military history

Aldershot, Hampshire: Army Medical Services Museum

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Wow. I knew the Army Medical Services Museum was at Keogh Barracks in Aldershot (despite having no idea how to pronounce “Keogh”), but somehow I wasn’t expecting it to be so scary official.  I found out about this place a long time ago, but its opening hours (9:30-3:30 on weekdays, closed weekends) and inaccessibility by public transport kept me from visiting it until now.  I wouldn’t recommend unemployment, but it sure has freed up a lot of time for me and my boyfriend to do stuff like this (too bad most of it has to be free.  There’s always a catch, isn’t there?).  Well, the museum is free, but clearly I didn’t read their website thoroughly enough, because I didn’t realise I’d have to go through a full-on ID-flashing security check in order to get in.

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The museum building is actually IN the barracks, as in, it’s part of this big military compound, so you have to go past a checkpoint staffed by a number of armed soldiers to visit it.  And I don’t generally carry a picture ID on me (because I don’t drive and I’m hella old, so there’s usually no need, at least in the UK), so I was frantically riffling through my wallet to find something to give the unsmiling guard.  All I came up with was a bank card, which he fortunately accepted, since we’d driven almost an hour to get there.  A few questions later (dunno why he asked my boyfriend what his job was but not me…sexist much?), we were deemed no danger and granted passes to see the museum.  After all that, I was pleasantly surprised that the museum staff seemed pretty laid-back (and not bothered about us taking pictures).  We were the only visitors, other than some people doing research in the library (open to anyone if you make an appointment first).

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The building didn’t look all that big from the outside, but the galleries wrapped around in such a way that they managed to fit a whole lot in there (and plenty of delightful mannequin-filled dioramas).  It covered the history of army medicine from the English Civil War to the present day, although the largest displays were devoted to the Napoleonic Wars and World Wars 1 and 2.  And oh man, did they have some cool stuff in here.

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An English doctor tended to Napoleon when he was in exile on St. Helena (I have a weird desire to visit St. Helena; something about isolated places appeals to me enormously, though I could not actually live somewhere without a steady supply of Belgian milk chocolate, pecorino cheese, and books), and he brought back a razor used on Ol’ Boney, and a dental kit used to remove a couple of his wisdom teeth.  (Apparently Napoleon insisted on having his teeth pulled whilst he was seated on the floor, which made an already difficult job even tougher.  I’m just glad I got knocked out when I had my wisdom teeth out.  The thought of someone cracking my teeth in half while I was conscious gives me the creeps.)

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If a soldier deserted back in the day (during peacetime, I would assume, since usually they just executed you in wartime), he would be branded with a letter “D,” so everyone would know and thus punish him more harshly for any future infractions.  They also had a “B” and a “C” for bad conduct (which I would probably have ended up with; not sure if they gave you the “B” and the “C” or just one or the other).  Rather than an actual brand, or a proper tattoo though (which wouldn’t have been so bad, the tattoo anyway), they would use this device with a bunch of thick needles in the shape of the needed letter, jam that into your skin all at once, and then rub India ink into the wound.  In addition to the needles they used, they had an actual piece of skin here taken from a (dead) soldier, so you could see what it looked like.  I don’t know how long the soldier lived with that tattoo for, but that ink sure stayed black (being located under the armpit probably helped, since it wouldn’t see much sun).

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Around the time of the Boer Wars, soldiers would swallow half pennies (ha’pennies) to try to get out of active duty (not sure how that would get you out of anything anyway, I would think shooting off a toe would be more effective), so the army doctors devised a hook device to reach down the throat and fish them out.  Having once had a singularly unpleasant nasal scope (and that was with a soft flexible tube that only went down my throat, rather than a metal hook to the stomach), I think I would have rather just taken my chances on the front lines.

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Oh, they had a bunch of Florence Nightingale stuff here too, including sketches of the hospital in Scutari, and the medal the nurses that served with her were given (at her insistence, Victoria was all for awarding only Florence).

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There was a whole separate gallery for the WWI artefacts, which I was pretty keen on after spending so much time researching various soldiers for the Carved in Stone project I volunteer on (not a medic among my bunch, unfortunately, though I do have some pretty interesting guys nonetheless), but there wasn’t a whole lot in here.

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More promising was the WWI section in the main gallery, and the whole wall about facial reconstruction in the last gallery.  There were any number of poignant objects on display, including a violin covered with the signatures of a soldier’s dead comrades, and a soldier doll + letter that were rescued from an incinerator.

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WWII got its own gallery (well, corridor) as well, and it was surprisingly full of teeth, thanks to the Royal Army Dental Corps collection being in here too. (The RADC didn’t form until 1921, although there was obviously a need for it well beforehand, and dental officers began to be commissioned during WWI).  Rudolf Hess was originally held prisoner in a house nearby before being shipped off to Spandau Prison, so they had some of his dentures, as well as a mould taken of his teeth (they were nasty looking specimens too).  Also, in one of the Japanese prison camps, they apparently went along the line of POWs knocking out the front teeth of each soldier with a rifle butt, so the poor men had to fashion dentures from whatever was lying around the camps, and those were in here too (this museum is not for the faint-hearted, in case you haven’t figured that out by now).

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And I musn’t forget about the Royal Army Veterinary Corps, whose collections are also included here.  The museum had a huge case full of medals (lots of Victoria crosses, which I learned are all made from the same lump of metal. They even had the first one, which was given to Queen Victoria herself), which included medals given to army dogs for their valuable service in bomb detection.  And there was a pretty cool shoe intended for a camel (not sure how well putting it on him would have gone down.  Camels are feisty).

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The galleries finished with some cases about army medicine in modern conflicts (the Falklands, Afghanistan, etc), and a cool display about tropical diseases which included a giant tsetse fly.  I have to say, I was very impressed with the offerings here.  I wasn’t expecting much, going by their website, but they had legitimately fascinating and important historical objects in here, and lots of them at that!  Their opening hours and the whole entry procedure is kind of a pain, but it’s worth the effort (the guard when we were leaving was much friendlier (perhaps because we were no longer seen as a potential threat), and pointed out the rough location of the Rudolf Hess house out to us).  I love medical history, and though I usually prefer medical museums with jarred specimens, there’s just something about army medicine that captures my interest (probably the sheer severity of the injuries, which is why I have a particular fascination with the pioneering reconstructive surgeries done during WWI), and this place does a great job of showing the evolution of the AMS from the 1600s to the present day.  4/5.

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Zonnebeke, Belgium: Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917

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I don’t think a visit to Belgium can really be complete without seeing something related to WWI (or more than one thing; I’ll be devoting a couple of posts to it this time around).  It played such a huge role in the history of this little country, as so much of Flanders was virtually decimated in the fight over a relatively tiny area of land, and many of the Belgian people were forced to flee to avoid the war and destruction.  On my last trip to Belgium, I made it to a few WWI sites, visiting the Ijzer Tower, In Flanders Fields Museum, and Tyne Cot cemetery.  However, I did not get to see the Passchendaele Museum, which is very near Tyne Cot, as it had already closed for the day by the time I got there. Clearly, it was time to remedy this.

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With the cat festival in Ieper planned for that afternoon (yeah, you read that correctly…just you wait!), it left the morning free for exploring nearby Great War sites, starting with Passchendaele (admission 7.5 euros).  As you can probably guess from the museum’s full name, it commemorates the Battle of Passchendaele, fought in 1917.  Like so much of the war, Passchendaele was tragically almost pointless in terms of the human life lost relative to what was actually accomplished (at least half a million casualties over a fight for 5 miles of territory).  If you need a visual aid for this, then visit Tyne Cot to see it all starkly laid out in front of you, in the form of row upon row upon row of identical tombstones for the soldiers killed in the Ypres Salient (and really, please do visit Tyne Cot, as there’s nothing else quite so effective at driving home the futility of war).  However, perhaps because the museum recognises that many of its visitors will also have just been to Tyne Cot, and doesn’t wish to immediately depress them further, the museum isn’t all doom and gloom.  In fact, a lot of it is rather fun.

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The museum obviously took children into consideration when planning out the galleries, as there are lots of activities.  Fortunately for me, there were no children in sight, so I was free to ignore the fact that the mirrors had been intentionally been placed at a child’s eye-level, and indulge my love of dressing up (and I do recommend visiting early in the morning as we did, because the tour bus circuit seems to come through later in the day).  I learned that I look surprisingly good in a helmet, which is probably not what the museum was going for, but still.  The museum is split up into five different sections, beginning with a general history of the war, which is the most like a traditional museum, and then, similar to the Ijzer Tower, goes off piste a bit by including the re-creation of a dugout, which leads into an underground area about the history of the battle itself, then into a re-creation of some trenches, and finally, to a memorial section.

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In the first part, the museum tells the story of the war through uniforms, soldiers’ kit and their personal possessions, and a few interactive things, like smelling stations where you could get a whiff of various poison gasses and bully beef (which turned out to smell worse than the poison gas).  My only complaint would be that the item captions are written directly on the glass cases in white ink, so they can be a bit tricky to read in places, and I think I missed a few of them entirely as they were hard to even see against some of the objects.

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Next came the British dugouts, which we entered via a wooden staircase (I sent my boyfriend down first, just in case).  I don’t know if they wanted their attempt to re-create these dugouts to include the actual fear and nervous anticipation that real soldiers would have felt, but it worked on me!  Usually these things have some kind of explosion noise that’s triggered when you walk into them, and because I’m terrified of sudden loud noises (I hate balloons for this very reason), I was extremely tense the entire time, just waiting for the explosion to happen (I won’t ruin it for you by telling you what actually happens, so you can experience real fear too!), and though exploring the maze of tunnels was fun, I was quite relieved to finally emerge blinking into the next area.

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This “bunker” section was a curious mix of the heavy-duty machinery of war, with huge guns and collections of shells and things; and of more intimate portraits of some of the soldiers involved.  There was a section for each of the countries who’d sent men to fight at Passchendaele, with insignia of the units involved, the total number of casualties each sustained, and video interviews with some of the veterans of the battle (presumably taped in the 1970s or ’80s, since there are no veterans left today, and the men looked old in them, but not in their 100s type old, more like they were in their seventies and eighties), which were alternately amusing and sad.

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I wouldn’t generally consider myself a big weaponry person, but some of the facts about the WWI weapons were fascinating…unfortunately, I’m hard-pressed to repeat any of them here, as I initially wrote this a week and a half after my visit, and after going to a number of other museums, so my retention is not as good as it normally is.  Thanks to the pictorial evidence, I can tell you that I tried on yet another helmet before heading out to the trenches (seriously, I’m sure it’s cost-prohibitive, but it would be awesome if they gave you a helmet to borrow when walking through the trenches.  It would really add to the experience).

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The trenches are, appropriately enough, actually outside (when we first showed up, the lady at the admissions desk said something about going outside, but we didn’t quite catch it and were worried there was some kind of additional walk we were meant to go on that we wouldn’t have had time for, so we were relieved when we realised she had probably meant the trench section). Definitely don’t wear shoes with any kind of a heel, as there are big gaps between the boards on the bottom of the trench, and you will probably fall through.  I liked how different sections of the trench were constructed out of different materials, to illustrate the difference between British and German trenches.  In fact,  I think the whole museum set-up was very nicely done, with the sections smoothly segueing into each other, and covering so many war-time environments.

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At the end of the trenches, there was an American relief house, provided to some of the Belgians who had lost their homes in the war; it definitely appears to be American in design, as Belgian houses have a very distinct look, and this house isn’t it, but it did provide some information on the American role in the war (ignore me on the porch with a stupid expression on my face).  Finally, we reached the Hall of Reflection, which was quite extensive and solemn, but also contained an array of interesting facts (concealed under panels featuring various cartoon characters), about the wartime experiences of people like AA Milne and Walt Disney.  There was quite a moving sculpture at the end, made of arms floating on a watery surface (which sounds weird without an explanation, but was meant to represent the many men who died from drowning in the trenches, especially after they were wounded and couldn’t escape, due to dreadful weather during Passchendaele that led to flooding).

I have to say that the Passchendaele Museum was right up there with the best war museums I’ve seen.  It fully conveyed the horrors of war, but also offered opportunities to get a taste of (dramatically toned-down) wartime experiences yourself, making for an enjoyable and educational experience.  If you have to pick one museum in the Ieper area to visit, I think this would be an excellent choice.  4.5/5.

 

 

 

Balcombe, West Sussex: The Wings Museum

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I seem to keep bringing up Damian Lewis on the blog these days (I mean c’mon, codpieces!), but yeah, one of the main reasons I checked out the Wings Museum (“where history comes alive”) was because part of Band of Brothers was filmed inside the C-47 Dakota in the museum, and I welcomed the opportunity to sit in the same place Damian Lewis did (or, as I more crudely put it at the time, “My ass has touched where Damian Lewis’s ass touched!”).  But Wings advertised more attractions than simply plonking your butt down on the same seats as famous people.  They also promised recovered airframes set up into crash site dioramas, a real Anderson shelter to explore, the opportunity to own a small piece of downed aircraft of your very own, and many other displays inside the draughty hangar-style building.

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The Wings Museum seemed to assume a certain degree of enthusiasm for military history (the volunteer at the admissions desk even asked my boyfriend if he was an “enthusiast,” which led to a rather awkward silence.  Also, why did he just assume that I wasn’t the enthusiast?  I mean, I’m not, but he didn’t know that), as I guess most people aren’t willing to drive out to a hangar in the middle of nowhere and part with 8 quid if they’re not really into this stuff.  Truthfully, as I am not really into this stuff (nor is my boyfriend, obviously), some of the very lengthy descriptions of missions and all the names and numbers of various aircraft were lost on me, but it was a large building with a lot of crap in it, so there was still plenty to enjoy.

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The museum contains quite a few salvaged Nazi aircraft parts (as those were a large proportion of what was crashing on British soil) and some uniforms and things; I definitely understand the importance of making sure both the Allied and Axis Powers were represented (including some things from the Pacific Theatre), since despite the focus on aviation, one of the museum’s stated goals is to tell the story of World War II.  However, the process of the actual “telling” could use some work, as I don’t think I’ve ever seen quite so many spelling and grammatical errors in one place.  I get that they are volunteer run (and only open on weekends), but you’d think one of the volunteers could spell properly.  The use of the contraction “it’s” instead of the possessive “its” is a personal pet peeve, but a common enough mistake, I suppose.  But given that they’re dealing with military history, they should at least know how to spell “bail.”  You “bail out” of an aircraft, you “bale” hay, got it?  Same thing with “hale” and “hail.”  Homophones: learn how to use them! (And for that matter, the building the museum is housed in is called a hangar; not a “hanger” as their website would have you believe.) ETA: I’ve been doing a bit of research since writing this, and while it seems that “bail out” is the correct American usage, apparently in other English speaking countries, both variants are accepted spellings, so I’ll give them a pass on that.  However, my point about the spelling errors still stands, as there’s really no excuse for the incorrect “it’s” or their misspelling of hangar.

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Now that I’ve gotten that rant out of the way, in fairness to the museum, some of the stories were very interesting, if you took the time to persevere through the errors.  There was one about a man diffusing some notoriously tricky type of German bomb in a tunnel that ended with him emerging from this tunnel “looking and smelling worse than the dirtiest London tramp,” and an extremely lengthy, but fascinating account of a man in a Japanese POW camp being fed on a few lumps of rice a day.

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And there were some hand-painted bomber jackets belonging to various pilots.  I remember seeing a really large display of these at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Museum many years ago, and I’ve always liked them (they may have played a small part in my becoming a punk as a teenager, since punks like to paint their leather jackets too, but because I was never any good at painting I just ended up wearing an old one that my high school boyfriend’s friend had painted with an Exploited skull.  It was well done, perhaps too much so, since it ended up getting stolen out of a car when I was at a punk show, with all my money and IDs in the pockets).

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On a more serious note, they had a small hut devoted to the Holocaust (that we didn’t take pictures of, as it seemed disrespectful), which covered a camp called DORA, where prisoners were forced to manufacture airplane parts and other things for the Nazis.  It came complete with moving illustrations done by what I believe was one of the survivors (though I’m not quite positive about that, and the information isn’t on their website so I can’t check).  There were also memorials throughout the museum to the pilots who lost their lives in the war.

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I was pretty keen to get into that Band of Brothers plane, and we took plenty of pictures in there (though as usual, I look terrible in all of them).  There was a video of the relevant episode playing on a small TV, and you were free to explore the plane (and yes, plant your ass on all the seats), so I enjoyed myself.  It was nice that the museum wasn’t very crowded so I had plenty of time to sit everywhere without being interrupted.

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And there were all those promised dioramas of aircraft in various stages of disrepair, pleasingly made into scenes with the use of (often hilarious) mannequins (I hope this isn’t construed as being too flippant, since I am aware that some of the pilots may have died in these crashes, but the museum’s approach overall seemed to be an interesting mix of the sombre and lighthearted).  I think I may have actually enjoyed some of the more mundane objects in the museum more though, like the bell shown towards the start of the post with FDR, Churchill, and Stalin moulded on it, and the sake cup pictured below that somehow survived Hiroshima.  To me, artefacts like that tell more of a story than an enormous hunk of rusting metal (though I’m not knocking the hunks of metal, if that’s your thing).

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There’s also a vintage radio hut parked outside, which one of the volunteers led me into as I was obviously cold (it was not a warm day, and the building was unheated, so it was basically just as cold as outside), the radio hut being compact and heated, and a place to learn more about antique radios than I ever wanted to.  They had a radio in there from Bletchley Park that was used in the filming of The Imitation Game (which I still haven’t seen, so I can’t say for sure whether Benny touched it, but at any rate, the opportunity to touch it myself never presented itself, so my hand was not where his hand was).

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They did indeed have an array of aircraft parts for sale, for prices ranging from 50p up to about 50 quid, so we ended up with our own bit of twisted metal for a pound, which isn’t a bad deal.  I mean, it’s pretty clear the museum could use the money (maybe to re-do the signs after correcting them?), and I could see that the place was a labour of love, even if I’m not a military history buff.  Though I wasn’t completely captivated by the museum, there were plenty of things that caught my interest, and it was nice reading some of the stories of men who’d been there (including one pilot from Lakewood, Ohio!), so I have no regrets about going (especially venturing inside that neat plane).  My mother loves planes and stuff, and I spent a lot of time being dragged around various aviation museums as a kid, so I have some grounds for comparison; while Wings is obviously nowhere near the level of Wright-Patterson or even the International Women’s Air and Space Museum, for a small museum without much (any?) funding, I think they did a decent job.  But while I love the quirkiness, that shouldn’t come at the expense of correct spelling, so I’ll give it 3/5.

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Westerham, Kent: Quebec House

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Living in England has made me unusually keen on American history.  I think I’m just a contrary person, because when I lived in America, British history was always my favourite (this is also inconvenient, because as you can imagine, the American history section at my local library is extremely limited, so I end up having to buy most of the titles I want to read, leading to a disproportionately large American section in my bookcase).  I suspect it’s maybe an “absence makes the heart grow fonder” kind of thing (in addition to the contrariness), but at any rate, learning that a site I’m thinking about visiting has vague American connections is often enough to tip the balance in its favour.  This week’s adventure took me to Quebec House in Kent, right down the road from Churchill’s home Chartwell (which just may come up on here in the near future as well…ok, very near future, as in next week).

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Quebec House was the childhood home of General James Wolfe, who won the Battle of Quebec for the British, though he ended up dying for his pains.  The house was subsequently renamed Quebec House to commemorate his achievement (and death).  It is currently owned by the National Trust, who charge an admission fee of £5.20 for entrance to the house and tiny museum.

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At this point you may be wondering what the connection to the USA is, as Quebec is obviously in Canada.  Well, as the museum explains, the Battle of Quebec was part of the Seven Years’ War with France (more commonly known in America as the French and Indian War; at least, that’s what I was taught in school), which was fought in part on what would become American soil (partially in the Ohio Valley), and was famously where George Washington began his military career.  It also indirectly led to the formation of America by securing the continent for the British (save for the culturally French area of Quebec, which was allowed to keep its language and customs in the aftermath of the battle, and of course, Mexico), thus giving the colonists something to rebel against in years to come (it’s also said that the British pissed off Washington at this point by not granting him a commission in the British Army, which may well have been a factor that contributed to America winning the Revolutionary War).

Unfortunately, the museum irritated me from the start due to the complete lack of proofreading on their signs.  In the sign pictured on the left, above, note the completely unnecessary possessive use of “Wolfe’s” in the section on Quebec House (the second possessive use is correct, but the first one should merely be a plural).  Also, does anyone else think the first section is written in a really bizarre tense? (Use of “chooses” in the first sentence, when the rest of the sentence was written in the past tense.)  Maybe I’m just a stickler for these things, but I notice an increasingly sloppy use of grammar and spelling amongst companies and organisations who should know better (for example, there’s a hotel/spa down the road from me that proudly advertises “masages” and hyponotherapy”), and I have to wonder what happened to all the proofreaders. I mean, we all make mistakes, myself included, but if you’re having a sign professionally made to hang in a museum, why wouldn’t you get someone to look it over first?! (If any interested parties are reading this, I’m available for freelance editing/proofreading!)

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Moving on, because I could dwell on grammatical annoyances all day, as I said, the museum is not large, and consists mainly of informational posters and maps, with a couple of rather boring videos thrown in for good measure (the videos basically just repeated verbatim what was written on the posters).  We finished making our way through in a matter of minutes, and moved on to the house.

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The house was a little better.  It was certainly an attractive property from the outside, and the inside contained a number of objects that drew my attention.  We were given a rather sparse room guide to carry around (at least this one didn’t have any glaring grammatical errors), and a few of the artefacts had additional captions on them, but as with most National Trust properties, it just wasn’t as much information as I would have liked.  Due to listening in on a conversation between a couple of visitors and one of the room guides (they started talking about Americans, and I was curious to hear what insulting things they would have to say), I learned that James Wolfe died when he was 32, having never married, and that there is only one picture of him as an adult that was actually drawn from life: a crude sketch done by a friend that is located inside the house.  There was a bust of him made after his death (in addition to the famous painting of his death scene done by Benjamin West) that was modeled on one of the family’s servants who was thought to have a resemblance to Wolfe.  He was also very tall for the time (6’2″) and thin, with a pale complexion (upon hearing this, my boyfriend gave me a look, because Wolfe sounded exactly like my type; pity the sketch of him led me to think he wasn’t terribly attractive (and had bright orange hair to boot)); some contemporaries thought he may have been suffering from tuberculosis, and wouldn’t have had long to live anyway, even if he hadn’t been killed in battle.

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In addition to paintings of Wolfe, various cannonballs from the battle, and medals and things, there was a copy of a book that was said to have Wolfe’s bloodstains on it, as he pricked his finger when reading it as a child.  There was also a re-creation of his bed, that we were apparently welcome to try out (though neither one of us did), and a room with lots of activities, including historical games for visitors to play, and a chance to practise writing with a quill.  If you visit on a Sunday, as we did, you can also try some of Mrs. Wolfe’s (James’s mother) family recipes, which volunteers make in the kitchen.  There’s something about old-timey food that turns my stomach (I threw up as a child after watching an 18th century cooking demonstration on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood because it looked so gross, and I quit an internship at a living history museum because they expected me to work in one of the kitchens, even after I told them I couldn’t because of my weird food issues), so there was no way I was going near something called “potato pudding,” especially as there seemed to be a bit of a communal spoon situation, but the seed cake, that old favourite of Victorian children’s literature, seemed safe enough, and it was reasonably pleasant.  Reminiscent of rye bread, probably because of the caraway seeds.

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Upon leaving the house, if you venture into the village green, there’s a statue of James Wolfe brandishing a sword (right next to one of Churchill I couldn’t get a picture of because children were climbing on it and refused to move, even after I gave them my angriest stare), which is probably worth seeing if you’ve come that far. If you do visit Quebec House, be forewarned that it doesn’t have its own carpark; you have to use the pay and display one that appears to be the sole village carpark as well, so you might well have to sit in your car for a while waiting for someone to leave, as we did.

Quebec House was certainly not without its faults, but as we have National Trust membership, I wasn’t too put out by them (except those signs, obviously).  If I’d had to pay I’d definitely have felt differently, but it still may be worth a stop on the way to Chartwell if you like American history as much as I do, and have a National Trust card, since there were a few decent artefacts to be seen inside.  Otherwise, you can probably give Quebec House a miss, unless you’re REALLY keen on seed cake or obscure military history.  2.5/5.

Guildford, Surrey: Clandon Park

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Well, we joined English Heritage last year, and have moved on to the National Trust this year, what’s happening to me?! (other than becoming more middle class, apparently). Yes, I’ve been known to talk some crap on them (and this post is no exception), but it when it comes right down to it, I still visit their properties and walking trails enough that a membership makes more sense than paying for everything individually (since they seem to own the whole of the North and South Downs).  Plus, although they do have the annoying policy of closing the houses yet leaving the grounds of their properties open in the winter (Because that’s what people want to do in the winter; walk around in the cold and look at dead gardens.  This literally makes no sense to me.  I understand they need to do conservation work, but why not just close off a room or two at a time, and leave the rest of the house open? Just add this to the long list of things I don’t understand about the world), it still seems like a higher proportion of National Trust houses are open relative to English Heritage ones.  So, my boyfriend and I broke in our shiny new (albeit flimsy…they couldn’t spring for plastic?  But I probably shouldn’t bitch too much since they sent us free binoculars) membership cards with a visit to Clandon Park, near Guildford.

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Clandon Park is one of the many slightly generic stately homes owned by the National Trust (that all start to blur together after a while).  The only reason we selected Clandon Park over other similar houses was its easy driving distance, and the fact that it had both an old operating theatre and a museum on the premises. But beware, if you’re not a National Trust member, it’s about a tenner to see the property, and it’s just not worth that much.

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Anyway, we started with the military museum (covering the Queen’s Royal Regiment and the East Surrey Regiment), because on their website it looked very much like the old-school military museums I had so enjoyed in Winchester.  Unfortunately, although it had some suitably amusing mannequins, it wasn’t half as good as the Winchester museums.  Part of this was because there was a sign outside advertising the dress-up box, so the place was filled with unruly children and their weary parents, who just seemed to let them run amok (and meant there was no chance that I was going to be able to try on a hat).  But it also just wasn’t as good; it seemed like there wasn’t really that much in there, and the signs weren’t written in the same charming old-fashioned style as in Winchester.  I don’t know, it didn’t really do it for me, for whatever reason, but I feel kind of bad saying that because the man working there was nice enough, and it’s not his fault that so many damn children were running around.

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The museum and restaurant and everything were all technically within the house building, but you had to go upstairs to see the decorated rooms that the family used to use.  The house was owned by the Onslows, which means nothing to me (they were nobility, but unmemorable nobility), and was built in the 1720s, in a Palladian style, to replace an earlier Jacobean house that sat on the property.  The family crest included six birds, and they obviously took that to heart, because there was a bird motif going on throughout the house.  The main room on the first floor was the Marble Hall, which, being all marble and unheated, was freezing cold.

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However, it contained some interesting decorative details, from the large bird paintings, to the arm shaped lamp holders on the walls, and the elaborate Greek mythology themed ceiling.  The Marble Hall is where you can sign up for guided tours, and then wait around for said tours to start, so it’s lucky there was plenty of stuff to look at, since we spent a bit of time milling around in here.  I know, I know, I don’t like guided tours, but they were free, and the only way you got to see some of the rooms, so we signed up for the attic tour.

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While we waited for it to start, we checked out some of the other rooms, including the operating theatre, which was there because the house was used as a hospital during the First World War.

 

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There was also an attractive library, and a dining room where we had the “privilege” of watching them do conservation work, which I personally think is a ploy to be able to charge people full admission price during the winter months when some of the rooms are closed (because seriously, conservation work is not exciting to watch), but I digress…  I was keenest on the display cases full of random crap, including a lock of George III’s hair, and depressingly, a pistol that was used to put dogs down at an early “humane” shelter.

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It was at this point that an old lady sitting in the corner of the room yelled at us for taking pictures (we half-suspect she may have been an Onslow hanging about to make sure people didn’t disrespect the property, since she seemed pretty intensely concerned), so all the photos of the interior are from rooms on the first floor, before we knew it was an issue.  It’s fine if they don’t allow pictures, but the sign at the entrance said (and I quote), “we welcome amateur photographers,” so I think if photography was only allowed in certain areas of the home, there really should have been another sign saying so.  I don’t need to be made to feel like a jerk when we genuinely didn’t know any better (I feel like a jerk most of the time anyway).

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Anyway, though I have no pictures of the second floor, it was mainly devoted to the pottery collection of a Mrs. Gubbay (who I guess lived in the house, or was an Onslow descendant, but this was never explained).  I think I mentioned a long time ago how I once wanted a set of these stupid Georgian looking musician frog figurines, until I realised they cost thousands of pounds.  Well, old Mrs. Gubbay had a similar set, only with monkeys (though obviously frogs are better than monkeys, but some people have more money than taste), and a bunch of creepy harlequin figurines.  The ceramic birds were alright though, I like birds.

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At this point, it was time to go see the attic, so we dutifully trooped off with the group up a few staircases.  The attic is primarily used today as storerooms for various National Trust properties, so it’s full of cool old crap we only got a brief glance of (like a room full of extremely creepy torso mannequins belonging to the military museum), but at one point the family was living up there, and renting out the rooms downstairs to boarders, so there was lots of neat Victorian wallpaper.  And there was one room with three toilets!  One of them was an actual private stall; a snazzy Victorian toilet added by one of the gentlemen of the house so he and his friends wouldn’t have to go downstairs when playing billiards, but the other two were just sitting out on the floor, right next to each other.  Apparently the room was used as lodging quarters for the nurses when the house was a military hospital, so maybe the toilets dated to then…I just hope there was some kind of partition around them when the poor nurses had to use them!

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We then headed out to explore the grounds.  The Onslows own hundreds of acres of land, but only seven of them were given to the National Trust, so all they have is the ground the house sits on, and a bit around it that seems to include some sort of folly.  Or maybe it was an ice house?  Or wine cave?  It was cool looking, whatever it was, but a sign explaining it sure would have been nice.

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The other main object of interest on the grounds was the Maori meeting house.  One of the Onslows was a bigwig in New Zealand (presumably a colonial governor or some such), and he was evidently popular enough that the Maori allowed him to ship one of their meeting houses back to England.  It remains the only meeting house outside New Zealand, serves as a religious place for the Maori, and tends to be visited by Kiwis when they’re in the UK for sporting events and the like.  You’re not allowed to go inside, except on special occasions, but I was able to get a pretty good look at the Tiki interior through the window.

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All in all, I wasn’t super thrilled with the house, but it wasn’t the most horrible National Trust property I’ve visited either.  It could be improved vastly by better signage, and maybe more helpful staff…there was a point where I was admiring some miniatures in a corner, and mused out loud what the one piece could be used for; the woman working in the room just stared at me blankly while I leafed through the brief descriptions in the room’s informational binder in search of an explanation.  I mean, I don’t like it when people are too aggressively helpful, but on this occasion I actually had a question, and was just ignored, so some happy medium would be nice. This review sounds more bitchy than I had intended, which I suppose means I really didn’t enjoy Clandon Park very much at all. So, 2/5, and here’s hoping I can enjoy this National Trust membership more when all their properties are open in the spring.

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An Afternoon in Winchester

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My boyfriend finally got a car again, which is exciting to a non-driver like me mainly because it means we can recommence our day trips (and easily go to the German bakery in Ham to get pretzels of a weekend).  The first longish drive we decided to take was to Winchester, in Hampshire.  Although the Round Table was one draw, I think my main reason for going was that Winchester’s Hospital of St. Cross was the closest filming location of Wolf Hall, but we got so caught up in visiting the military museums that I forgot all about it when we were there, so we never even saw the Hospital.  (Ok, I do not like Hilary Mantel, so have never read her books, and I know the whole thing is historically inaccurate, but I’m kind of hooked on the TV series.  It’s boring and confusing simultaneously, and yet I keep watching (though part of that may have something to do with Damian Lewis’s codpiece…I have problems).)

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Although I did visit a number of museums there, rather than break them up into separate posts, I’m just going to give a general overview of everything in one (I’m feeling lazy today) and speak a bit about the city…it has a cathedral, so it technically is a city I think, according to the bizarre rules of the English.  Historically speaking, Winchester was the capital of Wessex, so was a pretty big deal in the Anglo-Saxon world.  One thing I can definitely say about modern Winchester is that they have some interesting sculptures.  They have a buttercross, which is apparently a common thing in English market towns, and is just a large statue in the centre of the town (city?), where people would come to buy butter and eggs and such in olden times.  There’s still a market in the square on Saturdays, though nothing very exciting was for sale (unless you think mystery brand pillows are exciting).  Winchester also boasts some other eclectic statues, including Alfred the Great (in the middle of a busy road), a pig, and a naked man on a horse.  And they have some artistically painted bollards.

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There’s also a rather poignant WWI memorial just outside the Great Hall, and another elaborate commemorative affair next to some nearby castle ruins.  As for the Great Hall itself, it holds the supposed Round Table of King Arthur, as pictured at the start of the post.  Obviously, it did not belong to Arthur (who probably didn’t even exist, and certainly not in the form of the Arthur of legend, even if he was an historical figure), and was instead created for Edward I in the late 13th century.  It was subsequently re-discovered later on, after Malory had popularised the Arthurian legend, and thought to be the mythological Arthur’s table, so Henry VIII had it painted with a Tudor rose and a portrait of Arthur that looked suspiciously like a grey-haired version of Henry (and nothing like Damian Lewis, because even when Henry was young and not yet morbidly obese and disgusting, he still wasn’t anywhere near as attractive as the actors they usually get to play him).

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The Great Hall is free to visit, and also contains a pretty kick-ass sculpture of Queen Victoria, some random gargoyley bits, and a “long gallery” with more information about the history of the Great Hall and Winchester generally (and there’s one of those penny flattening machines in the gift shop, with some excellent choices of design).

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Not far from the Great Hall, you’ll find the old military barracks, which are now split up into five different museums.  An old sign outside the information centre tells you that they’re free, but don’t believe it, as they all charge a relatively modest admission fee (2-5 pounds), which is fine, but can add up if you want to see all of them.  So we just chose the two that sounded the most interesting, and conveniently enough, considering how cold it was that day, were in the same building: The Gurkha Museum, and Horsepower, the Museum of the King’s Royal Hussars (I chose the latter because their brochure specifically promised authentic smells).

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Now, these were proper old school museums, so don’t go in expecting frills and interactive crap, but as old school is exactly the kind of thing I love, I was in heaven.  The Gurkhas were not soldiers I knew a whole lot about (honestly, I didn’t even know they were Nepalese before visiting…I knew they were Asian, but didn’t know from where exactly, which is probably a shameful display of ignorance), so I learned a lot, despite the museum’s rather, er, paternalistic tone.  It was like a flashback to the days of Empire, and was sort of geared to make you feel that colonialism was a great thing, glossing neatly over the many, many, many problems with it, and the reasons why the Gurkhas were fighting in the first place.  Despite these issues, I thoroughly enjoyed myself, particularly liking the mannequin dioramas with motion sensors that triggered light and sound when you walked past. Like I said, proper old school.

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The Horsepower Museum was also lovely, and delivered completely on the brochure’s promises; namely authentic smells, and the chance to sit on a saddle and try on a busby (photographic evidence of this provided above).  Actually, the authentic smells permeated the whole museum, so you could smell them as soon as you walked in, but that just enhanced the experience.  The Royal Hussars took part in the Charge of the Light Brigade, amongst many other wars and battles, so there was some interesting material here.  I also have to mention the volunteers working at both museums, who were very nice and welcoming, especially the gentleman at Horsepower.  If you like old-fashioned museums as much as I do, and can deal with a bit of historical whitewashing, I’d definitely recommending checking out a military museum or two in Winchester.

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Of course, Winchester is probably most famous for its cathedral (below, left).  After I found out Jane Austen was buried there, I was gung-ho to visit…until I realised you had to pay £7.50 to get in.  I’m not sure why I was surprised by this, since Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s charge admission, but most cathedrals I’ve been to operate on a recommended donation basis – as I felt it was too close to closing time to get my money’s worth, I decided we could skip it this time around.  Instead, we headed over to the Winchester City Museum, which was right next door to the cathedral, and was free.

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It was also very close to closing time for the Winchester City Museum, so I opted to skip the top floor, which was just Roman stuff (since I am not that big on the Romans), and head to the Anglo-Saxon one below it.  They had an intriguing selection of medieval face jugs, and a super creepy stone angel that my boyfriend jerkishly claimed had moved, so I had to spend most of my time keeping an eye on it, just in case (anyone else still traumatised by those damn Weeping Angels?!).

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Weirdly, the floor below it seemed to jump from the early Middle Ages to Edwardian Winchester.  Ok, there was a little sign about the 18th century, but no late Middle Ages, or Tudors, or Civil War or anything.  Granted, Winchester was on the decline after the Anglo-Saxon period, but the buttercross and the Round Table and everything date from that missing era, so you’d think they could have said something about it.

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But, they did have a re-creation of a tobaccanist’s shop, and an apothecary, so I can’t complain too much, because that was rad.  Overall, this museum wasn’t overly impressive, but it was free, and was something to do (when I should have been seeing the Hospital of St. Cross if I hadn’t been busy being a total airhead that day). There’s another local museum that’s supposed to have historic weights and measures, but I don’t think it was open for the season yet when we visited.  There’s also a National Trust watermill on the hilariously named River Itchen that looks intriguing, though we missed that as well.  However, I did make a point of eating some cheese straws in Winchester, from a bakery I found recommended online.  It’s a chain with locations throughout Wiltshire and Hampshire called Reeve the Baker, and their cheese straws were still-warm and amazing (and only 50p each!), so if you like cheesy bready things as much as I do, get over to their charming Tudor-esque high street and have yourself one of the little grease-bombs.

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Winchester turned out to be quite a good outing.  I’m surprised I hadn’t been there before, since it’s not really that far away, but now I think I will definitely be back at some point, as I still have to see the Hospital of St. Cross and Winchester Cathedral (and get some more of those cheese straws).  Also, I have never seen so many small dogs wearing hilarious sweaters in my life.  The high street was full of them (and some adorable sweater-less big dogs) and it was great, so I may need to return just to be entertained by the fashionable canine population.   Therefore, I can certainly recommend Winchester to anyone who likes history, cheese-based pastries, statues, and be-clothed dogs.

Oh, and in other news, you may have noticed from the sidebar that I finally got an Instagram account (I had to wait until I got a new phone, because my old one was too old to support it)!  You can follow me @jsajovie and get occasional glimpses of museums I’m going to blog about in the future, books I like to read, and all the other miscellaneous heavily-filtered junk that everyone posts on Instagram.  (And I promise I will be super thrilled if someone actually does follow me, because I only have 12 followers right now and it looks sad.)

London: WWI Galleries at the Imperial War Museum

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I’m actually kind of embarrassed to admit that this was my first visit to the Imperial War Museum, especially because I used to live within walking distance of it (in the old E&C, boy am I glad not to be living there anymore!). In fairness to me, it had been closed for a long time whilst they were revamping it, but I think it’s been open again since the summer, so no more excuses!  Actually, I do have one more excuse…by the time I made it there last week, after a long day spent running errands, it was already well after 4 (as you may be able to tell from the nighttime photograph, although I suppose it could have been about 3 and that dark these days) and there was absolutely no earthly way I’d have time to see everything (I think the museum has about 5 floors; just look at it, it’s huge!) so I decided to zero on one of the areas I knew they’d put a special focus on redoing, the First World War Galleries.

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The WWI stuff is in the basement, which was quite convenient as I just happened to wander down there in search of the toilets.  From the outside, it didn’t look like much, and I thought I’d be able to zip through and maybe move onto the Second World War.  I was wrong, because everything is hidden in galleries that snake through the interior of the museum, and it is huge and awesome in there.

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Now, I have been to a lot of WWI museums in the past couple of years (the Ijzer Tower, and the In Flanders Fields museums spring instantly to mind, but there’s been plenty more that touch on it, most recently the Wellington Arch), and though I do still think the Ijzer Tower rocked because of its sheer size, the Imperial War Museum blew the rest of them out of the water.  It was just very comprehensive, and took you through each stage of the war (and the home front, in Britain and Europe) in chronological order, which I really appreciated.

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I believe that the IWM is run by a different organisation than the one that manages the Royal Armouries in Leeds, but that’s kind of what it reminded me of, only more in depth.  There were tonnes of strategy games and other interactive things that really made it fun; I got to play a game where I removed broken Huntley and Palmer biscuits from the production line (which brought on flashbacks to one of my earliest posts on the biscuit tin gallery at the Reading Museum).  Regular readers will know that I’m no great fan of children, and I think part of what made my experience so nice was that there were none of them in there (maybe because it was past school hours, and not a weekend) so the adults actually got a chance to play all the games, which was great.  They also had a dress-up bit, and a display where you could check to see if you were fit to be a soldier by measuring your height and girth and such (I was too short to have made the grade initially, but would have passed muster after they lowered their standards…and if I was a man of course).

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Speaking of flashbacks and such, I knew there would be something about Edith Cavell in there, she pops up everywhere else, even when you’re not expecting her!  I wasn’t disappointed as they had one of her nursing caps.  This was in addition to a splendid collection of uniforms, including one of Kaiser Wilhelm’s with a shortened sleeve for his withered arm.

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Actually, there were lots of very cool artefacts.  You may be able to tell from the pictures I took that I’m kind of partial to the recruitment posters, but they also had figurines representing Churchill, David Lloyd George, Philippe Petain, and Woodrow Wilson (I couldn’t get a good photo of Wilson because of the awkward lighting though), and plenty of things that the troops actually took into battle, including the creepy ventriloquist’s dummy shown above that one soldier apparently used to “entertain” his fellow soldiers.  Getting shot at, sprayed with poison gas, and being forced to listen to a ventriloquist…damn, war really is hell.

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I thought I was pretty well versed in the war generally after having been to all these museums, reading a book about it here and there, and watching Paxman’s series on it last spring, but there was so much information here that I managed to learn some things.  For instance, did you know that the French 75 cocktail was named after a type of cannon (shown above)?  I love French 75s, as they’re a mix of champagne, gin, lemon juice, and sugar, which is pretty much what I’m looking for in an alcoholic beverage, but I wasn’t aware of the Great War connection until the helpful placard pointed it out to me.

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I know that America, due to their isolationist policies, entered the war very late, but I liked that the galleries also gave some space to the Doughboys, and some of Wilson’s post-war plans, because sometimes I do feel a bit left out of things at other European war museums.   I also liked that there was some information on German civilians and how difficult life was with food shortages (the dishes below are ones they were encouraged to use to conserve food, and they’re about the size of a child’s tea set.  Britain also had rationing dishes, but they were at least three times the size of the German ones), not to mention the weird substitutions that were encouraged (I think the text on that poster with the gnome on it translated to something like, “Need oil?  Use mushrooms!”  How does that even work?  They’re so watery and horrible!).

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Skipping ahead to the end of the war, there was of course the obligatory poignant section about the horrific injuries of some of the survivors, as well as a recognition of the many dead soldiers and civilians, but being the Imperial War Museum, and not a war memorial, it wasn’t dwelt upon as much as at some other places.  The quote on a wall from Harry Patch, the last surviving British soldier from WWI (who is now deceased) was simple, and yet stuck with me, “I’ve tried for 80 years to forget it.  But I can’t.”  I think that does sum up the impact the war had on Britain, even to this day, and why exhibits like these are still so important.

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I really do think there was something for everyone here, with attention given to the roles of women, children, and pacifists in the war, as well as plenty of weaponry and artillery for people who are into that stuff (they even had a mock trench, though it wasn’t anywhere near as elaborate as the ones at Ijzer Tower).  It wasn’t quite as specialist as some exhibits I’ve seen, so hardcore military historians might not find much for them (though I think the quality of the artefacts is excellent, and quite varied) but for the average person who just loves history generally, they’re perfect. I think you can tell that I loved the WWI Galleries, and I spent a fantastic hour exploring them.  I will definitely now make a point to return to the IWM (though I may or may not blog about it, I don’t want to bore everyone, but there might be some other really cool exhibits), and I advise others to do the same.  I can’t compare the galleries to what they had before, since I never saw the earlier ones, but they are really spectacular now.  4.5/5

 

 

 

London: The Wellington Arch

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If you’ve ever been to Hyde Park Corner, you’ve probably noticed the Wellington Arch looming nearby.  What you might not have known (unless you noticed people standing on the balcony) is that you can actually go inside the Arch.  It’s owned by English Heritage, and as such there is a fee (£4.20), but my membership doesn’t expire until the spring, so I put that card to good use once again.

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It’s four flights of stairs up to the top, or you can use the lift, but I like the sense of accomplishment I get from taking the stairs, so up we went.  There are museum displays on three of the levels, but they recommend you head straight up to the top first and then make your way back down.  The balcony is a bit odd because it’s split in two by the museum floor, so you have to go back in and then out the opposite door to see around the entire Arch.

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As you can see, it was quite overcast when we visited (no surprises there) but that meant there were barely any other visitors, and didn’t stop us from getting tourist-esque shots of the London Eye and the Shard (and the back garden of Buckingham Palace, where the BFG is meant to live).

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Back inside the Arch (which smells pleasantly like a crypt…or maybe I’m the only one who enjoys the smell of damp limestone?), the small museum space on the fourth floor is dedicated to WWI memorials, with pictures of a number of interesting designs (I was most intrigued by the soldier pictured below – his original head was vandalised, which is terrible and not funny, but they replaced it with what was meant to be a temporary head, and it seriously looked like something I could have sculpted.  I mean, really, could they not find a single artist or sculptor to do something decent?  I believe the hilarious head has finally been replaced with something suitably dignified and solemn).  This display included some information on the Royal Artillery Memorial that sits directly opposite the Arch (it can be seen at the bottom of this post).

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The Great War theme carried on to the gallery below, which had an excellent collection of postcards produced by different countries in the War; Germany took the glorification of soldiers’ deaths to an art form…looking at the postcards, you could really see how they were setting themselves up for the dark path they’d go down in the decades to come, as they clearly portrayed how wronged Germany felt by the rest of Europe, and how they saw themselves as martyrs.

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Speaking of martyrs, there was also a small section dedicated to the ever-present Edith Cavell (I’ve encountered exhibits about her in Belgium, Norwich, and the London Hospital Museum, not to mention her statue next to the National Portrait Gallery), and how her death spurred on the British war effort and various other war related bits and pieces, including an excellent death mask of General Haig.

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Finally, we made our way down to the first floor gallery on the history of the Wellington Arch itself (there’s nothing on the second floor).  Initially, the Arch was meant to serve as part of a grand entrance to Buckingham Palace, but that ultimately wasn’t deemed practical, so it was erected at Hyde Park Corner instead, and originally did not have a statue on top.  However, it was decided that Wellington should have a memorial to match Nelson’s Column (Wellington was still alive at the time, and played a role in spurring things along).  So, they plopped a huge equestrian statue of Wellington on top the Arch (which is very near Apsley House, Wellington’s home, which we did not have a chance to visit that day because it was already quite late in the afternoon), which totally dwarfed the Arch; basically, everyone but Wellington hated it, but because ol’ Arthur threw a temper tantrum and threatened to resign all his posts when they tried to take it down, it remained in place until well after his death.

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It doesn’t end there, as the Arch had to be moved in the 1880s, since (horse-drawn) traffic in the area was becoming a real problem.  As the Duke was long dead at this point, his statue was finally removed and given a new home in Aldershot, and the current statue that tops the Arch was commissioned – called Triumph, it’s of a four-horse carriage.  Anyway, in addition to all this history, the room contained some of the casts of Triumph; the boy head was especially creepy.

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The Arch also used to serve as Britain’s smallest police station, to keep tabs on nearby Hyde Park, and even had a resident cat, called Snook, living inside it, as well as up to 8 officers at any given time.  This was all surprisingly interesting, and it’s always nice to get a new perspective on a London landmark (I suppose literally, since we got to see the inside).  I don’t know if I would have wanted to pay 4 quid for this, as I am pretty cheap, but I did really enjoy it, and I’m glad I finally got to see the top of the Arch.  Now I just need to visit Apsley House before my membership expires!  3/5.

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Adegem, Belgium: Canada – Poland WWII Museum

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I’m not going to lie; Canada-Poland War Museum made my must-see list solely on the rumoured amazingness of their mannequins.  I’ll get to them in a minute, but first, a little background.  “Why is there a Canadian and Polish museum in a small town in the middle of Belgium?” you may be asking yourself, which is a reasonable question.  The answer is that a Belgian man who helped to hide people from the Gestapo during the war had his life saved in the nick of time by the Polish and Canadian liberators.  Thus, he requested (on his death-bed) that a museum be created as a mark of gratitude for the soldiers who liberated Belgium, and it was duly opened by his son in 1995.

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Adegem is about halfway between Brugge and Gent, and not terribly far from Brussels either (Flanders really isn’t all that big).  There were some signs on the main road that directed us through a small village to the museum.  The museum stands in a plain, bunker-like building alone in the middle of a parking lot; a sharp contrast to the well-manicured gardens we passed on the way up the driveway.  Once inside, the wood-beamed ceilings and brick walls in the entryway gave it more of a European country-lodge feel (it reminded me of this Slovenian restaurant in Cleveland I went to with my family as a kid), which carried over to the cafe full of older people having a jolly tea.  The rather gruff lady manning the bar didn’t speak English, so she got a happier lady from the back to assist us.  Admission is 5 euros per museum (Canada and Poland are treated separately) or 8 euros for both, and this is a cash-only kind of place, so come prepared.  The Canada Museum is larger than the Poland one, but neither one is all that big, so you may as well see both.

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Admission paid, the nicer lady let us into the Poland Museum, which was on the upper floor, and gave us a token for access to the Canada Museum when we finished.  Upon climbing the stairs, we were immediately greeted by a display case spanning the length of the room, filled with the promised mannequins modelling the full range of Polish uniforms.  Rad.  The Poland Museum consisted of three rooms primarily filled with miniature recreations of battlefields, and lots more mannequins posed in various wartime scenes.  In addition, there was a surprisingly graphic video showing Polish officers being massacred by the Soviets, which definitely lent a darker element to the otherwise delightful mannequin displays.  I am of largely Polish ancestry (though everyone emigrated to America before the First World War, and my grandfather was in the US Army in WWII), so I was interested to learn more about the role of the Poles in the war, and liked seeing their rather snazzy uniforms, even though the information provided was limited.  As I mentioned, this museum wasn’t terribly large, so it wasn’t long before we headed downstairs to the Canada Museum.

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The Canada Museum was more comprehensive than the Poland one, and felt, at least in the first section, more like a German Museum than a Canadian one.  The Canada Museum was set up along a long, dark corridor that twisted and wrapped around like a maze, with glass cases the height of the room on both sides, filled with even better mannequins than the ones upstairs.  Though the first part was a display of a number of Nazi uniforms (and of course, tales of their atrocities), it soon progressed to a more complete history of the war, with huge posters detailing the events of each year of WWII (though curiously, stopping with 1943).  Although it was much larger than the Poland Museum, this was because only part of it was actually devoted to Canada.  Pictures weren’t permitted in this area, so unfortunately I can’t show you all the inappropriately enthusiastic smiles on the faces of the mannequins arranged in various battle tableaux (yes, more than there were at the IJzertoren!).  Again, it was interesting to see all the different uniforms and to learn more about the Canadian forces, but even here, with more information, something still felt a bit lacking and incomplete (aside from the fact that we never got to 1945!).

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Although I obviously enjoyed the mannequins (as always), I think the admission price was a little steep for the size of the museums, especially compared to other places we visited in Belgium.  I think it would appeal more to war-buffs than those with a casual interest, as it did assume a fair bit of prior knowledge on the part of the visitor (not just general WWII history, but of specific battles and politics).  The material had a distinctly Belgian slant, but what worked well for the IJzertoren made me feel a bit uncomfortable here (I must respectfully disagree about there being anything particularly “noble” about Leopold III surrendering to the Nazis, though I do understand that the perilous position they were in led to it), and didn’t offer a very well-rounded perspective.  That said (and even though I find WWI more interesting than WWII), it was nice to see something on a war that touched Belgium just as profoundly, but generally gets less attention than the First World War.  It certainly was a quirky little museum, and I hope they keep doing their thing, just maybe providing more background information in future.  3/5.

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Stunning beards on the men in the portraits on the wall.

 

Ypres (Ieper), Belgium: In Flanders Fields Museum

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After visiting the IJzertoren, we stuck to the WWI theme by heading to Ypres; unwittingly arriving on the day of the Ypres Rally, which meant navigating around closed-off streets.  In Flanders Fields Museum is located in the centre of town (which was full of frituur carts on account of the rally, bonus!) in the attractive Cloth Hall, which was rebuilt after being destroyed in the war along with much of the rest of Ypres. Admission to the museum is  8 euros, which includes access to several other museums in Ypres (none of which we had time to visit, unfortunately), and a poppy wristband, which is the really the main gimmick.  At the start of the museum, you enter in some personal information into a computer (age, gender, country, etc.), which allows your museum experience to be personalised based on your life experiences.

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Scattered throughout the exhibits, you’ll find little scanners to scan your wristband with, which will bring up a screen of information on someone in the war who is a similar age, or from near your hometown, clearly designed to make you empathize with the soldiers (the closest they got to my hometown was through the story of a Belgian lady who emigrated to Detroit).  Though I found this element of the museum neat, it was nowhere near as powerful as actually looking at the possessions of soldiers who were killed in action, which were placed in glass cases along the walls.

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Unlike the IJzertoren, In Flanders Fields was very technologically orientated.  In addition to the wristbands, video screens were also placed throughout the museum, which projected actors playing soldiers, doctors, nurses, and townspeople onto the walls, so they could talk about their wartime experiences.  Because of this, the lighting was kept quite dim, which made reading some of the captions a bit difficult.  But, only a few of the cases had actual captions to read in the first place – most of the information was kept on yet more wristband scanning screens, which was fine if you had a display case to yourself, but if an area was quite crowded, you were left fairly clueless about the artefacts.  I presume this came about to facilitate the inclusion of more languages than they could have put on a physical sign, but I’m old-fashioned in my taste in museums, and would have preferred at least some basic signage to accompany the computers.

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The artefacts included the usual sort of war memorabilia – uniforms, armour, weapons, and other general kit.  As I mentioned above, the most poignant parts of the museum were the cases full of the belongings of deceased soldiers, which included things like photographs and snippets of letters written to family that never made it home. I wish there could have been more of that sort of thing, and slightly less gadgetry.  Still, some of the technological aspects were actually pretty cool, namely a huge map of Belgian battlefields that you could click on to see the changes in the landscape from 1914 to the present day.  The work Belgium has done to preserve the history and appearance of its towns is truly impressive, unlike some of the hideous post-war construction in other countries (er, like the UK).

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The focus of the museum was largely on combat and the experience of the average soldier, so there wasn’t too much on more specialist topics, like wartime medicine (though I see there’ll be a special exhibit on it next year).  They did have some pictures of injured soldiers and reconstructive surgery, but they were hidden, as were all the other “grisly” photographs, inside these weird tent-like structures, which were even darker than the rest of the museum, so it was quite difficult to look at them.  I understand this museum is aimed largely at schoolchildren, but I don’t think images of death should be hidden away; rather, I think it’s important for people to see the cost of war.  I think even putting them in a special section with a warning or something posted outside would have been a better choice than pasting them to the roof of a wigwam.

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The current special exhibition features art by Stephen Hurst relating to Ypres and his impressions of the First World War.  Most of it was surprisingly playful in tone, but I don’t think there was really enough signage to adequately explain why this was so.  The entire museum was on the upper floor of the building, as the ground floor was devoted to tourist information, and a shop that seemed to have a nice collection of relevant books, and a WWI deck of playing cards that I secretly wanted after noticing Woodrow Wilson was on one of the cards (I’m a complete sucker for presidential tat.  I still desperately want the Presidential Pez set, especially the lesser known presidents).

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Though the museum ostensibly told the story of WWI from a Flemish perspective, due to the personalised interactives, it felt like a more inclusive interpretation of the war than at the IJzertoren.  However, by taking a broader outlook, the history was by necessity far more general, so I suppose it just depends what sort of presentation you prefer.  Obviously, I like a specialised and more intimate approach, so I preferred IJzertoren.  I think In Flanders Fields often felt like it was trying too hard; it should have taken its cue from John McCrae’s eloquent (and eponymous) poem, and kept things simpler.  The rare moments where I was able to feel an emotional connection to the soldiers through the things they left behind were ultimately spoiled by the overuse of modern technology.  2.5/5; probably more enjoyable for the many children visiting than for adults.

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Whilst near Ypres, we also stopped to visit the restored Yorkshire Trench in an industrial estate outside of town. Though the underground part is closed off for safety reasons, it was interesting to be able to walk through the trench, to get an idea of the dimensions of it.  Our last stop of the day was Tyne Cot cemetery, where over 10,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers are buried.  Tyne Cot has a visitor’s centre full of soldiers’ possessions, like at In Flanders Fields, but they are made even more moving by the fact that all the soldiers are buried right there.  Although the visit was marred somewhat by the British schoolchildren who were allowed to run screaming through the cemetery and clamber all over the monuments, I still think everyone should visit at least one of the war cemeteries, as staring at thousands of identical graves really drives home the human scale of the devastation.  It was quite a sombre day overall, but I’m glad I finally got to experience Ypres.

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