museum

London: Opus Anglicanum @ the V&A

Sorry, I seem to be blogging about a lot of temporary exhibits lately where photography isn’t allowed, and this is yet another one.  I always think not including pictures is especially obnoxious when the exhibition is based around a type of art (rather than objects, though I suppose all museum displays are primarily visual in nature), but my hands are tied by the V&A’s policy and the guard in constant rotation around the exhibit to enforce it.  Anyway “Opus Anglicanum” (literally “English Work”) is an exhibition the Victoria and Albert Museum has on until 5 February 2017, and is all about medieval English embroidery.  Which probably doesn’t sound terribly thrilling (especially without any visuals, but bear with me).

First, the practicalities. Opus Anglicanum costs £12; I only went because they offer half-price admission to National Art Pass holders, so I got in for £6.  It also may be advisable to book online, as the V&A tends to always be busy, and it seems like they don’t release very many tickets per time slot (though there were still enough people in there to make it unpleasantly crowded at times); fortunately, unlike most other museums, they don’t charge a booking fee, you can book on the day of your visit, and they include all the discounts and concessions available as options when booking, so it’s quite easy to do so, and it means you don’t have to queue in the ticket line when you get to the museum.

Although the V&A is one of those vast institutions where if you take a wrong turn you’ll probably find yourself in a room you’ve never seen before, even if you’ve been there like 20 times, there are large signs pointing the way to Opus Anglicanum, so it is easy to find your way there, but the only indication that you’ve arrived is the ticket booth outside, because the Opus Anglicanum sign is hidden inside the doors to the exhibit.  The exhibition space was (probably by necessity, we are talking old, old fabrics here) quite dark, with the embroidered pieces (mostly copes, chasubles, and panels) inside glass cases lining the walls. By the way, in case you’re wondering (I know I was!) copes and chasubles are both types of religious vestment, sort of cloaky/poncho-y things.  You can see some examples on the exhibition page that I linked to in the first paragraph (and please do look at them since I have no photos to show you!).

As I said, it was fairly crowded; not crazy Museum of London crowded, where you actually have to queue to look at anything, but crowded enough that I sometimes had to crane my neck to look over the shoulders of people to read captions.  This wasn’t helped by how annoying some of my fellow visitors were, especially a group of what appeared to be university students who were jotting down notes as some woman lectured in front of a case, all of them completely oblivious to the fact that they were blocking the case for everyone else, and weren’t even looking at the objects within the case themselves!  Why they couldn’t have listened to a lecture on the benches provided or in the open centre space away from the exhibits, I do not know.  Fortunately, most of the people were congregated in the first and last rooms, so I was able to move along the middle section with ease.

Now, about the embroideries themselves: as the V&A say on their exhibition website, “from the 12th to the 15th centuries, England enjoyed an international reputation for the quality of its luxury embroideries.”  This was an attempt to showcase some surviving examples, there not being many of them, because as you can imagine, cloth doesn’t hold up particularly well centuries on.  Also, many of the ones that were located in England were destroyed during the Reformation.  Bearing that in mind, it’s rather incredible that they had as many examples as they did (I can’t even keep clothes hole-free from one year to the next unless I double-bag them in plastic, thanks to my impossible-to-get-rid-of moth infestation).  And most of the pieces they did have, despite being largely religious in nature, were very enjoyable indeed.

In addition to having a fondness for the way medieval artists rendered faces, I also like the way they depicted animals (and the unicorn just chillin’ out in a depiction of the Garden of Eden was another bonus), and there was lots of those embroidered on these objects.  I was also unexpectedly partial to the many, many depictions of the martyrdom of various saints.  Perhaps surprisingly, given how many years I was forced to attend Sunday School, I know very little about how saints were martyred.  For some reason they didn’t teach us that there, which is a shame, because that is the one part of religious education I could have actually derived some enjoyment from, given my fondness for both the macabre and memorising useless facts.  There was one panel in particular that showed the martyrdom of nine different saints that I was completely fascinated by.  One of them (Bartholomew, I looked it up after I got home) was being flayed alive, another (Hippolytus) was being pulled apart by horses, and another (Stephen I think) was being stoned to death, yet the saints had calm expressions, with only slightly sad down-turned mouths to hint at any kind of distress, which I found hilarious in a grim way.  Also, there was another scene that was apparently depicting the conversion of St. Paul, but it looked like someone was sticking something up his butt, more like a martyrdom a la Edward II (not that he’s a saint, but you know what I mean) than anything.  I’ve tried looking it up, but can’t make sense of it, so if anyone else knows the story behind (ha!) this please do let me know!

The “Jesse Tree” also seems to have bee a popular motif, as there were about ten depictions of it here (still not entirely sure what a Jesse Tree is, but my friend who attended Catholic school used to call me that as a child, which pissed me off because I hate being called Jessie), and lots of Holy Family scenes. There was also a shirt belonging to Edward the Black Prince, some splendid brass rubbings of knights that were drawn in almost an Edward Gorey-esque style (or more likely, Edward Gorey copied that style), loads of items sewn with gold and silver thread, which is why they had survived so long, and a few pieces of stained glass with amusing angel designs.  In addition, I loved the illuminated manuscript depicting the Garden of Eden (with the aforementioned unicorn), and I thought it was awesome that they had a surviving embroidery needle in one of the cases! But unsurprisingly, my favourite piece there was entirely secular in nature: The Fishmongers’ Pall, commissioned in the 16th century by the Fishmongers’ Guild and used to cover guild member’s coffins (I think up to the present day!), was a magnificent piece of embroidery from the last years of English dominance of the art, and was covered in delightful merpeople.  The end of English embroidery came about shortly after the mid-16th century, largely because of Henry VIII (the man has a lot to answer for), as elaborate gold-and-silver embroidery wasn’t much in demand in Protestant churches, and in the secular world had somewhat gone out of fashion amongst the nobility as well.

I think the exhibit did an adequate job of explaining the rise and fall of English embroidery, although I would have appreciated more context on some of the saint martyrdom pieces, since they looked so interesting (read: gory) and I really had no idea what was going on in most of them!  Same goes for some of the other less well-known religious images as well; for example, all the Jesse Tree pieces had captions saying that Jesse was asleep at the bottom, but who was Jesse, why was he asleep, and most importantly, why the hell was there a tree growing out of his head?! Also, although it was large enough to justify £6, there ain’t no way this was a £12 exhibition, but the V&A’s exhibition prices tend to be rather high, so it wasn’t unexpected (it is in Kensington after all, must pay the bills somehow!).  The embroideries themselves are very enjoyable, and well worth seeing just for the animals (lions with eyebrows!  I was glad to see that I’m not the only person that draws eyebrows on animals (eyebrows add personality, I think)) and the facial expressions on some of the embroidered people, but don’t expect to spend a lot of time here, because the captions are fairly short and there’s nothing interactive. 3.5/5.

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London: The Wimbledon Windmill Museum

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Considering that I’ve lived within walking distance of the Wimbledon Windmill Museum for the past few years, it’s almost embarrassing that I didn’t make it there until last weekend.  In my defence, it had only reopened for the season at the end of March, and this past weekend was the first one warm enough to merit a walk in quite some time.  After a lengthy stroll down the dirt trails of the Common (tip, if it has rained any time in recent memory, be forewarned that those paths get super muddy!), we came to the museum, which is situated in a bucolic spot, inside an actual 1817 windmill.

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Admission was a modest £2, and I was immediately confident we would get our money’s worth upon spying these excellent mannequins set up near the entrance.  Proceeding into the museum, numerous countrified delights awaited us, including a small collection of flails and other harvesting tools, and an entire room crammed full of odds and ends donated by a millwright.  The largest space on the ground floor was given over to model windmills, including a tiny replica of the very windmill we were standing in (I don’t know whether the model windmill contained an even smaller windmill, with an even smaller one inside that, but I like to think that it did).  The best thing about this was that all of the model windmills actually worked, and I spent many delighted minutes pressing the buttons to watch the various blades whir round.

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Finally, I tore myself away from the buttons, and we headed upstairs.  This section was devoted to the actual workings of the windmill, and the process of grinding grain, which children could try their hands at (although a disturbing number of them seemed to want to stick their fingers between the grindstones, so it’s probably good there was a lady there to supervise).  I contented myself with reading the many captions on everything, and actually learned quite a few facts about windmills, including the history of the Wimbledon windmill in particular.

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Woo, windmill facts!

It seems that it was originally built as a backlash to the large grain manufacturers in Wandsworth, as people didn’t trust the quality of the grain (fair enough, as the 19th century is notorious for its adulterated foodstuffs, which only got worse as the century went on.  I recommend reading The Arsenic Century if you want to find out more about the extent of it, but basically, almost everything was poisonous, to some degree.), so they wanted a “windmill of the people,” if you will, to be built on the Common. However, it only served as a functioning windmill until 1864, when it was converted into “cottages” which were in reality unbelievably cramped flats, which were only usable until the 1890s due to their deteriorating condition.

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They had an example of one of the cottages, inhabited by a dressmaker, which was only two rooms, each maybe only 7′ by 7′, and irregularly shaped due to the octagonal shape of the windmill.  They somehow managed to divide the windmill into 8 cottages, of 2-3 rooms each, when in reality, it could been have comfortably made into maybe two flats.  Seriously, they had the census records for the windmill during the 1880s, and there were like forty people living there simultaneously (including the fabulously named Priscilla Pennycook)!  Still, every room had a fireplace and a window, and they depicted the dressmaker as having two cats, shown above, so there were some perks.

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The rest of the floor had another, larger model Wimbledon Windmill, and a small case of objects relating to the Scouts, (which I confess I didn’t spend much time looking at), as well as more facts about Wimbledon Common in general, including the juicy tidbit that the Duke of Wellington once fought a duel there (I have a bit of a thing for Wellington, largely because he looks kind of hot in his Napoleonic Wars-era portraits).  Finally, there was a ladder leading up to the old storage area of the windmill. Despite my fear of going down ladders (the going up part is ok), I braved it for the sake of this blog.  It was worth it to see the beam that old workmen had carved their names on, including one from 1893, though there were a revolting amount of flies clinging to one dingy window.

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The gift shop was a good one, with lots of postcards, and other fun windmill related diversions, including books, and paper model windmills for self-assembly.  I couldn’t resist the bags of homemade fudge (advertised as being made with local Wimbledon honey) near the till, and it was delicious fudge indeed.  I’d advise having some extra cash on hand to pick some up if you’re in the area, and have a raging sweet tooth like mine.

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I’m going to give the Wimbledon Windmill Museum a 3/5.  It is rather small, but I found all the information within engaging, though it admittedly does help that I live in the area and thus have some interest in the history of Wimbledon (especially the stuff that’s NOT about tennis).  I think it’s a good museum for a sunny summer afternoon, as you could get in a visit and a lovely walk on the Common (Me promoting walking?  What is the world coming to?!), instead of making a special trip just for the museum – but, if you’re already in the area, just go.  You’ll like it, and even if you don’t, you’re only out £2.

Dublin, Ireland: National Museum of Ireland, Chester Beatty Library, and the National Wax Museum Plus

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Last June, my boyfriend had to travel to Ireland for work, so we reasoned that I might as well go over there a few days early with him, so we could make a weekend out of it.  For some inexplicable reason, we decided to divide our time between Dublin and Cork, which in retrospect, was a mistake.  We drove through a bit of the countryside, and it seemed lovely, but I found the cities to be remarkably unpleasant, which was probably not helped by the fact that we were there the weekend of some major Catholic conference, so our hotel in Dublin was primarily full of priests and nuns who gave me the hairy eyeball every time I passed them in the hall.  I was raised Catholic, and thus still have a healthy dose of residual guilt, so I’m not bashing the priests and nuns; it simply wasn’t the most welcoming environment. Anyway, the one saving grace of Dublin was its museums.

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We visited two branches of the National Museum of Ireland: Archeology, and Natural History. I’m not sure why we skipped Decorative Arts and History, but knowing me, I was probably cranky because it was raining, my feet hurt (a chronic problem on trips that involve a lot of walking, due to my not owning a single pair of comfortable walking shoes), or I was hungry.  But I digress; Natural History was first, and on the way there, we passed through Merrion Square Park, which I highly recommend doing, as it is home to an extremely excellent Oscar Wilde statue.  He’s sculpted in flamboyant colours, and is reclining on a rock with a “come hither” expression, which makes for fantastic photo opportunities.  The Natural History museum is also very Victorian, and Victorian taxidermy is always a winner in my book.  Even more delightfully, many of the animals wore distinctly “derpy” expressions on their faces.  The building, which took up two or three floors, was pretty much completely devoted to taxidermy (and I believe a few small fossils), so don’t come expecting a typical natural history museum, but if you like looking at dead animals with vacant expressions, this is your place.  As an added bonus, all the grossest creepy-crawly things were covered with flaps, so you didn’t have to look at them if you didn’t want to, which I thought was absolutely great, as I have lots of weird phobias (most embarrassingly, butterflies and moths, but also spiders, particularly gross beetles, and basically everything that lives in the ocean that isn’t a fish, mammal, or reptile (e.g. lobsters, crabs, and most especially giant isopods [shudder])).

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We saved the Archeology museum for the next day, when I was only fueled by a blueberry muffin due to my inability to find a breakfast anywhere that wasn’t a fry-up (I feel like my constant remarks about my feet hurting or being hungry make me sound quite a bit older than I actually am, really I’m just a complainer), so we didn’t spend as much time here as it deserved, but we still saw some neat stuff.  Much of it was devoted to the Romans, Egyptians, and Vikings, though there was obviously Irish artefacts there as well.  I was primarily there to see the bog people, of which they had several, and they were dessicated but incredible.  It was quite a dry, scholarly sort of museum, but sometimes that’s what you want, especially if the objects are meaningful enough to speak for themselves. I should mention that both branches of the National Museum of Ireland were housed in markedly attractive Classical style Victorian buildings, if that sort of thing is important to you.

Bog person
Bog person

Chester Beatty was one of those prodigious American collectors in the vein of Henry Wellcome, who came over to Europe and founded museums based on the immense piles of crap they’d managed to accumulate over the years.  As one of my goals in life is to acquire enough ephemera before I die to merit my own museum, I therefore needed to visit the Chester Beatty Library.  It was located in the historic section of town, right across from Dublin Castle, and is not simply a library (which is good, since I don’t think they just let any random off the street use their collections), but an art gallery as well, which showcases Beatty’s most beautiful books and manuscripts.  Aside from authentic smells, of course, there’s nothing I love more than books, and though I’ll quite happily make do with any old copies for myself, as long as they’re legible, I often find myself lingering in Hatchards in London, gazing at their gorgeous books, so I get exactly where Beatty was coming from.  Most of the texts were religious in nature, encompassing Eastern religions, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, (though with some relating simply to the history of print) and they were simply a pleasure to look at.  In fact, we came back twice, since they closed before I had adequate time to look at everything the first time, which is a fair indication that I love a place.  Highly recommended.

Me and Oscar Wilde
Me and Oscar Wilde

Our last Dublin museum was also the cheesiest, and least educational (and no, it sadly wasn’t the leprechaun museum, though I would have loved to have had the time to see that too), the National Wax Museum Plus.  I’m not sure what they did with the plain old National Wax Museum, or why this incarnation merited a plus, as like most wax museums, it was overpriced and underwhelming, with the only real joy to be taken from how terrible some of the wax figures looked.  I love to mock them, yet I still always visit them, since there’s something I find irresistible about arguably famous people rendered in the unforgiving medium of wax.  The National Wax Museum Plus started out well with a room of Irish writers, including Oscar Wilde (yet again) in a disgraceful wig, followed by various Irish politicians and world leaders from what I would guess was the 1990s who I’d never heard of.  They had the requisite hall of horrors, and even some wax popes.  So far, so good.  Now, along the way, I had been seeing posters tacked up on various walls, reading “Jedward, coming soon!” and showing a picture of what appeared to be a waxen Jedward (though it was admittedly hard to tell).  I know Jedward are awful, but I love Eurovision, and was super excited to get my picture taken with them.  The signs kept increasing in frequency the further we progressed through the museum, until I was sure they must be in the last section, which was devoted to entertainment figures.  No dice.  We duly walked around the entertainment hall, had our pictures taken with sub-par Irish singers, like Bob Geldof (and a leprechaun?!) but there was no Jedward in sight.  I finally went and asked a girl working in the gift shop, who informed me that coming soon meant “coming in some point in 2013,” not, “coming soon up ahead in the museum.”  I don’t know the last time I’ve been quite so disappointed, so the National Wax Museum Plus ultimately left a bitter taste in my mouth.  If you for some reason take less pleasure in Jedward’s rendition of “Waterline” than I do, you might have a better time there.

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So, onward to the scores. National Museum of Ireland deserves a solid 3 out of 5, and I loved the Charles Beatty Library, so 4.5 for it.  I probably would have given the National Wax Museum Plus a 3 because of the sheer irrelevance of most of the wax figures, which I found delightful, but I’m going to have to dock a point because of the cruel Jedward tease, so 2 out of 5.