London

London: Teeth @ the Wellcome Collection

I was both excited and apprehensive about seeing the Wellcome Collection’s latest exhibition: “Teeth.” Excited, because the publicity material they released before the exhibition made it look great; apprehensive, because despite my general love for all things gory and medical, historic dentistry creeps me out (even though I’m not really afraid of dentists. Orthodontists, yes (my orthodontist’s awfulness had to be experienced to be believed), but not really dentists. But if you are afraid of dentists, this may not be the post for you). But in the end excitement won out, and I strolled on over to the Wellcome after I visited Cook at the BL.

  

“Teeth” is in the same first floor gallery that “Ayurvedic Man” was in (“Somewhere in Between” is still in the main gallery), and was a big, open, inviting space, with display cases mainly along the walls to make room for historic dental equipment in the middle of the room. I seem to have a knack for finding George Washington’s dentures in various museums (really, more pairs of dentures than you would think the man would have owned), so of course I was immediately on the lookout for some here, and I wasn’t disappointed. Poor old George and his omnipresent dentures. The exhibition theorised that George may have always looked rather stern in portraits because he was straining to keep his mouth closed – upper and lower dentures used to be held together with springs, which would have required some powerful jaw muscles to close!
  
He wasn’t the only famous person whose dental apparatuses were here either. There was also Napoleon’s toothbrush, which is interesting, because there are widely conflicting reports of Napoleon’s dental hygiene out there. His biographer claimed he was fastidious about brushing his teeth and had a beautiful white smile, whereas his contemporaries said his teeth were black and rotting. The pristine state of his toothbrush leads me to believe that his contemporaries probably were correct. Even more intriguing than Napoleon’s toothbrush was the upper plate belonging to Edmund Burke, politician and philosopher. It seemed to indicate that he had a cleft palate, as there was an extra piece on top to fill in a gap in the mouth. Burke famously wrote an essay on beauty in which he claimed that imperfection could add to the beauty of something – perhaps this was something he had firsthand experience of?
  
Because the subject matter was teeth, which is something many people have anxieties about (the exhibition also discussed why this was, and a lot of it did probably have to do with the horrors of pre-20th century dentistry, but some of it is also just the nature of teeth. After all, they are the only part of the skeleton that is exposed during your lifetime (barring any horrific accidents)), obviously some of the objects here were going to be a bit, well, creepy. The creepiest by far were the phantom heads that dentistry students used for practice. I think they would have been less scary if they were actually just a skull, because something about the wooden block with real teeth in it is the stuff of nightmares (as is the even scarier face with metal jaws filled with real teeth, which you’ll see at the bottom of this post, if you’re brave enough!). The display about dentures was less overtly disturbing, but it explained how when cheaper, better looking dentures made of porcelain became available, they were so popular that some people used to get all their teeth pulled in their twenties to avoid the hassle and expense of dental care in their adult lives, which really gives me the willies (Roald Dahl was one of those, and though I dearly love his books, his dentures are always one of the first things to cross my mind when I think of him (much like with George Washington)).
  
Fortunately, my pal Binaca squirrel was there to lighten the mood (I’ve never used Binaca, but it makes me think of that episode of Seinfeld where Elaine sprays Joe Davola in the eyes with cherry Binaca to escape his apartment), as were the letters both to and from the tooth fairy. I must have had quite a good tooth fairy, because there was usually some kind of small gift to accompany the two shiny new 50 cent pieces (I seem to remember it usually being a Disney VHS when I was a kid, but I didn’t lose my last baby tooth until I was 13 and though the tooth fairy still came, it felt more half-assed, not that I blame her) and a note carefully written on heart-shaped construction paper that was folded up small enough to fit inside the little plastic treasure chest that held my tooth. Some of the other tooth fairies were slightly more droll than mine, and their letters had me cracking up (even though the thought of a tooth fairy accidentally removing all the teeth from children who slept with their heads under the pillow would have given me nightmares when I was a kid, so probably for the best my tooth fairy was of a kinder, gentler variety).
   
Other objects of note included an aluminum pair of dentures made by a WWII POW who’d had his good dentures smashed by a Japanese guard (I was relieved that he’d already had dentures, because I know they often just smashed out your actual teeth), a horrible wooden chair for strapping reluctant patients to (which, before anesthesia, was pretty much everyone (shown second photo in the post)), and a number of hilarious historic ads for dentists, toothpaste, etc.
  
And I have to say, I don’t know if the main intention of this exhibition was to promote modern dentistry, but it definitely made me want to make a preventative visit to the dentist (especially the poster describing in great detail exactly how decay takes your teeth if you don’t visit the dentist often enough), so much so that I booked an overdue appointment (only by six months or so, but still) a few days after seeing this. Some of the objects on display were pretty freaky, and if you’re already scared of dentists, this exhibition might not help (though surely at least seeing how much worse it used to be would give you some perspective), but I thought it was fascinating, even though I ended up compulsively running my tongue over my teeth the whole time I was in there (and I don’t think I was the only one doing it either). 4/5.
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London: “James Cook: The Voyages” @ the British Library

Many’s the time I’ve spoken of my fascination with Captain Cook and his voyages, so I’m sure you can all guess that I was pretty excited to learn that Cook would be the subject of the BL’s latest exhibition. It’s the rare sort of exhibition I would have rushed out to see, but I was back in the States when it opened at the end of April, so I went to check it out on my first day off work after I got back (I don’t know why I always fly back the day before I need to go back to work; well, actually I do, because obviously I’m trying to maximise my time back home, but my first week back in London is always a big pile of jet lag, ennui, and homesickness).

Cook’s map of New Zealand, from          Wikipedia.

Admission is £14, but National Art Pass holders get 50% off. Although there were other visitors, it was pretty quiet by British Library standards and I didn’t have to queue to look at anything (huzzah!). The exhibit opened with a large map showing Cook’s voyages, and a small room about the Georgian age of exploration, and from there moved pretty quickly into Cook’s first, and most famous voyage, aboard the Endeavour (as always, no photos were allowed in here, so I’ve endeavoured (see what I did there?) to find some of the images online and available for reuse).  This is of course my personal favourite voyage, because of a certain dishy Joseph Banks, naturalist, botanist (more like hotanist, am I right?), rich guy, casanova, etc (I know I talk about Joseph Banks every time I talk about Cook, but I just love that Joshua Reynolds painting so much. And guess what? It was in the exhibition, so now I finally have an excuse to include it in a post, instead of just sneakily hiding the link somewhere).

Joseph Banks by Sir Joshua Reynolds, oil on canvas, 1771-1773.

As always, the BL excelled with the choice of objects – whilst some pieces were on loan from other London museums, a great deal of it was handwritten objects like diaries, letters, and maps that I had never seen before. I never realised Joseph Banks had such messy handwriting, whereas Cook’s, whilst lacking flourish like the man himself, was very neat and legible (which makes sense, when you think about it, since Cook attended a local school where the boys would have been trained to be clerks, where neat handwriting was an imperative, whereas wealthy Banks could have gotten away with any old messy scrawl).

Tupaia’s drawing of Joseph Banks bartering for a crawfish, c. 1769. Wikimedia Commons.

I’m also kind of in love with Tupaia’s drawings, many of which were included in this exhibition. Tupaia was a priest and navigator that the Endeavour voyagers befriended in Tahiti, and he agreed to travel onward with them and act as their interpreter (which worked well in Polynesia, as the languages all share a root, but was less successful in Australia because the Aboriginal language was completely different, though he still managed to communicate through hand signals). Sadly, Tupaia picked up a fever in Batavia which killed him and his servant as well as two dozen crew members. Honestly, I liked his drawings better than the ones by Sydney Parkinson (who also died en route home, and he only took over as artist after the expedition’s original artist, Alexander Buchan, died in Tahiti (but the expedition actually had a low mortality rate by 18th century standards!)) – they were way more full of character than Parkinson’s work (though I do love his sketches of kangaroos).

Tierra del Fuego by Alexander Buchan, Wikimedia Commons.

The exhibition definitely devoted the most time to the first voyage, which is fair enough, since it was the most iconic one, and the second and third ones got even more ethically murky and depressing, but the second and third voyages did each get a gallery, albeit smaller ones than Endeavour. I was particularly intrigued by a small display before the second voyage that explained why Joseph Banks didn’t end up going as intended (there was an argument about accommodation), and talked about how he went to Scotland and Iceland instead. This included a display of paintings from that trip, which was interesting because those are the artists that would have accompanied the Resolution if Banks had gone, so you could see how very different the images produced on the second voyage would have looked if things had gone just a bit differently (as it was, Banks’s artists did make some cracking paintings of geysers, which is pretty cool).

Drawing of a New Zealand War Canoe by Sydney Parkinson, Wikimedia Commons.

The second voyage was mostly Antarctic in nature, as Cook carried on with the futile search for the great southern continent that was meant to be hiding somewhere down there, and he did make it further south than any man had gone before, but obviously paintings of ice and snow are not as exciting as ones of previously unknown (to Europeans) people and places (though I’m not knocking polar exploration, because I love that too). They did visit Tahiti on this trip too, but it was more of a pick up provisions/reward the men for the awful time in the Antarctic type of thing than a trip of exploration.

Sea Horses by John Webber, David Rumsey Collection.

Of course, the third voyage is the most depressing of all, because this is when Cook’s personality began to change in weird ways to led to him getting killed by the Hawaiians at the end of it (he had become alarmingly hot-tempered, which led to a lot of rash decision making that pissed the Hawaiians off, and rightly so). Before that though, he did embark on another pointless search, this time for the Northwest Passage (like seriously, I’m not a fan of heat, but I would take pineapples over ice and snow any day. He should have stopped agreeing to do this shit), which resulted in some DELIGHTFUL paintings of walruses (walrii?), which they called “sea horses” and sea otters. There was a video at the end of this section that was meant to explain why Cook’s voyages are problematic today, but it seemed a little like an afterthought, which is interesting, because throughout the exhibit, I felt like the curators may have been holding back a little when writing the signage for fear of causing offence. The whole thing was just a little bland, and I think I would have preferred if they had just explained everything in more detail, and included more information from the perspective of the peoples Cook encountered to provide a fuller picture throughout, rather than dancing around cultural misunderstandings the whole time.

Sea Otter by S. Smith, after John Webber, Wikimedia Commons.

Because the start of the exhibition was just a rehash of things I already knew (which is understandable, because I know not everyone is as into Cook as I am), I was worried that it would prove a disappointment, which would have been a shame because of how excited I was to see it. In the end though, whilst I was familiar with most of the material covered here, the artefacts made it well worth my while. It’s not every day you get to see a drawing by Tupaia, or a log written in Cook’s own hand, and those things made it an enjoyable experience (I had also somehow forgotten or overlooked the fact that Botany Bay was originally called Stingray Bay due to the large number of them hanging around the ship. I am shitscared of stingrays, and never would have gone wading there had I known. Good thing (I guess) it looks pretty polluted these days, as it probably drove them all away). The Cook aficionado will find lots of fascinating artefacts here, and people who know less about him will learn something new, but not quite as much as they could have learned if the exhibition had been a bit more forthright. A large part of what makes Cook’s voyages so interesting was the clash of cultures and how Europeans reacted to the unknown (even though their reactions were often horrifically racist and contact ultimately led to governmental policies that were far more destructive than the voyages themselves); and really, by the standards of the time, Cook was a relatively enlightened man (except for on the last voyage) – without his efforts to understand the different societies he encountered, his voyages would not have been the rich source of information about the world that they were, which is worth mentioning (it seems like the exhibition dwelt more on his navigational skills, which in addition to being awesome, were also far less controversial). I’ll give the exhibition 3.5/5.

London: Crystal Palace Dinosaurs

I talked a little bit about the history of the Crystal Palace dinosaurs in my post on “Making Nature” at the Wellcome Collection, and mentioned that I would try to revisit them at some point in the future so I could blog about them. I was intending on going in nicer weather (though I only just realised I said I would try to see them over a year ago, so I don’t know what the hell my excuse was last summer, other than the fact that I was working a terrible horrible job at the time and didn’t want to do much of anything other than escape), but my friend who had never seen them kept badgering me to go with him until I finally just gave in, even though the day we picked was super cold (for April) and rainy, and to quote Gene Belcher, “I’m more of an indoor kid” even at the best of times.

   

Even though I was reluctantly going, I still always aim to be a punctual person (I think lateness is rude), so I felt like a real jerk when Marcus and I ended up meeting him there half an hour late (my fault because I wanted to get cake first, though mainly I blame the TfL website for not mentioning that a rail replacement bus service was in operation, because if the trains had been running we would have made it in time. Rail replacement my ass) and therefore tried to be more agreeable about the whole experience than I normally would, even when I was cold and wet and tired of walking around, which meant we ended up spending an hour and a half there instead of the half an hour I was planning on, and took in most of what Crystal Palace has to offer (not just dinosaurs!).

  

Crystal Palace takes its unusual name from the Crystal Palace, as in, the giant glass structure that was the centrepiece of the Great Exhibition of 1851, which was moved from Hyde Park to what was then called Penge Common in 1854 and soon joined by a number of other attractions, including the famous dinosaurs, which are the oldest dinosaur sculptures in the world. (They were made by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins under the direction of Richard Owen, who was the dinosaur expert of his day. Unfortunately, he was working with incomplete skeletons and somewhat flawed scientific knowledge, so he got a lot of things hilariously wrong, as you can probably see.)  Crystal Palace sounds like it was amazing until it fell into decline in the late 1800s, and eventually burned down in 1936.  All that you’re left with today are some statues, some (most?) of the dinosaurs, and a pretty big park, which I suppose is nothing to scoff at, but still not as great as seeing the Crystal Palace itself would have been.

  

We started with the dinosaurs, some of which have recently been restored. The collection, which also includes some prehistoric mammals, is arranged on four different “islands” which surround a lake that is apparently meant to represent primordial ooze (you can paddleboat on it these days). I loved the signage they have there now about the dinosaurs, which explains what modern palaeontologists think the Victorians got wrong (to amusing effect…please read the last sentence on the Hylaeosaurus), and also describes how Hawkins and Owen deliberately hid the dinosaurs whose reconstructions they were least confident about (yet left the Iguanodon out there loud and proud…). The Mosasaur is my personal favourite (below right) – he’s so damn derpy, but they all are really, and you have to wonder how the Victorians thought they would obtain food with those big fat bodies. Maybe just sit there with their mouths hanging open and wait for something to fly in?

  

The mammals are marginally less hilarious, though I still have to wonder about the tails on those camel-headed things, and I don’t know what they’re trying to hide on the giant sloth, because you can’t even see his face from the path. The giant elk look fine, but that’s because elk are still a thing, so they didn’t have to guess what they would look like (they originally had real antlers, but they were too heavy for the sculptures and the heads were in danger of cracking off, so they had to be replaced with fake ones). There’s also a random gorilla statue off by himself (not part of the islands), though I’m not sure why he was there, because he didn’t have a sign (other than the dinosaurs, pretty much nothing here does, which is a little frustrating when you’re trying to figure out who a headless statue was meant to be).

  

After getting our fill of laughing at the dinos, we headed off to explore the rest of the park, which meant tramping through an awful lot of mud, mainly. I was thrilled to discover there was a maze, though when we got inside, the giant puddles proved the greatest impediment to our journey, as the hedges weren’t grown in yet at this time of year and we could see right over the tops (it still took longer than I thought it would to find the centre though, so that’s something).

  

We also found a stage, so perhaps they have concerts there on occasion, though it was in such a state of disrepair that I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to stand on it. There are a couple of TV towers that loom over everything, but really the main other attractions of note are the only remaining parts of the original Crystal Palace complex, which include the aforementioned headless statues (and some with heads -still no idea who they are, though I looked it up afterwards, and apparently they’re meant to represent different countries), and those rather grand sphinxes on an Italianate wall.  They have also re-created a corner of the original structure, but it very literally is the bare minimum they could have done, and I would have loved to see more. I mean, why even bother just sticking up a couple of pieces of metal?! That’s just a tease!

  

After an hour and a half of exploring, we’d all had enough (frankly, I’d had enough after the dinosaurs, but like I said, I was trying not to complain as much as I usually do), so we headed off to a brewery in nearby Gipsy Hill (which I also didn’t complain about, even though I’m not normally very keen on drinking), passing a house that Leslie Howard used to live in on the way. The dinosaurs are a delight, and well worth seeing (in better weather, if possible), but I do wish they could rebuild more of the Crystal Palace (and restore more of the dinosaurs). There is also a tiled Victorian subway in the area that is occasionally open to the public, and a small Crystal Palace museum, which I strangely did not visit (I’m not even sure if it was open when we were there). It’s all free, and at any rate, it’s something to do of a weekend, especially if you enjoy looking at dogs in sweaters (and one with a tennis ball who followed Marcus around for quite a while, see below – I would have taken him home with us, but I think the owner might have objected).

  

London: “Somewhere in Between” and “Ayurvedic Man” @ the Wellcome Collection

I recently went to see the new special exhibition at the Wellcome Collection: “Somewhere in Between,” which runs until 27th August (my birthday!). I normally wouldn’t exactly rush out to something arty like this, but I wanted to make sure I also got to see “Ayurvedic Man: Encounters with Indian Medicine” in the first floor gallery, which ended on the 8th of April (also I had a hankering for roti canai, which was the main reason I needed an excuse to go to Euston (there’s a Malaysian restaurant near the station)).

  

Like all Wellcome exhibitions, “Somewhere in Between” is free, and was happily much less crowded than their exhibitions normally are, perhaps due in part to the open layout. The exhibition consists of four immersive installations that are the result of collaborations between artists and scientists, and are meant to be an exploration of art and science, or, I suppose, somewhere in between, hence the title.
  
The first “immersion” we ventured into was “Sire” by Maria McKinney. I don’t think I fully understood the exhibition when I was in there (I was more just like, “Ooh look, pictures of cows wearing silly sculptures. Oh, but wait, they’re being pulled by rings through their noses and they look like they might be in pain. Not great”) but after reading the exhibition catalogue, it makes more sense. Apparently the photographs are of stud bulls, wearing sculptures woven from semen straws (brightly coloured straws that are used to artificially fertilize cows with bull semen), and the sculptures themselves were inspired by genomes. So it’s a commentary on how genetic breeding has affected the modern cattle industry, but I don’t feel it was really a critique, more just that it was asking us to recognise that a lot of selective breeding has gone into creating the modern cow. As a vegetarian, I probably would have preferred more of a critique (though I don’t eat meat more because of pickiness than ethics, so I’m not really very militant about it), but it was fine, albeit not really what I would call immersive.
  
I can’t properly comment on Daria Martin’s pieces, because I didn’t get what the hell was going on. I went into two connected rooms, both of them showing videos of a woman touching a knife, but it was kind of weird (not in a good way), so I left pretty promptly. It was meant to be about synesthesia, but it wasn’t communicated very well. Martina Amati’s “Under”, whilst also a video, was a lot better; it was three video screens placed around a room showing her and others freediving, and because of the lighting and sound effects, did actually feel a bit like I was underwater, so was properly immersive.
  
But the best installation of all was John Walter’s “Alien Sex Club”, which was a maze themed around a gay sex club with a sinister side, as the threat of HIV was lurking around every corner. I loved the wallpaper in here, and Walter’s paintings (especially the tarot-esque cards on the back wall), and the cartoons, and even the creepy booths in the back with glory holes (I was the main creeper in them though – I think I’m far too good at creeping for my own good). It felt like he’d certainly put the most effort into his installation out of the artists here, and I liked that we could actually explore the maze and interact with it in a limited way. On the whole, the exhibition wasn’t as appealing to me as something history-based (rather than art-based) would have been, and I’m not sure I really got the message that most of the artists were trying to convey (the science theme seemed rather stretched), but it was free, so it was fine. 2.5/5.
  
We then headed upstairs to see “Ayurvedic Man,” based around an 18th century Nepali painting from the Wellcome’s collection, as well as many other paintings, texts, and artefacts relating to Indian medicine, specifically ayurveda, which is a branch of Indian medicine that translates as “the knowledge of long life.” This exhibition actually seemed larger than the one downstairs in the main gallery, and certainly contained much more detailed text panels than “Somewhere in Between.” I really liked the copies of all the letters exchanged between Henry Wellcome’s agent in India and Wellcome himself about the agent’s acquisitions, because they let us see colonialism in action in a way that the Wellcome normally shies away from, and were also a fascinating view into how the Wellcome Collection was initially curated (Wellcome advised against buying too much erotic art, as it was far too “common,” presumably in both senses of the word).
  
I thought the information about how British authorities attempted to deal with the plague epidemic of 1896 was extremely interesting (their public heath measures often failed due to their lack of cultural sensitivity, big surprise), and I liked the interactive cartoons about the plague measures from the Hindi Punch (though I didn’t get to explore the touch screen ones further, because a couple of guys were hogging it, and when I tentatively touched what I thought was part of a different screen (they were projected on the wall, so it was hard to tell), it turned out to be part of the one the guy was using, and he gave me such a dirty look that I just got the hell out of there).
 
Actually, everything in here was pretty interesting, not least the iPads at the end where you could explore healing recipes using one of eight healing spices in Ayurvedic medicine, and submit one of your own (I totally did, as you’ll see below, though I don’t think it was healing in quite the way they intended. It also isn’t my recipe (it’s from the excellent Taco Cleanse, but I know it by heart because I make it all the time), but I have altered it a bit to my preferences, and it is a very tasty sauce (warning, may cause stomach cramps!). And possibly TMI, but I should point out that I don’t, in fact, need a cure for constipation – I only phrased it like that because when I was writing the recipe, it had the prompt “I would use this recipe if” which I was annoyed to see didn’t turn up on the published recipe, as it completely changes the meaning!). I think this was a far more successful exhibition than “Somewhere in Between,” because it does play much more to the Wellcome’s strengths, which are of course history of medicine, and its fascinating collection of curiosities. Sorry that I’ve blogged about it too late for anyone to see it, but the upcoming exhibition on teeth in that gallery looks promising as well, if the adorable squirrel image they’re using to advertise it is anything to go by. 4/5.
  

London: Fatberg + Votes for Women @ the Museum of London

During the week of the so-called “beast from the east” (I know other places in the UK had actual dangerous levels of snow, but we only got what I would consider a dusting in London, and everyone was still treating it like such a big deal), instead of only working three days a week, per usual, and having some time off to enjoy the rare snow sighting (there wasn’t really enough to make a snowman or anything, but all I mean by enjoy the snow is that I would have cozily wrapped myself up in blankets in my flat and drank hot chocolate), I had to actually work a full week, which included a training course at the Museum of London. While I didn’t really want to have to bundle up and fight my way across the city (in a place where “leaves on the track” are enough to shut the trains down, you can probably guess how well they cope with snow), on the plus side, I was excited to go check out the infamous fatberg.

   

I was originally supposed to have an hour break for lunch, but in light of the snow we all agreed to only take half an hour so we could leave earlier, which meant my time looking around the museum was going to be somewhat rushed. Fortunately, the fatberg takes pride of place right by the museum’s entrance. For those who may not know (probably most people outside of London), the fatberg was a huge disgusting sewer blockage discovered in Whitechapel last September, which was ultimately found to weigh 130 tonnes, and was over 250 metres long (still haven’t completely wrapped my head around the metric system, but I get that that’s big). So naturally, the Museum of London was keen to get their hands on a chunk (who wouldn’t be?) and following a rather delightful social media campaign that was an homage to The Blob, it is now on display.
  
The exhibit contained some information about the fatberg, its removal, and what we can do to prevent future fatbergs (basically, don’t flush things down the toilet other than toilet paper and actual bodily waste), but of course the highlight was the fatberg itself, which they keep segregated in its own dark mysterious room bedecked with warning signs like “enter if you dare!” Given all the hype, the fatberg is admittedly underwhelming, but still pretty gross, and if you take all the fatberg promotion in the roadside attraction spirit in which it was probably intended, then the underwhelmingness is in keeping with that (and it’s nice to see a museum that doesn’t take itself too seriously!). They actually have two small lumps: one that has started to break apart, and another that is still largely intact (rumour has it that sometimes flies and maggots emerge from it, though there were none in evidence at the time of my visit). I’m not sure what else I can really say about it – it is just a big fatty lump with some wrappers sticking up out of it, and I think this exhibit could have really been enhanced with some authentic smells; obviously it would be a public health hazard if they let people smell the actual fatberg, but I’m sure they could have piped in some imitation rotting meat combined with stinky toilet smells (paraphrasing from a man quoted in the exhibit who had to remove the damn thing).
  
I also had time to pop down and see some of the suffragette stuff they’ve got on display to commemorate the centenary of the Representation of the People Act of 1918, and though this too was smaller than I was hoping, they did have a few interesting pieces. I liked seeing the grille Muriel Matters and Helen Fox chained themselves to in the Ladies’ Gallery of the House of Commons (both to draw attention to the issue of female suffrage, and to remove the grille itself, which blocked women’s view of Parliamentary proceedings), as well as the body belt they used to do it. I also loved Kitty Marshall’s silver necklace which commemorated her three terms of imprisonment (she was initially imprisoned for throwing a potato at Churchill, which I think is amazing. Potatoes are a hilarious thing to throw at someone, plus Churchill needed to be taken down a peg or two).
  
The pendant given to Louise Eates of the Kensington branch of the WSPU was really interesting too, as was Emmeline Pankhurst’s hunger strike medal, and the letters from Winefride Rix to her daughter written whilst she was in prison were quite sad. I especially liked that the caption mentioned how Winefride did not go on hunger strike with the other suffragettes, and her husband even sent her a box of apples whilst she was in prison. I can appreciate this, because I think it makes Winefride very relatable.  Sure, I can say I would have been right up there with the suffragettes, but in reality, I don’t think I’m brave enough to endure force-feeding. I’d like to think I would at least have participated in marches and things that I could have been arrested for; but to go on a hunger strike on top of it?! I think I would have chickened out big time once they brought out the tubes. So I liked that this exhibition showed that there were a range of women out there fighting the good fight to the best of their abilities, and not just the diehards, commendably brave though they were, which I think is an important lesson, because it shows that everyone can contribute to social change in some small way, and not just those at the more extreme ends of the spectrum.
  

I also of course had a wander through the shop (since I love to torture myself by looking at all the amazing stuff museum shops can buy when they have a decent budget and the visitor numbers to back it up), and they had a lot of great suffragette stuff (sadly no sash, but I was tempted by the “Votes for Women” umbrella) and even better fatberg souvenirs, so I succumbed and bought a badge and a totebag (and a t-shirt for Marcus) reading “Don’t Feed the Fatberg” which I suppose is an environmental message, but thanks to the campiness of the design, feels more like merchandise for a B-movie, which is honestly why I was drawn to it in the first place. I don’t know if I can rate these exhibitions because they’re both very small, but they are free (as is the rest of the Museum of London), and though the fatberg is not all that impressive, I’m still glad I saw it. Not as glad as I would have been to have the day off, but it was better than actually being at work.

London: “Rhythm and Reaction” @ Two Temple Place

It’s that time of year again: there’s another new exhibition at Two Temple Place, and on paper, it sounded not dissimilar to the Jazz Age exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Art, so I was intrigued to see how it would compare.  “Rhythm and Reaction: The Age of Jazz in Britain,” which runs until 22 April, is described as bringing together “painting, prints, cartoons, textiles and ceramics, moving film, instruments and the all-important jazz sound, to explicitly examine the influence of jazz on British art, design and wider society.” I love much of the 1920s’ aesthetic, as I’ve well established on this blog, and at any rate, it sounded much less controversial than last year’s somewhat ill-conceived exhibition on the Sussex Modernists (featuring the work of incestuous molester Eric Gill), so I was eager to check it out. (If you count Ocean Liners at the V&A, there’s been a lot of ’20s and ’30s focused exhibitions on lately. I’m not sure why that is, since it’s still too early for the centenary.)

  

Although I said I thought this exhibition would be less controversial, I realised that wasn’t quite the case upon entering and being greeted by pictures of people in blackface (and really racist drawings of black people), but at least this time it was easy to understand where the curator was coming from – jazz was instrumental (intentional pun) in breaking down some racial barriers, and it was important to see how black people were depicted in British society in the early 20th century in order to understand the difference jazz made (although apparently performers in blackface regularly appeared on British TV until the ’70s, and you can still buy those awful “Golliwog” dolls, so maybe it didn’t make that much of a difference after all). It was also interesting to learn that even people of African descent used blackface in some cases because it was such a recognisable stylistic convention at the time for performers of ragtime music.

  

I soon realised that this exhibition wasn’t just an exploration of the Jazz Age on the other side of the Atlantic, but was in fact a very different kettle of fish to the one at the CMA. Whereas the CMA had focused mainly on material things and the joy of acquisition that in some ways led to the Great Depression, “Rhythm and Reaction” was mainly about music and the musicians themselves. Therefore, a lot of the objects in the downstairs part of the exhibition were instruments, including a wall of banjos (I still REALLY want to learn the banjo), a player piano, and some most excellent drum kits, especially the one from the Kit Kat Club, and my very favourite specimen of all: a chicken drum that laid eggs!

  

I also adored some of the cartoons that showed how people felt about jazz in Britain when it first became popular in the post-WWI era – the best one is pictured above, and shows a man being driven to insanity by hearing ragtime everywhere he goes (I don’t mind ragtime, but I can certainly symphathise by being driven mad by having to listen to other people’s music on public transport – my only consolation is that if I can hear it leaking from their headphones, I’m quite sure they must be ruining their own hearing, but whistlers are just plain obnoxious!).

  

After finishing up downstairs (which had more in it than it might seem – you could only photograph some of the objects), we headed up to a room filled mainly with books, and a handful of objects relating to this period, including a tea set and that rather wonderful TfL poster (I just checked, and copies of this design are still for sale at the London Transport Museum, because TfL doesn’t miss a chance to make a quid).

  

The room next to this (the final room of the exhibition) was both painting and text-heavy, and explained more about the impact jazz had on British society. After the First World War, travelling American bands first brought jazz over to Europe, and clearly, some people liked what they heard, and developed their own syncopation-heavy style of British jazz (which purists eventually turned against, trying to get back to the African-American roots of the music). It gradually seeped into the wider culture, and began to inspire artists and designers. It also led to African-American musicians travelling to Britain, and because of a law enacted in 1935 which banned whole American bands from performing in this country (which was itself a response to American musicians complaining about British bands performing in the States), famous band leaders like Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway travelled by themselves and hired British (often white) musicians once they got here, which helped integration, at least amongst the musical community (though its impact on wider society clearly wasn’t as great as the exhibition seemed to imply).

  

This was all well and good, and whilst I certainly enjoyed learning more about the role of jazz in 1920s and ’30s British society (at least some segments of British society), I felt that the exhibition tried to tell me about the effect it had on art and fashion rather than showing me, which I would have preferred (I realise fashion wasn’t included in the exhibition description, but I was hoping they’d sneak some in there). Sure, there were some examples of textiles, pottery, and those fabulous brogue-style heels from Liberty, which I would wear in a heartbeat, but the exhibition was mainly art and music based, and even the music aspect of it was shown more through signage or instruments than the music itself. There was jazz music playing on a CD player in most of the rooms, which did enhance the atmosphere, but I didn’t feel there was enough information about what I was hearing for me to really understand the difference between British and American jazz, since I have very little knowledge of musical terminology (this despite the fact that I played alto sax (poorly) for five years, and guitar (adequately) for seven, but I was just playing things other people had written, not composing my own music!).

  

I also felt like there was a fair bit of wasted space that could have been filled up with objects. For example, there was a very long glass case in one of the rooms stretching across half the wall, yet the only things in it were two small books plopped right in the middle of the case. Surely they could have found something interesting to fill the rest of it up with! Although it took up the same amount of space as every other exhibition I’ve seen there, for some reason the Ancient Egyptian exhibition felt bigger to me, perhaps because there was more in each room so it took longer to look around.

  

And though the text was mostly pretty interesting, some of it was hard to read!  This was partly the fault of the people in the exhibition, like one man who planted himself in front of a video and refused to move so I could read the sign his big shiny head was blocking, even though I was quite obviously trying to crane my neck around him to see it; but some of it was due to poor positioning – why was there a long sign on the wall next to a video in the first place, especially when the lighting was quite poor in that corner?

  

If there was some way that this exhibition could have been combined with the one at the CMA, then I would have been perfectly happy, as it had some of the things the CMA was lacking – a discussion of the way jazz impacted society, as well as some examples of the music itself – but lacked other things that the CMA did so well, like providing concrete examples of the way jazz affected style and architecture. Basically, I wanted all the beautiful things from the CMA, but with a bit more context and soul. There were no clothes to speak of here, except the quite racist costumes shown above, and very little in the way of other material goods, and I think when you’re talking about a period with a style as iconic as the 1920s, it would be nice to have some examples of both, particularly since they had enough space to include more. But it was a free exhibition, versus the CMA’s $15 admission fee, so I can’t complain overmuch. It was a fine way to kill half an hour or so, and I liked learning more about the jazz age in England, I just wish I could have been shown the impact of jazz in a more visual way (or in a more auditory way for that matter, since we are talking about music!). 3/5.

 

London: Ocean Liners @ the V&A

Judging by the inexplicable popularity of that rather awful Titanic movie, people like an ocean liner. And whilst I’m clearly no Titanic fan, and avoid cruises like the plague, I understand the appeal of an ocean liner back in the golden age of travel, if you could afford to travel in style. I definitely like the idea of cruising around on a big old ship with gorgeous art deco interiors, servants to attend to your every whim, a massive stateroom, and of course a beautiful array of clothing to parade down the grand staircase in every evening, at least in theory…though when I think about it, I’d find the grand staircase stressful – I tripped walking up the steps to the stage at my high school graduation, the vice principal laughed in my face (he was a jerk), and I still cringe at the memory – and I could probably do without the servants too, because the idea of having people hanging around you that you just ignore when you’re not making demands makes me really uncomfortable, but presumably if I’d been born into a life of opulence, I’d be fine with being the centre of attention and treating servants like garbage. Nonetheless, I was still pretty excited about the V&A’s new exhibition “Ocean Liners: Speed and Style,” so much so that I went out to see it during its first week open (it runs until June).

  

Though I carefully timed my visit during a weekday, the V&A seems to always be busy, and this was no exception. We had to queue for a bit at the main desk to buy tickets (which we could have avoided by buying tickets online, but we weren’t sure exactly when we’d arrive), and the exhibition itself turned out to be fairly crowded too, though not at a horrible Harry Potter at the BL level. Admission was £18, which I am much too cheap to pay – I got half price with a National Art Pass, but if I didn’t have one, I would have used a National Rail 2 for 1. There is no reason anyone should pay £18 to see a single exhibition!
  
At least it was easy to find. It was through the main shop (the V&A is so big, it has more than one), and down a hallway, but it was clearly signposted the whole way, which made a nice change from my experience at the Natural History Museum. We had to pass the Winnie the Pooh exhibition to get to it, and I was a little sorry I wasn’t seeing Pooh instead, but they made it look so child-orientated on the website that it’s put me off from going thus far, even though I quite like poor old Pooh bear (and Eeyore!).
The first few rooms of the exhibition seemed to be divided up primarily by era, starting with the 1890s, and progressing on through the 1950s. There were artefacts from a number of ships here, including the SS Normandie, Queen Mary, SS United States, Canberra, and even the Titanic, though I was somewhat relieved to see that the Titanic  wasn’t the focal point. I like a disaster story as much as, if not more than anyone, but it does kind of detract from the fact that most cruises turned out perfectly fine, and everyone had a lovely time (except for passengers travelling in steerage, of course. And the guys working in the engine room – hell, probably most of the staff. People are the worst anyway, and I would imagine entitled rich people are even more awful to deal with).
  
There was a splendid mural of the Normandie that I kept trying to snap a photo of, but some woman stepped in front of it just as I took the picture, and remained standing in front of it for some minutes, looking at her phone, so this is what you get. Fortunately, it was only one of quite a few good mosaic/tile things here, including some William de Morgan pieces that included sea monsters (above right)!  And I would probably have felt obligated to spend some time hanging out in the Cleveland room (pictured below) if I was on that ship, although obviously I would prefer to spend most of my time holed up in my room by myself.
  
As with any exhibition based around this time period, there were some fantastic objects on display, but it was so crowded that I wasn’t inclined to dwell as much as I was at say, the Cleveland Museum of Art’s “Jazz Age.” There also seemed to be a decent amount of text, but it was hard to read through the sea of elbows (pun not intended), and what I did read was so hurried that I’m afraid I didn’t absorb much, as I just tried to look at what I could, and pass through the crowded areas as quickly as humanly possible.  It did seem to me that the furniture got progressively uglier as time marched into the ’50s, but then I’ve never been a fan of mid-century modern.
  
Fortunately, the exhibition opened up when I got to the room on engineering, and I was finally able to look at leisure. I was fascinated by the Lusitania medals given to the German officers involved in her sinking (an attempt to justify it by making her look like a war ship), which I’m pretty sure were mentioned in Erik Larson’s book on the subject (a much better read than Devil in the White City, which scared the ever-living crap out of me), and I also liked the diagram showing how ships were camouflaged during the war. I’m also pretty interested in how ocean liners were turned into troop transport, as that was how my grandpa made his way to Britain in WWII.
  
The biggest and best room was about life on board the liners, and had clothing, furniture, luggage, and information about the kinds of activities available (to be honest, playing shuffleboard, swimming, or sunning myself on deck don’t appeal, so I really wouldn’t have done particularly well on an ocean liner, but my god, do I want some of those dresses). I loved the flags from the pool of the SS United States that spelled out “Come in, the water’s fine,” and I know I’ve said I’m not big on the Titanic, but the deckchair from it (below left) was pretty cool (it floated to the surface when the ship sank, and I’m horrible enough to imagine someone pulling that out of the sea instead of a drowning person, thinking they could resell it later, but I’m sure that wasn’t the case). I also liked the giant wall with an ever-changing sea view that you could stand in front of and pretend you were on the deck of a ship (with my heavy coat, I must be on an Arctic voyage!).
  
I was a little creeped out by how the beds on an early ocean liner looked like adult-sized cribs (I don’t think I could sleep all confined like that, and I’m not even including a picture because I’d rather show you the clothes), but the clothing did not disappoint, particularly the 1925 Jeanne Lanvin dress (below) that is evidently one of the exhibition highlights (I can see why). The exhibition did also make an attempt to portray how horrible voyages could be for poorer passengers and the staff aboard the ship, and in fact, it seems like early voyages, before the invention of stabilisers, were pretty awful for everyone. There was an illustration of one cruise where the ship rolled and people were thrown around the dining room to the extent that a dairy cow even fell in through the ceiling!  But of course, no one really wants to hear too much about the unpleasant side of things in this sort of exhibition (especially because it was sponsored by Viking Cruises, as the exhibition rather annoyingly kept reminding us), so it focused mainly on the glamorous aspects of ocean travel.
  
The final room contained another chunk of the Titanic (apparently part of the dining room where the ship had split, and the largest surviving piece of the ship), which hasn’t been displayed before, though unfortunately they stuck it on top of a screen with a wave effect which made it kind of hard to see. There was a video in this room showing clips from various ocean liner themed movies, and I had to stop and watch the one from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (which perhaps inappropriately, I seem to end up watching every time I’m on a long flight, and desperately wish I could be on that ship instead, with Jane Russell’s personality, but Marilyn Monroe’s wardrobe (Jane Russell’s hats are a little too out-there for me), though for the reasons discussed throughout this post, I think I’m better off flying). We exited through the shop (of course), which had some excellent straw cloche-style hats in it, but they were £50, and little ocean liner brooch pins, which were £30 (if I made more money, I would have happily dropped £80 that day, but unfortunately museums don’t pay enough to actually shop at other museums), and I was jealous of how excellent museum shops can be if you have the money and visitor numbers to do it.
  
I would say I enjoyed this exhibition a middling amount – there was more furniture in here than I would have liked, especially chairs that basically looked the same as other chairs, and way less clothing than I found ideal, given how much the exhibition kept talking about how fashion was influenced by what was happening on ocean liners (because people would take about a million different outfits with them and of course parade down the grand staircase at night, though apparently British ships irritated Cecil Beaton because they did away with the staircase).  I have to say that I liked the Jazz Age exhibition at the CMA way better, even though it also didn’t have enough clothing (not exactly comparing apples to oranges, since they both had art deco-y themes), and it was cheaper, even without factoring in the exchange rate (then it’s way cheaper), and I only gave that 4/5, so I guess this one gets 3/5? I would have liked it more at a less busy time, but I think if you’re going to charge people £18 to see something, you should really deliver more content than this (especially if Viking Cruises is splitting the bill for putting the exhibition on).  At least I learned that if I ever travel back in time, I can safely skip the ocean liner and head for a World’s Fair or really unsafe old-school amusement park instead – I think those would be much more to my liking!
  

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).

  

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.