and keep myself occupied. And I have settled on a topic – if you’re a regular reader, you may have seen me reference my summer of backpacking around Europe back in 2007, and though it was definitely a mixed bag, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that trip ultimately changed the course of my life. Well, now that I’ve got nothing better to post about, you’ll get to relive it all with me, starting next week (assuming you come back then)! And I do hope everyone is managing to stay well out there!

 

I first visited the Cartoon Museum (not to be confused with the Billy Ireland Cartoon Museum in Columbus, which I have been to loads!) very early on in my blogging career, almost exactly seven years ago (Diverting Journeys turned seven in March), and I hadn’t actually been back there since, though I’d seen on various Museums Association newsletters that they were temporarily closed whilst moving to a new location, and then had re-opened in said new location (with a new curator who seriously looks about twelve. I mean, I’m probably just getting old and she’s actually well into her twenties, but I don’t understand how people that young get curatorial jobs. Really grinds my gears after the struggle I’ve had getting any kind of museum job) only a few months ago. Having seen most of the temporary exhibitions that I wanted to see at the time (wish I’d seen them all now!), I thought I might as well go check out their new set-up.

 

Normally, when a museum moves location, I would hope it was because it was an upgrade, but this was definitely a downgrade. They moved from their lovely ground floor location in Bloomsbury to a dingy basement just off Oxford Street (I guess it’s technically Fitzrovia, but that is far too posh a name to describe the museum’s locale. Also Oxford Street is hell and best avoided at all times, not just when social distancing). This place seriously felt like a concrete bunker, and there was what I assume was an uncovered sewage pipe just above our heads so that we got to listen to the atmospheric sound of running water (which really made me need a wee) for the duration of our visit. I can’t actually find a reason given anywhere why they moved, but now that I’ve seen it, I assume it was to save money, because there’s no way the rent on this place could be as high as the old location. The £8.50 admission price, a full three pounds higher than when I visited seven years ago, also seems to confirm that view, and I guess instead of being harsh on them, I should just be glad they still exist in some form. Art Pass members do get in for free, so I can’t really complain about the admission fee since I didn’t have to pay it.

  

I was keen to see the Cartoon Museum in March because of their temporary exhibition “Hail to the Chief: Brief Lives of America’s Best and Worst Presidents,” which ended in early April (I guess? I don’t really know what’s happening now). I can look at presidential caricatures all day long, particularly of the current Satsuma-in-Chief, and Martin Rowson’s drawings, which come from Andrew Gimson’s new book on the presidents (which I couldn’t resist buying from the gift shop, though I found upon reading it that it was absolutely riddled with factual errors (for example, it claimed Lincoln was assassinated by a “Robert Booth.” Don’t editors exist anymore?)), were pretty great, even though only a few of them were featured in the exhibition (they were all scrolling on a TV screen in the gallery, but I lost interest in standing there and watching them all because it was taking too long).

 

The other temporary exhibition at the time of my visit was “Dear Mr. Poole,” which was meant to run until 28th June (again, I don’t know what the plan is now). This was a collection of cartoons and sketches given to Phillip Poole, who sold pen nibs at his shop in Drury Lane (shown above), and befriended many artists and cartoonists over the years, who sent him personalised drawings and letters as a display of gratitude. There were too many famous names here to list them all, but this exhibition took up a substantial area of the museum, and was a treat to look at.

 

The permanent exhibition space was the rest of the (basement bunker) gallery, with framed cartoons from the 18th century right through to the present day crammed into every available space. As I’d come straight from work, I didn’t have the energy to read them all, but it could easily fill hours of your time if you did! I did at least skim every one though, and took the time to read the funniest looking ones. And I can finally show you the parody of Gillray and Rowlandson’s work that I loved so much on my first visit!

 

Unlike the old Cartoon Museum, there weren’t any comic strips here, though as I’m not a huge fan of British comics (I don’t understand the appeal of The Beano), to me it wasn’t a major loss. Also unlike the old museum, we were allowed to take pictures of the individual cartoons – at least, there was no sign prohibiting it, and Marcus specifically asked the admissions desk guy if it was alright, and he said yes. I do seem to recall there being more of a narrative to the old Cartoon Museum, but these were all just mashed on the walls in roughly chronological order, but without much commentary (maybe that’s what happens when you hire a twelve year old curator. OK, now I’m just being mean).

 

Although there were still a lot of lovely cartoons here (honestly, probably more that specifically interested me than in the old museum, given the focus is now more on political cartoons), I can’t help but think that in most other ways, the museum has taken a major step down. Like I said at the start, if it was a choice between a downgrade and closing altogether, I am glad they found a way to still exist (and hope they can carry on existing when this is all over), but I think they could have found a way to do more with the space. Even something relatively cheap, like better signage and nicer flooring (at least clean up the stains!), could have gone a long way to improving that bunker feel. I don’t think it’s worth £8.50, but if you have Art Pass, there’s no reason not to come and check it out when/if we’re all allowed out again. 3/5.

London: Aubrey Beardsley @ Tate Britain

Another week, another disclaimer. I visited this exhibition a few weeks ago, right after it opened  – obviously museums and most other things are shut now, but even if they weren’t, I wouldn’t be venturing into Central London or anywhere else for that matter, other than the supermarket when we run out of staples (which are almost impossible to find now anyway thanks to asshole hoarders). I hope by blogging about this that I’m giving you the opportunity to view something you would otherwise have missed, rather than upsetting you by showing you something you probably can’t see now, though I realise Aubrey Beardsley’s life and work isn’t exactly a boost of positivity unless your sense of humour is as dark as mine.

 

Aubrey Beardsley might not be an artist you know by name, but it’s more than likely you’ve seen an example of his work. As soon as I saw the image they were using to advertise this exhibition (the one of the woman holding a severed head, above left), it lit a spark of recognition in me and I thought, “Aubrey Beardsley, of course I need to see that!” but in retrospect, that may be more because of how Beardsley’s work obviously influenced Edward Gorey (of whom I am definitely a fan) rather than because of much prior knowledge of Beardsley himself. (The two pieces below are the only ones not by Beardsley in this post, but they are drawings of Beardsley, and I included them so you could get an idea of how others viewed him in his lifetime.)

 

The Aubrey Beardsley exhibition at the Tate was originally only on until 25th May (no idea what’s going to happen now), and at the time it opened, I could see which way the tide was turning (though I didn’t expect it to turn quite so quickly), so I went to see it immediately to make sure I got the chance. And clearly I wasn’t the only one being eager (or maybe blasé, in retrospect), because the gallery was pretty full, mostly with older people, since it was the middle of the day on a weekday. I’m positive this was the same gallery where we saw the Van Gogh exhibition, but they changed the orientation of the space so the entrance was now the exit. No matter, it’s still a large gallery, and it wasn’t anywhere near as packed as Van Gogh was (which could only have been a good thing, considering).
 
Admission was £16, but we got in for £8 with National Art Pass. I booked online shortly before we arrived just to save myself the faff of standing at the ticket desk (I will avoid human interaction whenever possible, which turns out to be serving me well in these times). The exhibition was divided up into fifteen sections, though some rooms held three different sections, so it wasn’t actually fifteen rooms, but it still took us a fair while to walk through them all. The advantage of having such a large space was that even though certain displays had quite a few visitors in front of them at once, the opposite wall would usually be empty, so I could just go look at something else until they cleared out, a boon for anyone who hates waiting as much as I do (and seriously, look at it, take a photo if you need, and move on. You don’t need to stand there studying a picture for twenty minutes when other people are clearly trying to look around you).
 
I suppose I should actually tell you a bit about Aubrey Beardsley at some point, so here goes: he was born in 1872, and contracted tuberculosis at the age of 7. Being that there was really no effective treatment at the time (unless you count the mountain cure, the prairie cure, or whatever other supposedly healthier air the owners of various sanatoriums were peddling), Beardsley always knew he would die young, so was determined to pack as much as possible into his short life. He was very close to his mother and sister, who supported his talent for drawing, which was evident from an early age. He mainly created images for publication, so not many people viewed his original sketches during his lifetime, and because he favoured the lewd and grotesque, many of his drawings were censored prior to publication, so this exhibition was an excellent chance to see the originals.
 
Beardsley, although probably not actually gay himself (he seemed more asexual than anything) fell in with a crowd of decadents that included Oscar Wilde, which would have profound consequences for Beardsley’s career after Wilde’s trial for gross indecency, as publishers didn’t want to do business with anyone who was associated with Wilde. Still, for someone who was effectively only working for seven years (he died at the age of only 25), Beardsley still managed to have an incredibly impressive output consisting of thousands of drawings, including the illustrations for an addition of Le Morte D’Arthur, Oscar Wilde’s Salome, and various magazines, including a stint as art editor of The Yellow Book.
And as I’ve already mentioned, and you’ve probably already seen from the photos, Beardsley had a fascination with the grotesque, and you can clearly see the influence his work must have had on Edward Gorey and other modern illustrators. He had a fetus motif running through many of his pieces (no one knows why), and did some excellent caricatures of both friends and enemies. The ones of Oscar Wilde (especially the one of him a couple of paragraphs down where he’s struggling to translate his work into French, a language Beardsley was fluent in) and Whistler, above left, (and Whistler’s wife, above right) made me laugh out loud. (He seems to have particularly had it in for Whistler, who he once admired, but Whistler snubbed him, which triggered the caricatures. An excellent revenge, I think.)
 
He also, though expressing no obvious sexuality himself, liked to do vaguely pornographic drawings, and these were kept in their own special “adults only” room of the exhibition (though I didn’t see any children in the exhibition anyway). They were primarily illustrations for a privately printed edition of Lysistrata, a Greek play by Aristophanes where women attempt to put an end to the Peloponnesian War by denying their husbands sex (I had to read it for a class I took on Eros and Love, and it wasn’t the worst thing we read in that class by a long shot. That honour goes to Wuthering Heights. Blech), and there was, to my great delight, an illustration depicting a fart cloud, and a whole lot of giant erections. He also tried to sneak sexy bits into illustrations intended for more mainstream publications, like a tiny erection he stuck on a drawing on John Bull for The Yellow Book, which was sadly discovered and removed prior to publication.
 
Obviously I loved Beardsley’s work, and I think we could have definitely been friends (we have the same big nose, and I can relate to the pain of that caricature at the start!). His work was popular in his lifetime, but then forgotten about until the 1960s, when the Tate held an exhibition of his work that prompted a revival of interest (though they claimed exactly the same thing in the Van Gogh exhibition, so maybe it should be taken with a grain of salt. I really don’t think the Tate is solely responsible for people liking Van Gogh), and there were some examples of ’60s art at the end of the exhibition so you could see the way his monochromatic style influenced a lot of artists, including the artist who did the cover of the Beatles’ Revolver (but I’m just including more of Beardsley’s work, because I love it so much. The guy wearing the crown of vine leaves in the picture below right is meant to be Oscar Wilde. So many great caricatures).
 
Sadly, the shop didn’t have postcards or prints of his more erotic work (no fart cloud print for me) or his caricatures, which were basically my favourite things, but we did get a few postcards of other pieces. £16 is a lot of money, so even though it was a big exhibition with great content (and just the right amount of text), it’s hard for an exhibition to live up to that, but I definitely think I got £8 of enjoyment out of it, if not a bit more, and considering it was one of the last exhibitions I got to see for who knows how long, I certainly have no regrets. 4/5.
 

London: The Postal Museum

By way of introduction, I should say that I visited the Postal Museum before Covid-19 had started to spread in London, and I certainly wouldn’t advise going into a museum and trying on communal dressing-up clothing at this point in time, if in fact there were any museums still open. As of yesterday, every museum in London that I follow on social media is closed, including the one I work at (though since my job is mostly office based, I will be working from home and still getting paid, at least for the time being. I’m not sure what the situation is like for FoH staff (at other museums, there’s none where I work), but I do sincerely hope they are still getting paid as well, especially the ones employed by large institutions that can afford it!). I have two more posts after this from places I visited before the pandemic was in full swing, but after that, I’m not entirely sure what I’m going to do. I will probably try to post something every week just so I don’t fall out of the habit, but I’m not yet sure what the subject of those posts will be. Suggestions welcomed!

I swear I don’t have a vendetta against every museum in London (if I stopped going to every museum that rejected my job applications, this blog wouldn’t have lasted very long), but lately, it probably sounds like I do. And actually, my issue with the Postal Museum is the reverse of the one I have with most other museums – they were willing to hire me, but I turned them down because one of the women who interviewed me would be my direct manager, and she seemed really mean in the interview so I didn’t want to work under her, and even if she had been nicer, the job just sounded so terrible. As they described it to me, it sounded like I would mostly be telling overweight people that they were too big to ride Mail Rail and dealing with overflowing toilets. I guess I should at least give them points for being honest, because my current job involves dealing with the public toilet, which I didn’t know until after I started (officially it is not part of my role, but because my office is next to the toilet and my desk is the one that people can see from the door, guess who gets asked about it constantly?), but nevertheless, I was angry, I suppose because they expected people to take an awful job for awful pay. At any rate, I had been offered another marginally less awful-sounding job at around the same time (not my current job – I only lasted three months at the not quite as awful but still pretty horrible job), which is why I had the option of turning this one down. They opened in 2017, but because of whatever odd grudge I was holding, I didn’t visit until a few weeks ago, and then only because I was looking for something to do with a friend who I know is a bit of a train nerd.

As I knew from my interview, the Postal Museum is divided between two sites, one a short distance down the street (and on the other side of the road) from the other, which I suppose is not ideal for a museum that seems to be aimed primarily at children. I don’t know if it particularly matters which site you start on – as you are given a timed slot for Mail Rail, it might be easier to start with that, but you can buy tickets at either site. Admission is a whopping £17, and there doesn’t seem to be a reduced ticket if you only want to visit the museum; however, if you are an Art Pass holder, then the museum is free, with an optional £6 supplement if you want to ride Mail Rail (Mail Rail being the miniature train that was originally used to carry mail through tunnels under the streets of London to various Royal Mail depots for sorting. Think miniature as in those kiddie train rides at a funfair, not miniature as in model railway sized). Since it was Marcus’s and my first visit, and we were with our friend who had to buy the normal ticket as he doesn’t have Art Pass, we decided we might as well give it a go, and it’s probably good we did because it is the most fun part of the whole experience.

 

Except for the queuing, that was not fun. When you get inside, you will likely be met with a massive queue, even with the reserved time slot, and because there are only two trains, each of which holds maybe thirty people, and each ride takes fifteen minutes, you will likely be waiting upwards of half an hour at busy times. Because you are riding in a train that was originally built to carry mail, the dimensions are not terribly large, which was why it was implied at the interview that we would have to turn quite a few people away. However, they are bigger than you think – my friend is a fairly big lad, and he got inside, and Marcus, who is 6’2″, did as well, though he basically had to hold his head at an awkward angle the whole time so it didn’t bang against the ceiling, and his legs were so far into my side of the seat that my hip was hiked up in the air in a really uncomfortable manner. If you’re riding with a tall person, I suggest not trying to share a seat with them! Still it was only fifteen minutes, and once the train started moving I forgot about most of my discomfort and just enjoyed the ride, which included a few short video presentations and a train “graveyard.” You don’t get to ride the entirety of the tunnels, which stretch to Liverpool Street (the museum is in what I think is Mount Pleasant – basically a weird area of central London that isn’t particularly near any stations. It’s a 15-20 minute walk to Farringdon, King’s Cross, and Russell Square), but you head out, loop around, and come back.

 

There is a small museum when you exit Mail Rail with more information about the railway and a few interactive elements – my friend and I enjoyed racing trains (I won), and there was a life-size mock-up of a mail room on a train (different from Mail Rail, this would have been on an actual full-sized train), where postal workers would have to sort letters whilst the train was moving, and the floor even moved so you could experience this for yourself, which was great fun, except I felt a bit ill for about ten minutes afterwards. By the way, we were the only people here without children, and the people who had children were making no effort to control them, so they were just running around screaming the whole time. It wasn’t so bad in here, as it was a less crowded floor area, but it was pretty awful in the main part of the museum, which we headed to next.

 

The actual Postal Museum bit was also really fun and interactive, and even with all the children running around, there were enough things to play with that we still got to have a go on most of them. However, I didn’t get to read all of the text because some woman with a huge pram kept parking it right in front of one display after another, making it impossible to look at them (this was most annoying in the section about historic ships carrying mail that still managed to make it to their destinations despite various calamities, which I was obviously keen to read. She noticed us struggling to read around her pram, she just didn’t care).

   

I initially enjoyed the story of the lioness who escaped from the circus and attacked a mail coach (which were used to carry mail around the country before the advent of trains, but also carried a few passengers. It was a faster ride than stagecoaches, but there were no scheduled meal breaks or toilet stops, only stops to pick up mail, so it would definitely not have been for me!), but after researching this for this post, it seems that the museum took a lot of artistic licence with the account. The impression I got from the museum was that the lioness was subdued by a Newfoundland, reclaimed by her owner, and things ended well for all participants (you can read the account above and see if you agree with me). Nope. In reality, the lioness attacked the horses, attacked and killed the Newfoundland, and was ultimately found hiding under a granary by her owner, the passengers having all fled and hid in a nearby inn whilst the lioness was occupied with the dog. I get that it’s a child-orientated museum, but if you can’t be truthful about what happened, don’t even include it. You could relive the inaccurate version of this story in a little choose your own adventure style game, where I chose to leave behind the man who left the coach for an unscheduled toilet break (it was the right choice, as I delivered the mail on time as a result, even after the encounter with the lioness).

 

I do love a dressing-up opportunity, and there were lots in this museum! I didn’t manage to fit into the lady postal carrier jacket (it was either child-sized, or I have unusually wide shoulders), but most of the other ones worked, especially the hats (I genuinely think I might have to get the one on the left. It matched my outfit)! Interestingly, postmen were not provided with trousers as part of their uniform until the 1850s (they presumably provided their own before that, rather than just going naked underneath, funny though that is to picture). Postwomen didn’t have a full uniform until WWI, when they joined Royal Mail in greater numbers to replace the men off fighting (a few women worked as letter carriers in the 19th century, but they didn’t have an official uniform), and those outfits included a skirt. They weren’t given the option to wear trousers until the 1940s, and then only because a woman named Jean Cameron had led the way by campaigning to do so because trousers were much more practical than skirts, particularly in very wet (all of Britain?) and cold areas of the country.

 

There were some artefacts here too, but they were rather few and far between with the interactive elements taking pride of place. My friend was complaining that there weren’t even any penny blacks, but I had managed to spot some, so I directed him around the corner to where I had found an entire damn sheet of them hiding in a nook. They were also some splendid posters from the mid 20th century, some of which were for sale as prints in the shop.

There was a temporary exhibition on the Great Train Robbery at the time of our visit, and though this was the one part of the museum that was clearly directed at adults, it was actually my least favourite bit. I’d heard of the Great Train Robbery (mainly because I was really into the Sex Pistols as a teenager), but I didn’t know much about it, and this exhibit seemed to assume a level of knowledge I didn’t possess, with only eyewitness accounts to explain what happened before we were presented with random lists of names of suspects, and I left still not fully understanding the sequence of events. I’m also not sure why the robbers were treated like folk heroes, since one of the postal workers later died from his injuries after being smashed over the head during the robbery. But I did learn that I am slightly shorter than the stack of paperwork Royal Mail has on the case, which I guess is something.

The part Marcus was most looking forward to, the Post Office cats, was actually just outside the exit of the museum (so I think you could probably view it if you just visited the cafe). Some post offices used to have official cats that were paid 1s 6d a week to keep the post offices rodent free (which was not bad going in the 1860s when the tradition started, since housemaids were only paid £7-£11 per year back then. Obviously the cats weren’t really paid as such, that was simply the amount that was allocated to them for their food and other expenses (tiny hats?)), and the Postal Museum decided to revive the tradition by having a competition in 2017 to find a different ceremonial Postal Museum cat each month. The winners were photographed in an adorable tiny hat, as you can see here.

 

I’ve heard the woman who runs the shop here speak at a couple of different training courses, and it’s a perfectly fine shop, but not as amazing as I was expecting given the awards it has apparently won. The only things I would have bought were the prints of old Royal Mail posters, and I’ve already got more prints than I know what to do with. There was a machine where you could buy exclusive Postal Museum stamps though (which you can actually use to post things), so Marcus got a couple of those, and I just designed my own stamp inside the museum (which you cannot use to send things, though they do email you a copy). You can see Marcus’s end result, which was better than mine, above.

Overall, considering I only paid £6, I did enjoy the museum, but if I had paid £17, I think I’d be significantly more annoyed. It is really fun and family friendly, which unfortunately has the side effect of attracting lots of children, and I am not a fan. I think I prefer a museum where the children’s area is self-contained, rather than spread throughout, as it seems to encourage misbehaviour in the entirety of the museum (though the parents certainly could have done a much better job of stopping it). As a result of this, although the museum isn’t yet three years old, it is already looking a bit worn and grubby in places. I also didn’t appreciate the historical inaccuracies – this isn’t really the kind of museum for history snobs like myself; in fact, I’d say it’s more of an attraction than a museum. 3/5 for the £6 I spent (I’d say the Mail Rail side gets 4/5, but the actual museum only 2/5), but I’d downgrade it for value for money if I’d spent the full admission fee – maybe I’d have better luck visiting at a less busy time than a Saturday, but it was the only time my friend could make it. And I’m still glad I didn’t take the job – I’m pretty sure all those screaming children would have sent me ’round the bend in a matter of weeks.

 

London: The Wellcome Galleries @ the Science Museum

The Science Museum finally opened their new medicine galleries last November, and I only just visited them recently. I know it’s probably surprising that I’ve waited so long, given my love of medical history, but I have my reasons. I am salty about many things, and these medical galleries are one of them, mainly because I would have killed to work on them (even though the salaries at the Science Museum for the jobs I was going for are significantly lower than what I make now, because big museums can get away with it) and of course I didn’t even get an interview for anything I applied for. I also had a weird attachment to their old medical galleries, mainly because they were really hard to find and barely anybody knew about them, so you usually had them all to yourself. But all things must change, and I guess the Science Museum having a whopping £24 million to throw at them didn’t hurt either. So I finally decided to pay them a visit to see if they lived up to the hype.

“Medicine: The Wellcome Galleries,” are free to visit, just like the rest of the Science Museum (barring special exhibitions) and now seemingly take up much of the first floor, though I’ve frankly always found the layout of the Science Museum a bit strange and confusing, as there are certain galleries that can only be accessed from one particular set of stairs, and I swear there’s galleries that I managed to find once and then never again. Did the agriculture galleries really exist, or were they just a figment of my imagination? Anyway, although I’m quite sure Henry Wellcome engaged in some unsavoury practices, as did all late 19th century/early 20th century pharmaceutical companies (and modern pharmaceutical companies, for that matter. Just look at all those bloody Sackler galleries that still exist)/collectors of objects from colonies in the British Empire, I don’t know where we’d be without him, as his possessions seem to make up the bulk of medical history collections in London; in fact, if it wasn’t for him and William Hunter (who may have been a murderer, jury’s still out), we might not have any medical history museums here at all, and these galleries are no exception, as the name indicates.

 

On first glance, the new space was certainly very visually appealing. The medical history collections used to be kept on the fourth and fifth floors, and though I loved all the weird life-sized dioramas, they were a bit stuffy. This space is completely open and huge (apparently it takes up an area equivalent to 1500 hospital beds), and you’re greeted by a giant bronze tattooed man who seems to watch over the place like a guardian. Each wall of the first gallery is lined with cases, but because the room is so spacious, you kind of have to work your way up one side and then back down the other, which does ruin the chronology a bit. The first gallery, which I believe is called “Medicine and Bodies,” is a look at the human body throughout history, the development of the study of human anatomy, etc. From there, the gallery flows into “Exploring Medicine,” which is where most of Henry Wellcome’s collections have ended up, and then the last room holds “Medicine and Treatment,” “Medicine and Communities,” (didn’t see much distinction between those two), and “Faith, Hope, and Fear,” which is mainly a collection of wooden icons from various religions, and a really creepy modern sculpture (as seen above left. It’s meant to be a healing Madonna figure (as in the mother of Jesus, not the pop star), but something about the patient being encapsulated in her dress makes it read more like an iron maiden to me).

First, the good. I thought the space looked fantastic, and there were a lot of wonderful displays of old public health posters, which I just loved (how cute is that baby elephant?). The calibre of the artefacts on display was also excellent – mixed in with the more mundane, you’d find things like the medical kit Scott took to the South Pole (the expedition where he died), the lancets Edward Jenner used for some of the first vaccinations, and Louis Pasteur’s microscope. You could easily spend hours in here just discovering everything. It was also a lot more interactive than the old galleries – although I didn’t get to try all of the games because the most fun ones were in use, I tried enough to get a sense of what was on offer (the Disease Controller game looks especially fun, as you not only get to infect people, you make the ceiling light up whilst doing so!).

 

I also thought the nature of the displays did a good job at drawing attention to the sheer beauty of some of the objects, which you wouldn’t necessarily expect from medical implements. I am definitely the sort of person that prefers the grotesque to the sublime, but I could see the aesthetics of the galleries drawing in people who mightn’t ordinarily be interested in medical history. But conversely, because I am an old (youngish) fuddy-duddy at heart, that also kind of annoys me. I prefer having the galleries to myself – I know this isn’t the best thing for the museum, but I feel that if you weren’t willing to go out of your way to look at the old musty galleries, you don’t deserve to hog space (or the interactives) in the shiny new ones.

 

Unfortunately, by making the space really interactive and eye-catching, I think they lost a lot of the traditional medical history feeling that I so love. Because Wellcome’s objects were all shoved into one big case that stretched up well above eye level, you lost the ability to appreciate the value of each individual object for the sake of aesthetics. Instead of having a description of each individual item, as they used to, there would only be one brief description of a whole group of items, or nothing at all. Since I get the impression Henry Wellcome basically stole a lot of those artefacts from other cultures, I think the least we can do is take the time to appreciate the cultural significance of each one, and it’s hard to do that when you’re looking at a hundred memento mori all placed together with no individual labels. I also thought the life-sized photographs of present day doctors spread throughout the gallery were fairly unnecessary, and didn’t really add anything to my experience. They just took up floor space.

 

With that said, I do think this is still a wonderful place to visit for anyone interested in medical history; it’s just sacrificed some of its charm in the move. It is absolutely worth checking out if you find yourself in the museum, and I will definitely be back to examine it in more depth, especially because this and the actual Wellcome Collection are all I have left (other than the smaller museums at various hospitals and medical societies that only really merit one visit) whilst the Hunterian is still undergoing redevelopment (please, please don’t ruin it!). 3.5/5. And, from the perspective of someone who loved studying infectious disease, how interesting is coronavirus?! Obviously I don’t want it, and it’s scary to think that among the albeit much smaller sample size we have thus far, it has the same mortality rate as Spanish flu did, but from an historical and sociological perspective, I am absolutely fascinated. And since my office is right next to the museum’s public toilet where I can hear people hacking up a lung on a daily basis, let’s be honest, I probably will get it at some point if it spreads much more.

 

 

London: “Unbound” @ Two Temple Place and “Mushrooms” @ Somerset House

The title of this year’s exhibition at Two Temple Place is “Unbound: Visionary Women Collecting Textiles.” Sounds marvellous and wild and free, doesn’t it? Well, unfortunately it’s still Two Temple Place, so it had the usual crowd of stern biddies staring us down to make sure we didn’t accidentally brush up against anything. I know the photo above makes it look as though there were interactive displays, but what you can’t see is the rope barrier that ensured you couldn’t actually get anywhere near those fun looking yarn balls.

 

Anyway, even though I’m less than enamoured with the atmosphere of Two Temple Place, as well as its last few years of exhibitions, I do think it’s a fabulous building, and it is free to enter, so I normally pop along at some point to see their annual exhibition, which runs from January-April (this year’s ends on 19th April). This year’s theme was the work of seven women, five of whom were roughly contemporaries born in the mid-late 19th century, and two modern women, all of whom were involved in collecting textiles. Most of these women, as is typical of collectors, were fairly wealthy and had the time and funds to devote themselves to their passions, and I’m sure they must have had interesting lives, though unfortunately those stories didn’t always come across in the text. However, I did note some tidbits on Louisa Pesel, who travelled extensively, taught shell-shocked WWI soldiers embroidery to help with their convalescence, and designed the cushions for Winchester Cathedral. Another of the collectors (whose name escapes me), bought her pieces mainly from street markets in London, which apparently had beautiful 18th century garments on offer for cheap back in the 1920s and ’30s (sounds way nicer than the piles of cheap knock-off shoes and handbags they seem to primarily sell today).

 

As always with Two Temple Place, there were some really lovely artefacts here, but the curation felt lacking. Instead of providing a narrative, the signage was basically: short biography of a woman and a brief description of a handful of objects she’d collected, with no attempt to tie the pieces together in some cohesive way. The text panels were all quite dry, and I found my eyes glazing over as I tried to read them to the point where I had to read some of them several times because they were too boring for my brain to absorb the content (I used to have the same problem during lectures – no matter how much I told myself to pay attention, my mind would start wandering, I’d look up, and it would be the end of class and I’d have absolutely no idea what was discussed), which is why I can’t recollect which woman collected which things. In an exhibition that was meant to be about the pioneering spirit of these women, I think they could have tried a bit harder to make them stand out as individuals, though maybe that’s partially my fault for being bored so easily.

 

Still, despite my short attention span, I did take an interest in some of the artefacts, especially the Georgian dresses, the traditional straw dollies, and Yinka Shonibare’s reimagining of the slave ship The Wanderer, a voyage made well after the slave trade from Africa was banned (shown above right). In Shonibare’s version, the slaves managed to take control, hence the colourful batik sails. I wanted to like the Balkan textiles more, but without much description of how the objects were used and what the patterns meant, they all got a little samey. One plus side of the rather dour atmosphere was that it managed to work magic on the group of schoolchildren that were visiting the exhibition at the same time as us. I know I’ve complained about unruly children at various places lately, but these ones were completely silent, to the point where it was almost eerie. I can only assume one of the stewards terrified them into submission. We were done with this exhibition pretty quickly (though I made sure to use the upstairs toilets before I left – they’re fabulous!), and though I enjoyed it more than that awful molester Eric Gill exhibition (how could I not?!), it definitely wasn’t great. 2.5/5.

 

Since we were only a short walk away, we then headed to Somerset House to see the intriguing sounding “Mushrooms: The Art, Design, and Future of Fungi,” a free exhibition that runs until 26th April. Even though I am a vegetarian, I loathe mushrooms (in my experience, many other vegetarians do as well, so it escapes me why some places offer mushroom risotto as the sole vegetarian option (not really an issue in London in this day and age, but I still encounter it at weddings, in smaller British towns, and in Ohio, which is mostly not down with the whole vegan thing)), so my only real experiences of willingly eating mushrooms are the few times I dabbled with the magic variety in my younger days. But I still think fungi are weird and interesting, and provide exciting possibilities in terms of being a sustainable material, so I was keen to see some mushroom art!

Even though the exhibition space was much smaller than that of Two Temple Place, I think Somerset House managed to cram quite a bit more content in, as each of the three rooms was jam-packed with art on the walls and display cases on the floor. There was a guy who had collected mushroom stamps from all over the world, which filled up an entire wall, and some excellently bizarre collages by Seana Gavin. I also loved the William Morris inspired mushroom wallpaper designs above the previous paragraph, though I think I’d prefer a different colour scheme – maybe blues or greens?

   

I thought the Infinity Burial Suit was really kind of awesome – it is woven from thread implanted with mushroom spores, and the idea is if you bury a body in it, the mushrooms will feed off the body as it decomposes and eat up any contaminants to prevent them being released into the environment. I’m not sure that I prefer it to a traditional body-shaped coffin lined with velvet, and massive statue of myself either reading or looking sassy (or both!) on my grave, but by the time I die, I suppose it might be one of the only options available, depending on how much Earth has degraded by that point (which is more depressing than the thought of my own death). And on a lighter note, given the nature of mushrooms, of course some of the art was amusingly phallic, particularly the 3D pieces.

 

The text contained brief descriptions of how mushrooms had been viewed throughout history, from being treated with suspicion by medieval Europeans, who thought they were used by witches (I have never personally used a mushroom in a spell, though I’m sure they must have some useful medicinal properties) to becoming kind of adorable in the Victorian era, thanks mainly to Lewis Carroll. The little shop had some neat mushroom themed products, and apparently I could have had a free mushroom facial, though I presume the appointment slots were booked up by the time of my visit. Overall, I enjoyed this much more than Two Temple Place, and I’m definitely glad I stopped in to check it out and see my name written in fungi. I still won’t be eating a mushroom any time soon, but I respect their aesthetic! 3.5/5.

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

    

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

  

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

 

London: Play Well and Misbehaving Bodies @ the Wellcome Collection

I felt like I had just been at the Wellcome Collection, but unless I was and didn’t blog about it (unlikely), it seems my most recent visit was in May or June last year, which is apparently enough time for everything to have changed. Well, not everything, but a lot of things! I came specifically this time to see “Play Well: Why Play Matters” which runs until 8th March. Despite the seemingly child-friendly name, this exhibition is very much aimed at adults, which is probably why they had to put a disclaimer on their website about the limited interactivity of the exhibition. There were still more children inside than in a normal Wellcome exhibition (which usually, blissfully, has almost none), but nowhere near as many as you’d get in a normal museum.

As you might expect, this exhibition was about the psychological and physical benefits play can bring; however, it wasn’t a particularly playful exhibition, for all that the layout was allegedly designed by children. It began with the history of the kindergarten movement and the work of Friedrich Frobel, who designed a series of 20 “gifts” meant to aid a child’s development from infancy on up. All these gifts were collected together in the cases that dominated the first section, but there was no explanation of how the toys were used, how children were given these gifts (did parents have to buy them? Were they provided by schools?), or really anything, other than the name of each gift. I did, however, find it interesting that the kindergarten concept started as literal “kinder” gardens, where each child would tend to their own little plot of land in order to teach them life skills, as you can see in the photo above.

 

There was also a lot of information on the development of nursery schools in Italy, and on playgrounds in the UK (there was a photo series of children in the Gorbals of Glasgow, a notorious 19th and early 20th century slum, playing in the cemetery as it was the only bit of green space available to them), and the importance of allowing children to take risks in their play. There were a handful of interactive things, but they were primarily computer games that looked to be circa 1980 (we had a computer from the late ’80s onward, and the games I played on it as a kid were more advanced than these ones) and were so text heavy that they weren’t even fun. The only interactive bit that looked vaguely entertaining was a sort of soft play area built into a wall (confusingly, it had a sign saying it was not a soft play area), but I wasn’t clear on whether it was aimed at adults or children, and it had a set of rules that included taking off your shoes, which left old no-socks-Jessica out in the cold again due to not wishing to startle people with my foot odour.

 

The most charming objects here by far were the actual toys (on display, not to be played with), that had been owned and loved by children, especially sweet little Pumpie the elephant, who was wearing a handmade suit, part of an apparently extensive wardrobe. His owner even posed him in formal portraits that I thought were the best thing ever (even though the picture of Pumpie staring out to sea makes me quite sad). I also liked the story of a teddy that had been operated on by its owner (gently, in order to find out why its growler had stopped working, and carefully stitched back up afterwards) who grew up to be a vet. If the exhibition had more personal stories like this, I would have loved it, but this was only one small section. I heard people outside the exhibition talking about how great it was, and I do not agree. Except for Pumpie and co, it was a bit boring and not particularly appealing to children or adults. 2.5/5.

 

We headed upstairs afterwards because I wanted to see what they had done with the Medicine Now gallery, which was notable mainly for its life size sculpture of a man made up totally out of fat lumps, as I knew they had replaced it with a new gallery called Being Human, but I also unexpectedly encountered another temporary exhibition I didn’t even know about, this one called “Misbehaving Bodies,” which ended shortly after my visit. It featured the work of two artists, Jo Spence, and Oreet Ashery. Spence’s pieces were about her diagnosis and subsequent treatment for breast cancer (unsuccessful, she died in the 1992 at the age of 58), and Ashery’s were about confronting mortality. In spite of the subject matter being obviously more depressing than “Play Well,” I actually found this exhibition much more engaging.

 

Ashery’s pieces were in the form of videos, which were set up at comfy viewing stations throughout the room (they had giant teddy bears in them you could lean on. So cosy!) showing interviews with real people living with life limiting conditions, as well as a fictional narrative about a dying woman named Genesis (I have to admit I didn’t watch all the videos, so I kind of missed the whole Genesis thing and just saw the real people).

Spence’s pieces reflected the less high-tech world she lived and died in, and were mainly photographs and collages about her life and experience of cancer treatment in the NHS, and though I’ve fortunately never had to deal with any kind of serious illness, I have had to seek treatment for a number of minor but chronic conditions, and I could relate to her frustration with the system. I do think the NHS is a wonderful thing in theory, but in practice it is completely overstretched (not at all helped by the Tories being in power for so long), and has a number of overworked, unempathetic, and sometimes downright incompetent doctors working for it (though based on my experience, I think you find doctors like that in every country), with systems that are outdated at best. Spence was told she had breast cancer by a young doctor who simply drew an “X” on one of her breasts and told her the whole thing would have to come off. Awful! My own, much less serious but still irritating saga, involves seeking treatment in a specialist, but still NHS clinic (because my GP wouldn’t take my problems seriously and misdiagnosed me just to get rid of me); and finally being prescribed a medication that did help, but told to get refills from my GP, who refused to give it to me because the clinic doctor never sent a letter, and apparently the different branches of the NHS are not joined up in any way. I had to make three trips to the clinic to get them to write the letter, and am now on my third appointment with the GP just to try to get a repeat prescription so I don’t have to keep making appointments every month, because the last time I went I had to see this awful locum who didn’t listen to me at all, and not only gave me a refill of a medication I didn’t want or need, he gave me the wrong dosage(!) of the one I did need. I don’t know how people who have serious illnesses have jobs, because if I didn’t have Mondays off, I would have had to take off of work at least four times just to be able to get the medication that I was prescribed in the correct dosage.

 

Anyway (I seem to be going on a lot of rants lately, don’t I?), even though many of Spence’s pieces were text heavy, I thought her life was really interesting, so I read them all. I’m glad I got to see this exhibition before it finished, since it totally escaped my radar until near the end. I also did check out the Being Human gallery, which is perfectly fine, but not the sort of thing to which I will feel the need to make frequent return trips (unlike their Medicine Man exhibition on Henry Wellcome, which is endlessly fascinating). There was a lot of modern art and not nearly enough interactive elements.

The other thing I was surprised by was that the toilets at the Wellcome have completely changed, and though surely it must have taken months to do, I seemed to have missed the entire transition period. They have changed the male and female toilets into self-contained unisex stalls, which is fine, except I didn’t realise they had changed when I first went in and was a bit taken aback to see a guy standing there. I never eat at the Wellcome’s cafe (I had cake there once and it was not good), but I’m glad they have moved the pastries away from the centre of the cafe, where everyone could sneeze and cough all over them, and put them under a sneeze guard by the tills. You’d think a medical museum would understand the importance of keeping germs away from food! A somewhat disappointing visit, except for “Misbehaving Bodies.”

Columbus, OH: Wexner Center and the Billy Ireland Cartoon Museum (Again!)

Every so often, I have one of those posts that is basically just a long angry rant about how much I hate something, and I’m afraid this is going to be one of them. I went back to Cleveland for Christmas, as is my custom, and my mother bought us a night at the BrewDog hotel in Columbus as an early Christmas present (for Marcus, I hasten to add). We drove down early that day so we would have time to see a couple of museums before meeting up with my uncle and his partner for dinner and drinks in the evening (we weren’t going to have time to do anything the next day as we had to drive back right after checkout so I could meet Hanson that afternoon!!), and one of the museums I chose to see, solely because I hadn’t been there before and it was in a convenient location, was the Wexner Center for the Arts, located on OSU’s massive campus. I think the Wex is also a venue for film screenings and performances, but the museum is what I visited, so that is what my ire is directed towards.

I knew we were off to a bad start when we were charged $9 each for admission, despite the website clearly stating it was $8. I didn’t question it because the woman at the admissions desk wasn’t very friendly, but I wasn’t happy. The exhibition at the time of my visit was HERE: Ann Hamilton, Jenny Holzer, Maya Lin and I foolishly assumed that HERE was merely the temporary exhibition, and there were other, permanent exhibitions. Nope, HERE is all that was THERE. The exhibition consisted solely of two rooms with words written on the walls, a room full of marbles, and another room full of tables of copies of images from OSU’s archives that you were meant to tear off and mail to yourself or a friend (it wasn’t clear if postage would actually be provided, and also this was a huge waste of paper). I was annoyed enough at having paid $9 for something that took all of ten minutes to see, but I was about to get even more annoyed.

Do you see all those marbles in the picture above left? They were all glued to the floor in some formation that was meant to look like rivers or some shit, which I guess was kind of cool, but they were just standard glass marbles of no real value, plus they were affixed to the floor, so were unlikely to be disturbed by footfall. Well, I walked to the end of the exhibition and tried to leave by stepping over the marbles at their narrowest point, which was only a few inches wide, because there was no other obvious exit. A guard ran up and started yelling at me and forced me to walk all the way around the exhibition to get out. She was accompanied by not one, but two other guards, all seemingly employed solely to guard the marbles. Although I didn’t say anything at the time, aside from a remark to Marcus about not disturbing the precious marbles, this is where I got angry. Leaving aside the fact that the exhibition probably shouldn’t have led you up on the wrong side of the marbles if you weren’t meant to step over them, or at least have a sign saying as much, I just can’t get over how many security guards this museum had working there to guard what was essentially a valueless artwork.

I don’t talk that much about the museum where I work for various reasons, and I’ve agonised over posting this, but I need to be honest about the realities of working in heritage for myself, my colleagues, and doubtless scores of other people throughout the UK. To say circumstances are not ideal is an understatement. Most of us spend years volunteering before we manage to land what will inevitably be a low-paying job not commensurate with our levels of education (and generally the bigger the museum is, the less they pay because people will settle for anything just for a chance to work there). And once we get that job, we put up with so much crap because we’re relieved that we have paying jobs at last – in my case, working in an office with horrible strip lighting that literally gives me a migraine every time I turn it on, so I have to work in the dark; getting verbally abused by mentally unstable visitors; having to stop what I’m doing fifty million times a day to direct people to the toilets that are just beyond my office (yes, we have many signs pointing the way, but people don’t look at them, and no, I’m not allowed to close my office door, so any member of the public can just walk right in at any time and demand things, yell at me, or make creepy comments); and despite the existence of the public toilets, sometimes even cleaning up after people who puke, pee, or shit inside the museum because our cleaner only comes once a week and we can’t just leave it there (I’m talking drunk adults doing these things, not children). I could say more, but I think it’s better if I don’t publicly post the rest. Now, I have been working in customer service in one way or another since I was 16 (not by choice, but I can’t seem to get a job that doesn’t involve it), so these are more or less all things I’ve had to deal with at some point in the past, as has probably anyone else who works with the public, but when I worked in retail and events, I at least knew there were always security staff on the premises if I needed help. At the museum, we are an entirely female team with no security staff, so we have to deal with any incidents ourselves. We don’t even have front of house staff – our welcome desk is entirely volunteer-run, by one volunteer at a time, and as their manager, I do my best to deal with any issues myself so they don’t have to, which means that even though I technically have an office job, I spend a lot of time in front of house dealing with any problems that occur. And despite all of this, I know I’m lucky to even have the job at all, since more budget cuts are imminent, and the future of the museum is currently very uncertain. So when I look at my working environment, and then I look at a museum that can charge $9 so they can employ three people to guard marbles, I get angry. And then I write a long rant like this one.

I’m going to end that rant there (even though I could go on for longer) but suffice it to say I definitely will not be returning to the Wexner! 0/5. Fortunately, my old favourite, the Billy Ireland Cartoon Museum, was there to save the day, as it is located in the building right next to the Wexner. Not only is it a free museum, but their temporary exhibitions at the time of my visit were very much up my alley. These were Drawn to Presidents: Portraits and Satiric Drawings by Drew Friedman and Ladies First: A Century of Women’s Innovations in Comics and Cartoon Art.

Any longtime readers will know how much I love presidential history, and I also love political cartoons when done well, and Friedman’s were pretty great. Not only did he draw a portrait of each president for his book All the Presidents (I didn’t buy it because it is literally just pictures of all the presidents) which all managed to be accurate yet hideously unflattering, he also drew cartoons for MAD, SPY, TIME, et al, and many of those were in the exhibitions as well as a whole section devoted to each of the presidents from Reagan through to the current President Fart (as I like to call him). I loved this.

 

I also liked the exhibition on female cartoonists, with works ranging from late 19th century cartoons advocating women’s suffrage to modern graphic novels, and everything in between. Many of them were funny, but there were also some thought-provoking and emotional cartoons, including one about a woman discovering the story of her older sister, who died when the cartoonist was a baby from a scalding accident, and how it affected her mother. I’m not going to go into too much detail on the Cartoon Museum because I’ve blogged about it a couple of times before and I’ve already made this post quite long by including that rant, but it is a fabulous little museum and I highly recommend visiting (and ignoring its neighbouring museum). The current exhibitions are great, but I’ve honestly never seen anything here that’s been a dud.

 

York: Yorkshire Museum

The Yorkshire Museum wasn’t on my must-visit list, but we ended up going to see it anyway because we had to kill some time before our train on our last day in York. Along with York Castle Museum and York Art Gallery it is part of the York Museums Trust, so if you plan on visiting all three, it is probably worth getting the YMT card to save a bit of money, but we got free admission to the Yorkshire Museum with our National Art Pass anyway, so we didn’t bother (admission is otherwise £8).

 

The Yorkshire Museum has three main sections: Jurassic World, Roman York, and Medieval York (I guess you need to visit the York Castle Museum and Jorvik Viking Centre as well to get a more comprehensive version of York’s history), and we started with Jurassic World, which was a fairly standard dinosaur gallery with a few touchy bits, as you can see above. This is apparently a temporary but “long-term” exhibition, and we had seen it advertised all over town, with the tagline, “Now Open!” but aside from a VR dinosaur-feeding game (I desperately wanted to play, but it wasn’t clear whether we could without staff supervision, and there was no staff to be found), nothing here felt particularly state of the art. It was more the kind of thing you’d find in any local history museum with a decent-sized prehistoric section.

 

We quickly moved on to Roman York, which was a more extensive series of galleries that took up the rest of the ground floor. I was initially apprehensive about entering the museum because of the large group of school children just outside armed with wooden swords and shields who seemed to be making an awful lot of noise, and it was in Roman York that we encountered them. The museum I work at only has school groups in on days the museum is closed to the public to avoid situations like this one, and larger museums with dedicated education rooms tend to steer school groups mainly to those, but I guess in a museum that is open to the public every weekday but without extensive special facilities, they have no choice but to stick school kids in with the general public. Honestly, it would have been fine if they hadn’t been so damn loud, but they were! They also just barged in front of us as we were trying to look at things, including the skeleton above. Some kid kept telling his friends it was the skeleton of a gladiator despite the case clearly stating it was a woman. You’d think eight year olds would be able to at least read the word “woman,” but apparently not these ones, and no one was bothering to correct them.

 

In an effort to get away from them, we basically skipped the last room of Roman York, and headed downstairs for Medieval York (where we were granted an all too brief reprieve before they followed, but at least it was a reprieve). This was definitely the best of the main galleries, and was a bit more Viking and early medieval than late Middle Ages (which is the period I know more about), so it was nice to see some unusual artefacts and learn more about this period in York’s history.

 

Even though there were some lovely things on display, like the York Helmet, one of only three intact Anglian helmets found in Britain, and lots of hilarious stained glass cross-eyed kings, my favourite things were definitely the signs for children containing historical facts illustrated with funny cartoons, like the one above (I think it’s probably just a coincidence that he looks a bit like a thin Trump, though the bumbling idiocy and complete lack of consideration for other people seems to fit)!

 

I also liked the fun game (one of the few interactive things in this museum not solely aimed at children) where you could determine how Viking you were based on your interests. The Viking in the game actually looked a bit like Marcus, so I wasn’t surprised that he was 30% more Viking than I am (in terms of actual ancestry, I don’t think either of us are particularly Viking, since neither of us has any Scandinavian ancestry. At least none we know about).

 

The final section of the museum that we saw was probably Marcus’s favourite part, as it contained “The Map that Changed the World,” a 200 year old geological map drawn by the “father of English geology” William “Strata” Smith (good nickname). The label said that the map was covered by a roller blind, but as you can see, it was just sitting out in the open during our visit, though there was another map with a cloth over the top that you were allowed to lift to look at it. Not being a geology enthusiast, my favourite part was the poor taxidermed bear in one corner of the library.

 

Although it contained some interesting things, I don’t think I would have bothered seeing this museum if hadn’t got in for free. It wasn’t anything out of the ordinary from the average local history museum (though it is undoubtedly bigger than many, including the one I work at), and although I fully understand the importance of museum visits for the younger generations, the school children were quite loud and disruptive and I think they probably could have been encouraged to walk through the museum in a more orderly manner. 2.5/5 for the Yorkshire Museum, but our visit to York overall (intruder in our hotel room notwithstanding) was lovely. I’m definitely a fan of the potato scallop, which we don’t see down south (just a battered slice of potato – the veggie alternative to fish, at least at places too old school to have battered halloumi or tofu) and the cheap cheap Northern prices (60p for a giant potato scallop and free scraps? Yes please!) so I will undoubtedly return!

York: York Castle Museum

I have a tendency to overdo it on holiday and visit way too many museums to the point where I end up completely exhausted. I was trying very hard not to do that this time and instead limit myself to one museum per day, but we seriously only spent half an hour at the Jorvik Viking Centre (and that was with riding the ride twice!), so I thought another museum wouldn’t hurt, particularly a fun one. And York Castle Museum seemed like it definitely fit the bill. A museum with a street of yesteryear, Victorian prison, and an exhibition from the Museum of Broken Relationships?! Yes, please!

 

But all that fun comes at a price. £12 to be exact, or £10.90 without Gift Aid. Actually, because we visited on a weekend during their Dickensian Christmas event, we paid even more than that – £13.90. Though if you’re not visiting with kids who want to see Santa, I think you can safely skip the weekends. I didn’t see anything magically Christmassy enough to justify the higher price (the decorations stay up for the whole Christmas season, it’s just the Dickens characters and Santa that are only there on a weekend). But this is probably making me seem a bit down on the museum, which was far from the case.

 

Contrary to what you might think from the name (naturally enough), the museum is not actually built in a castle, but is located in an old gaol on the site of what once was York Castle (there is still a castle-looking structure, called Clifford’s Tower, nearby). It was built by a Dr. John Kirk who sounded like a typical eccentric Victorian(ish) collector and wanted somewhere to house his collection and showcase the traditional ways of Yorkshire life. Apparently the museum was the first of its kind in Britain with everything designed to best showcase the objects in his collection, including the creation of a Victorian street named Kirkgate after its founder. I mean, frankly, the man sounds like a delight (except for the whole preserving traditional ways thing, which sounds a bit UKIPy for my tastes, though maybe he didn’t mean it in that way), and his museum still basically is.

 

We started by going up a walkway that had a brief timeline of York history and then looked at a few mock-ups of rooms throughout history, and an excellent collection of Staffordshire Dick Turpin figurines. This led into the “Toy Stories” gallery, which contained old, creepy, and sadly, even racist (blackface performing dolls) toys. Fortunately, I saw this gallery shortly before we saw the stage version of Mary Poppins in the West End (I’m like a super fan of Charlie Stemp, who plays Bert), because the musical has these giant creepy toys that come to life, and I would definitely had been more freaked out by these toys had I seen the play first. The toys segued into “Shaping the Body”, which was a collection of historic clothing arranged roughly chronologically. Most notable were the pieces of clothing belonging to corpulent monarchs. Above you can see Victoria’s dress, and George IV’s shirt. Everyone mocks George IV for being fat, of course, particularly cartoonists like Gillray, but jeez, judging by that dress, Victoria was even bigger! The woman was practically a cube (I know fat-shaming isn’t nice, but Victoria was so horrible she has it coming)! They also had a few dress-up stations, and I was dying to do it, but the clothes were very definitely child-sized, and there were too many people about, so I chickened out.

 

Next was Kirkgate, the ye olde street. And it was a good one! The Dickensian Christmas element seemed to be people dressed up as characters from his novels, though I’m not familiar enough with most of Dickens’ oeuvre to have recognised them by sight. There was also a magician, but I think he probably sensed my distaste for activities that involve audience participation, because he kept his magic to himself. There was even a sweet shop where you could actually buy sweets, but as the prices were quite high and they didn’t have soor plums (no reason they would, they’re a Scottish thing. I just really like them) we gave it a miss. I did, of course, pretend to try out the outhouse though, and managed a particularly unpleasant fake pooping face.

 

After Kirkgate, we ended up back where we came in and had to cut through the shop to see the other half of the museum (kind of like the Museum of Oslo). This was just as large as the first half of the museum, and began with a WWI gallery. Similar to other museums I know and love (Thackray Museum), York Castle Museum gives you a list of real people who were alive at the time, and has you pick one to follow through the war and find out at the end whether you had survived. I picked a guy called Albert, both because I like the name, and his symbol was a plane, so I figured I would get to do some flying, though I think he was primarily a aircraft mechanic.

 

I don’t think there was enough follow-up with this because I only caught a few updates on Albert throughout the display (he did survive the war, but not for terribly long after) but the rest of the exhibition was pretty good. I liked the fake head on a stick that resembled the actual ones stuck over the parapet of the trenches to try to trick the enemy into firing to reveal their position. Like so many other WWI projects, this was HLF funded, and so it had a similar feel to other exhibitions I’ve seen in terms of interactivity and concept.

 

Next came the exhibition by the Museum of Broken Relationships, which I’ve been meaning to see if I ever make it to Croatia. I assume this was only a sampling of what’s there because there were only maybe 50 objects on show. If you’re not familiar with the concept, people who have been in relationships that have ended have donated objects representing those relationships and written a short piece on the relationship and how it ended. These could be terribly poignant (the one written by a man whose wife had died from cancer), but also quite funny (a fake penis with piercings that represented the piercings of a guy who got them without asking his partner). There were objects that had been donated specially for this exhibition by people from Yorkshire, and a display on Brexit to represent the breakdown of Britain’s relationship with the EU. Based on what I saw here, I don’t know if I would schedule a trip to Zagreb solely for this museum, but it was interesting to read people’s stories of heartbreak.

 

We were then directed outside where we saw the site of the old gallows (though you couldn’t climb them) and the stocks (these you could use, as you can see at the bottom of the post). There was a sign pointing to something called the Rainham Mill, but I wasn’t totally sure if it was part of the museum (and also it was cold and rainy) so we didn’t go. Turns out it is part of the museum, and is a Victorian watermill, so don’t be like me – check it out if you visit!

   

Finally, there was a gallery on the 1960s (disappointing because there were no dress-up opportunities), and the old prison cells! These were actually a bit scary because it was very dark, and there were video projections based on real prisoners that would only show up after you’d walked into the cell. The best one (and worst one, I guess) was a cell where nine people had suffocated one night, which was absolutely pitch black and had sounds of people struggling to breathe. After you had made your way all the way into the room, green writing suddenly popped up on one wall about the people who died. Scary but sad! There were also cells dedicated to famous prisoners, including Dick Turpin, and a room with an audio recording of poetry written by prisoners.

 

This museum was actually loads of fun, enough to probably justify the high entrance fee, as we spent ages here and could have spent even more time had we seen the mill. As it was, we were tired and hungry, so headed straight over to Betty’s for tea, which is basically obligatory for all visitors to York (I do wish they offered a non-fruited plain scone, but I did enjoy my fruit-free rarebit scone and my very buttery caramel and walnut tart with ice cream. And lots of Earl Grey. Probably too much in fact, as I was peeing every ten minutes for the rest of the night). 4/5 for York Castle Museum, I think. Pricey, but just about worth it (certainly more so than Jorvik Viking Centre)!