London

London: “Nature Morte” @ Guildhall Art Gallery

This is the third post I’ve written about the Guildhall Art Gallery, but the first one that has actually made it on to the blog. My initial post on it was sort of a panic-post written a few years ago as filler when I thought I would run out of things to write about, and was based on a visit from before I started blogging, so I had very few pictures (the post was actually mainly about their toilets). The second version was a revamp of the first that included a temporary exhibition I went to see there, as well as a few more pictures, but it turns out that I didn’t have much to say about the temporary exhibition either, and it was still mainly about the toilets, so I never ended up publishing it. This post, however, is a completely new effort, primarily about the special exhibition on until 2 April, called “Nature Morte” (though I will mention the toilets at some point).

  
Even though I’ve been to the Guildhall Art Gallery at least three times, I still get lost pretty much every time I’m trying to find my way there, because Bank is the most confusing station. There’s about a million exits, and even if you go out the one you think is right, you’re probably wrong. This time, I actually did go out the correct exit, but got confused by the street signs and ended up having to walk in a complete circle whilst crossing a number of busy roads, but I eventually made it. Probably because of its proximity to important financial stuff, they have fairly tight security at the gallery – there’s always at least a couple of guards standing around the entrance, and they put your bag through an actual airport style scanner, but to be honest I find that less embarrassing than someone opening my bag and poking around in there, because I usually have something odd in there like a book about murders or witches or diseases, or food (not even something normal like a granola bar, but maybe a brownie with buttery grease soaking through the bag or a baguette or some other weird thing), or an extra pair of flip flops (only in summer, because I live in fear of flip flops breaking when I’m out and about, and I am totally gross enough to wear flip flops out on a dirty city street) just sitting on top my wallet.
  
I could see a sign for “Nature Morte” downstairs, so I headed down there, only to be greeted by a sign on the door saying that I had to buy tickets from the shop, so I had to walk straight back up again. Admission to the exhibition is £8, though they do offer half price tickets for National Art Pass holders (not advertised anywhere, I had to specifically ask). To be honest, I think I could have gotten away without paying admission at all, because there was nobody downstairs. Not only was I the only visitor, there were also no stewards or security guards (though I suppose one of the ones by the entrance could have run down and stopped me if he’d noticed me on the cameras), so I just awkwardly stepped around the sign and let myself into the exhibition.
  
I was pretty thrilled at being the only visitor, and I didn’t see any signs prohibiting photography, so I was free to snap away with gay abandon. Obviously, I was drawn far more towards the “morte” part of the exhibition than the “nature” bit, so I was pleased to see a couple of skulls greeting me when I walked in. The premise of the exhibition, according to the museum’s website, was: “Confront what it means to be human. Explore the transience of time and the problem of mortality as the 16th-century tradition of still life meets modern art in Guildhall Art Gallery’s new exhibition Nature Morte. Go beyond the two-dimensional as 100 works of art on the themes of flora, fauna, the domestic object, food and vanitas, invite you to pause and look anew at the human condition.”
  
The first room was divided by roughly the aforementioned themes, which were actually “House and Home,” “Food,” “Flora,” “Fauna,” and “Death.” My favourites were of course “Death” and “Fauna,” because taxidermy + skulls, though I have to say there wasn’t really as much of either as I was hoping (especially taxidermy). “House and Home” literally only consisted of two paintings, and “Flora” was similarly unremarkable, except for a video installation of moving flowers by Jennifer Steinkamp, which was at least cool to watch. I did like the photograph of the withered lemons in “Food,” as well as the cheeses, though what cheese has to do with death I really couldn’t say (I mean, the whole point of cheese is that it is meant to preserve milk, so it’s sort of the opposite of decay, really).
  
I loved Peter Jones’s painting of Ollie Monkey in the “Fauna” section though, as well as Nancy Fouts’ taxidermied Rabbit with Curlers. “Death” was definitely the largest (not that that’s saying much) and best section, and Rigoberto A Gonzalez’s So that they Learn to be Respectful was the most eye-catching piece, depicting a man decapitated by Mexico’s drug cartels (apparently one of Gonzalez’s family members was killed in this awful way).
  
I was a little confused by the second room, because when I walked in and found myself staring at some blocks and a pop-art style painting of chairs, it didn’t appear to be part of the same exhibition at all. It wasn’t until I spotted a skull and read a couple of the picture captions that I realised it was still “Nature Morte.” There were nonetheless plenty of pieces I really liked here once I ventured further in, like Matt Smith’s Looking for a Chicken Hawk, Paul Hazelton’s Fright Wig (apparently based on the wigs Andy Warhol used to wear), Matthew Weir’s There and Not There (piece with the skeletons and little boy), and Cindy Wright’s Nature Morte 2, meant to show the viewer the reality of eating meat (I don’t eat meat or fish anyway, so it’s hard to say if it worked, but the fish do look gross).
  
The final room of the exhibition was a cosy little nook with a couple of Dutch still-life-influenced floral paintings (including one with dead butterflies stuck to it. Ick!) and a video of a jug of flowers exploding, which I sat and watched for a couple of minutes. Even though the description of the video specifically said the vase would “suddenly explode,” I still jumped about a foot when it happened, having been lulled into boredom by just staring at a vase of flowers for three minutes.
  
Although I liked many of the works in this exhibition (I was definitely more drawn towards the ones inspired by old still-lifes rather than the modern art pieces, like the thing that was just random blocks on the floor), I can’t say that it necessarily made me “pause and think about the human condition” all that much. Very graphic pieces like Gonzalez’s severed head and Wright’s bloody fish certainly did make me think about death, but not really in a more profound way than “ugh, a violent death would be horrible!” I definitely, definitely don’t think it was worth £8, as it was pretty teeny, and even £4 was kind of debatable because the last exhibition I saw there, which was on telegraphy (the one I never ended up blogging about) was a similar size and quality, and was free. 3/5 for “Nature Morte,” based mainly on my enjoyment of experiencing an exhibition in complete blissful solitude (and also some of the art).
   

I probably will get around to blogging about the rest of the gallery (which is free to visit) at some point, but I’ll just quickly run through what’s in there now. The upstairs gallery is primarily Victorian paintings, with modern art being located on the lower levels. There are also the ruins of a Roman amphitheatre in the building, and despite my lack of enthusiasm for the Romans, I think it’s neat that you can walk through it. After my introduction, I don’t think I can close the post without mentioning the toilets in more detail, so here we are. Basically, the museum has really nice toilets. Extremely fancy, and very private, if that sort of thing matters to you (frankly, I think it sometimes matters to all of us), and probably worth the effort of having your bag scanned if you’re in the area and in need of a loo (also, if you’re in the City on a weekend, not much is open, so your options are limited. Even on a weekday, it is creepily deserted during times when everyone is at work, which is probably why I really quite like the City (although if I had to work there, I’m sure I’d change my tune pretty quick). I was there on a Monday afternoon, and I didn’t see another visitor at the museum until as I was leaving).  I’m not the biggest fan of any of the art in their permanent collections, but it is worth visiting when they have free special exhibitions, or to see the Roman amphitheatre (or use the toilets of course!). Just don’t rush out to see “Nature Morte” if, like me, you’re expecting lots of taxidermy, because you will inevitably be disappointed that there’s only one example of it there (not counting the butterflies, because I hate them).

  

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London: “Red Star over Russia” @ Tate Modern

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

  

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

London: Venom: Killer and Cure @ the Natural History Museum

I’m glad that I had so many posts from Manchester and the US on backlog, because I always find it really difficult to leave the house in January, and I just wasn’t motivated to go to many museums (it doesn’t particularly help that I work at a museum now – even though I still love visiting museums, I don’t always want to spend my days off in one). I was also battling a cold and jetlag for the first half of the month, which definitely didn’t help. But I finally dragged myself out of my flat in mid-January to check out the venom exhibition at the Natural History Museum, because the promise of stuff in jars is a great motivator, at least as far as I’m concerned.

I seem to go to the NHM far less than the other major museums in London (this is actually my first post about an exhibition there, though I have popped inside now and again over the years), I think because I perceive it as being always hideously crowded with screaming children, but I realised on this visit that if you go in the side entrance on Exhibition Road instead of the main one, it really isn’t any busier once you get inside than the Science Museum or the V&A, neither of which I seem to have any issue with visiting, so perhaps I’ve been unfair to the NHM. At least, it isn’t that bad on a weekday – I’m still not brave enough to attempt it on a weekend.

“Venom: Killer and Cure” was a bit tricky to locate; in fact, we had to ask for directions to it at the whale exhibit (the other special exhibition they currently have running), and we had to pass through several “zones” to get there (the museum is so big that things are assigned colour-coded zones), including the entrance hall with the blue whale skeleton (who is apparently named Hope) taking pride of place over the oft-mourned Dippy the diplodocus (honestly, I like Hope just fine, but I suppose I don’t have a childhood attachment to Dippy like other people do), but we eventually found our way. Admission is a whopping £10.50 (sans donation), but we got in for half price thanks to the National Art Pass (which is well worth getting if you live in London and go to lots of exhibitions).  (Apologies for the giant disgusting sting ray in the above picture – they scare the crap out of me, but the exhibition wasn’t that big, so I have a limited amount of photos and had to use it.)


The exhibition highlights on their website promised a lot of things, including:

“a live venomous creature,
the head of a gaboon viper, the species with the biggest known venomous fangs;
the insects with some of the most painful venoms known to science,
the enchanting flower urchin, whose venom can cause temporary muscular paralysis in humans;
the unusual love life of the emperor scorpion – where seduction has a sting in the tail,
the box jellyfish, whose embrace can kill humans in under five minutes; and
scientists whose ideas represent the cutting edge of venom research and its use in modern medicine”

and I suppose they did deliver, but in the most minimalist way possible. For example, they had exactly one live venomous creature – a tarantula in a glass tank. I was OK with that, because I definitely have no desire to touch a tarantula (though I’m fine with looking at them if they’re safely contained), but I was sort of hoping there’d be an opportunity to handle some snakes (though I guess not venomous ones!) or at least look at live snakes in tanks, because I love snakes, but dead snakes in jars were the only ones on offer (I mean, I do love stuff in jars too, but I like live snakes better than dead ones). Pretty much everything else on that list was there also in the form of dead and in a jar, or dead and tacked to a board, or dead and taxidermied…except for the scientists, which at least would have been interesting in a macabre sort of way. Again, I’m not really sure what I was expecting, because of course they’re not going to have a bunch of live venomous creatures hanging around, but I think I was just hoping the exhibition would be more engaging than it actually was. Because there was really no interactivity to speak of.

The exhibition opened with a large screen with a tarantula shadow projected on to it (which was a cool effect, particularly when you looked at it looming behind you in the mirror), which led into a very dark room containing cases of various preserved venomous specimens, with brief descriptions of each underneath. I enjoyed looking at these, but it didn’t take a whole lot of time to see them.

From there, the gallery segued into a round room with a tableau of a mongoose and cobra fighting in the middle, which was pretty neat. I also really liked the descriptions of the pain level of various venomous insect bites written by glutton-for-punishment researcher Christopher Starr. Most of them made me laugh, particularly the “W.C. Fields putting out a cigar on your tongue” one (I hope you can enlarge the above photo enough to read some of them for yourself!). The most venomous animal hall of fame was so dark that it was a little hard to see, especially some of the smaller insects, which had simply been pinned into place in the display. There was a short video featuring three survivors of venomous attacks telling their stories, which I didn’t really take time to watch because a family piled in there just as I approached (and although the exhibition was almost empty, there were a pair of really annoying visitors behind us who were pausing FOREVER in front of each display and blocking the case, so I wanted to make sure I stayed ahead of them).

The next room of the exhibition was probably the most interesting (and well-lit!) and was about historical medical treatments for people who had been attacked by venomous animals, as well as some uses modern researchers have found for various animal venoms. This included a great display with a big-ass jar crammed full of snakes (which was for some reason more exciting than all the jars with a solitary dead snake), and a preserved gila monster (I always seem to think they should be bigger than they actually are), as well as other cool cases full of medical stuff, like an apothecary jar and some venom-sucking syringes, and excitingly, some leaves that had been preserved on Cook’s first expedition(!).

The last object of note was a massive glass case with a preserved komodo dragon in it, which was given its own special room. I took the survey on my way out (I’m currently running the visitor survey at the museum where I work, so I feel obligated to do other people’s), and was interested to see that the things I was apparently supposed to have learned about in the exhibition didn’t seem to have been included anywhere, such as the difference between poisonous and venomous (I knew this already because I’m pedantic about these things, but I didn’t see it discussed anywhere inside). The shop attached to the exhibition was a bit meh – good if you’re into slow lorises, because they had about a million slow loris things, but not great if you prefer snakes and vampire bats.

I clearly can’t complain about all the specimens in jars, because that was mostly what this exhibition was, and I LOVE stuff in jars, but I could see that kind of thing in the free parts of the museum. If I’m going to pay to see an exhibition, I would rather see something more special, and with a bit of interactivity – there was one touch screen about ancient Egyptian treatments for snakebite, and that was basically it. Surely they could have come up with something cool and relevant to the subject matter (like a game where you had to try to tell whether snakes were venomous or not, or a screen or microscope where you could have examined some of the tinier insects up close, or some kind of electric zapping device that mimicked the sensation of an insect bite…well, maybe not that last one, but I’m just coming up with stuff off the top of my head here, and I think it’s more engaging than what they offered). It was also very repetitive, in terms of the animals represented – they must have had the same damn facts about the box snail (along with examples of said snail – maybe they got a whole case of them on discount) in there three or four times, so it really felt like they were desperately trying to bulk up the content to fill up an entire exhibition. I learned a bit about venom, and I enjoyed the descriptions of bites (and some of the more amusing object captions) and of course all the preserved animals, but for £10.50 (or even £5.25) I wanted more than what the NHM is already offering in its permanent zoological galleries. I think this would have been much better as a free display, rather than a special exhibition with a pricey admission fee attached. 2.5/5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

London: “Living with Gods”@ the British Museum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

London: Cabinet of Curiosities @ the National Archives

I should start by saying that me and the National Archives are not exactly friends. Though I like the idea of archives in principle – in practice, I’m not a great one for following the rules, and man, most archives have a LOT of rules. I’ve had to go to the National Archives a few times over the years to do historical research (for some reason, though the surviving attestation papers for servicemen in WWI have been digitised, the service records for officers have not, so you have to go there in person to look at them), and after my last experience there, when one of their employees literally snapped my pencil in half for the “crime” of having an eraser on it (instead of just, you know, telling me I couldn’t have an eraser, and letting me go find another pencil), I was quite happy to just let my reader’s pass lapse.  But then Halloween rolled around this year, and I saw that the National Archives was hosting a special late event as part of the Museums at Night series that takes place in London a couple of times a year. And the event was Edwardian themed, with promises of stories of spiritualism and Egyptology, so I sucked it up and parted with 20 quid for a ticket (which in itself is insane, even without my dislike of the National Archives). But I was unconvinced that ending my unofficial boycott of the National Archives would prove to be a wise decision.

I was admittedly not in the best mood to start with, having not gotten home from work until 11:30 the night before after offering to help with a spooky walk given by my museum’s young persons’ group (I won’t be reviewing it for obvious reasons), so I wasn’t particularly keen on going out yet again after work when all I wanted to do was go home, eat, and go to bed, but it was really my own fault for booking tickets, so I ignored my grumbling stomach and caught a bus out to Kew.  The staff were all dressed in Edwardian outfits for the event with big roses pinned to their lapels so you could identify them, and though they had encouraged attendees to dress up, very few had (I wasn’t strictly speaking specially dressed up, since I just wore what I’d been wearing all day at work, but I have kind of an office-goth vibe going on most days anyway, so it did sort of look as though I’d made an effort). Though Eventbrite (with whom I’d booked the tickets) had promised to send over a schedule of events earlier in the week, they never did, so I only got a look at the programme after arriving. When I initially booked, I had to choose a time slot to watch the “mummy unwrapping,” and opted for the earlier slot in case the event was so lame that I didn’t want to hang around til the late one, which meant we were handed a colour coded sticker when we arrived to gain entrance to the earlier showing. Unfortunately, it also served as a kind of beacon for certain staff members to try to dictate to us how we should spend our time.

Since we had about half an hour before the unwrapping, we first tried to view the Keeper’s Gallery, as the programme promised it held special oddities, only to be turned away at the door because I was still carrying my purse (I was evidently going to steal something, despite everything in the exhibit being behind glass). So I duly stowed it away in a locker, and returned, only to realise it was just the same crap in the Keeper’s Gallery that’s always there, and in fact nothing special had been put out for this event. So we instead headed for the Case Studies room, which was meant to have materials relating to spiritualism, only to be turned away there too, because apparently “we might not be able to get upstairs to the mummy unveiling in time.” I realise they were probably just trying to be helpful, but c’mon – I’m a grown-ass woman, and I really dislike being bossed around at an event that I paid a bundle to attend. I had plenty of time to see the handful of ephemera in that room and get upstairs when I needed to, and I’m perfectly capable of doing my own time-keeping, thanks. I mean, it wasn’t like you were only allowed in once – if I didn’t have time to see everything then, I could have come back later. And it turned out that the mummy unwrapping ended up starting late, so we definitely would have had plenty of time to look around the Case Studies room beforehand. As it was, we just stood around the outside of the room where the mummy unwrapping was due to take place like idiots for twenty minutes. I guess the only positive was that it gave me time to take a stupid photo in their Egyptian background with one of the straw boaters that were provided for some reason.

So, the mummy unwrapping then. Though my expectations at this point were not high, it was actually better than expected. It was a presentation by Odette Toilette, who does various scent-themed immersive experiences around London, and some man who professed to be an Egyptologist (it wasn’t really clear if he actually was one in real life, or was just an actor, since he did seem to know a lot about mummies). It was based on actual mummy unwrappings that took place in Victorian England, where people would gather to watch an archaeologist basically desecrate a mummy (after they were unwrapped, they were either sold to be turned into medicine or made into paint, mummy brown apparently being a popular colour with the Pre-Raphaelites), though obviously this event did not involve a real mummy. They took us through the process of unwrapping a “mummy” by removing a few layers of bandages and describing the scents that would have arisen during the process, and we were duly given scent cards for each one, so we could smell along. These were not as gross as you might have expected, and included things like juniper, pine resin, beeswax, and myrrh. They actually gave quite a good performance; especially the poor “mummy” who came very close to having his skull cracked open (I was really impressed that he managed to lay perfectly still for so long, especially with people touching his hands and feet!), and I left feeling slightly less pissy at the National Archives.

Because of the way the talks were scheduled, you really only had time to attend two lectures in addition to the mummy unwrapping. Despite the Edwardian theme, we actually had a choice of talks on medieval witchcraft, the second Pendle witch craze (17th century), female Egyptologists, and the alleged curse of Tutankamun (1920s), which was fine, because those are all things I’m interested in, but I feel like there was enough spooky stuff going on in Edwardian Britain for them to have stuck to the theme, especially since they were the ones who chose it, and it was all people working for the National Archives who gave the lectures. I believe there were also lectures by the Cemetery Club, as noted on a sign inside the archives, but for some reason they weren’t listed on the programme, so I’m not sure if they actually took place.

We had about forty minutes to kill before the first lecture started (having missed the first round of lectures during the mummy unwrapping) so we headed back to the stupid Case Studies room that we were initially denied access to, and surprise surprise, it only took about five minutes to see it (not that I’m salty or anything). It was just a collection of documents relating primarily to prosecutions of Edwardian fortune tellers (for fraud) and Arthur Conan Doyle’s belief in spiritualism and many letters in defense of it. And if you dared to try to turn one of the pages, someone came up and yelled at you and made a show of doing it for you with gloves (I didn’t dare touch anything after my pencil experience, but I saw someone else being shamed). I understand wanting to protect the documents, but then either have them behind glass, or have a sign out saying not to touch them, because scolding people for showing an interest is not a good way to change people’s perceptions of archives, and the documents were just sitting out on tables like normal books, so it wasn’t obvious that you weren’t allowed to turn the pages if you weren’t familiar with the ways of archives. Since we finished with that so quickly, we went to claim our free drinks (fortunately, the choices included semi-fancy soda, because I would have fallen asleep on the spot if I’d had alcohol), and then kind of just milled about listening to some Cockney old-timey style band (who complimented my tights, so they were alright with me!), and attempting to play a ball throwing game that was harder than it looked.

We chose to attend the lectures on medieval witchcraft and Tutankamun’s curse, and they were actually pretty good, especially the witchcraft one. I took an online course on medieval witchcraft a couple of months ago, so I wasn’t expecting to learn much here, but the lecturer told us about specific trials for witchcraft that I hadn’t heard of before (one involved a hand of glory, and the man’s “confession” is thought to be the first short story written in modern English), most of which involved trying to kill the king, which is why the people were prosecuted in the first place (witchcraft wasn’t necessarily frowned upon in the Middle Ages if you weren’t actually trying to harm anyone; for example, some men allegedly summoned a spirit and used it to find the location of some treasure, and the authorities were angry not on account of the necromancy, but because they didn’t declare the treasure once they’d found it. Their penalty was only a fine, rather than execution or something as you’d expect in the early modern period). He also chose some pretty good images to illustrate his talk, and I left feeling pleased with it.

The Tutankamun talk was somewhat less successful, mainly because the lecturer spent the talk trying to debunk the notion of a curse, which isn’t much fun around Halloween (I’d much rather hear about using the parts of a dead man to work magic). She was interesting enough, it just wasn’t really what I wanted to hear, I guess. But still, after my experience at that awful robot event last year, I’m glad I got to attend both talks, because the programme warned us that the lecture theatres had limited capacities and I was worried enough about it to show up early to both lecture rooms (I suppose the 20 quid entry fee helped keep numbers down, but it is London, and tickets had sold out, so I think the National Archives actually did place a reasonable limit on the number of tickets sold instead of being greedy). The witchcraft talk was completely full, but the Tutankamun one had lots of empty seats, probably because it was at the end of the night, and a lot of people had already gone home.

Even though the staff weren’t overly welcoming when we arrived, they seemed to mellow out a bit as the night went on, and I was pleased with the quality of the talks and presentations overall, though I really don’t think it was 20 pound’s worth of entertainment, and I definitely think they could have done a much better job of sticking with an Edwardian theme if they were going to bother to give it a theme at all. Why not some talks on spiritualism (as there was clearly material in the archives relating to this), or Edwardian murder cases (like creepy Crippen)? I also think there could have been more entertainment provided between talks, because the Cockney performers were more just background noise than something you’d actually sit there and watch, and though there was a magician, he was kind of hidden over in a corner rather than front and centre putting on a show. It just wasn’t enough considering how much we’d paid. If it had only been a tenner, I’d have left feeling reasonably satisfied with the evening, but it sure wasn’t worth twice that. I also think they could have had better props in the “photo booths” and maybe got a professional photographer in to offer actual prints for a reasonable fee, because I love that kind of thing, and it would have been better than relying on my own poor efforts. And it was completely freezing in there the whole time, like they had the air conditioning on or something (I get that archival materials probably have to be kept in a specific environment, but they could have at least turned to heat on in the lecture rooms) so I had to cling desperately to my jacket the entire night, which I was only able to get away with because it was a hoodie, as they apparently frown on jackets as well for security purposes (turn the heat on then!).  3/5 for the event overall, but I wish it could have been Halloweenier, better themed, and that some (though not all, one of the stewards was really nice) of the staff could have been friendlier.

London: The Secret Pet Cemetery of Hyde Park

 

How’s that for a good October post title?!  I have a couple more Ohio posts coming eventually, but you all know that I pretty much live for Halloween, so I can’t resist sharing a couple creepy posts while it’s still October. I have wanted to visit this Victorian pet cemetery ever since I found out about its existence during London Month of the Dead a few years ago, but the tour offered that year was already booked up by the time I saw it (I’ve since learned my lesson and book all my Halloween events in August. Stupid populous London). Last year, I was ready and waiting, but the pet cemetery tours never appeared on the London Month of the Dead website. But this year, this year, I got in. Seems like the Royal Parks finally got smart, and now offer about a dozen tours over the course of October, instead of just one (at the time of writing this post, it looked like one of them even still had some availability).

  

Since the tour is run by the Royal Parks (or their Friends, perhaps) it wasn’t simply a tour of the pet cemetery, but of Hyde Park more generally, so we had to meet by Speakers’ Corner. Good thing there was a guy with a Royal Parks jacket and a clipboard standing there, because otherwise I don’t think I would have spotted our fellow walkers. Unlike most London Month of the Dead events, where most of the attendees are, well, like me, if not much more overtly gothy, because this one was primarily a Royal Parks event, almost everyone else there were older “Friends of the Royal Parks” looking types, all ready to go in their waterproof autumn walking gear. Which probably also explains why the walk wasn’t quite as creepy as I was hoping it would be.

  

We began our tour with the nearby “Animals in War” memorial, which I had somehow never seen before, but it is absolutely lovely. We heard more about the role of animals in WWI, including the guide’s wife’s grandfather’s story, as he had worked with pack animals transporting ammunition to the Front, and this was all very well and good – I like animals and WWI, but it was far more poignant than scary.

  

We proceeded to the area where Tyburn used to be (now Marble Arch), and as he started telling us that over 100,000 people were executed in the seven centuries it was in operation (which, if true, is an absolutely appalling number, but I haven’t found that figure listed anywhere else in my admittedly limited research for this post), I thought, “now this is more like it!” Unfortunately, apart from a brief mention of the “Tyburn Tree,” a triangular gallows that could hang twenty-four people at a time (this was before the long-drop, mind, so it could take up to 20 minutes of slow strangulation for a person to die, with their limbs jerking ghoulishly all the while), the grisliness ended there. Instead, he told us the story of Jack Sheppard, which is interesting, but like anyone who is fascinated by the macabre, I’d heard it about twenty times before, so I do wish he could have shared a less well-known story with us (though perhaps it was new to the respectable types who were on the tour with us).

  

Thenceforth to the monument to the Reformers’ Tree, which was burnt down in 1866 during the Reform League protests. I’d never seen this monument either (I don’t come to Hyde Park much, as I mentioned in the Grayson Perry at the Serpentine post), and I was interested in hearing more about this plaque and what it symbolised, but apart from telling us why they were protesting (men’s voting rights, or rather, the lack thereof for working class men), the guide didn’t say much about it. We then went on to a more wooded area of Hyde Park and heard about stag beetles and their life cycle, which I suppose was rather creepy only because I think stag beetles are gross, but not in a Halloweeny kind of way.

 

But then, we finally came to the part I’d been waiting for. Hiding behind a secret gate next to a very unassuming looking maintenance building, was the pet cemetery. It was started in 1881 by the gatekeeper at the time, a Mr. Winbridge, who allowed some of his friends to bury their beloved dog “Cherry” in his garden (I hope he lived in the most excellent “lodge” (which actually looks like it could be an amazing witch’s cottage) a short distance away which I’ll show you a picture of at the end of the post, but if the graves were in his backyard, it’s more likely that there was some other building there before the ugly maintenance one), and it grew from there to include over 300 graves, including the Duke of Cambridge’s dog, who was run over by a carriage (the Victorian Duke of Cambridge that is, who was a cousin of Queen Victoria. Not the current one). Which is kind of amazing given how small it is (I know pet bodies aren’t as big as human ones, but still. I also think it’s kind of obnoxious that poor Mr. Winbridge had to give up the whole of his tiny garden to accommodate animal bodies, what with the rest of Hyde Park just sitting right there, but maybe he was into that kind of thing. Having a cemetery in his garden, that is, not necrophiliac bestiality).

  

It’s not a scary kind of Pet Sematary pet cemetery, but is actually rather sweet and quaint, and I enjoyed reading the heartfelt epitaphs on many of the tiny graves. The guide made sure to point out the “murder victim” to us, poor Balu, who was “poisoned by a cruel Swiss.” I think the grave inscriptions are pretty interesting, so I’ll include some here so you can read them for yourselves (see my Instagram for even more!). I have to wonder if poor “Tubby” actually was overweight, because he seems to be buried all by himself, even though space was at a premium.  They’re not all dogs or cats either; see if you can spot the monkey and crocodile!

  

  

  

  

So did the pet cemetery live up to expectations? Absolutely! I thought it was fantastic, though I’m still not sure if it was worth the 15 quid it cost to go on the tour. Perhaps if the rest of the walk had measured up to it, I would have felt that it was better value, but though our guide was certainly competent, the content of the walk was utterly lacking the scare factor I would have liked from a cemetery tour. What with Tyburn being right there, and with the park itself dating back to Henry VIII’s reign, I’m sure there must be plenty of murders and ghost stories associated with it that the guide could have told us, instead of the not at all spooky subject matter he offered us. I might have been reasonably satisfied with it at another time of year (actually, that’s a lie; for me, eerieness never goes out of season), but not as an October walk!  I suppose it was worth doing just to see the cemetery, but I think the price is high for what you actually get (though I suspect the majority of the other people on our tour were probably perfectly satisfied with the tour’s lack of creepiness).  3/5 for the walk, but the cemetery itself is practically perfect. Oh, and here’s the “witch cottage” I mentioned earlier; I’d be very happy to move in and tend the pet cemetery and scare children away if they need someone to do that kind of thing.

London: “Can Graphic Design Save Your Life?”@ the Wellcome Collection

It’s finally autumn (the best season, obviously), and there’s a new exhibition at the Wellcome Collection, which is normally exciting in itself, so I should be happy, right? Well, unlike the Wellcome’s usual exhibition themes, which are either inherently fascinating to me (death, forensics, poop), or topics I can at least summon up a spark of interest in (electricity…see what I did there?), this one sounded like a real dud. Graphic design? Sorry, but no. In an ideal world, I’d go on to write how the Wellcome proved me wrong with their amazing exhibition, and really changed the way I think about graphic design, but we don’t live in that world, and I am not that blogger.

Photography is never allowed in the Wellcome’s main gallery space, which is particularly galling when the whole focus of the exhibition is graphics, but you can view a few of the images here. The Wellcome gets so crowded that I always try to come mid-day on a weekday (also so I have time to grab lunch from Roti King on the other side of Euston station – I’d never tried roti canai until I started eating there, but now I crave it pretty much all the time), but even that isn’t enough to avoid my fellow Londoners, because the museum is always hopping. I was dismayed to see there was an actual queue to look at the first set of cases, so I naturally bypassed it and headed straight for a display case in the middle of the room that almost no one was looking at. This turned out to contain graphics to do with anatomy, including a couple iPad models of the human body, and a small section on birth control with a few comic strips used by Planned Parenthood back in the infancy of the Pill. To be honest, I don’t think it made any difference what order I walked around in, because each display had a self-contained theme, and there wasn’t really any narrative tying the exhibition together; it was just a series of examples of different types of graphic design.

The line at the start of the exhibit eventually cleared, so I had a chance to meander over and check it out. This was the smoking themed section, and included both campaigns to encourage smoking (the designs of Silk Cut and Lucky Strike cigarette packets), and those against it, including a very bizarre Japanese poster on smoking etiquette that said something about how being scolded to pick a cigarette butt up was like being a child scolded for dropping candy wrappers (which to me sounds a little pro-smoker, but it was in the anti-smoking section, so maybe it lost something in translation).

The exhibition also dealt briefly with the design of fonts used in train stations and workplaces, which really had nothing to do with medicine at all, but I suppose the primary focus was indeed medical, because most of the other displays tied into medicine in some way; most obviously in the section on the design of prescription drugs, which has apparently been heavily influenced by an Israeli designer who came up with the idea of putting a big colourful shape on the front of prescription drug packets so pharmacists would be able to see with ease exactly what they were handing out, and thus avoid making dangerous mistakes. There was also a Swiss pharmaceutical company called JR Geigy AG that was renowned for its “ground-breaking” designs, though I do not remember exactly what they were.

There were displays on hospitals, mental health, and children’s medicine, but my favourite display was undoubtedly the one on epidemic disease. This contained some of the few properly historical objects in the museum, including posters warning about the spread of plague in 17th century Italy, and Victorian ones about cholera. There were some Dutch (I think? Damn this no picture rule!) designers that moved to Africa in the 1950s or ’60s and designed colourful posters explaining how leprosy is spread, and their work was here as well. Probably most visually striking, however, was the work done on the AIDS campaign in the 1980s-90s including a tombstone emblazoned with the word AIDS in giant red letters. There were also posters that went up in places like hospital waiting rooms and tattoo shops explaining how AIDS was spread, and also tying in with AIDS (sort of) was the display of condom packets (I was amused by the brand called OOOPH!) which came in an impressive and rather hilarious array of designs.

I feel like this exhibition was a lot smaller than most of the Wellcome’s major exhibitions, because it was limited to one large room, rather than a whole series of galleries like normal. I suppose it worked well with the theme, because it was bold visually and there wasn’t an overarching story to tell for which being led around a progression of galleries would make sense, but it nonetheless didn’t make for a particularly impressive exhibition. I left feeling just as uninspired by graphic design as I was when I went in – I suppose it might save my life, to answer the question in the title of the exhibition, but that doesn’t make it intrinsically interesting. I’m sticking with my initial description of dud for this one. 2.5/5 – it might be OK if you have a strong interest in graphic design, but if you were expecting something with a lot of informative text about the history of medicine and how graphic design tied into medical advances, like I was, you’re going to leave disappointed.

I also have to report that the Wellcome updated its Spirit Booth, which I was really excited to have my picture taken in last winter, and it was not an update for the better. Not only do you no longer get a physical copy of your photo (it’s all online), you have to answer a series of questions (in your mind) first, which would be fine, except for the voice in the booth pauses for about a full minute between each question, and you’re left sitting there in the dark wondering whether the booth is malfunctioning (for real, it doesn’t take a minute to read five words of text). They asked for feedback on the Spirit Booth, so here it is: put it back to the way it was before, or at least speed up the voice!

 

 

London: The Heath Robinson Museum

Heath Robinson Museum is on the right, the building on the left is a cafe.

I don’t remember where I found out about the Heath Robinson Museum, but I filed it away (mentally, I don’t have an actual file) under places that looked interesting, but realistically would only be visited in the case of blogging desperation, because it was all the way in Pinner. I know I often complain about how long it takes to get around London, but I’m not even sure if Pinner is technically London. It’s on the Metropolitan Line (zone 5!), and is only a few stops away from places like Chesham and Amersham, which certainly aren’t London. In fact, it takes so long to get to Pinner that by the time I arrived, I wasn’t entirely surprised to see that it was downright bucolic, at least the area around the Heath Robinson Museum (there was a big Sainsbury’s right across from the station, which did spoil the effect somewhat).

  

So after sitting on a train for an hour and a half, we had a lovely stroll through some gardens with a duck pond and fountain to reach the museum. Parting with £6 each to see the museum was somewhat less pleasant, given its obvious small size, but a necessary evil. The museum consists of two rooms, with an additional gallery for temporary exhibitions. The museum was obviously fairly new, and indeed, it turns out it was only opened about a year ago, in October 2016. It was busier than I imagined it would be (because who goes to Pinner?!), perhaps because of the park and extremely busy cafe located next door, but “busier than I expected” in a museum this specialised still only amounted to a handful of people, so there was plenty of space to look around without people breathing down your neck (except in the temporary gallery, as I’ll get to later).

  

I admit that when I first heard of this museum, I had no idea who Heath Robinson was. I only had a flash of recognition when I started reading descriptions of some of his drawings. It turns out that he was an artist and illustrator who lived from 1872-1944, presumably at least some of that time in Pinner, though I don’t remember the museum explicitly stating such (according to their website, he moved out there after he was married), who is most famous for his drawings of strange gadgets and contraptions (he’s basically the British equivalent of Rube Goldberg, and interestingly, they were contemporaries, so I’m not actually sure who started drawing these things first, because the Heath Robinson Museum eschews all mention of his American counterpart. Which is probably also why I didn’t recognise the name at first, because Americans refer to those sort of fanciful machines as Rube Goldberg devices, rather than Heath Robinson devices like Brits do) and his illustrations of the “butterfly effect” (one of his drawings actually illustrates what happens when a butterfly decides to fly through a moving bridge, but other illustrations demonstrate the effects of chaos theory in a less literal manner). Basically, if you saw them, you’d probably know them, and happily, we can test that theory throughout this post using the photos.

  

The main room had a timeline running all along the walls at about waist height with detailed information about the different phases of Robinson’s career: he started out as an illustrator, and did editions of some major works, including A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Edgar Allan Poe’s poems, and some of Kipling’s stories. He then became a cartoonist, and made some quite funny cartoons during WWI, and moved on to drawing the unusual gadgets that his name would become synonymous with (at least in Britain). He also took up watercolour painting later in life, and returned to gentle lampooning during WWII until his death in 1944.

  

The timeline was accompanied all along, naturally enough, by Robinson’s cartoons and illustrations, and these were truly the highlight of the museum. Some of his drawings were downright hilarious. I particularly liked some of his promotional cartoons for companies like Thomas and Green Paper Makers, as shown above.

  

I also liked the physical versions of some of his contraptions which were scattered throughout the room (made by other people, because Robinson himself almost never made actual prototypes), although one of them (on the left, above) didn’t appear to be working, as two ladies were trying to fix it throughout the duration of our visit. The one on the right is a model of the apartment block illustrated in his book How to Live in a Flat, a copy of which was helpfully provided next to the model, and very funny it was too, especially if you actually do live in a smallish flat, as I do (I liked the drawing of a man holding a cat in a cage, demonstrating that there was indeed room to “swing a cat” in his tiny flat). There was also a model of an automated house that Robinson described, and it lit up and the machines moved when you inserted a pound, which was probably worth the extra expense.

  

The other room was seemingly aimed more at children, containing as it did a bunch of hands-on activities, but as there were no kids around, I plopped myself right down and turned my hand to one of Robinson’s drawing tutorials that were played on radio in the 1920s. You had to follow instructions using a grid, and mine did look like a house in the end, but it was distinctly less structurally sound than the sample drawing (and the less said of the man I had to draw living in it, the better). You could also trace one of Robinson’s drawings using a light box, and there was a rad drawing bike, which was meant to draw a picture as you pedalled (I think it was a sort of spirograph thing) though sadly that too didn’t appear to be working on the day of my visit.

  

The temporary exhibit when I visited (no longer there, now there’s one on “The Water-Babies”) was called “Rejuvenated Junk,” inspired by a series of drawings Robinson did in 1935 that were used to illustrate an article for Strand Magazine called “At Home with Heath Robinson,” in which he envisioned alternative uses for worn-out household objects (such as converting an old tennis racket into a “mirror for large-ish ladies” or using old LPs to make various fashion accessories ranging from hats to parasols and purses). The objects showcased in the exhibition were somewhat less fanciful, being quite cool and innovative ways that artists around the world created something out of junk.

  

I zoomed right in on the chickens made from plastic bags (I think I’d like to figure out how to do it and make some myself, though with supermarkets charging 5p for a bag these days, it wouldn’t exactly be making something from junk. It could actually get rather expensive!), but there was a lot of cool stuff in here like a dress made from Doritos packets, purses made from toothpaste tubes, and lamps made from old tins.  I also learned that Worcestershire sauce is apparently called “Savoury Spice” in South Africa, at least Colman’s version of it (don’t know if the actual Lea and Perrins stuff is still Worcestershire sauce).

  

The only problem with this section was that there was a group of extremely chatty ladies in here who would not take a hint and move out of the way. Not only was their inane chatter (about what to cook for a lunch party, I think) distracting when I was trying to read the captions, the most annoying thing was that they parked themselves in front of one of the displays and would not budge, even though they clearly weren’t even looking at it, being quite absorbed in their conversation. Why pay £6 to visit a museum, and then just chat amongst yourselves the whole damn time?! They could have done that in the cafe next door! Rather irritatingly as well, given the long train journey, there was only a disabled toilet available in the museum, and though I suppose I could have used one in the cafe, it was so busy that I ended up just going to the Sainsbury’s by the station (it also came in handy for a much needed snack for the journey home, so I guess I shouldn’t knock it).

  

As far as Heath Robinson goes, if his drawings are anything to go by, the man was a delight. I really loved looking at them, and getting to learn a bit about him, though I did feel that the information in the museum was a very pared down biography, and they could have offered additional information and examples of his illustrations for people who were interested (they did have a touchscreen that might have had additional drawings on it, but there was only one in the whole museum, and another visitor was waiting to use it, so I didn’t want to monopolise it). To be honest, I was quite happy with the old-school activities as opposed to more modern interactive elements, I just wish all of them had been working when I visited (especially in a museum that new). I’m very much a fan of Robinson’s work now, but the museum didn’t quite live up to his standards; for the £6 admission price, I would have liked to see more in it. But I did enjoy my visit overall, and perhaps they’ll improve more with time; despite the trek getting there, I’m glad I came and saw Robinson’s very funny work, and the temporary exhibit (nonwithstanding the annoying luncheon club (isn’t luncheon a gross word?)) was actually very well done, in fact, I think the quality of the labels there was a bit higher than in the main part of the museum. 3.5/5.

 

London: The Imperial War Museum

I blogged about the First World War gallery at the Imperial War Museum almost three years ago, and genuinely had every intention of returning soon after to blog about the rest of the museum…but somehow I’ve only just got around to making that return visit, I guess because Lambeth isn’t really somewhere I frequent (I’ve only been in the vicinity a handful of times since moving away from Elephant and Castle eight years ago).  Although some of the surrounding streets aren’t overly salubrious, the IWM itself is housed in a superb building, as you can probably see. Actually, the building is particularly interesting, because it used to be Bethlem Royal Hospital aka Bedlam, the most infamous psychiatric hospital of them all.  In medieval times, Bedlam was located close to what would become Liverpool Street, but by the early 19th century, space in the City was at a premium, so the hospital moved out to this purpose-built building in Lambeth, and there it remained until 1930, when it moved again to its current home in Beckenham. They knocked down the wings (which is where the wards were), and opened the central administrative hall as the Imperial War Museum in 1936. I don’t know about you, but I would be terrified enough if I was being committed even without being brought to a building this imposing, so I think it works much better as a museum, though its past does admittedly give it a creepy touch that I enjoy.

  

Like all of London’s major museums, the IWM is free and huge. It actually is still really imposing on the inside, even though it’s obviously been redesigned a few times since the ’30s (most recently just a few years ago).  I think the concept of a “war museum” itself is really interesting, because it’s genuinely not a military museum; you’ll find very little about battles and such in here. It’s more about how war impacts society (mainly World Wars 1 and 2, though there is a bit in here on more recent conflicts).

  

Because I already blogged about the First World War gallery, and the museum is so extensive, I decided to skip that section entirely this time around, and start with WWII (I’ll refer you to my earlier post if you’d like to read about their WWI collection). I’d enjoyed their WWI stuff so much that my hopes were high for WWII. Unfortunately, the galleries just didn’t measure up to expectations.

  

The main Second World War gallery was called “Turning Points: 1934-1945” and its intention is to “explore key moments of the Second World War through the connections between people’s lives and the objects on display,” which sounds like it could be a really interesting idea, but somehow it just didn’t work out that way. For starters, the objects were meant to be grouped together in themes like “War on the Way” and “Shifting Sands,” which translated to a few big things, like planes or cars, all displayed together, and then further on, a few more motorcycles or cars or whatever. The themes didn’t really come across very well at all. Another issue was that someone had made the (stupid) decision to make all the object labels in this gallery stickers stuck to the OUTSIDE of the cases.  Well, as you can probably guess, visitors had picked at the edges, because they could (I don’t necessarily think it was malicious or even intentional, because I’m totally the sort of person that will pick at the peeling edges of something without even thinking about it, and other people are probably the same), and some of them were so worn down that whole words were missing from the captions. They only redid this section three or four years ago, and you’d think they would have aimed for labels with more longevity than that. It’s fine if they wanted to use stickers because they were planning on moving objects around a lot, so it would be easy to change the labels, but why not at least stick them on the inside of the case where people couldn’t get at them? It made everything look kind of grubby and cheap.  It was also weird that almost nothing in here was interactive, given how much of the WWI gallery is. I think it would have really benefited from offering something hands-on, because it’s rather boring as is.

 

There were a few interesting objects in here, like a map Rommel had personally plotted military campaigns on, and Montgomery’s car, but I didn’t really get a sense of how the war affected British society except in a little exhibition off in a side gallery, called “A Family in Wartime.” This followed the Allpress family, who originally lived in Southwark (I think) but moved to Wimbledon because of the Blitz. They were fairly lucky in that both of their sons who were old enough to fight made it back home safely, but unlucky in that two of their daughters had congenital heart conditions and died as teenagers (I think they had nine children in total). I enjoyed learning about their family and how the war affected their lives, and particularly liked the doll house version of their Southwark house, made by one of their sons-in-law. They didn’t really seem to have any possessions actually belonging to the family, but they did have objects that were representative of a middle class family at that time, including a litterbug made to look like Hitler (because being wasteful helped the Nazis) that I personally think was way too cute. I get the idea of improving morale by making Hitler look ridiculous, but c’mon, that bug is kind of adorable, and Hitler was pure evil.

  

I was pretty excited for the “Secret War” gallery about espionage, because I am way fonder of old James Bond movies than I should be, given how sexist and racist most of them are (I think it’s because I grew up watching them with my family, and they’re one of the few things we’ll still all sit around and watch together), but this too was disappointing. There was way too much text in here, and actually, too many objects too. I just got sick of looking at them all, and thus probably missed some cool stuff in some of the cases. I did notice there was a letter from Noor Inayat Khan here, however, who you might remember if you read my post on Beaulieu. She was an incredibly brave British spy during WWII who was eventually captured and executed by the Nazis, and her letter was to another female spy back at HQ.

  

“Peace and Security: 1945-2014” had a similar layout to the WWII gallery, only it was dealing with more recent conflicts. I thought some of the objects here were really cool, in particular a suit of armour made by an artist to symbolise the conflict in Northern Ireland, a mosaic of Saddam Hussein that was torn down after his fall from power, a mannequin representing what a victim of a nuclear explosion would look like, and a big chunk of the Twin Towers, but I think the signage overall was again a little lacking.

  

The floor above all this (I think we were only up to the 4th floor at this point) held a few temporary photographic exhibitions that I actually really enjoyed. Two of them were on the conflict in Syria, and some of the photos of everyday life were excellent. There was also an exhibition on Guantanamo Bay, which I thought had the potential to be really interesting, were it not for the relatively poor labels that were both confusing and difficult to locate.

  

I was intrigued by the “Curiosities of War” exhibit, because any time I hear the word “curiosities” I think cabinet of curiosities and my interest is piqued, but this exhibition seemed to be something of an afterthought. To begin with, the layout was really bizarre; because the museum is arranged around an atrium, there is a lot of wasted space, and it was really apparent by the time we got up to this level. There were two super skinny passageways leading off from the gallery space on one end, and they weren’t connected on the other end. So to see “Curiosities of War,” you had to walk all the way down one hallway, come all the way back, walk down the other, and come all the way back again. And because they were so narrow, you literally couldn’t pass someone without making body contact, so if someone was coming the other way, you had to duck into an alcove to let them through. Also, it looked as though the person who made the signs did not arrange the artefacts, because at one point there was a sign about a wooden training horse from WWI, which I had noticed on the complete opposite side (catty corner) of the exhibition, shoved in next to a plane wheel, even though it was presumably supposed to be next to the sign about it where there was indeed plenty of space for it. I’m not sure how they even pulled that one off, but it was pretty lame.

  

The top floor was just home to a gallery about various Victoria Cross and George Cross holders, which was fine (there was a clip from an old movie about spies and some objects made by POWs that I thought were neat), although I think they tried to cram too many people in there, and it was overwhelming to read about them all. I get wanting to honour as many people as possible (even though it wasn’t a complete listing of VCs or George Cross holders as it was; I think only 250 people were featured), but I think the layout could have been better.

And now for the Holocaust gallery. We saved it for last, which was probably a mistake, because it was intense. Not that I thought it wouldn’t be, but I was unprepared for quite this level of intensity (or immersion. Most Holocaust exhibits I’ve seen were relatively small, but this one was on two levels, and we were in there for over an hour).  You couldn’t take photos, for obvious reasons, but it’s the kind of thing that stuck with me nonetheless. This was by far the most comprehensive Holocaust gallery I’ve ever been in, and I’ve been to quite a few over the years. It covered the whole appalling story, from the history of antisemitism in Europe, Hitler’s rise to power (which was unpleasantly reminiscent of recent events in America), and the beginnings of euthanasia of so-called “mental defectives” to the “Final Solution.” Throughout the way, the horror was really driven home by the inclusion of stories of people killed in the Holocaust, including their final letters to family members, which were terribly poignant to read. As if that wasn’t heart-rending enough, there were also toys belonging to children who were killed or who managed to survive through hiding; one boy spent 5 years concealed in a cupboard so small it gave him bone deformities, with only a few toys to play with in the dark (his piano teacher brought him food). There was a scale model of Auschwitz that described in chilling detail exactly what happened to people when they arrived, and a dissection table that came from one of the “hospitals” where they euthanised people. But the two things that disturbed me the most were actually bits of information taken from the signs in here: first, that the Final Solution probably came about as a result of various Nazi officials trying to outdo each other to impress Hitler, and secondly, that the crews of people forced to cremate bodies in Auschwitz were themselves changed over and killed off every four months, so that (in theory) no one would live to tell the world what the Nazis had done. I was taught about the Holocaust in school, of course, and although I remember it affecting me really intensely and giving me nightmares at the time, I think it’s also important to learn about it as an adult, because you do forgot details over time, and I think it affects you in a different way as an adult, when you understand that atrocities aren’t consigned to the past – genocide still happens. I genuinely think everyone should have to confront the horrors of the Holocaust in some way, because I can’t understand how anyone would think it’s OK to go around waving Nazi flags after seeing something like this.

  

So clearly, the IWM is a very mixed bag indeed. The Holocaust and WWI galleries are excellent, the photography exhibits were quite good, and everything else could really use some improvement – more interactivity for a start. It’s great that it’s free, but the level of neglect in some of the areas of the museum was really unfortunate, especially with something as inexpensive and easy to fix as a sticker, and the resulting inconsistencies in the quality of the galleries are too glaring to ignore. My other complaint is that the only toilets in the whole, six story museum are on Floor 0, other than disabled toilets/baby changing stations on most of the other floors. I’m glad that they at least offer those, but I didn’t feel comfortable using them when someone might have needed them more, which meant I had to hold in my pee for a very long time indeed (because I was too lazy to go all the way down and then all the way back up again). I don’t know why a museum this big couldn’t have at least two sets of toilets for everyone, especially when one of the floors was taken up by a big platform under the atrium with nothing in it (seriously, put at least a couple toilet stalls in there). There were odd things going on with the layout of this whole museum, but this was the worst thing for someone with a bladder as small as mine. Anyway, I’d definitely recommend visiting for at least for the Holocaust and WWI galleries, and the others are certainly worth seeing, but if your time is limited, then those two are the ones I’d make a priority, because you could easily spend an entire day or two here if you wanted to see everything in the museum. 4.5/5 for the Holocaust and WWI galleries, but 3/5 for the museum as a whole.