libraries

Oxford: “Sappho to Suffrage” and “Designing English” @ Weston Library

We didn’t have any trouble finding our next destination, the Weston Library, as it was across the street from the Museum of the History of Science.  I was planning on going anyway to see “Designing English,” which was a display of some of their collection of medieval manuscripts (I’m not gonna lie, I was hoping for butt trumpet marginalia), and then it turned out that there was a suffragette display there too, so that was a nice surprise.

  

The Weston is a branch of the Bodleian Library, but isn’t actually in the Bodleian, so it is just a nondescript building compared to the magnificence of the Bodleian (or so I imagine, since we didn’t have time to visit the actual Bodleian on this trip), but you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover and all that, so I was still eager to see their displays, even though the interior was kind of blah and dominated mostly by a very crowded cafe. The exhibitions were both free to visit, so after taking a moment to admire a large, tapestry-style map of Oxfordshire and the surrounding counties (being from Stratford-upon-Avon, Marcus was a bit miffed that it wasn’t included (Update: Yes, it is, listed as “Stretford.” He found it on the photo in this post.)), we headed in (fortunately, the Weston is one of those chill libraries that lets you take your bag into the exhibition galleries, unlike the National Archives, who still stick in my craw).

  

We started with “Sappho to Suffrage: Women who Dared,” which sounded pretty great from the name alone, and I wasn’t disappointed by the choice of artefacts or women featured here. There was a nice mix of stuff from big famous names and also lesser-known but equally interesting women. So of course Jane Austen’s teenage diary was amazing, as was Mary Shelley’s manuscript of Frankenstein (even though the copy on show was only a facsimile), but I also loved learning about women like Mary Lacy, who was probably the first woman to take an exam as a shipwright and receive a pension from the Royal Admiralty (she served in the navy whilst posing as a man, but applied for a pension in 1771 under her real name, and was granted it!); and Marjory Wardrop, who fell in love with Georgia (the country) after her diplomat brother travelled there, so she learned Georgian and eventually translated the most famous Georgian epic poem, though sadly didn’t think it was fit for publication, so it wasn’t published until after her death (it totally was fit for publication, by the way, and has become the standard by which Georgian to English translations are measured).

  

There were many more wonderful artefacts, like a drawing by Ada Lovelace, the only surviving copy of a board game called Suffragetto, as seen above (a game of suffragettes vs police where suffragettes try to occupy the House of Commons whilst also defending Albert Hall against the police, while the police try to defend the House of Commons whilst occupying Albert Hall), a scrap of one of Sappho’s poems, and lots of books and illustrations by various female pioneers in medicine, botany, photography, etc. etc. (I wish I had more pictures to share, but the lighting was poor and we didn’t know we were allowed to take them til the end.) How rad is that Oxford Women Suffrage poster though?!

  

We finished looking around the exhibition just in time, as a large group of students (ironically all male, though I suppose they were high school age rather than from the university) filed in just as we were about to leave.  Fortunately, “Designing English: Graphics on the Medieval Page” only had a handful of people inside. This was also a really amazing exhibition, filled with lots of beautiful manuscripts; though sadly, almost none of the marginalia I was hoping for (one of the books had a little monster in the margins, and I’ll certainly take it, but of course I wanted to see a butt trumpet or at least an aggressive snail).

  

However, what the exhibition lacked in hilarious marginalia, it made up for with the quantity and quality of the pieces on display, as well as the accompanying text, which was both interesting and informative. There was even a giant piece of vellum stretched across a hoop so we could see exactly how it was made in the display about book production.

  

My favourite book was probably one where one monk had started to lay down the notes for a religious song (a “nowell” which had me singing “The First Noel” in my head (for an atheist, I do really love Christmas carols) though of course this song would have pre-dated that by centuries), for which he promised the lyrics would follow, but then another monk stepped in and wrote down the lyrics to a drinking song instead. But so much of this was deeply fascinating, like a book with a poem that had every rhyming couplet written in a different colour ink, so the reader would understand that it was supposed to rhyme (which shows how poetry has evolved); and a fold-up vellum manuscript for an astrologer or doctor (really, there wasn’t much difference back then) to carry around and diagnose various ailments based on the astrological sign active at the time.

  

I suppose the exhibition was meant to be showing the evolution of graphic design, but I found the evolution of English itself much more interesting, both in the aforementioned poetry book, and in prayerbooks that show the transition from Latin into the vernacular.  For example, there was a book that quoted a poem by Caedmon, the earliest English poet, who was a possibly illiterate animal husbandman who had songs appear to him in dreams – the book was in Latin, but when it got to Caedmon’s poem, it switched to English that was slightly set-off from the rest of the text. They explained the reasons for this in a more detailed way that I can’t remember, but take my word for it, it was neat.

  

It was awesome getting to see all these beautifully preserved books and manuscripts that were hundreds of years old, and I learned a lot too (though have clearly forgotten some of it – I should have written this post first thing!). I think these two exhibitions were probably the best things we saw in Oxford (Pitt Rivers is amazing, as you’ll see it in the next post, but I had seen it before, so it wasn’t quite as awe-inspiring this time around), and I recommend seeing them both, if you can (“Designing English” is only on til 22 April, but “Sappho to Suffragette” will be there until 2019). 4.5/5 for “Designing English” and 4/5 for “Sappho to Suffragette.”

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Manchester: John Rylands Library + General Manchesteriness

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

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

  

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

 

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

  

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

  

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

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

  

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

  

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

  

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

  

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

 

London: Maps and the 20th Century @ the British Library, and “Intrigue” @ the Royal Academy

dsc09077_stitchLast week, when some certain election news meant I needed something to distract myself/cheer myself up, I decided to spend the afternoon visiting two new-ish temporary exhibits in London I’d been wanting to see. (Unfortunately, neither museum allows photography in the exhibition spaces, so I can’t really show you anything, which is a shame.) The first was “Maps and the 20th Century: Drawing the Line,” at the British Library, which opened on 4 November and runs til 1 March 2017.  I hadn’t attended anything at the British Library since “Terror and Wonder,” the Gothic Imagination exhibit two years ago, which I really enjoyed, so I was hoping this would be as impressive.

Admission is £12, and they offer half price admission for National Art Pass holders, so I managed to get in for £6.  “Maps” was located in the same exhibition space as “Terror and Wonder” was, which I was pleased with because it’s such a nice large area, so visitors can spread out a bit.  Actually, seeing something else there made me appreciate how they must have gone out of their way to create a wonderfully creepy atmosphere there for the goth thing, because it’s a fairly characterless space without all the gloomy lighting and fabric hanging down.  Anyway, as you can probably guess from the name, this exhibit was all about maps of the 20th century, and how maps reflect the social and political changes that occurred over the course of the century.

The start of the exhibit was pretty cool, in that it was mapping us, the visitors, as we moved around the exhibit, with a “live” map that used different coloured dots to represent each person (the dots moved with us, which of course I had to test by running back and forth like an idiot whilst staring at the map).  Other than that, the exhibit was divided up into five main sections: Mapping a New World, which was about mapmakers and how map making technology changed over time (this section included a few pre-20th century maps to demonstrate this); Mapping War, which was mainly about WWI and WWII, Mapping Peace, which showed what happened during the negotiations following the World Wars; Mapping the Market, which was about world economies; and finally Mapping Movement, which showed how both populations and individuals moved over the century.

Because it was a Wednesday afternoon, there weren’t very many people in the exhibit, which delighted me because maps are the kind of thing that you really have to get close to and study for a while to appreciate, so it can be annoying if there’s too many people in there, because they’re likely to block a map for some minutes whilst looking at it.  Without having photographs of the maps to remind myself what was there, it’s hard to do a detailed recap, so I’ll just tell you some of the memorable highlights.  There was a beautiful, post-WWI map of a fairy tale world, hilarious maps depicting the ways Reagan and Thatcher allegedly viewed the world (though it was a bit sobering to think that Trump probably thinks in much the same way, if not even worse), and of course, early versions of some iconic maps, such as Harry Beck’s tube map.  There were also some funny cartoony anti-Nazi WWII maps (the “Adolfin Sea” made me laugh more than it should have), and an impressive map of the trenches in WWI that was handmade, with thin sheets of paper carefully layered up to depict the terrain.  This being the BL, they also had some famous maps from books, like AA Milne’s original map of Hundred-Acre Wood (I would definitely be relegated to Eeyore Land, which is all boggy and gloomy), and Tolkien’s map of the Shire, though I’m not the right kind of nerd to have properly appreciated that (I’m a nerd alright, but not a Lord of the Rings type one).

I was happy to see that this exhibit was just as big and thoughtfully put-together as the Gothic Imagination, despite not being quite as atmospheric. There was also a free exhibit about Victorian entertainment when I was there, located at the back of the main hall, which contained some excellent old posters for magic shows and clairvoyants, as well as an early film of the “egg-laying man” magic trick, which was pretty amusing.  Definitely worth walking to the back of the hall for!  I have to admit, I was definitely happier about paying £6 than £12, because I am cheap, but I think this exhibit was actually worth the money either way, because there was so much to see, and it was very well done.  Definitely 4/5 (not quite as high as “Terror and Wonder” because I just like monsters and stuff better, but still very good and interesting).

dsc09074The second exhibition I visited that day was “Intrigue: James Ensor by Luc Tuymans” at the Royal Academy of Arts (it runs til 29 January 2017).  I’m still not real sure who Luc Tuymans is, but I don’t really care because I am a huge James Ensor fan, and he was the focus of this exhibition.  I’d never been to the Royal Academy before, mostly because I balk at spending £9 and up for art, but I had to make an exception for James Ensor (I think it was actually £10, but I got a whole pound off for being a National Art Pass holder.  Dunno why they couldn’t offer half-price or free admission like almost every other museum in London, but whatever).

Anyway, I included links to a few James Ensor paintings when I went to his house last year, and there’s more on the exhibition page if you click the Intrigue link in the previous paragraph, but I get the impression that his work is of a type where you either love it or hate it.  I am definitely in the former camp…anyone who painted as many skeletons and fart clouds as he did is going to be pretty damn high on my list.  Having really only been familiar with his paintings previously, I was delighted to discover some of his etchings at this exhibit, because I think I might like them even better than his paintings, particularly the Seven Deadly Sins series (LOTS of skeletons!).  However, although Ensor’s art was all delightful, and I was very happy to see so much of it in one place, I was less pleased with the picture captions, which only provided the name of the piece and the year it was created, without any additional information whatsoever.  The free booklet they gave me was pretty informative, but it didn’t talk about every single painting, and it also didn’t discuss them in the order in which they were displayed, so I really would have preferred that the information been next to each painting, as it would be in a normal art museum.  There were audio guides available, but they cost an extra £3.50, which I thought was a bit excessive after already having to part with a tenner just to see the (fairly small) exhibition.  So although Ensor’s art did make the experience worthwhile for me (many of his pictures made me actually laugh out loud, which was what I needed that day), I’m really not thrilled about how much I paid to see it, and how little time it took to see, because there was literally nothing to do besides look at the pictures.  So although Ensor himself is for sure a 5/5 for me, this exhibit only gets 3/5 as a whole, because of the Royal Academy’s lacklustre effort.