maritime history

Oslo: The Kon-Tiki Museum

After visiting the fabulous Fram Museum (“the best museum in Norway”), obviously anything else was going to struggle to compete, particularly another maritime-themed museum, but as the Kon-Tiki Museum was right next door, we headed there next anyway. The museum costs 120 kr to enter, but is free with the Oslo Pass – considering the Fram Museum cost the same and was at least three times the size, I think it’s probably only worth going with an Oslo Pass or combined ticket.

 

I was vaguely familiar with the story of Kon-Tiki, but I think it might be more well-known to older people who would have seen the film and lived through the whole tiki bar craze of the ’50s and ’60s. Basically, Thor Heyerdahl was a Norwegian explorer who had spent time studying the peoples of South America and Polynesia, and believed that Polynesians were originally South Americans who had journeyed across the Pacific Ocean by raft. To prove that this was possible, he built a raft from balsa and bamboo, and in 1947 sailed it from Peru to French Polynesia with a crew of five other men, which took 97 days. Although his theories about Polynesians being descended from South Americans were not entirely accurate, it was still an epic voyage, and did accurately reflect their sea-faring capabilities. Also, not to be shallow, but Thor Heyerdahl was kind of cute, so there’s that (I didn’t think I had a Scandi-fetish, but maybe I sort of do).

 

The Kon-Tiki Museum houses the Kon-Tiki boat, as you might expect, and also Ra II, made of papyrus, which was used for one of Heyerdahl’s Ancient Egypt themed voyages (for someone who was reputedly afraid of the sea, he sure made a lot of anthropological sea voyages after Kon-Tiki). But in order to try to live up to the glorious standard of interactivity set by the Fram Museum, it also had some slightly more interactive bits, which I’ll get to momentarily.

   

When we walked in, we were greeted by not only by the Kon-Tiki, but also by a giant replica moai, a tribute to Heyerdahl’s fascination with Easter Island. There were panels on the walls containing more information about the inspiration behind the Kon-Tiki voyage, and the voyage itself (everything in the museum had an English translation). Apparently he was advised not to do it because seasoned sailors suspected that the boat would simply fall apart, estimating that the ropes that held it together would last no more than two weeks once exposed to water. Fortunately, this was incorrect, but Heyerdahl and co. still had a moment of panic at the two-week mark when the ropes starting making funny noises, before realising that the ropes had simply worn grooves into the wood, which prevented them from snapping.

After learning all about the Kon-Tiki, we proceeded down a ramp into the bowels of the museum, home to the “aquarium” and “caves” we were promised on the brochure. The aquarium wasn’t real – it was just a glass case made to look like it was full of water, and contained some fake sharks and things (much better than a real aquarium actually, as I didn’t have to feel bad for the fish), and the caves obviously weren’t real caves, but they were fun to walk through, and even contained a few slightly scary surprises. They led into a room full of Polynesian artefacts acquired by Thor Heyerdahl over the years, which is apparently one of the world’s largest collections of Polynesian art. A word of warning – the caves do take you back into the main bit of the museum when you exit, so make sure you see everything on the lower level first before you go through. There was also a film room showing Kon-Tiki, the 1950 movie about Heyerdahl’s experience, but we had a lot to do that day so we gave that one a miss.

We exited the caves into Heyerdahl’s library (complete with a wax figure of Thor himself. Norway seems to excel at the making of waxworks – slightly disappointing, if, like me, you prefer badly done ones, but I have to admit they were impressive), and a room of facts about his life. He seemed like an interesting guy, sort of a David Attenborough-esque figure. During his Ra expeditions, where he sailed across the Atlantic from Morocco to the Caribbean, he encountered a disturbing amount of pollution in the ocean, which led to his involvement with environmental causes. He worked with the UN on some of his voyages, so tried to have crews made up of members from each continent (save Antarctica, obviously), and burned another ship, named the Tigris, in protest against continued war across Africa. He died in 2002 at the age of 87.

 

The final room of the museum contained the Ra II (the one to successfully make the crossing. He had to abandon the original Ra only 100 miles before reaching the Caribbean islands) and information about his later voyages. The shop had some cool tiki merchandise, if you’re into that kind of thing (I am, and am looking for a replacement for my tiki glass with a butt that I accidentally broke, but no butts were to be had, sadly), but at sky-high Norwegian prices, which are only to be expected, I guess.

I was definitely interested to learn more about Heyerdahl’s life, and I loved the cave part of the museum, but in terms of getting your money’s worth, the Fram Museum delivers so much more. However, since we didn’t actually pay to get in (well, we did, but as part of the Oslo Pass), I thought it was still a reasonable museum, and definitely one to see if you want to warm yourself up after visiting the Fram (or just, you know, going outside in Norway for most of the year) by reading about warmer climes. 3/5.

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Oslo, Norway: The Fram Museum

 

As I mentioned in my last post (and as those of you who follow me on Instagram will have seen), I recently spent a week in Oslo and Gothenburg and visited a LOT of museums. I’m jumping right in with “the best museum in Norway” (according to the banner outside the museum) – the Fram Museum. The Fram is a polar exploration ship that was used on three different late 19th century/early 20th century voyages (including the one where Roald Amundsen famously beat Scott to the South Pole (and then Scott died)), and you all know I love me some polar exploration, so this was probably the museum I was most excited about seeing.

 

And the initial approach certainly didn’t disappoint. Oslo has its own version of Stockholm’s “Museum Island” as I call it, with the Fram Museum and many others located on their own little strip of land that is technically a peninsula called Bygdøy, but we took a boat to get there, so it kind of felt like an island. You can also get there by bus, but I’ve taken both and recommend the boat, even though you might have to wait a little while for it to fill up (I got crammed in the back of the bus on seats that could really only accommodate three adults, but were holding four, and I felt pretty ill by the end of it). You get a great view of the harbour and all the cool triangular museum buildings lining it, including not only the Fram, but the Kon-Tiki Museum (coming next week) and the Maritime Museum as well.

 

We did some calculations before coming to Oslo, and worked out that it would be a better deal to just buy the (very expensive) Oslo Pass for the duration of our stay, as it includes free admission to every museum in the city as well as free public transport (they sell it at most museums and in theory in hotels, though ours didn’t have any 72 hour ones). Of course, this meant that we ended up visiting more museums than we might have otherwise just to get our money’s worth, but we definitely saved money in the end, and got to skip queues in some locations. Otherwise admission is 120 kr, which is about £12 (frankly a bargain by Norwegian standards, especially considering all you get), and they do various combined passes with the neighbouring museums. The museum actually includes two polar exploration ships, the Fram and the Gjøa, which are housed in separate buildings and joined by means of an underground tunnel. As you can see, I got off to a very good start by getting my picture with two Norwegian greats of polar exploration: Amundsen, and Fridtjof Nansen.

  

We were encouraged to watch an introductory video in the Gjøa building, so we headed there first and found we had some time to kill before the next showing, so I got to pet this very soft musk ox (don’t know if I was actually supposed to touch it, but there were no signs saying not to, so I did), and learn a bit about the Gjøa, which I had never heard of before (I am already sick of inserting all those o’s with the line through them). This was the first ship to be sailed through the entire Northwest Passage by Amundsen and his crew of six, in 1903-1906. Considering the fate of most polar expeditions (ship sinks, everyone slowly dies of starvation) it is not only impressive that Amundsen managed to complete this, but also that he brought the ship back intact! I know Amundsen gets a lot of flak from the British for pipping Scott to the South Pole, but this museum (unsurprisingly) made him seem like a pretty alright guy. He was sensible enough to befriend the Inuit and learn from their survival techniques, including the use of huskies, and even more importantly, he loved American pancakes, which became a recurring theme in the museum (he first tried them after completing the Northwest Passage and sledging hundreds of miles to the nearest telegraph office in Alaska so he could tell the world what he’d done, and he thought they were the most delicious thing ever, so they were served on all his subsequent voyages. See what I mean? He was a sensible man).

 

This is skipping ahead chronologically quite a bit, but my favourite thing in here was this stuffed orangutan carried by a member of Amundsen’s N24/N25 team (an attempt to fly to the North Pole in 1925). One of the planes broke down, so they were instructed to ditch anything unnecessary so they could all fit into the other plane, but this guy smuggled his lucky monkey back hidden in his jacket. (Even better, they sold replicas in the gift shop, so I took my very own stuffed ape home with me. His name is Dr. Fridtjof Nansen.) And how cute is that smiley Inuit guy (third from left)? His picture appeared a couple of times, and he made me smile too. Anyway, we did watch the video eventually, and it was pretty informative, though all the information was contained within the museum, so you could skip it if you’d prefer to read about it. I did like the headphones with personal language selection controls built into each seat.

 

So we already learned a tonne about Norwegian polar expeditions on this floor, and then we went upstairs and learned about an ill-fated Swedish expedition. This display was made up of super text-heavy panels (and a lot of them, as you can see above), all in English (and bizarrely, exclusively in English, even though everything else in the museum had Norwegian and English captions), but I read every single one because I had never heard of this expedition before, and it was so interesting. There was this basically not very bright Swedish guy named S.A. Andree who attempted to take a hot air balloon to the North Pole, only it had to be super giant because it was carrying three men and all their supplies, and the whole thing turned into a fiasco where, unsurprisingly, everyone ended up dead. There’s a museum in Sweden dedicated solely to this exhibition that I hope to visit one day, so I won’t go into too much detail now, but learning about this pleased me very much.

 

The rest of this floor was dedicated to some rather funny but incredibly random cartoons loosely about polar exploration, and also what the British thought of Amundsen and his South Pole expedition (they thought secretly diverting to the South Pole when he was originally headed for the North Pole was extremely ungentlemanly (and probably would have liked to use stronger words to describe him, but they were British, so couldn’t) which is probably why he’s barely even mentioned at the polar museum in Cambridge. I definitely think there’s some sour grapes there, but frankly, Scott shouldn’t have been an idiot who went to the Antarctic with ponies, and then refused to kill and eat said ponies when they proved useless, because I seriously don’t know what he was expecting to happen), which was absolutely fascinating to read, as it’s not a perspective you get in Britain. I also think they were salty that because Amundsen used such small crews, each man got his own room, whilst on British ships, pretty much everyone but the captain had to share. You could also climb on the deck of the Gjøa, which had an outhouse on it, which is why you get another delightful photo of me pretending to poop (and it won’t be the last one either. Sorry).

 

After that, we headed back through the underground passageway, which is lined with information about non-Norwegian polar expeditions (and a walrus skull), to the Fram side of the museum (thankfully, so I don’t have to keep inserting those crossy o’s). The Fram was used by Amundsen, Nansen, and some guy named Otto Sverdrup (who didn’t feature that much in the museum), so the museum contained information about each of those expeditions and Nansen himself. Nansen disappointed me at the end of his life by joining a centre-right party with a creepily nationalistic name (the Fatherland League), but this was prior to WWII, so it didn’t have quite the same connotations as after Hitler, and other than that, what a guy! He was a zoologist who decided to become a badass polar explorer with a dashing moustache (Amundsen was tough, but he was not a looker), and after retiring from exploration, devoted his life to helping refugees and relieving famine, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (that museum is coming up too).

 

Some of this section did repeat information from the Gjøa side, but if it used to be two separate buildings, I can see why, and it was easy enough to just skip it, but there were also plenty of polar artefacts mixed in, so I think it was well worth a look. The best was yet to come, as you could actually go inside the Fram! And be met by the ship’s cook, with a big old pile of American pancakes (you can buy pancakes in the museum’s café, but disappointingly they were just sitting there in a pile, and not made to order. They might heat them up for you, but even still, I want a fresh pancake), and Nansen himself.

 

Even though we were being followed around by an annoying Spanish tour group who crowded my personal space, I couldn’t have loved this more. There were interactive elements, authentic smells, and actually quite good mannequins, and I was in heaven, though I think Marcus felt quite ill from the smells and the tight quarters, since he had to duck for most of the time.

 

Up on deck was great too, as there was a multi-sensory experience involving a giant projection of icebergs and the Northern Lights on the wall, and a bench that rocked up and down for that authentic seasickness experience. And I got to pose again with Fridtjof Nansen, who was really terribly slim. He needed more pancakes!

 

And this wasn’t even the end of the fun, as there was also a special attraction where you could experience changes in temperature. You pressed a button to be let into a series of doors that led to the “Arctic,” where you encountered dead frostbitten sailors, bodies frozen in the ice, and of course experienced cold (though not so cold that I wasn’t fine in a t-shirt and skirt for the time it took to walk through). I wanted to go back in, but the tour group caught up with us so I changed my mind. Much more fun alone.

 

And finally downstairs, in addition to the shop and café, there was another area of interactive things, probably intended for children mainly, but I of course used them all after the children cleared off. You could crawl inside an igloo, try shooting wild game (Duck Hunt style, and really really hard), and see if you were capable of pulling a polar sledge aka 150-300 kilos. This was incredibly difficult, particularly as the harness was too big for me (I was using the adult-sized one, so this wasn’t just for children) and my shoes had no grip on the bottom, but Marcus was able to pull right up to 300 kilos (I made it only to about 150, and that was after pulling myself ahead using the wall. I don’t think I could hack it in the Poles).

 

As you can probably tell, I couldn’t have loved this museum more. It had so much information in it (I didn’t go into a lot of detail here about Amundsen’s various expeditions, like the one by zeppelin or the attempted rescue mission where he died, because this post is already twice as long as normal, but all this was in the museum, and I’m quite sure there are plenty of books where you can learn more) and it was so, so fun. I can’t say if it is the best museum in Norway, but it was certainly the best museum I visited in Norway (so maybe I shouldn’t have blogged about it first, since it’s kind of a spoiler for everything that follows, but there were other good ones, they just weren’t quite this good). I could see how some people might find aspects of it a little cheesy, but I love cheese, and it didn’t detract from the historical bits, which were properly researched and informative (thought not without their elements of fun too, like the pancake tidbit). If you are interested in polar exploration, I can’t recommend this highly enough – I genuinely think it’s the best polar exploration museum I’ve ever been to. How cool is it that you can go on Amundsen’s actual ships?! A rare but well-deserved 5/5, stellar.

 

Cleveland, OH: The USS Cod

Oh god, the USS Cod. Where do I begin?! Actually, if it wasn’t for the strange incident at the end of my visit, I would have rated it quite highly overall, so in all fairness, I should leave the weirdness for the end, and focus on the positive that was the bulk of my experience there (and leave you in a bit of suspense for once), starting with the excellent tagline on their brochure, “In 1944 she terrified the Japanese fleet. Today she will fascinate your family!”

  

The USS Cod is a decommissioned WWII submarine that is docked in Cleveland’s harbour, near the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (which I have visited exactly once, about fifteen years ago. That place is expensive!). Because there wasn’t anything particularly enticing that I hadn’t already seen at Cleveland’s museums at the time of my visit, I was searching for alternative attractions, and the Cod popped up. It had been dimly on my radar for a while (ha!), but I’ve toured a few ships before, and they usually involve climbing up and down ladders, which I am not keen on (when I worked in a brewery, I had to regularly climb down into the 1000 litre kettle to scrub it out, which remains the most terrifying thing I have done to date). Plus the Cod is only open from May-September, which doesn’t usually coincide with my visits, but as we were there in August, I had no excuse. Because Marcus was interested, I agreed to go, provided we could get pancakes first, and ice cream after, since I am motivated primarily by food. This of course presented no problem for either of us.
  
So we headed downtown, and happily discovered that the Cod had its own free parking lot, so we didn’t even have to pay for expensive downtown parking. Admission to the submarine was $12, which was collected by a cheerful man in the admissions booth who handed us brochures containing a self-guided tour, and told us more about the ship (which unfortunately I wasn’t really paying attention to because they had a sign saying they needed dollar bills, so I was digging through my purse to find four ones to give him so he wouldn’t have to make change).
  
Cod was launched in 1943 – because so much of the US Navy’s fleet was destroyed at Pearl Harbor, there was a real rush to produce a new fleet, including submarines, and Cod was part of that, so it was quite a technologically advanced submarine for the time, though apparently with terrible torpedoes, as they were defective. Cod has a couple of Cleveland connections, the first being that her engines were built here, and the second is that she was towed to Cleveland in 1959 to serve as a naval reserve training vessel. After she was struck off the Navy register in 1971, Clevelanders fought to save her, and in 1976 the Cod was opened to the public as a museum.
  
The Cod is the only decommissioned US submarine on display that has not had doorways cut into her hull for access, which is jolly well for authenticity and all that, but not so great for me with my fear of ladders. You have to actually climb into a narrow hole and launch yourself bravely over the edge onto the ladder (I’m smiling nervously to hide my fear). It wasn’t just any ladder though, as it strangely bent at an angle for the bottom few rungs, which you could not see when you were actually on it, so I had a brief moment of panic where I thought I would have to jump three feet to the floor, but then I felt one of the rungs with my flailing foot, and all was well. I would recommend not taking a bag with you if you go, as it was quite tricky manoeuvring down the ladder with my purse, but I saw some portly older gentlemen and a child come down the same ladder with relatively little difficulty, so maybe it’s fine if you’re not as afraid of ladders as I am. Fortunately, I am not claustrophobic, so once my feet had safely touched down, I was fine (at least until I had to go up again).
  
We had entered via the forward torpedo room, and we were pleased to see that our brochure guides were actually quite comprehensive. In addition, some of the rooms had audio guides in them that were activated at the press of a button, so we were able to learn quite a lot. I find the most interesting thing about submarines to be how so many men lived in such close quarters, so was more interested in the aspects of daily life than in the details of its missions or torpedoes. Therefore, it was neat to learn that the torpedo room was apparently the preferred spot for bunks, because it was the quietest part of the ship (when they weren’t actively launching torpedoes, of course!).
  
The officers’ quarters were directly behind the forward torpedo room, and frankly, I think I would have had to have been captain to have survived aboard this sub, because it was the only way you got a room to yourself (even the officers had to bunk two or three to a room, though at least it was theirs, and they didn’t have to hot bunk like the men). Their dining room had nice plush booths, and actually seemed quite cosy. They got china with adorable little anchors printed on it, and their shower seemed nicer than the one I have at home! (I’d take a pass on the toilet though. There was a long list of instructions on the wall that had to be followed every time you used the damn thing!) I could even deal with the yeoman’s teeny tiny office I think, because at least he got his own space (hell, I’d take that any day over awful open plan! I’m glad I only have to share my office with one person at work, and they’re often not in). One thing I loved about the Cod was that you could touch almost everything, and actually crawl right into some of the bunks, as you can see above!
  
The conning tower/control room area was all lit in red, and had another ladder to climb up to get a view of the conning tower, but I only made it up about halfway before I chickened out and gave up (there was nowhere to put your hands once you got past a certain point, which freaked me out). I was relieved to climb through yet another portal into the crew’s living quarters (the portals/doorways/airlocks (not 100% sure of the correct term) were pretty low – 6’2″ Marcus struggled a lot more than I did!), which had my favourite part of the audio guide, done by the submarine’s cook (or someone pretending to be the cook), who was of Italian ancestry.
  
Men on submarines had a reputation for being much better fed than the rest of the military (everyone who served on a submarine volunteered for it – as in, they were part of the Navy, and were still paid by the Navy, but they volunteered to be put on a submarine rather than a ship), because it was such dangerous and mentally draining work that they wanted to keep morale up somehow, and that was with food! The sub had giant cans of food stacked in every available space, which was apparently historically accurate. In addition to three very hearty meals a day, they also had access to unlimited snacks, and the Italian-American cook introduced many of the men to pizza for the first time (although he mentioned having to improvise based on what supplies they had on board, so I’m picturing ketchup instead of sauce, and horrible government issue cheese instead of mozzarella). They even had an ice cream machine, and with space at a premium, ice cream must have been REALLY important! The men also used the small mess hall (there were only 24 seats, and usually 72 men on board, so they had to eat in shifts) for movie nights, listening to records, etc.
  
After that, we made our way through several more engine and manoeuvring rooms before emerging into the aft torpedo room, where we were greeted by another very friendly gentleman who was telling a story about Andrew G. Johnson, the Cod‘s only wartime casualty, who was swept away and drowned whilst trying to fight a fire in one of the torpedo rooms. On a happier note, he also told us about how the Cod saved a Dutch submarine stuck off the coast of Japan in August 1945. They tried to pull the sub free, but it wouldn’t move, so the decision was made to take all the Dutch crew on board and blow up the Dutch submarine, so it wouldn’t fall into enemy hands. This meant that for the two and a half days until they reached Australia, there were over 150 men on board. This also coincided with news of the Japanese surrender, so the entire ship was basically a massive, crowded party for the whole of that trip. Obviously, the Dutch were very grateful, and they still send dignitaries over every year to re-enact the saving of the crew of the O-19, which I think is pretty cool.
  
There was some memorabilia in this torpedo room relating to the O-19, as well as flags and things to show how many Japanese ships the Cod had sunk. The volunteer offered to take us back through the sub and point out things we might have missed, but neither one of us relished climbing back through all the portals, so we politely declined and instead headed up another scary ladder into the extreme heat outside (it was such a hot day that I was initially a little worried about visiting the submarine, since I imagined something with metal sides and no air conditioning would get pretty steamy, but they had fans on throughout and it was actually quite pleasant).
  
This is where things got weird. There is lots of fun stuff to take pictures with on the deck of the sub, including a big wet gun with seats, so we were walking around doing that when a female volunteer approached us and offered to take our picture together in front of the submarine, which was very nice of her. This would have been all well and good had she not started talking to us. I could tell when she started going on about how she thought Princess Diana’s death was a conspiracy that it would be better to get away sooner rather than later, and started inching my way towards the exit, but she followed us and just kept on talking. She went on to say that she wanted to visit Ukraine, but was waiting until Trump “sorted things out.” By this time, I was desperate to get away, but as we were about to make a run for it, she came out with, “I don’t know what your politics are, but I just want you to know that Donald Trump is a great president. Anything is better than the last one,” and carried on for some time about her love for Trump while we politely smiled and nodded and frantically eyed the exit. We were finally able to break away and get in the car, but wow, what an odd experience! I understand that a site like this is likely to be pro-military, and that’s completely fine – if she had wanted to talk about how great the US military is, that’s a different thing entirely and I’m certainly not going to argue with a submarine museum staffed by veterans – but it was not really a comfortable experience for politics to be brought into it, especially since we hadn’t mentioned it at all; to the contrary, I was trying to steer her away from the subject! I didn’t say anything, because it wasn’t really the time or place to do it, and of course she is entitled to her opinion, but I don’t really think it’s appropriate to bring up such a controversial subject to visitors who hadn’t mentioned anything even vaguely related, especially when said visitors were trying to look at the Cod merchandise for sale, because I probably would have bought something if I hadn’t been so keen to end the conversation.
  
If it wasn’t for that volunteer, I would wholeheartedly recommend visiting the Cod, as it is a very interesting experience, and I guess even with the incident at the end, it was still certainly an interesting experience, though not in the way I would have hoped. I’m pretty sure proceeds from your admission fee only go towards preserving the submarine, and not to any political causes, so I certainly wouldn’t tell people not to visit on the basis of one volunteer (and coincidentally, I happened to read an article in Cleveland Magazine a couple days later about a different volunteer on the Cod who sends letters every day to Trump about all the people that already make America great (implying that he doesn’t need to “Make America Great Again” because it already is great) The woman in the article was actually a Republican, she just didn’t support Trump, and after reading that, I’m thinking maybe she was also there that day and had said something to get our volunteer riled up, which was why she was otherwise inexplicably on the subject of politics) – but maybe once you’ve seen the sub, best to just hightail it out of there before you get drawn into anything (and I’m not just saying this because I don’t support Trump – if she had started going on about how much she loved Bernie Sanders or someone, with nothing else political in the conversation preceding it, I would have found it odd. Maybe not as awkward, but odd nonetheless)! If I ignore the end of our visit, 3.5/5.

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: 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!
  

Stockholm: The Vasa Museum (Vasa Museet)

Stockholm is spread out over something like 17 islands, each with their own distinct character, so, as I hinted at in my last post, I started giving them names to reflect that (different than the Swedish names they already have, because apparently I’m like some kind of jerk Victorian explorer or something). The island that ABBA the Museum shares with Skansen, the Nordic Museum, the Biological Museum, et al, naturally became “Museum Island” (though there are other islands with museums on them, it’s not the same concentration as here). Sadly, because “Museum Island” contains so many popular tourist attractions, it is extremely busy, meaning that our experience at what is arguably Stockholm’s most famous museum was never going to be an entirely pleasant one.

 

The Vasa Museum is built around a ship, the Vasa, which sunk in 1628 only 1300 metres off the coast of Stockholm on what was meant to be its maiden voyage (probably due to being top-heavy). After laying underwater for over three centuries, it was finally raised from the sea in 1961, preserved, which took decades, and eventually became the centrepiece of this museum, which opened in 1990. If you read my post on the Mary Rose a few years ago, this is probably all sounding awfully familiar, and indeed the museums are very similar, which is why I can’t help but compare them throughout.

  

There were long queues just to buy a ticket at the Vasa Museum, but by using the ticket machines, we were able to bypass them. Admission is 130 SEK, or about 12 pounds, which is cheaper than the Historic Dockyard in Portsmouth where the Mary Rose is kept, but you get to see other ships and museums at the Historic Dockyard too (including Nelson’s Victory), so you probably get more for your money there. Anyway, the Vasa Museum is basically just one huge room with the Vasa itself as the centrepiece, with various levels where you can get a view of the ship from different angles and heights and look at some exhibits.

  

The Vasa is in a much better state of preservation than the Mary Rose (the Vasa is about 100 years younger), though this has the unfortunate side effect of meaning you can’t really see inside the ship, other than what you can spy through the gun ports on the lower levels. It’s so fabulous on the outside that I wish I could have seen the inside too, and although they have re-created the officers’ quarters and one of the gun decks upstairs, it’s not as good as getting to see the whole of the interior.

  

As far as the exhibits themselves went, I think they would have been decent enough (but not great) had the museum been less crowded. The main floor contained a splendid collection of figureheads that I think were meant to be replicas of ones on the ship, though I couldn’t actually get close enough through the hordes to see for sure (everything was in Swedish and English, so that wasn’t an issue).

  

There was also a small set of tableaux off to one side re-creating scenes in the history of the ship, which were exactly the kind of thing I love, or would have loved, if again, there weren’t so many damn people that I couldn’t even wriggle in and get a picture with that gawping woman (I think she was watching the ship sink) without someone blocking me.

  

I was actually kind of fascinated by the section about how the ship was re-discovered and salvaged, simply because I hadn’t realised that people still used those kind of creepy old-school diving suits in the 1960s (though I guess I should have known, because there’s that scary claw suit guy in For Your Eyes Only, and that was in the ’80s. Apparently they’re still used for some things, but made of more modern materials). I also didn’t know that diving bells had been invented by the mid-17th century, when they were used to bring Vasa‘s cannons up to the surface.

  

One of the upper levels contained some objects that had been found on the ship, though there didn’t appear to be quite as many as were on the Mary Rose, or at least, they weren’t discussed in as much detail.  I remember the Mary Rose Museum had a lot of quotidian objects, and they talked about the sort of people they would have belonged to, which was really interesting, but the Vasa Museum seemed to have mostly weapons and stuff, and not as many personal items.  However, the Mary Rose had been in service for 34 years before sinking, whereas the Vasa didn’t even really make it out of port, so there probably wasn’t as much stuff accumulated on board.

  

Another one of the levels was about what was happening in Sweden at the time of the Vasa, and included some most excellent portraits. One of them showed a Polish nobleman from that time, and explained that one of the carvings on the ship was of a Polish man being crushed under the boot of a Swede, and that they could tell he was meant to be Polish on account of his distinctive mustache and eyebrows (I’ve got a fair bit of Polish ancestry, and though I don’t have the mustache (yet, anyway), I do pretty much have the unibrow if I stop plucking, so maybe they weren’t just being racist?). I learned that Sweden and Poland were at war a lot in the 17th century (my knowledge of most continental European history is abysmal (I know a bit about Western Europe, but almost nothing about Eastern Europe or Scandinavia)), and the Poles were even blamed for the sinking of the Vasa.

  

I have to admit that one of the highlights of the museum for me was a video that was definitely intended for children, about a piglet called Lindbom, apparently based on a children’s book. Lindbom ends up on board the Vasa, where he is about to be eaten, but manages to escape in the end, aided by the ship sinking. I literally stood there for ten minutes watching this video, just to make sure Piglet Lindbom was OK (he was very cute).

  

The other highlight was the osteoarchaeology section, which included the bones of some of the people who died aboard the ship, along with explanations of who they might have been and what conditions they were suffering from, and facial reconstructions of some of them. I took an online course in osteoarchaeology last year, and while I am definitely no expert (osteoarchaeology is hard!), it was nice to review some of what I’d learned. Plus skeletons are just cool, and facial reconstructions always crack me up.

  

Other than the people they’d done reconstructions for (ten people, including one woman and one person of indeterminate sex who may have been a woman), I felt like there wasn’t that much information about the people who might have been on board the ship, which is a shame, because that was what I loved most about the Mary Rose Museum, though maybe this was partly because only 30 people died aboard the Vasa, whereas almost everyone on the Mary Rose died, so there wasn’t as much osteoarchaeological evidence available for the Vasa.

  

Also, while there was definitely a pretty good explanation of the techniques they used to conserve the wood on the ship, Marcus mentioned that he thought they didn’t really seem to say how the ship was actually repaired, because it can’t have been as intact as it is now when they found it. For example, they mentioned that all the bolts in the ship had to be replaced, but didn’t say how they actually did it, just what the new bolts were made from.  They did attempt to explain how the ship was originally built, back in the 17th century, but even that wasn’t very clear to me, since they seemed to skip some steps.

  

So we both thought that the content was somewhat lacking (while there were some explanations provided, we both wanted more), and the crowds really did have a detrimental effect on our experience, as many of the people were particularly annoying about not moving out of the way (one guy was standing there for five minutes taking pictures of the same small section of the ship, even though we were clearly standing there waiting to get closer). I feel like the Mary Rose Museum went into a lot more detail about both the people on board the ship, and the ship itself, while the Vasa Museum only skimmed the surface of its fascinating story (though part of the problem (in addition to the factors already mentioned) could be that I know WAY more about British history, so maybe they had the same amount of historical background, I just needed a lot more about Sweden because I don’t know much about it). But the ship is absolutely fantastic, no doubt about that, it’s just that the museum doesn’t quite match the Vasa‘s glory. 3/5.

 

London: Death in the Ice @ the National Maritime Museum

Yeah, that’s my butt.  Just so you don’t think I’ve gone full-on Tina Belcher and am posting pictures of strangers’ butts.

Unless you’re brand new to my blog (in which case, welcome!), I’m sure you all know by now how interested I am in the grim history of polar exploration. John Franklin’s final expedition was perhaps the grimmest of them all (not only did everyone die, but there is also evidence that the last people left alive ate the bodies of their dead fellow crew members), so when I heard last year that there would be a Franklin exhibition at the National Maritime Museum in summer 2017, I was pretty excited. And now here we are, less than a fortnight after the exhibition opened, and I’ve already been to see it!

“Death in the Ice: The Shocking Story of Franklin’s Final Expedition” costs £12, and is located in the basement gallery of the National Maritime Museum. As usual, I balked at paying that much, so I went with Marcus so we could take advantage of the National Rail 2-for-1. There was initially a bit of confusion going into the exhibit because there was a sign at the top of the stairs saying that no “rucksacks” were allowed in the exhibition, so Marcus went to drop his off at the cloakroom, only to find there was a £1 charge (which I know is not that much, but still). The guy working there said that he could in fact take it into the exhibition, he just might have to carry it in front of him, which was fine. So we went down, only for the woman at the entrance to tell him to put his backpack in what she claimed was the “free cloakroom.” Fortunately, after we asked if he could just carry it instead, she did allow him to bring it in, which saved us a trip up the stairs (and a pound), but it did show that there is a lack of communication amongst the staff about official museum policies. One thing there is no confusion about, however, is their policy on photography in their special exhibit gallery. It’s never allowed, and this exhibit was no exception.

The exhibit space was dark and atmospheric, which I quite liked, but it clearly wasn’t a hit with everyone, because I immediately noticed a woman there who was standing right on top of all the labels, and using the flashlight on her phone to read them, despite the large print guides that were available (I did hear a security guard offer her one, but she apparently preferred her method, other visitors be damned). The first two galleries provided a bit of background on the history of British polar exploration generally, starting with Martin Frobisher, and some background on Franklin’s expedition specifically.  However, it paled in comparison to the excellent and comprehensive history available at the Polar Museum in Cambridge, and I think that if you didn’t know much about Franklin going in, it was probably a little lacking. Because I don’t want to repeat the museum’s mistakes, let me give you a little background on Franklin and his expedition here:

John Franklin was a Royal Navy officer with extensive experience of surveying the Arctic. However, though he had mapped much of the Canadian coast, he still hadn’t uncovered the fabled Northwest Passage (a common belief for centuries was that there was open water at the North Pole, and if you could just find an entrance to it, you could cut journey times to the other side of the world in half), so agreed to undertake one final voyage in 1845 to try to find it. He took two ships, the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, crewed by 105 men and 23 officers, including Francis Crozier, who captained the Terror. Both ships had been used on a previous Arctic expedition, but to keep up with the latest technology, were now outfitted with steam engines and propellers in addition to reinforced bows and iron rudders (which added a lot of extra weight). Unfortunately, the work had been done in a hurry, and wasn’t of the best quality. In addition, Franklin, though experienced, was quite old to be undertaking this kind of voyage (59 in 1845, which I know is not that old by modern standards (just look at Ranulph Fiennes!), but Franklin wasn’t exactly fighting fit), and like most Europeans, was disdainful of Inuit ways, which might have helped the men survive after they abandoned ship. No one is entirely sure exactly what happened on the voyage, which is what makes Franklin’s expedition so intriguing even to this day, but it is certain that they all died, some while they were still on the ships, and many more in camps on land as they tried in vain to reach civilisation, and some recent discoveries (as discussed later in the post), might eventually help shed more light on it.  Now, back to the exhibition!

The third, and largest gallery was meant to be roughly the dimensions of the lower deck of the Erebus, Franklin’s flagship (I’m guessing they specifically arranged it that way, but perhaps it was just a happy coincidence), and this gallery had sort of sailory audio effects, with the sounds of men mumbling and coughing, and boards creaking all around us. I liked that this helped me imagine a bit what it would have been like inside the ship, and to further the effect, they had seats in there the size of a ship’s chest, which would have been shared by two men, in which they would have kept all their personal belongings (they weren’t very big). The downside of Franklin’s expedition being a complete and utter disaster (besides everyone dying, of course), is that aside from some letters mailed from Greenland, before Erebus and Terror set out for Nunavut, and a note found inside a cache (more on that later), there is virtually no information about what happened on board the ships – no diaries, logs, or unmailed letters have survived, so the museum didn’t really have a lot to say about ship life, other than using Franklin’s previous Arctic voyages, and other voyages around that time to infer what might have happened. Thus there was a display of games (used to keep up morale), accounts of the plays men often performed in on these kinds of voyages (again, morale), and a cat o’nine tails in a display about discipline, and not a whole lot else.

Anyway, because there wasn’t much to be said about the expedition itself, the exhibition quickly moved on to the search efforts. The expedition had been supplied for three years, so nobody thought too much of it when a couple years went by without hearing word from Franklin. Typically, ships would get frozen into the pack ice, and were then trapped until the summer thaw, which didn’t happen some years, so they’d have to spend another year trapped in the ice (more than one other expedition met disaster that way, though not to the extent that Franklin’s did). But when 1848 rolled around and nobody had heard anything, people, especially Jane, Franklin’s wife, began to get concerned, and the Royal Navy sent out some search parties, in addition to offering a £10,000 reward to anyone who discovered the fate of the ships (which was a lot of money back then. Hell, it’s still a decent chunk of cash now!). My favourite of these search parties was led by Dr. John Rae, a Scottish surgeon who befriended many of the Inuit and was a successful explorer because he used their survival techniques and lived off the land. Rae was the one who got closest to the truth, again, because he listened to the Inuit, which is why many people in Britain hated him, not least Jane Franklin, and when he dared to say that there was evidence that the men had resorted to cannibalism, his reputation was ruined.  (There was a letter here from Charles Dickens to a newspaper saying that he thought the stories of cannibalism were just the Inuit trying to cover their tracks, because they probably murdered and ate the men themselves, because you can’t trust an Inuit (his words). It made me hate him even more than I already did.)

Sadly, John Rae only rated about a paragraph in this exhibit, though a little more space was given to some of the other search parties, and some of the artefacts they’d left behind in the Arctic (including a metal food box with polar bear tooth marks in it!). But the main artefacts I was there to see were from the Erebus and Terror themselves. Yes, after over 160 years, the ships were discovered at the bottom of a bay off the coast of King William Island. The Erebus was found in 2014, and the Terror even more recently, in September 2016, hence the timing of the exhibition. There was a video of scuba divers exploring the wrecks, which was pretty cool, and some neat stuff that they’d dredged up from the deep, including the ship’s bell, various metal bits and pieces, and even a bit of cloth from a uniform. There were also artefacts found in the camp of the last men to die (it’s thought about 30 or 40 men made it to the northern coast of mainland Canada. Inuit actually encountered some of them, but they didn’t help them because the Inuit themselves were starving that year, and had no food to spare), and these were really neat, including a hymnbook, a small beaded purse, a pair of mittens with hearts stitched into the palms, and a few pieces of silverware with one of the officers’ family crests on them which had initials crudely scratched into them, so it’s thought that the crew might have shared out the officers’ possessions after they died and discipline broke down.

Speaking of artefacts, there was also the aforementioned letter left by some of the officers in a cache, initially in 1846 when the voyage was still going relatively well, saying that they’d wintered on Beechey Island, where three crew members had died, and then again in 1848 after the boats sank and Franklin had died (he died in June 1847, probably well before most of his men. As I’ve said, he was not in the best of shape, so the voyage would have been quite taxing even without starvation and frostbite and everything else) along with 9 officers and 15 men.  I saw a facsimile of this at the Polar Museum, and was excited to see the real thing, but unfortunately, the real thing was all ripped and stained, and harder to read than the facsimile!  The same could be said of Jane Franklin’s letters to her husband, sent when she thought he was still alive (obviously, he never got them, and they were returned to her), not because the condition was poor, but because she had absolutely appalling handwriting.

My absolute favourite part of this exhibition was the medical section. In one room, they had very clear photographs of the bodies of three men (William Braine, John Hartnell, and John Torrington) who had been buried at the first camp on Beechey Island and exhumed in the 1980s. They were still remarkably well preserved on account of the cold, and it might have been a little grisly for some, but I loved reading accounts of their injuries and what diseases they might have been suffering from whilst getting to look at their actual remains (and I wasn’t the only one…there was a child in there asking his mother which corpse was her favourite. I don’t much like kids, but this was a child after my own heart!). There was also a display on what might have killed the men of the Terror and Erebus, because starvation alone apparently doesn’t explain all the deaths, especially because a cache of food was found near some of the bodies. Theories range from botulism, scurvy, tuberculosis, hypothermia, lead poisoning (the food for the expedition was prepared in a hurry, and some lead solder contaminated it during the canning process, plus the ship had a water distillation system that also leached lead), and others, but none of those conditions provides a complete explanation (it was probably a variety of causes of death that did them all in), and the exhibit explained why, as well as offering a helpful interactive screen showing a breakdown of exactly how men did die on other naval expeditions of that period. The interactives in this exhibit were generally quite good, with a few that played short videos of Inuit oral testimony that explained what they witnessed happening to Franklin’s men and ships (recorded by modern Inuit people, from oral traditions that had been passed down), maps of the probable expedition route, and a 3D virtual model of the wreck of the Erebus that you could “explore.” Because it wasn’t too crowded when we visited, I actually got a good look at all of them, though of course the disease one was my favourite.

Although it was exciting getting to see some of the artefacts from Franklin’s final expedition, something about this exhibit just felt rushed to me…perhaps they wanted to get it out quickly in order to capitalise on interest about the discovery of the Terror? They mentioned how much time it takes to preserve artefacts that have been left underwater, and it seems to me like they hurried to get some out in time for the exhibition, when it might have been better if they’d held off for a year or two til there was more to look at, and maybe some conclusions could have been drawn from the ruins to tell us more about what went wrong. I also felt the content was a little lacking…I read Anthony Brandt’s The Man Who Ate His Boots (mainly about Franklin) a while back, and while the book wasn’t perfect, it was quite interesting because it pieced together what might have happened on the voyage from accounts given by Rae, other search parties, the Inuit, and modern historians. This exhibition really didn’t do that, perhaps because they didn’t want to use speculation rather than fact, but trying to tell more of a story about Franklin’s voyage would have made it a more cohesive exhibition, rather than it skipping abruptly from the interiors of the ships to search parties. It was interesting enough, it just didn’t give the complete picture (unlike their Emma Hamilton exhibition, which was excellently comprehensive). I’m glad we only paid £6, as it didn’t take that long to see it, and I don’t think it was worth £12. It runs until the 7th of January 2018, so you’ve got plenty of time to go visit, which I would do if you’re as keen on polar exploration as I am; otherwise, I think you can safely give this a miss and wait for their next special exhibition instead. 3/5.

London: Emma Hamilton @ the National Maritime Museum

dsc09313Since I live in the Borough of Merton, and volunteer on local history projects, I probably hear more than most about Horatio Nelson and Emma Hamilton, because they lived in a house called Merton Place for about four years until Nelson’s death, in what is now South Wimbledon (much to my disappointment, however, the welcome gift you get for attending a citizenship ceremony in Merton is not a Nelson doll or mug, but a crappily made passport case.  I think they need to upgrade, especially because I remember reading that one of the Scottish councils gives out Highland cattle stuffed animals.  I got cheated).  In fact, apart from William Morris and the Wombles (and of course the tennis), it’s kind of our main claim to fame.  So when I heard that the National Maritime Museum  had a new special exhibit devoted to Emma herself, I had to go see it (because I feel kind of bad that Nelson gets all the attention, but especially because Greenwich means Brazilian churros, and I am addicted to those delicious things).

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Emma Hamilton: Seduction and Celebrity, opened on the 3rd of November, and runs until 17 April 2017.  Admission is £12.60, but they do offer half price admission either with a National Rail 2-for-1 or a National Art Pass, though they sneakily don’t advertise that fact (fortunately, I have no shame in asking for a discount).  It’s in the downstairs gallery where the National Maritime Museum seems to host all their temporary exhibitions, which means no photography (why does almost every London museum seem to let you take photographs of the permanent collections, but not allow them in special exhibitions?  Is it because things are on loan from other institutions and they’re worried about copyrights?  It’s annoying for us bloggers, is all. Otherwise I wouldn’t care), but a decently-sized space in which to wander about.  Because I couldn’t take pictures, I’m including some of Romney’s portraits of Emma, and other relevant images, all obtained through Wikimedia Commons.

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Emma as a Bacchante, George Romney

I visited at midday on a Friday, when it was only moderately busy, but I appeared to be the youngest visitor by a good 40 or 50 years, which obviously wouldn’t have been an issue had it not been for the following: I think the dim lighting in the exhibition may have been causing problems for some of my fellow visitors, because despite clutching special large print guides, they were still bending WAY over to read the normal item captions, thereby blocking the cases from everyone else’s view.  I suspect the large print guide might also have been contributing to this problem; many of the artefacts were letters and other hand-written documents, which I’m surmising weren’t transcribed in the guides.  Perhaps the National Maritime Museum could consider doing this in future, to improve everyone’s experience. Still, because it wasn’t super crowded, I managed to persevere with only a medium level of annoyance (I’m always at least a mild degree of annoyed, so it wasn’t bad going, all things considered).  Anyway, as promised this was mostly about Emma (or as much as it could be in a time when a woman’s life choices tended to be dictated by men.  Oh wait, that shit STILL HAPPENS (says the angry feminist in me)), so I’m going to do more of a biographical thing here than I normally would (not that I go to all that many exhibitions focused on one person) because that seems the easiest way to go about it without photos, plus I hope you’re all interested in learning more about Emma.

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Emma as Cassandra, George Romney

Emma was born in Cheshire in 1765 to humble beginnings; her father was a blacksmith who died shortly after she was born, leaving her mother to raise her (her birth name was Amy or Emy Lyon).  Not surprisingly, Emma was forced to work as a maid from an early age, eventually moving to London. Here, things get a bit murky; some historians think she briefly worked as a prostitute, others say that was just people attempting to smear her name after she became famous.  What is certain is that she eventually caught the eye of an aristocrat named Harry Fetherstonhaugh (which is bafflingly pronounced “Fanshaw”), and became his mistress, even though she was only 15 (hmmm, perhaps Fetherstonhaugh should actually be pronounced “sexual predator”).  Naturally, he discarded her as soon as she became pregnant, but Emma managed to find another “protector” in the form of Charles Greville, though she was forced to give her daughter up, and changed her own name to Emma Hart.  Greville was a complete and total ass as well, but this is nonetheless where Emma’s fortunes began to improve, because he sent her to have her portrait painted by George Romney.  Emma was an extremely pretty young woman, and she became Romney’s muse.  He seemingly painted her hundreds of times, judging by all the paintings that were on display in this exhibition, which began to make her known in society circles, her intelligence and personality doing the rest of the work.

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All this was nicely covered in the exhibition, mostly illustrated by the actual portraits of teenaged Emma (there sure were a lot of her as a “Bacchante,” whatever the hell that is.  Something related to Bacchus, perhaps?).  It then went on to talk about what happened when she was abandoned by Greville; he decided he needed to take a rich wife, so in an unbelievably dickish move, he shipped her off to Italy, telling her he was sending her on holiday, but really he had arranged for her to become his uncle’s mistress, his uncle being Sir William Hamilton, British Envoy to Naples.  Fortunately, Hamilton seemed to be slightly less of a jerk than his nephew, because while he clearly fancied Emma, he didn’t seem to have been the rapey sort; instead, he left her alone to grieve for Greville (well grieve, and be angry.  There was one of Emma’s letters to Greville in here from after she realised she’d been discarded, and it was deliciously venomous.  Go Emma!), and recognising Emma’s spark, hired tutors for her so she could have the education she’d been denied as a child.  This led to Emma’s “Attitudes.”

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Rowlandson caricature of Emma’s Attitudes. Quite frankly, this is pretty harsh, because the whole point is that she WASN’T nude, and men and women alike enjoyed them.

No, these were not the natural response to all the shitty circumstances of her life thus far (though I wish they had been); rather, they were an almost unbearably pretentious-sounding entertainment that Emma devised wherein she would wear a loose, flowing white gown, as was the style at the time, and adopt poses of famous women from antiquity with the help of a shawl.  Some of these were demonstrated in a video in the exhibition, and there were illustrations made of these from life, as well as a tea set decorated with Emma in her poses, so I can tell you that they are not at all the sort of thing that would go over well today, but it was a simpler time, and they gained Emma a great deal of fame.  Hamilton was clearly won over too, because after Emma had been his mistress for a while, he consented to marry her, which was a HUGE deal at the time, as she would then become a Lady.  (Also, Hamilton was a keen geologist who collected antiquities, so there’s some of that type of stuff in this exhibition too.)

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Emma Lady Hamilton wearing Maltese Cross, Johann Heinrich Schmidt.

It was the marriage that allowed her to become BFFs with Queen Maria Carolina, who was the Queen of Naples, and also to meet the love of her life, Lord Nelson (she was fond of Hamilton and all, but he was more than twice her age, so not the most thrilling lover, I’m sure). While she was living in Naples, the French Revolution began, and Maria Carolina was extremely concerned about this, especially because Marie Antoinette was her sister.  When an uprising began in Naples some years later, Emma begged Nelson to come help the Neapolitan Royal Family, as she and Nelson had formed an attachment a few years before when he was convalescing in Naples after the Battle of the Nile and Emma nursed him back to health.  Nelson rocked up and did some politically iffy things, like execute one of the leaders of the revolution, despite not having the backing of the British government (the revolutionary pleaded to Emma for mercy, and got cruelly denied), but he did save the Royal Family, and he and Emma officially became an item (surprisingly, Hamilton was basically OK with this, and all three lived together for a time. Nelson’s wife was not cool with it, but she was a woman, so Nelson could easily get rid of her. Grrrr). Also, Emma became the first woman to be awarded the Maltese Cross around this time (for sending food to Malta whilst it was blockaded), which she was extremely proud of, and she had her portrait painted whilst wearing it (both portrait and cross are on display. I’m not saying much about the political situation that led to the blockade, because I’m not entirely clear on it myself.  My knowledge of Continental 18th century history is not great).

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Nelson and Emma in Naples

Unsurprisingly, this was the most interesting part of Emma’s life, which was reflected in the exhibition.  There were lots of neat things from this era, including patriotic nautical-themed scarves and jewellery that she wore to support Nelson (only those in the know would have realised the extent of their relationship, because Nelson-themed jewellery was very popular at the time), and letters written between the two when they were apart.  They also exchanged cool snake rings as a token of their love.  In 1801, they bought Merton Place, and furnished a home together, even though it was mainly Emma doing the work, because Nelson was away at sea much of the time.  I was really excited to see that they had a load of furnishings from Merton Place, because I’m always keen to learn more about it (the house was demolished in 1823, so it’s not like I can go and see it or anything).  Being that they were both self-made individuals, from humble beginnings, their taste tended towards the gaudy, and they had lots of things celebrating Nelson’s victories, as well of portraits of Emma in her prime (Emma supposedly put on a lot of weight in her 30s, and there were some pretty mean-spirited cartoons here mocking her, but she still looked lovely in portraits, so it’s hard to say what she really looked like at this point).  Whilst living at Merton Place, Emma became pregnant with their daughter, Horatia, who was also sent away after she was born to prevent a scandal (Nelson having an affair was one thing, but apparently a child born out of wedlock was a bridge too far).

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Codina, a poodle believed to have belonged to Emma Hamilton.

William Hamilton died in 1803, and Nelson was of course killed at Trafalgar in 1805, and this is when Emma’s life all came crashing down.  Because she was “only” a mistress, the English government refused to acknowledge her, despite Nelson’s pleas to do so in his will.  She not only wasn’t granted a pension, she wasn’t even invited to Nelson’s funeral (it’s a bit difficult to know who to feel sorriest for, because I do have sympathy for Nelson’s discarded wife, and I can understand why the government chose to ignore Emma, but considering she was the mother of Nelson’s daughter, they could have given her and Horatia something (or maybe not since Emma and Nelson had to pretend that Horatia didn’t exist), or you know, at least let her come see his body at a time when his wife wouldn’t be there, since he was laid out in the Painted Hall for ages)!  She tried to carry on living the lifestyle she had enjoyed during Nelson’s lifetime, with lavish entertainments, but soon ran out of money (I presume William Hamilton must have left her some, since they were legally married, and he was fine with the whole Nelson thing, but it wasn’t really mentioned.  Maybe she spent it all?) and had to sell Merton Place to pay her debts, as well as most of her possessions, which were listed on auction bills in the exhibition.  She was great friends with many of the Royals, including the Prince Regent (George IV), but of course they all deserted her when she needed money.  She was briefly sent to debtor’s prison, and eventually moved to France to escape her creditors, where she died, aged only 49, from the effects of alcoholism.

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As you can probably tell, I learned a lot from this exhibition, and I think the choice of artefacts to support Emma’s story was generally good.  However, I did think it was a little obnoxious that in an exhibit that was supposed to be all about Emma, they still chose to feature Nelson’s Trafalgar coat as the final display.  I get that people want to see the coat, but it’s normally kept at the National Maritime Museum anyway, in the Nelson gallery on the second floor, so they could have just had a sign directing people up there.  It just seemed a little distasteful that a woman who spent her life being frequently mistreated and overshadowed by men also had Nelson as the last word in her exhibition.  I also would have liked to learn more about Horatia, because she did eventually end up living with Emma briefly in France, but nothing was said about what happened to her after Emma died (I think she led a fairly boring life, and never really admitted she was Nelson’s daughter, but they still could have said something about her in here). Other than that, though, I think it was a solid exhibition, and even though Emma clearly had her faults (like calling for revolutionaries to be executed), she was obviously an intelligent and fascinating woman in her own right, and it’s nice that she’s finally getting some recognition for that.  So 3.5/5 overall, and definitely worth 6 quid, but perhaps a bit expensive at the full price.  Sorry for the Emma-essay!

Butler Point, New Zealand: Whaling Museum

DSC02449Butler Point is on Doubtless Bay.  I tell you this because it is a great Cookism, wherein Captain Cook sailed past the area, and remarked in his journal, “it is doubtless a bay,” and the name stuck.  I know you all know that I love Joseph Banks, but that includes a fondness for Cook by extension, and I rather adore his characteristic matter-of-factness.  Butler Point Whaling Museum is one of those annoying appointment only places (though when I got there, I could kind of see why) which I normally avoid like the plague, but fortunately my boyfriend’s aunt kindly called them for us (she’s the best!), so I could avoid the sort of awkward phone conversation I hate (i.e. any phone conversation.  I HATE calling people, even people I know).  So with that out of the way, we were free to head down at our appointed time and enjoy ourselves.

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Though this information is not easy to find online, I’ll tell you here: the museum costs 20 NZD.  This did seem steep (still does), but it’s not massively out of line with what some other small museums in New Zealand charge (although the really nice ones in major cities usually cost about the same, or are free, so…), so it was best to just suck it up and pay it, especially because we weren’t asked to pay until midway through the tour, and it was certainly too late to back out then.  The museum is not exactly easy to find…satnav will fail you here, as the road it’s on doesn’t exist according to GPS, so best to go with the directions on their very old-school website.  Basically, you drive up to a gate that you have to open yourself (so it’s useful if you have a friend/travelling companion) and then carry on for another couple kilometres down a winding gravel road (unsealed, in the Kiwi parlance).  Even though we left early, we still managed to be about five minutes late, which was slightly awkward as there was already a lady waiting for us by the parking lot when we got there.  Fortunately, she didn’t seem too put off, and as we were the only visitors that day, proceeded to take us on the tour.

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(There were no pictures allowed inside the museum, so you’ll have to make do with these pictures of the rather beautiful gardens the museum is situated within.)  Now, whilst I am intensely interested in historical whaling practices, I do not condone whaling in any shape or form (nor does the museum – its focus is decidedly historical).  Obviously it was a terrible thing, and it’s awful that it still goes on in some places, but nonetheless, I am a realist, and that does not change history, and the fact that whaling was once a thriving, commercially important industry.  What’s more, I tend to favour many of the more brutal aspects of history, and whaling is right up there on the harshness scale, especially where maritime history is concerned.  So it’s fair to say I already knew quite a bit about whaling at its mid-19th century peak, and unfortunately, what this museum really provides is an introduction, rather than something more in-depth.  This is not to say that our guide wasn’t well-informed, because she certainly knew loads about the whaling industry, and perhaps if I had mentioned that I was already familiar with many of the things she was talking about, she could have deviated her explanations, but it seemed rude to interrupt, and besides, it wasn’t uninteresting, especially when illustrated with the use of actual objects used in the industry.  It was more that with such a specialist subject, I guess I was hoping for a more specialised museum, rather than the overview I got.  That said, I did learn more about whaling practices specific to the area, so that’s something.

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Basically, she began by leading us up to the whaling boat parked outside the museum. Initially, it seemed bigger than I had pictured them being after reading In the Heart of the Sea, but once I saw how it looked when full of men (or towing a whale), then it really did seem insubstantial against the task at hand.  Which of course, was to harpoon whales, and then let then swim around until they tired themselves out (which could easily take hours – 3 on average, but sometimes a full day!) or managed to wreck the boat and escape.  If they did eventually tire, they’d be hauled in for the kill, and towed back to the ship, where they’d be cut apart and hauled on board, and then flensed and the blubber boiled down into oil (and spermaceti set aside for candles and such, if it was a sperm whale).  There were also big pots and a giant ladle, so you could see how the boiling-down process would have worked.  And a few portions of whale skull; baleen and toothed.

Once we got inside the actual museum, we were free to look around at leisure.  The collection was fairly standard (having since been to another whaling museum, I can safely say this); lots of scrimshaw and ambergris and such.  There were maps and factual posters, but the most interesting part was undoubtedly a video made in the 1920s that actually showed whaling in action (which is how I was able to gauge the size of the whaleboats when full), as our guide said, it really did tie everything together.

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The whole reason the museum is here in the first place is because of Captain Butler (William, not Rhett, much to my disappointment), a retired whaling ship captain (I believe he was British, but also lived in America for a while) who had his finger in many pies that horribly exploited the environment, from provisioning other whaling ships, to exporting kauri gum and trees.  Anyway, once he’d accumulated a good bit of money, he built a house here to accommodate his wife and their 13 children (though frankly, the house looks much too small for all of that), which still stands today, and is included in the whaling museum tour (still no pictures allowed though).  He wasn’t the only whaler in the area, of course, as many American whaling ships docked nearby as well (hence the provisioning), but he’s the only one who settled and has a house still standing nearby, so this is what you get.  The house only dates back to the 1840s, but is rather stuffy and rich in authentic smells.  However, as a historic house it was fairly unremarkable, and many of the rooms contained random objects (ladders, posters, etc) clearly used by the curators/caretakers rather than meant to be seen by the public.

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Once we’d finished the tour, which took about an hour and a half, we were free to explore the rest of the property on our own, which included a fernery, a walk that went down to the edge of the bay (so you could dip your feet in if you’re like me; there were a lot of bits of leaves and things floating around, but the water was nice and warm), and most excitingly, a giant tree.  While not as tall as the kauri trees, it was massively wide and clearly extremely old (I think something like 1000 years), and unlike the kauri trees, you were allowed to get right up to it and hug it if you were so inclined (which you may be able to spy me doing in the photo).  You could also walk through the forest to look out onto nearby Mangonui (a little, touristy bayfront town with a “world famous” chippy.  I can’t judge the fish, since I don’t eat it, but I’ve had much better chips).  There was also a teeny graveyard where Captain Butler was buried, along with some of his family and the subsequent owners of the house.

Although I didn’t walk away feeling as though I’d learned quite as much as I’d hoped, I think it’s difficult with this sort of attraction where you have to cater for all levels of knowledge, which is many cases may be fairly slight, and you don’t have that many unusual artefacts for people to admire.  As I said, I did like the video, and I did learn more about local whaling practices, so I think it was still a worthwhile trip, even if this small and surprisingly expensive museum wasn’t quite all I was hoping for.  2.5/5.

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More tree, because it was pretty good.

 

London: Ships, Clocks, & Stars + Longitude Punk’d

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And so my treks around London continue (for once, I think I might actually see every special exhibit currently here that I wanted to see, plus some I didn’t!).  Lured by those Brazilian churros yet again, I made my way out to Greenwich last week for the first time in months, only to discover that the churro stand isn’t in Greenwich Market on Wednesdays anymore.  Thankfully, I was planning on visiting some museums out there anyway, so my voyage was not made in vain (though I was very hungry and cranky going churro-less).

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Although I often don’t really see the point of steampunk, I’d nonetheless wanted to see Longitude Punk’d at the Royal Observatory for a while, and as £8.50 currently gets you a combined ticket to the Observatory and the special exhibit at the National Maritime Museum, there was really no time like the present.  I began with Ships, Clocks, and Stars: The Quest for Longitude, housed in the downstairs galleries of the National Maritime Museum, as it seemed like it would probably be the less interesting of the two exhibits.  I wasn’t wrong about that.

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Basically, as ship technology improved and sailors were able to travel farther distances, the main thing holding back exploration and navigation was the problem of calculating longitude at sea (well, and scurvy, but they were working on that too).  Latitude was no problem, as you can just do some quick calculations based on the angle between the North Star and the horizon (I use “you” in a general sense here, as I certainly am not going to be calculating any damn angles.  I hate geometry), but to calculate longitude, you need an extremely accurate clock, which for reasons I probably got into when I was writing about the Clockmakers’ Museum, was a tricky thing to achieve at sea.  To this end, rewards of up to £20,000 were offered, until John Harrison came through with his crazily complex clock. Actually, I’m pretty sure I also said this in my post about the Clockmakers’ Museum, but I still don’t really want to get into the science or the technology here, because I don’t fully understand it, and it kind of bores me.  This is probably why I didn’t enjoy The Quest for Longitude very much, as 80% of the content was about the science behind longitude and the way the clocks were made, and I found my eyes glazing over as I was trying to read the captions (side note, I only just discovered, from the video inside the exhibit, that British people pronounce “longitude” with a hard “g.”  I don’t know how I lived here for six years without knowing that.  No wonder the guy at the admissions desk initially seemed confused when I tried to buy a ticket).

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However, I do seize on any points of interest where I can, so the exhibit wasn’t a total bust.  There was a small room devoted to the voyages of Captain Cook (and that dishy Joseph Banks), which I remain fascinated by, and even more enticingly, a lone case containing objects belonging to Captain Bligh, that notorious captain of the Bounty who was set adrift in a small boat with 18 of his men by the mutinous Fletcher Christian.  I think Bligh’s feat of navigation was just incredible (really must get around to reading that book about the Bounty that’s been sitting on my bookshelves), and I was enthralled by the artefacts here from that journey:  a bullet Bligh used to weigh out bread, a small cup (shot glass sized) for liquid rations, and a coconut bowl that he took his own meagre meals from.  If the whole exhibit had been on Cook, Bligh, and other explorers like them, I would have been thrilled (maybe that’s what they should have next?) but alas, the title did promise longitude, and that is mainly what was delivered.  One other item of note was an insulated suit worn by Nevil Maskelyne, Astronomer Royal, when he was taking calculations in the freezing Royal Observatory, of which more later.  Anyway, it seems like I mainly took issue with this exhibit for living up to its description, so it’s really my own fault that I didn’t enjoy it, knowing that I’m not that interested in technology and such.  So I’ll give it 3/5 with the caveat that if you’re like me and aren’t very mechanically minded, this probably isn’t the exhibit for you.

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Moving on…I next talked myself into taking that long, steep trudge up the hill to the Royal Observatory (if you’ve ever been there, you’ll know what I mean) to see the steampunk wonders of Longitude Punk’d.  It is sort of the partner exhibit to The Quest for Longitude – whereas the National Maritime Museum was all business, the Royal Observatory took on the fun side of navigation.  The premise behind the exhibit, as outlined in a cute little booklet at the entrance, was that a mysterious Georgian Commodore took on the task of solving the problem of longitude…with the help of trained Kiwi birds.  The exhibit was thus dedicated to the strange explorations of this imaginary Commodore, and the “alternative history” of many of the other figures of the time.  It was based inside Flamsteed House, and spread out throughout the building; initially with one piece in each room, and then a final gallery doused with cheeky steampunk madness (the pictures throughout this post are taken from Longitude Punk’d, as The Quest for Longitude didn’t allow photography).

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This included a range of fantastic clothing, like Captain Cook’s jacket with a map painted on so he would never get lost again, a constellation dress (shown before the previous paragraph, and absolutely gorgeous), the solar system dress shown above, and another example of a useful quilted suit that wasn’t too far off from the actual suit used by Maskelyne (I have to wonder if the designer saw the original). My favourite part was undeniably the gallery right at the end though (and this despite the presence of many loud obnoxious teenagers who didn’t know how to conduct themselves properly in a museum), which was a mix of steampunk creations and normal looking maritime art with hilarious cheeky captions.  For example:

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And (assuming you can read the caption through the shadows of the weird way I curl my fingers when taking a phone picture):

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And so on, as most of the captions in here literally gave me a good chuckle (which probably looked creepy, as I was there by myself, quietly laughing in the corner).  I guess it’s even funnier if you know the real history behind it, so I suppose it was useful in the end that I went to the National Maritime Museum first (and also that I just happened to be reading a book on maps at the time that discussed the conference that led to the Prime Meridian being set in Greenwich); I guess these museums know what they’re doing after all.

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I really really loved how clever and beautiful everything in this exhibit was; I think the creators must have a sense of humour similar to mine, and I really do recommend checking it out before it finishes in January.  Longitude Punk’d is only in one building of the Royal Observatory, and the combined ticket gives admission to the whole of it; weirdly, I’d never visited the non-free galleries of the Observatory before, so I had a good look around.  I liked that there was a camera obscura, though it was somewhat ruined by the constant parade of tourists who didn’t seem to understand how it worked and so kept failing to close the curtains properly, and the giant telescope was pretty cool, even though there were some guys repairing it whilst I was there. There were a few galleries with clocks and stuff, but it wasn’t ultimately that memorable or different from the stuff in the free galleries or the Clockmakers’ Museum I seem to keep mentioning in this post, so you’re really primarily paying for the steampunk stuff.

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(The picture above left is of the magic longitude tracking kiwi birds in diorama form, and is pretty adorable in person).  So I’m going to give Longitude Punk’d 4.5/5, even though I don’t think it’s worth £8.50 by itself (and therein lies the beauty of the combined ticket) because it really meshed with my personality and interests a lot better than The Quest for Longitude, but if you’ve got the ticket to both, you may as well see them both, right?  Just don’t make the mistake I did of visiting on a non-churro day, as even though I really enjoyed my steampunk adventure, I still regretted the lost opportunity to consume a fried-to-order pastry piped full of oozing dulce de leche.

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