London

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

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

  

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

Yes, you read that right. The Science Gallery, NOT the Science Museum. London’s got a new museum (at least, I think it’s new – more on that in a little while), and as usual, I’m first on the scene I visited the museum as soon as I found out about it, via a London Museum Development newsletter I get at work, because I am definitely not high on any publicity department’s list. “As soon as I found out about it” turned out to be a week before their first exhibition closed, which is why I am sadly blogging about it too late for anyone to visit. But they will have future exhibitions, with a new one every quarter, so I might as tell you about the venue anyway for future reference.

   

The Science Gallery is located on King’s College London’s Guy’s Campus (and as King’s is my alma mater (I think? Is your alma mater the first place you went to school or just anywhere you did a degree?), you’d think I might have heard about it through them too, but no dice. They can sure send me plenty of emails about donating (never gonna happen), but can’t seem to send ones about things I might actually be interested in) – if you go out the Shard entrance of London Bridge Station, you will find it directly in front of you, just across the street (the Shard will also be directly on top of you, looming menacingly). This means it is also conveniently near to Borough Market, so you can easily pop over for a toasted cheese from Kappacasein after, which I definitely did.

   

The Science Gallery appears to be part of a larger international organisation, with branches in places like Dublin, Melbourne, Detroit, and Rotterdam. Judging by their website, the London Science Gallery seems to have been active as a project since 2014, but if I understand it correctly, this is their first exhibition based in this gallery space. And looking at their exhibition programme for the year, it appears to be Wellcome Collection-esque, with a sort of science-art hybrid going on that I quite like, and I especially like that admission is free. The exhibition I saw was called “Hooked” and explored addiction through science and art.

   

Each section of the gallery was meant to have a different theme, but I didn’t necessarily get that throughout. The first room was called “Natural Born Thrillers” and was supposed to be about the sorts of things people can get addicted to, but that also seemed (more or less) to be the theme of the second section. Nevertheless, it got off to a promisingly interactive start with a machine with a slot you could insert a coin into to see what happened (someone had thoughtfully left a 2p coin on top, and since the whole point of the machine was that the coin came shooting back out at you with surprising force, it could be used again and again). There was also a virtual reality mask that allowed you to watch drunk mice, and a video of a guy playing Playstation whilst coming down from speed. The table made out of sugar grossed me out a little because of all the sticky spilt tea around it, but not quite as much as the marshmallow pants (not entirely sure what addiction those were representing. Perhaps something sexual?).

   

The second section was quite dark and moody and seemed mostly to be focused on the addictions unique to modern life, like video games and mobile phones. There was a game that tracked your eye movements (not entirely sure to what purpose) and a room full of flashing low battery symbols from phones. I did manage to resist pressing the “Do not like this” button on Facebook, and didn’t watch the video about twisted fairy tales because the room looked quite full and I didn’t want to step on anyone, despite the presence of comfy looking cushions in front of the screen.

 

The third section, entitled “Free Will,” was meant to be addressing the question of who was to blame for addiction, but I didn’t really get that from the “Hashish Club,” which was a hallucinatory video meant to recreate the experiences of 1840s pot smoking intellectuals. I did like standing in front of the Victorian parlour video screen with the trippy green lanterns though. I listened to “Short Periods of Structured Nothingness” for quite a while, which featured a woman talking about her experiences with her deadbeat dad after her parents divorced, and was eagerly awaiting the opportunity to answer some questions myself that I’d been promised early in the conversation (well, I say conversation, but I was just listening to a recording), but it went on for too long and I hung up as other people were waiting.

 

I have to confess that I didn’t understand the suit hanging in a geometric frame in one corner of the gallery at all, but I thought the curtain made from wedding rings in “Divorce Index” was quite cool, though I thought tying it into addiction was a bit forced (apparently it was chosen because addiction can often lead to divorce, but that didn’t really come across in the piece).

  

The final bit of the gallery, called “Safe from Harm,” featured a series of short films called “Twelve,” where people struggling with addiction re-interpreted scenes from films (which sounds like it should have been entertaining, but it was actually quite depressing and bleak) and a very frustrating video of someone only scrubbing one tile of a tiled floor clean, while I was sitting there dying for them to wash the whole damn floor. There was also a reading room where people could read books about addiction or share their own experiences of addiction.

   

I assumed we were finished at that point, and was already rather pleased with what I’d seen – even though I didn’t always understand how the pieces tied to the theme, it was interactive and entertaining, and most importantly, free, so I was glad I’d stopped in. But then we went downstairs to check out the shop and encountered the final piece of art, “AGAIN” by Lawrence Epps. I’ve seen those coin pushing machines plenty of times at the seaside, but never played because I hate gambling. Doesn’t stop me from watching the very stupid Tipping Point though, because those machines are mesmerising. Well, “AGAIN” was free to play – staff members gave you a small envelope full of tokens if you asked, and if you won any tokens, you got to keep them. Apparently some of them were meant to be actual 24 karat gold, but all the ones we won were just terracotta. They had loads of different designs, and I desperately wanted a white one, only to have one fall and get stuck in the chute, so I spent most of my other tokens trying to get it out. Unsuccessful, and the one staff member said the artist claimed it was purposely supposed to do that, but she suspected it was just a design flaw. Either way, it did demonstrate the power of addiction in a very clear and disturbingly fun way. (I stood there for a good fifteen minutes feeding in tokens trying to get that damn white one – so long that everyone else had moved off, but I did go home with some terracotta ones at least.)

   

This was overall a very fun and interactive experience (more interactive than the Wellcome usually is, I have to say, but I still love the Wellcome) and I will definitely return to see their future exhibitions (the proximity to Borough Market doesn’t hurt, because Padella and Kappacasein are two of my favourite places), including the next one, “Spare Parts” which opens at the end of February (and I will try to see that one in a timely enough fashion that other people can still go after I blog about it). It’s always exciting to see a new museum open in London, and if it’s free and has constantly changing exhibitions, so much the better, though I am a little upset this wasn’t a thing when I was a student, as it could have provided me with some valuable museum experience (so maybe it wouldn’t have taken me like 8 years to find a job in a museum)! 3.5/5 for “Hooked.”

London: “The Sun” @ the Science Museum

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

London: “Living with Buildings” @ the Wellcome Collection

This is from the Global Clinic, not Living with Buildings, but I think you’ll agree it is a more striking image than the entrance of Living with Buildings, which is why it is serving as the introductory photo.

“Living with Buildings” is the Wellcome Collection’s latest offering, which runs until 3 March 2019, and I popped along to see it a few weeks ago since I was in the neighbourhood anyway for “Anglo Saxon Kingdoms.” I’m not sure if the Wellcome could have picked a more boring name for this exhibition if they’d tried (at least for those of us who aren’t really into architecture), but I was hoping the content would prove better than the lacklustre name. Even the exhibition description was fairly vague, being simply that it was about how buildings affect our mental and physical health.

The exhibition is located in the Wellcome’s main gallery on the ground floor and is free, as their exhibitions always are, and doesn’t allow photographs, as their exhibitions mostly don’t. We were there a little bit later in the day than usual, which I think was a good time to visit as the crowds were much less than what they would have been at lunchtime (or people were just staying away because of the dull name). The exhibition opened with Charles Booth’s famous poverty maps of London (made in 1886-1903) showing the relative wealth of each street of London based on Booth’s interviews with its inhabitants (he’s pretty judgy too, as the poorest people were listed as “vicious, semi-criminal”), which are always interesting, even though I’ve seen them many times before.

Charles Booth’s Map of London, LSE.

This was one of the Wellcome’s more open layouts, and though there were a few little nooks and recesses, everything was basically in one large gallery. The exhibition appeared to be arranged more by topic than chronologically, and covered subject matter from the Victorian era, when people began to suspect that living in smoky, polluted cities might not be great for one’s health, to the Grenfell Tower fire just last year.

Letchworth Garden City Poster, First Garden City Museum.

One of the nooks was about the rise of the “garden city” in the late Victorian era, which began when some of the more, shall we say, benevolent employers founded model villages for their employees to live in. I get that the intention behind it was mostly good – giving the employees a clean environment to live in away from the pollution of the cities, which also reduced their commute and gave them access to opportunities for recreation and self-improvement, but personally I find something a little creepy about it. I like the people I work with, but I don’t particularly want to live next door to them (you would never be able to weasel out of work functions, since they would know exactly where you were), and I sure as hell don’t want my boss overseeing what I do in my spare time. The Cadbury brothers, the founders of Bournville, even had a pamphlet published with rules for their employees to live by, going so far as to tell them how to sleep (single beds only) and how to breathe, which is dreadful (but I’m fine with the emphasis on cleanliness, given that these people were making chocolate)! Some of the posters in this section (reminiscent of old Tube posters – they may have been designed by the same people) did make the garden cities look awful tempting though (if you could ignore all the paternalistic garbage)! Even Henry Wellcome, founder of the Wellcome Collection, tried to get in on the action by designing Wellcomeville, a city that would have been built around a pharmaceutical factory and research laboratory, but it fell through in the end, and the research facility was just a stand-alone building in Bloomsbury.

Model of a hospital promoting the King Edward’s Hospital Fund, Wellcome Collection.

There were quite a few films in here featuring what appeared to be interviews with inhabitants of various tower blocks, but the only one I actually sat down and watched was Catherine Yass’s film “Royal London,” showing the demolition of the old hospital. I could only watch a small part of it though, as the camera kept spiralling up and down staircases, and I started feeling a bit motion sick. I was glad to step outside of the film room and examine the huge scale model of a hospital from the 1930s, which was used to raise money for King Edward’s Hospital Fund (it was named after Edward VII, and carried on long after his reign (it actually still exists today under the name King’s Fund), rather than being a short-lived scheme of Edward VIII. I think Edward 8 was probably too busy canoodling with Wallis Simpson to have time for causes, though I suppose the same could be said of Eddy 7 and his many, many mistresses). Queen Mary donated some lace handkerchiefs which were used to make bedspreads for two of the miniature beds, but I can’t help but think that a donation of actual money would have been much more useful (I seem to recall that Mary was notoriously cheap). The hospital scale model sure was neat though; it had little doll versions of patients, doctors, and nurses occupying the miniature hospital rooms, and even a tiny x-ray machine and humorous murals decorating the hospital walls. I’d take that over a dollhouse any day!

Finsbury Health Centre, Wellcome Collection.

Some other things I found interesting were the information about the rise of tower blocks, which were meant to be the wondrous self-contained living of the future, only for the shops within to either never open or fail and the buildings to become dilapidated due to shoddy construction and attract criminal activity; the posters for the Finsbury Health Centre contrasting clean modern living with dirty unhealthy old Britain (released during the war, these were actually banned by Churchill because he thought it was both an insult to pre-war Britain, and it would damage morale if people realised they were living under shitty conditions); and particularly the cartoons showing the differences between old dust-trap buildings, and new, presumably tidier ones (I totally look like the guy in the before version, who sat at work all day with his hand on his head because he had a headache from breathing in the noxious, unventilated fumes. Considering I work in a building that was built in 1904, has bars on the windows, and is rife with asbestos, it’s really not so surprising I get headaches almost every time I’m there).

Paris Montparnasse 1993, Andreas Gurnsky.

And, in a depressing denouement, the exhibition showed how all these “brilliant” ideas from the 20th century about building for the future have mostly been a failure, and resulted in downright tragedy in the case of Grenfell Tower. There was a particularly chilling letter written by a tenants’ activist group a year or two before the fire expressing concerns about the new cladding and the fire safety procedures that instructed tenants to remain in their flats in case of fire, which they warned could lead to disaster, as indeed they did. Even the examples of the new developments in creating light and airy environments for hospital patients, which were plopped right before the exit and I think were meant to cheer us up a bit after the Grenfell stuff, were still a bit grim architecturally, though I suspect I am just really not a fan of modern architecture.

Charles Williams, 1813. A Nonchalant Doctor dancing a jig, Wellcome.

I thought the exhibition was certainly more interesting than its name had led me to believe, but was mostly just rather depressing (except for the above cartoon, which genuinely made me laugh out loud), as it appears that we still haven’t found a good solution to the problems of city living. I’m pretty sure almost no one wants to live in a tower block, but houses are completely unaffordable in London for all but the very wealthy, so until someone comes up with a better solution, that is the sad reality of the situation. I’ll give “Living with Buildings” 3/5, since it wasn’t quite as large as I was expecting, and was really rather dispiriting, though I guess I can’t entirely blame the Wellcome for the latter issue.

The temporary exhibition on the first floor of the Wellcome Collection has also changed over, and is no longer the delightfully creepy “Teeth,” but is instead a companion exhibit to “Living with Buildings” called “Global Clinic.” And that’s literally what it was – a new, mobile clinic design set up inside the gallery space, which will be deployed somewhere in need of an emergency clinic once the exhibition has ended. It is meant to be an improvement on tents and shipping containers, which are currently mostly what are used in disaster situations, and it certainly looked respectively more stable and lighter than those options. However, without the accoutrements of a clinic set up inside, it was literally just looking at a building structure, which was not terribly exciting. There were a few toy designs by students that were intended for use in developing countries in one corner of the gallery, and these were slightly more engaging, though not as much as they could have been if you were actually allowed to play with them. I think the Global Clinic is a good idea, but it’s not necessarily something that needed to physically be here, since although it is an eye-catching structure, seeing it in person wasn’t significantly more interesting than just reading about it. If you’re short on time, I think it’s certainly safe to just breeze right through it or give it a miss entirely! 1.5/5.

London: “Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms” @ the BL

Spong Man, Wikimedia Commons. So adorable!

The museum I work for is very keen on Anglo-Saxons (they’re one of the few things our borough is known for. Well, that, and Korean food), so even though Saxon Britain is not one of my favourite periods of history, I’ve been looking for opportunities to learn more about it. (And I am VERY partial to our wax figure of Athelstan, who I’ve started dressing up for various holidays, though that has more to do with the fact that he’s a wax figure than any specific traits of the real King Athelstan, who seems to have been fairly pious and boring.)  So it was with some interest that I headed to the British Library’s latest exhibition: “Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War” which runs until 19th February 2019.

Woden, British Library.

Admission is £16 (half off available with Art Pass) and I saw there were plenty of spaces available online, so I didn’t bother to book in advance. Like all exhibitions at the BL, we could not take photos, so I’m relying on photos of some of the objects there that Marcus kindly found online for me. It was a similar layout to most of the BL’s exhibitions, which meant a crowd built up in the initial, narrow part of the exhibition, than dissipated as the galleries widened (you’d think they would have sorted that out by now, but no); but it was much less atmospheric than most of the exhibitions I’ve seen here, as the only real theme seemed to be “dark.” This was unfortunate, because like at everything I’ve been to at the BL except Harry Potter, 80% of the visitors were extremely elderly people. Now, I’ve got absolutely nothing against older people (I certainly like them more than young people most of the time), but most of the ones that patronise the BL clearly cannot see a damn thing when the gallery is dark, and I really wish the BL would realise this.

Domesday Book, with stain from medieval spearhead, British Library.

I understand that the galleries have to have low lighting in order to preserve these very rare objects, but maybe they could consider providing some kind of miniature, non-damaging (LED?) torches for those visitors who need them so they wouldn’t have to bend completely over the cases to see them, making it so that no one else can look at the objects (also, I think it’s kind of rude to block a case with your body when other people are clearly trying to look at it, but that’s another story). This happens every single time I come here, and it’s really starting to get to me.

Meister des Evangeliars von Echternach, Wikimedia Commons.

Anyway, annoyances aside – I should talk about what was on display! The galleries were arranged roughly chronologically, though because so many of the manuscripts that survive today were the result of monks copying even earlier manuscripts, most of the texts here could be grouped into one of a few different themes that repeated throughout the galleries (mainly religious ones. There were about four nearly identical drawings of St. Chad, which is fine because they amused me, but c’mon, maybe vary the saints a little bit? I know there had to be more saints than that, even back then, like St. Guthlac from Lincolnshire, for example, as seen near the bottom of this post). The exhibition started with Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica, which is the source of much of our knowledge about the Anglo-Saxons (I believe Bede’s original manuscript no longer exists, but the BL has a copy from the 8th century, made just a few decades after Bede’s death), ended with the Domesday Book, and included a hell of a lot of things written by monks along the way.

Beowulf, British Library.

As you might expect from the British Library, the vast majority of artefacts in here were old books and texts, but there were a few swords and crosses and Alfred’s Jewel, which was quite exciting because there’s an image of it in the stained glass in the museum where I work (the actual thing was probably intended to be a pointer, and may have been included with a copy of Alfred the Great’s book, Pastoral Care (or more accurately, Alfred’s Old English translation of Pope Gregory I’s book. Alfred’s version is the oldest surviving book written in English), which, contrary to what I was initially expecting, is not about taking care of sheep, but about the responsibilities of the clergy (still involves a flock, but I prefer sheep!)). I took a class on Anglo-Saxon literature as an undergrad, so it was pretty cool getting to see the oldest surviving copies of Beowulf and “The Dream of the Rood” – without these, we never would have known they existed (which I guess some people might not necessarily see as a bad thing, but I quite like Beowulf. I dig kennings)!

Alfred Jewel, Ashmolean.

But I have to admit that some of the other books in here were more interesting to look at because they had illustrations. And what illustrations! You’ve probably gotten a good idea of the wonders here already by this point in the post, but man, derpy animals, rather adorable saints, and teeny perfect elaborate little black ink illustrations – this exhibition had it all!

Lindisfarne Gospels, Wikipedia.

Honestly, there was a lot of information here about the Anglo-Saxons, but the names of most of the kings (other than Athelstan) kind of just all blurred together since I knew virtually nothing about them before coming in, and frankly, despite my best efforts, Anglo-Saxons just aren’t interesting enough for me to retain a significant amount of information on them in my brain (I just really don’t care about religion or war. I need some social history to pique my interest, which is why this post is thin on actual historical facts). But I did like the few medical texts in here, and I thought it was neat that they’ve recently re-created the recipe for an eye salve from one of the botanicals and have found it effective against MRSA (the main ingredients seemed to be garlic and leeks).

Blemmyae from Wonders of the East, British Library.

I think my favourite thing on display had to be the book about exotic creatures, including giants and the race of people with a face on their chest that I seem to remember still cropping up centuries later in some early modern text I read for my Master’s (maybe Paré’s On Monsters and Marvels?), clearly based on this much earlier illustration. So so great. I also love the little demon being exorcised, below (I think I’d be tempted to keep him as a pet after he was expelled from my body), but everything in here was striking simply by virtue of being so damn old.

Scene from the Guthlac Roll showing Guthlac exorcising a demon. British Library.

I can’t get over how incredible it is that these books still survive over 1000 years on, and I think getting to see them was probably worth the price of admission (or the half price admission I paid anyway, dunno about the full £16), despite my brain’s failure to absorb any of the information in here except trivia and amusing illustrations (isn’t that always the way though?). I was also disappointed that there wasn’t more about the development of the English language, given all the manuscripts on display (there was a bit of information of this, and it could also be seen in the progression over time from mainly Latin manuscripts to mainly Old English ones, but I think the Weston Library’s exhibition was more comprehensive). So I’ll give it 3/5 – not the best I’ve seen at the BL, but still pretty impressive by virtue of the artefacts on offer, though they really need to sort out a solution to the problem the low lighting appears to cause for the bulk of their visitors.

Combined images from three Psalters: Utrecht Psalter and two based on it, British Library.

London: “The Last Tsar” @ the Science Museum

Like many people, I think, I am fascinated by the lives and barbaric deaths of Nicholas II, Alexandra, and their children. As I think I’ve said before, I even signed up for a Russian history class as an undergrad on the assumption that we would discuss the tsars, only to be disappointed when it was nothing but communism, communism, communism (I mean, communism is interesting too, but if that’s all you want to talk about, you should maybe call the class Soviet History instead to at least give people a clue. Not that I’m still salty about that C or anything…). So I was pretty excited about the Science Museum’s new temporary exhibition “The Last Tsar: Blood and Revolution,” which also promised to contain a good dose of medical history, one of my favourite things. Admission to the exhibition is free, but you must book a ticket, which we found easy enough to do online on the day of the exhibition, shortly before we arrived. Normally I like to visit exhibitions in early-mid afternoon so I can avoid being caught in rush hour on the Tube on the way back, but on this particular afternoon, we were planning on going out to dinner after visiting the museum, so we booked the last slot of the day, at 4 (the museum closes at 6), and found the downstairs galleries of the museum virtually deserted, which was a rare treat. There were a handful of people in the exhibition, but I’m sure it was nothing like as crowded as it would have been during the day. Unfortunately, photography was not allowed, so I’ll post pictures of the objects I can find, and you’ll have to use your imagination for the rest.

Nicholas and George, from Wikimedia Commons.

The exhibition began with an introduction about who the Romanovs were, and their connection to the British Royal Family (as you can see from that picture of George V and Nicholas II side by side, they look eerily like twins, despite only being cousins, though George favoured snappier shoes (as do I!)), as well as a collection of bucolic photographs of the children from the worry-free days before WWI. Well, not exactly worry-free, because of course the Tsarevich Alexei had haemophilia, and Tsarina Alexandra had quite a few health problems of her own, but still, idyllic compared to being brutally gunned down after months of imprisonment. It was actually Alexei’s health problems that led to the royal family withdrawing from the court in the first place to try to improve Alexei’s health with frequent trips to the country, and it was this disconnection from the people combined with their desire to maintain an authoritarian government that caused the discontent that led to revolution, so if Alexei had not suffered from haemophilia, the world may well have been a very different place.

One of Alexandra’s maternity dresses. Copyright State Hermitage Museum.

The second gallery discussed Alexandra’s medical issues in more detail, as well as the kind of medical care that was available in Russia at the time. Apparently health care there was fairly progressive for the era, provided by a mix of the church, charities, and local government, and they were moving away from things like restraining people suffering from mental illness. Unless you were a political prisoner, of course, in which case you would be put in chains in a dark cell and essentially left to rot. Many political prisoners chose to commit suicide rather than continue to suffer under appalling conditions, as we learned in a small, somewhat incongruous section that included photos of the horrific-looking cells. Of course, Alexandra went through none of this pre-Revolution, though she did struggle with aftereffects from her pregnancies in her all-encompassing need to produce a male heir (their first four children were all girls) – probably a combination of sciatica and postpartum depression, with a few other unpleasant side effects thrown in. Since mainstream medicine couldn’t always help, she ended up turning to folk medicine, especially in the case of her son Alexei and their relationship with the controversial Rasputin.

Imperial Steel Faberge egg. Copyright Moscow Kremlin Museums.

The next two sections were about Alexei and the effect his haemophilia would have on the royal family (it was discovered very early on, when his umbilical cord wouldn’t stop bleeding), and the First World War and its impact on Russia. Of course, WWI was another major catalyst for the Revolution, due to the heavy losses suffered by the Russian Army and growing dissatisfaction with the war, for which the royal family largely took the blame. However, although they didn’t suffer during the war along with their people, they did help with the war effort, in particular Olga and Tatiana, the two oldest daughters, who volunteered in a Red Cross hospital. Thanks to the Romanovs’ closeness to their British royal relatives (both Alexandra and Nicholas were related to them. They were second cousins and Alexandra was Victoria’s favourite granddaughter), there was also a British hospital in Petrograd during WWI, financed by contributions from both sets of royals. Because of course they had to stick some Faberge eggs in somewhere, there were two in this room, including a very cool one made from Imperial steel and resting on bullet cases, which was filled with a miniature easel depicting Nicholas and Alexei surveying the troops. As part of one of many, many medical treatments over the years, Alexei saw a doctor who took some x-rays of him, and fascinated by this, Nicholas and Alexandra both had their hands x-rayed, which were on display here (fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it) they were all killed before having to worry about the high doses of radiation present in the early x-raying process).

Alexandra’s radiograph. Copyright Harvard Medical Library.

The final two galleries covered their murder and the attempts to solve it over the years, starting with Nikolai Sokolov’s 1920 investigation, right up to modern DNA analysis of the remains found in Ekaterinburg. Their murders are probably the part of their lives I’d read about most extensively, so it was very cool getting to see some of the artefacts found as a result of the investigation, including clothing and jewellery belonging to the Romanov family, and letters from Sokolov’s investigation (Sokolov was a royalist, and the Bolsheviks weren’t well entrenched enough in 1920 to stop him from carrying his investigation out. He was assisted by the Romanov children’s former English tutor, Charles Gibbs, who was so close to the family that he agreed to follow them into exile, and upon his return to England became a Russian Orthodox priest and turned his chapel into a shrine to the family). The Soviets did admit to killing Nicholas II in 1926, but it wasn’t until after the collapse of the USSR in 1991 that they admitted to the murder of the rest of the family.

Nicholas’s radiograph. Copyright Harvard Medical Library.

The modern DNA tests were assisted by Prince Philip, who is related to the Romanovs through his maternal line (his great-grandmother was Princess Alice, Victoria’s daughter, who was Alexandra’s mother) and agreed to provide a sample for testing, which proved a match. The bodies of Alexei and one of his sisters (DNA testing can’t narrow it down any more than that) were the last to be found, in 2007. There were facial reconstructions based on their skulls here on display, which looked better than these sorts of things usually do, though it’s presumably a hell of a lot easier to do a facial reconstruction when you know roughly what you’re aiming for. The whole family have been canonised in the Russian Orthodox Church (which is not without controversy, but the exhibition didn’t mention anything about that), and all except the final two children to be found have been given an official state funeral.

Red Cross Faberge egg. Copyright Cleveland Museum of Art (!).

Although none of this was anything earth-shattering (and some things weren’t really touched on, like all the Anastasia imposters in the first half of the 20th century), it was nonetheless a good exhibition, and I learned some things I didn’t know about the health of the rest of the family and Alexei’s specific type of haemophilia, which is apparently the rarest type (type B). It is a sad story, as Nicholas may have helped bring about his own downfall, but communism would prove even worse for the Russian people than Nicholas’s reign, and even though Nicholas and Alexandra seemed like unpleasant people in many ways, that doesn’t mean they deserved to die, especially not their children (I do put some of the blame for that on George V for refusing to allow them into Britain when they begged for his help, though they kind of blew it themselves by not getting out earlier when they had the chance. All of these royals come off like jerks). I think the section about political prisoners, whilst interesting, didn’t really fit in with the theme of the rest of it other than to try to establish a reason for the royal family to have been hated, and probably would have worked better in an exhibition about the Revolution specifically rather than one that aimed to be mainly about the Romanov family, especially since it otherwise shied away from controversial subjects. Still, for a free exhibition, I can’t really complain, and I certainly don’t regret going to see it. 3.5/5.

London: “Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up” @ the V&A

Frida on the bench 1939. Nickolas Muray. V&A Museum

Tickets had sold out for the day the first time I tried to visit “Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up,” back in the summer when I ended up visiting “Fashioned from Nature” instead (and I remember that day well too. It was unbearably hot so I got an ice cream that dripped all down the front of my dress on the way there, and I didn’t notice until after I entered the exhibition, so people probably thought I was a slob). So I went home and booked for the first available date on one of my days off, which ended up being the 15th of October. Despite the lengthy wait, I suppose I should consider myself lucky for having gotten in at all, as the exhibition is now sold out for the remainder of its run (through 18th November).

Guillermo Kahlo portrait, V&A Museum.

So clearly, there are a lot of Frida Kahlo fans out there – even with my timed ticket (normally £15, £7.50 with National Art Pass), I still had to join a queue to be let into the exhibition (there was presumably a one in, one out system). And of course, once I made it inside, it was super crowded (and photographs weren’t allowed, though it didn’t stop half the people there from attempting to take them. It was gratifying when the stewards caught them and yelled at them. To avoid this fate myself, I am illustrating this post with objects and art in the exhibition that I found images of online). Not quite Harry Potter exhibition bad, but unpleasant enough. The worst part was the opening gallery, which was long and narrow and had photographs grouped together in clumps, which does not lend itself well to orderly viewing. It was very much a “push in where you can” system, at least at first, and I am not shy about shoving myself in if it means avoiding a queue.

Frida (far right) and her sisters, taken by Guillermo Kahlo.

The exhibition was based off of a selection of Frida’s clothes and personal possessions which were walled up in a bathroom in her home after her death, which was opened fifty years later (so, 2004). It wasn’t really explained why they were walled up in the first place, but this exhibition marks the first time they were shown outside Mexico, which does explain its popularity. The opening section was about Frida’s family background; she had a German father, Mexican mother, and three sisters; two older, one younger. After she contracted polio as a young child, she became very close with her father, who struggled with his health himself, but had a rather distant relationship with her mother; obviously her style and artistic interests very much favoured the Mexican side of her background, but she always used the Germanic name her father had chosen for her. The polio left her with uneven legs and a resulting limp, but she was still on track to attend medical school when she famously suffered a horrific accident after the bus she was riding collided with a streetcar, forcing an iron handrail through her body, damaging her spine and reproductive system, and leaving her in chronic pain for the remainder of her life.  However, this was also the catalyst for leading her into art, since her poor health made it impossible for her to return to medical school. This section covered all of this biographical information, as well as Frida’s communist leanings (although it didn’t go into great detail), and contained a rather splendid collection of photographs of Frida and her family, many of them taken by her father, Guillermo (he adopted the Spanish version of his name, William, after moving to Mexico), who was a keen photographer.

Frida Kahlo, by Leo Matiz, 1943, Coyoacán, Mexico. Private Collection. © Alejandra Matiz. Leo Matiz Foundation.

From there, the gallery progressed into a section about Casa Azul, Frida’s childhood home, which was also the home she returned to as an adult with her husband, Diego Rivera, and painted it an amazing deep blue. I loved the map that Frida drew of the house, with a little unibrowed stick figure to indicate where she was born (which wasn’t accurate, since she was actually born at her grandmother’s house, but was no less charming for that), and all of her animals carefully labelled, with the exception of what were clearly ducks in a pond, because, as she put it, she didn’t know the English name for them. She owned a special breed of Mexican dogs that looked rather like larger chihuahuas, and also had pet monkeys and a deer.

Votive offering dedicated to the Virgin of Talpa. I don’t remember if this particular piece was on display, but it’s just so you can get an idea of the style.

The next room was about Frida’s interest in native Mexican art, in particular votive paintings, which are amazing. Votive paintings are a tradition that originated in rural Mexico as a way of thanking the saints after someone was saved from bodily harm. If someone survived a life-threatening experience, they would commission an artist to paint a small picture showing the event in question, which they would then hang as an offering in their local church. Though they are obviously very heartfelt, due to the melodramatic nature of the things they depict, and their rather primitive style, they are often unintentionally hilarious, and I love them, as did Frida. She had a whole wall full of these paintings at Casa Azul, and they were a major influence on her art, as can be seen in the paintings she made of herself after various operations (some of which were in the final room of the exhibition). The best piece here, in my opinion, was one that showed a man being hit by a train, and this was Frida’s favourite as well, because of its similarities to her own accident.

Frida, by Guillermo Kahlo, about 1926, Coyoacán, Mexico. © Frida Kahlo & Diego Rivera Archives.

The next gallery was probably my favourite, and was all about Frida’s health and how it affected her art. She was very frail, and had to wear a corset to support her spine, which she used her elaborate and beautiful dresses (based on the traditional dress of the women of Tehuana, Mexico, which was a matriarchal society known for its exceptionally lovely clothes) to try to conceal. The central theme of this exhibition was that everything about Frida’s outward appearance was very much an intensely cultivated persona, and a way for her to transcend her pain and frailty and become something magnificent (hence the double meaning of the exhibition’s title, in that she both made herself up with makeup, and she made her “self” up). She even tried to make her plaster corsets (which were moulded to her body, and could stay on for months at a time) reflect her personality by painting them with things like sacred hearts and hammers and sickles. I would say that it seemed like a lot of effort for something she tried to keep concealed, but that wasn’t quite the case, as Frida, despite her marriage to Diego, had a number of affairs with other artists (as did Diego, including one particularly hurtful one with Frida’s own younger sister, who lived with them), and allowed herself to be photographed topless, and in her corsets, by one of her lovers. I can’t say I blame her, as in addition to Diego’s affairs, he was also a rather unfortunate looking man – her nickname for him was Sapo-Rana (Frog-Toad), and I can see why.

Cotton huipil with machine-embroidered chain stitch; printed cotton skirt with embroidery and holán. Photograph Museo Frida Kahlo.

While celebrating Frida’s indomitable spirit (there were plenty of photographs of her painting while on bed rest, on an easel suspended above her head), this gallery was also depressing, because of course her ill health got the best of her in the end. She struggled with gangrene in her toes, which eventually led to the amputation of one of her legs, so the exhibition included a prosthetic leg clad in one of Frida’s signature red embroidered shoes, though by this point Frida was confined to a wheelchair. She died only a year after her leg was amputated, because her body had pretty much given up the fight at that point (after more than 30 surgeries), even though she was only 47. She also had some struggles with addiction to painkillers (there is some speculation that her death was the result of an overdose), which is understandable, given the amount of pain she seemed to have been in at all times from the aftereffects of both polio and her bus injuries.

Dress display inside exhibition, Wikimedia Commons.

I know talking about her death probably makes it sound like I’m approaching the end of this post, but there was one remaining gallery. This was the one that held all of Frida’s dresses, which were incredibly gorgeous, especially a blouse embroidered with animals and Aztec dancers. I did find the labelling a bit confusing though, as the dresses appeared to have been arranged more to make a statement than for clarity, and with dresses displayed in rows, it was hard to tell which sign went with each dress. There was also some of her jewellery – my favourite piece had little leg and arm shaped prayer tokens, which were probably chosen somewhat ironically by Frida in reference to her health issues (she renounced her Catholicism after discovering communism).

Aztec dancer blouse.

This gallery was even darker than the rest of the exhibition (which was already quite dim), presumably to protect the fabric, but I think it led to a woman mistaking me for her daughter, as she put her hand on my shoulder and began speaking to me in Spanish (at least, I think that’s what was going on. I did have similar hair to her daughter, so we might have looked the same from behind, but it did weird me out a little). It also contained some of Frida’s art, which had been on rather short supply in the rest of the exhibition (where the focus was more on photographs and the art Frida collected), so we could see for ourselves how she created her image from all the aspects of her life the exhibition had been talking about.

Necklace of coral beads with metal milagros in the form of legs Mexico, early 20th century. Photography Javier Hinojosa © Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Archives.

Although I think some people may have been disappointed by the fact that more of her art wasn’t here, since I’m not that familiar with most of her work anyway (other than all the iconic images of her with unibrow in full bloom. Not snarking, because mine would look exactly the same in a couple weeks if I stopped plucking today), I wasn’t all that bothered by it. I was less impressed by some of their poor choices of signage materials – the labels in the corset room were all just stickers stuck on the outside of the cases, and some of them had peeled off to the extent that you couldn’t even read them. Actually, they were difficult to read anyway, because they were white letters on a glass case in a dark room, so you had to angle yourself just right to see them, which wasn’t always easy to do in an exhibition as crowded as this one. That said, although it was quite crowded, other than in the first gallery, the objects were generally spread out enough so that you didn’t have to queue to see everything, and could just kind of wander around to whatever was free, which was a pleasant change from the initial part of the exhibition.

Self Portrait with Braid, 1941.

Given my love of medical history, I actually really loved that the focus was primarily on her health, with a bit of fashion thrown in, as those things are so much more my cup of tea than art. I think there could have been more about her life in general, because as I said earlier, her political beliefs were only very lightly touched on, as were some of her family relationships (I didn’t realise she’d had a difficult relationship with her mother until I did a bit of research whilst writing this post, because all the exhibition said was that she was upset because she was suffering from her own health problems (it might have been one of her miscarriages. The accident left her unable to carry a child to term) in America around the time of her mother’s death, so she couldn’t make it back to see her, which seemed to imply at least some sort of loving relationship). But I think, given the title, the exhibition did pretty much deliver on what it promised, which was to explore Frida Kahlo’s artistic persona and what went into creating it (and my god, it must have been an effort for someone as ill as Frida was. She got fully dressed in her ensembles every day, regardless of whether she was expecting company. I change into jimjams the second I walk in the door, and if I don’t leave the house at all, I might not put on actual clothes for days at a time).

Frida Kahlo in Blue Blouse, 1939, Nickolas Muray. Bentley Gallery.

I guess I should also comment on the shop, because the V&A’s exhibition shops are always so fabulous it makes me feel a bit sick with jealousy, given how crap it makes the museum shop I run look in comparison. They had brought in a lot of Mexican art, and even though I kept bitching about how much cheaper it was to buy these things in Mexico, I still paid £6 each for two little Dia de los Muertos style metal skeleton wall hangings (I know that sounds cheap, but they really are very thin and small. I reckon I should just go back to Mexico one of these days though – I’ve only ever been to Tijuana, and that was 15 years ago. I would absolutely love to go for Dia de los Muertos one of these years), and there were plenty of other things in there I would have bought as well, if I were a wealthier woman. In the end, it was actually more enjoyable than I was anticipating, despite the crowds, and I’m glad I had the chance to see it. 4/5. The V&A is also hosting a Day of the Dead celebration this Saturday which they’re tying in with this exhibition, but as it’s free and unticketed, I’ll probably give it a miss, though I will of course report back if I decide to go. My brother’s visiting this week, so I’m off doing vaguely touristy London things, but I will have something relatively Halloweeny to post about next week!

London: “I Object” @ the British Museum

Wow, it’s been a long time (almost three months) since I’ve done a London post, even though I live here. Actually, there really weren’t many exhibitions over the summer (or at least ones I was interested in), so it’s probably a good thing I went to France and America – it gave me something to blog about! But autumn is looking much more promising on the exhibitions front, including this one currently at the British Museum (until 20 January 2019): “I Object: Ian Hislop’s Search for Dissent.”

  

I do quite like Ian Hislop (I really liked the Wipers Times musical, and I like a bit of HIGNFY as well, though I would not recommend actually going to see it filmed, because you will be there for HOURS with no toilet breaks), so I was eager to see this. Admission is £12, though we were able to get half off with our National Art Passes, and because it is not the British Museum’s main special exhibition, there was no need to pre-book (at least not on the day I visited, though if you do pre-book, be sure to leave time to get through the (newish) security/bag check shed, as there is often a lengthy queue). This isn’t to say that it isn’t still popular – there were definitely more people inside than I find ideal (bearing in mind the number of people I find ideal is zero), which would have been fine in a larger space, but because it was fairly cramped, I did have to contend with annoying people who spent way too long standing right in front of various displays and refusing to move, even when people were obviously queuing behind them.

  

I’d read a few reviews before visiting, which were mainly negative, so my expectations were not terribly high, but I think the exhibition got off to a strong start with Hislop’s five favourite objects, one of which (seen below left) was also my favourite object (so much so that I went home with a print of it, though I really don’t know why I keep buying prints). Unfortunately, it went a bit downhill from there. The whole premise of this exhibition is that Hislop believes history is written by the winners, so he was trying to find subversive objects that challenge the traditional historical narrative. Of course, these objects were taken from the British Museum’s collections, so were thus already part of the narrative in some sense. Ironically, the exhibition itself didn’t have much of a narrative; rather, the commentary was in the form of those little talk bubbles you see above, showing Hislop’s thoughts on each object, combined with a curator-written description of what the object was, but there was nothing particularly tying the objects together, and it skipped from different historical eras the entire time, with no coherent timeline.

  

That said, a lot of the objects on display here were pretty great, so even though I didn’t always understand what was going on with society at the times they were made (I was fine with the British stuff, but a lot of it was Egyptian and Roman, and my knowledge of those periods is pretty damn patchy, so just naming random emperors and assuming the general public would know who they were talking about was a bit presumptuous, even for the British Museum), I could still enjoy looking at them. And who doesn’t love a fart joke? Or a skeleton? (OK, maybe I’m the only one that loves skeletons, but I think a lot of people find fart jokes funny, judging by their prevalence throughout history.)

  

Or a poop joke for that matter, as seen above in the rather mean-spirited take on George III’s madness. Georges III and IV were well represented here (it’s hard to talk about satire without showing Georgian cartoons, because they were so brilliant), as was Louis XVI, though I suppose in that case the satire took a darker edge, given what ended up happening to him. I was intrigued to see that there were some dollars with political messages on them here – money that has been written on is still legal currency in the US, so I spent much of my teenage years scribbling poems and punk slogans on every dollar in my wallet, and I think I would have peed my pants in excitement (to go with the bodily fluids theme) if one of those dollars had someone ended up in here, but alas, these were much more boring than my angsty defacing.

  

I did laugh out loud when I saw the brilliant Louis Philippe pear drawings though (a caricaturist noted his resemblance to a pear, so that was how he was regularly portrayed in French satirical publications). Obviously it’s much easier to see the hilarity in a cartoon than in something like a statue – Hislop told us that the one above left was definitely satirical because of the “deliberately unattractive shape of the body,” (by the standards of that culture) but I just don’t really see it, given that it just looks like a normal fertility figure. I guess maybe if I had more of a background in ancient cultures and their standards of beauty, I could have appreciated the satirical bent of some of the objects more, but frankly I think the reasons given for the inclusion of some of the artefacts were a bit far-fetched, or else merited more explanation so they didn’t seem so far-fetched, because it kind of felt like he had run out of obviously satirical objects and was clutching at straws.

   

The most famous thing here was undoubtedly the copy of the King James Bible where “Thou shalt not commit adultery” was changed to “Thou shalt commit adultery,” which Hislop definitely views as satire because he thinks it seems too perfect to be a genuine typographical error – even if he’s wrong about that, at least it was a cool thing to see. The fake artefact that Banksy put inside the BM back in the early 2000s (it took a few days for anyone working there to notice) was more obviously satirical, and the caption is pretty great.

  

There were a couple minor opportunities for interactivity, such as listening to protest songs on headphones in various places in the exhibition, or drawing a protest badge, which Marcus did to what I think is great effect. Other than that, though, it was a traditional, fairly staid exhibition, so there was certainly nothing subversive about that aspect of it. I think maybe if there had been some opportunities for object handling, or otherwise interacting with the collection, it would have helped carry the theme through a bit better than being confined to looking at things in cases, as you would in the rest of the British Museum.

  

The exhibition was fairly small (only three rooms), so it didn’t take us very long to look around. Worth 6 pounds, but definitely not 12. In the end, it seems that much of satire does just come down to fart jokes, which I certainly don’t have a problem with, but I guess it’s not very highbrow, which may have been why a lot of the reviewers took issue with it. I think it was entertaining enough, but if you’re looking for a lot of analysis, an actual “alternative history” of the world, or just want to expand your knowledge of other cultures and civilisations, this is probably not the exhibition for you, as the commentary was mainly limited to the objects themselves, with no real background or narrative. Still, I liked it a lot better than “Living with Gods,” the last exhibition I paid to see here, and there was some pretty great merchandise in the exhibition shop (in addition to the print, I got a “Truck Fump” badge). 3/5.

  

London: BMoF’s Scoop: A Wonderful Ice Cream World

After that very weird honey experience a couple of years ago (it was just a honey tasting thing, lest you be picturing something worse!), I decided I wasn’t going to give in to the allure of Bompas and Parr events any more, no matter how appealing they might seem. And I was doing well, until they sent me an email about a potential pop up ice cream museum they were trying to obtain funding for. Well, I’m sure all my regular readers know about me and ice cream (I’m obsessed), and I’ve been wanting to go to the ice cream museum in America for some time (it sounds very overpriced but fun), so, hoping for something similar, my willpower gave way completely. Not only did I buy tickets, I also actually helped fund the damn thing (albeit at the lowest level that included tickets, so I wasn’t spending a massive amount or anything) so my name is on their wall of donors, which is a little embarrassing. Clearly my idiocy knows no bounds where ice cream is concerned.

  

So a couple weeks ago, shortly after “Scoop: A Wonderful Ice Cream World” (as they’re calling it) opened, I went to revel in my stupidity check it out. I couldn’t really have picked a better day for it (from an ice cream eating perspective; not so much a going outside one, because I do not like the sun), since it was pushing 90 degrees and I had the perfect excuse to wear my ice cream print sundress (not that I need an excuse, though I was disappointed that no one there seemed to realise I had coordinated my outfit with the museum).
  
We had booked a 12 o’clock slot (admission is £12 (plus booking fee), and they do take walk-ins if they’re not busy) but because it was hard to find (it is in the Granary Square area, but we went out the wrong entrance from King’s Cross, and ended up approaching it via a back route), we ended up arriving a bit late, so were asked to wait about 10 minutes until it was time for the next group to enter, which was fine, since it was our fault for being late. While we were waiting, a woman with a young child came in, and was persuaded to go inside despite her concerns about taking the child in, but the child ended up screaming her head off about three seconds after entering and they both quickly left, so I hope she was at least able to get her money back (take this as a word of warning if you’re going with young children, since it is a bit dark, which is apparently scary). I was actually surprised by how many children were there – everyone on our tour but us was with a couple of older children; obviously children like ice cream, but Bompas and Parr events are usually aimed at an adult audience, so I wasn’t expecting to feel so out of place.
  
When we were finally allowed to enter, we were ushered into a theatre that was showing a film about ice cream and was already about halfway through (you’d think if they were doing timed entry, they would make sure it was at the start for each new group). We swiftly progressed into the walk-in cooler, which in retrospect was the best damn part of the experience. Everyone else got out pretty quickly, but I hung out in there for a good few minutes, luxuriating in being a comfortable temperature for the first time in weeks (I used to hang out in the walk-in quite a lot when I managed an ice cream shop, although then it was mainly to hide and eat graham cracker ripple out of the pitcher. God, I loved that stuff. It was basically liquefied graham cracker that solidified when it hit ice cream, and tasted so much better than I’m making it sound).
  
After finally leaving the icy embrace of the cooler, I entered a museum-style room containing some antique ice cream moulds and some information about the Victorian “Queen of Ices” Agnes B. Marshall (the best part was that cartoon of the guy eating ice cream. Totally what I do when I eat ice cream). We were then asked to wait in a hallway with scent panels on the wall (which I did enjoy, because I like smelling stuff) before progressing into an ice cream making class wherein we made the world’s smallest amount of poorly flavoured ice cream in a shaker container. (For the record, Bompas and Parr described this lame activity as “Visitors will be encouraged to travel back in time with a performative interpretation of Victorian ‘Queen of Ices’ Agnes B Marshall’s Cookery School originally on Mortimer Street, where visitors will meet Ida Cooke, a fictional character who introduces herself as Agnes’s star pupil. Ida will share some of Agnes’s recipes and encourage guests to try tasty morsels of various iced concoctions. Each cone is topped-off with a sparkling garnish from SCOOP’s very own hundreds and thousands fountain – a world first invention by Bompas & Parr.” See below paragraph for how the fountain disappointed.)  I think they forgot to add sugar to the base and it was just milk and cream, because the finished product was pretty bland; even the granny smith apple flavouring we put in couldn’t save it (apple was one of the only non-gross flavouring choices – it was mainly things like smoky bacon and parmesan cheese (I don’t think the actual cheese would have been so bad, but the thought of artificial cheese flavouring makes me want to gag)).
  
The next room contained the hundreds and thousands fountain, which I was really excited about, even though obviously hundreds and thousands are nowhere near as good as sprinkles. As stated above, we were supposed to have a chance to use it to top our cones (presumably the Whippy cones, as the cookery school tasteless ice cream we just had to scrape out of the shaker with plastic spoons), but it may have been out of order, because no one mentioned it, and it wasn’t moving or anything (not very joyous). I liked the cheesy jokes written on giant popsicle sticks (best one: What do you call a metalhead who works in an ice cream shop? Alice Scooper!), and the collection of vintage postcards, but the “Dark Side of Ice Cream” adults only room about the Glasgow Ice Cream Wars was pretty crap, being just a video with one set of headphones, so Marcus and I couldn’t even watch it together (and there was a chair in there, but if you sat in it, you were much too low to watch the video, so I’m not sure what the point of it was).
  
We were given a teensy tiny sample of Ben and Jerry’s to eat while wearing a headset that was supposed to project your brain waves on the wall (obviously it was just reacting to your chewing), and seriously, could Ben and Jerry’s not spare more ice cream than that? It was like a tablespoon of ice cream. Finally, we were handed a very small (but not as small as the Ben and Jerry’s) Mr. Whippy, and sent into a “futuristic luminescent cave” where the ice cream was meant to glow in the dark. The “cave,” which I had eagerly anticipated, was literally just a darkish room with bare walls and some socks with cotton balls or similar in them hanging from the ceiling (I’ve half-assedly put together spider egg sacks for Halloween using that method that looked better than these), and the ice cream didn’t glow any more than any other white substance would when exposed to black light, so I think it was a sham. It did appear to be made from actual dairy products though, so at least it tasted better than your average Whippy.
  
And except for “Conehenge,” the delightfully named but ultimately disappointing ice cream shop at the un-air-conditioned entrance that you had to pay extra for (£3.99 for one small scoop of one of the five or so not very appealing flavours (including cucumber and water mint)), that was that. Given the bombastic description of it I was sent, this was yet another case of style over substance from Bompas and Parr (and not even much style, as some of the rooms looked a little unfinished, especially the cave, and the bloody fountain wasn’t working) that I was stupid enough to fall for yet again. They didn’t meet their funding target (I think they only raised like three thousand pounds out of a target of fifty thousand), and it definitely showed – maybe it would have been better just to cancel it rather than deliver such a lacklustre product. I hated it less than the honey thing, because my fellow visitors were not pretentious and at least we got very small amounts of free ice cream, but my god, it was a pathetic effort given all the hype. Never again Bompas and Parr, never again (unless they do some other food I love as part of their British Museum of Food project, but really, ice cream is the best thing, and they screwed that up, so I don’t know what would even have a chance of being better; or offer some kind of free ghostly experience that at least I’m not wasting money on, but even then, I’d probably still be wasting my time).  Another reason to be annoyed with Bompas and Parr is that it appears that most of their events rely heavily on volunteers rather than paid employees; as a volunteer manager myself, I get that volunteers are essential to most museums, including my own, but the vast majority of those museums are free to visit, and particularly in the case of smaller museums, don’t have much money – if you’re charging 12 pounds for admission, and turning a profit out of your business, you can at least pay people minimum wage, especially if you expect them to volunteer twenty days a month, which is essentially a full time job. 2/5, and it’s only getting that because of the delight I experienced in that walk-in freezer on such a hot day.
  

London: “Fashioned from Nature”@ the V&A

It’s been a while since I’ve visited a fashion exhibition at the V&A, so I thought I might as well pop along to see “Fashioned from Nature,”  especially since the Frida Kahlo exhibition was booked up the day we visited (actually, we were intending to see Frida that day, because it finishes first (in November), but I wanted to see “Fashioned from Nature” too, so I wasn’t just settling. I’m not a Frida superfan, like the women I saw there dressed up like her, but I like her well enough (and can relate to having a unibrow, though I’m not as brave as she was and pluck mine), so I’ll go back to check it out on a day when I’ve pre-booked!). Admission to “Fashioned from Nature” is normally £12, but you get half off with a National Art Pass or National Rail 2 for 1 (which I advise doing).

  

“Fashioned from Nature” (which runs until January) is located in the same fashion gallery where I saw “Undressed,” and had much the same layout (probably because those cases don’t really look like they’re moveable). It explored “the complex relationship between fashion and nature from 1600 to the present day,” and I have to say I much preferred the 1600-early 1900s part, which was the lower gallery. I was a little worried there would be things made of butterfly wings in here (given my lepidopterophobia), but aside from the framed butterflies you can see in the shop, the creepiest bug thing was the dress decorated with the iridescent wing cases of thousands of beetles (see below), and that was only creepy because I felt bad for all the beetles (their wing cases were admittedly beautiful though).

  

But plenty of other animals were horribly slaughtered to make these clothes, although there were a relatively small number of furs here, probably because it’s obvious that animals are killed for those. The exhibition preferred to focus on less well-known clothing materials. I knew about whalebone and its use in corsetry, of course, given my interest in the Victorians, but for some reason I’d always pictured it as more of a solid, bony substance (like, you know, the actual bones of a whale). I didn’t realise that whalebone actually refers to baleen, and it pulls apart in layers into flexible wire-like strands which can be used to line umbrellas or give hats shape. There were examples of bonnets and corsets here that had been x-rayed, so we could view the whalebone structure within. There was also information about how whole species of birds were going extinct due to the demand for feathers. In fact, when the RSPB was originally founded in 1889, it was called the Plumage League because its whole aim was to stop the feather trade. They conducted demonstrations in London of how feathers were harvested (I hope no birds were killed in those demonstrations, but they might have been!), and feathers eventually became unfashionable as a result, at least until synthetic imitations were invented (there was a Linley Sambourne cartoon (remember Linley Sambourne?) in here to show how women wearing feathers were caricatured as evil bird women, but I have to admit that it just made me want to wear some kind of awesome black feather cape so I could be a raven woman too, as long as the feathers were synthetic).
  
Fortunately, the exhibition wasn’t only full of things that animals were killed to make. It was also full of things made of natural materials like cotton where the harvesting and manufacturing processes led to lots of suffering for humans too (ok, yeah, still horrible)! It talked about the environmental impact of various industries and the grossest was probably the manufacturing of the dye used to make “turkey red” until they invented a synthetic version, as it involved blood, pee, AND poop (animal rather than human, but still). There’s a passage in Little House in the Big Woods where Pa threatens to buy Ma a “turkey red” piece of fabric for her new apron unless she picks a colour herself (she was protesting that she didn’t really need a new apron, and he wanted her to have it. He wasn’t being mean or anything), and now I see why that was enough to goad Ma into picking a more attractive fabric. It wasn’t just because of the colour! We tend to think of acid rain as more of a modern problem, but it has been a real issue since the Industrial Revolution because of all the smoke produced by the cotton mills. And of course this all had a human impact as well, in addition to just living with the effects of pollution, because the demand for cotton led to slavery in America and terrible working conditions for mill employees in England.
  
Therefore, the least depressing things here were the clothes that were merely patterned with things inspired by nature, like the charming waistcoat featuring crab-eating macaques, or the many gorgeous flower-patterned dresses (I particularly loved the banksia scarf, because it made me think of Joseph Banks, who banksia is named for), though probably slave labour was used to create the cloth in the first place, so really everything involved some kind of exploitation. I guess the good thing about this exhibition was that it made you realise that fashion comes at a cost beyond money.
  
I was less interested in the upstairs (and unfortunately, larger) gallery, which contained modern sustainable fabrics (it’s good they are sustainable, but the clothing they were used to make was way less beautiful than the antique pieces). The descriptions of how these fabrics were made were just too technical for me, and that’s what most of the text up here was about. I was intrigued by the leathers made from fungus and grapes, however, because they really did look pretty good, and obviously doesn’t harm animals. There was also a quiz where you could see what kind of sustainable fashion model you’d be likely to follow in the future (model as in a pattern of behaviour, not actual models), although it did seem to place a lot of emphasis on making your own clothing, which is not something I’m skilled at by any stretch of the imagination, so I’m picturing a future of me wearing a lot of ill-fitting potato sack dresses. There were loads of clothes up here, but the vintage fashions (particularly in the section showing unsustainable clothing of the past; I’m the worst, but how gorgeous is that leopard print gown?!) were really the only ones I found appealing (and those badass bird witch shoes, but there is no conceivable way a human could actually walk in those, so they’re basically useless). I mean, you can create cute retro styles from sustainable materials! It doesn’t all have to look gross and futuristic, just saying.
  

I complained about “Undressed” not being worth £12, and because “Fashioned from Nature” was in the same gallery, it wasn’t any bigger, so I also don’t feel this was worth paying full price, but £6 was OK. I did think all the information downstairs about historical clothing manufacture was fascinating, and I read some of the labels twice to make sure I understood everything, but I kind of skimmed over the upstairs gallery because it bored me. I am just way more interested in the past than the future and I would have been much happier with more historical fashions, but then I guess it wouldn’t have fit the exhibition’s brief of showing fashion to the present day (though a lot of it was about the future, something not mentioned in that blurb I quoted earlier). 3/5, but those more interested in fabric technology or science might get more out of it.