museums

London: The Mithraeum

The London Mithraeum has been on my to-do list for a long time, but because Ancient Romans aren’t exactly a priority, I kept putting it off. But since I knew I’d be in the area anyway for a training course, and I was taking a trip to Rome the week following, I thought I might as well get myself in the mood by looking at some Roman ruins right here in London (I also made potato pizza al metro style, which is one of my favourite things to eat in Rome, but that was more because I had potatoes and slightly mouldy Gruyere to use up, and because you can never have too much pizza). Planning ahead with the Mithraeum is key, since they strongly encourage you to pre-book a free slot.

The Mithraeum is located in the Bloomberg building, which I was a little concerned about finding since the City is very easy to get lost in, but it is located right next to one of the many entrances to Bank Station and is clearly signposted outside. I arrived about twenty minutes early because my course had finished a bit sooner than anticipated, but I was welcomed right in (though I was asked for my ticket as soon as I walked through the door, so clearly they are serious about the pre-booking, even though it wasn’t busy at all when I was there), and given an introduction to the three floors of the space, which made it sound quite grand. The reality is a little bit different. The ground floor is meant to be the gallery space, though I really didn’t get the current installation at all, nor was there any explanation provided. It just seemed to be a load of bottles sitting on a tiled cube, with some tiled benches to one side that may or may not have been part of the installation.

The highlight of this section was definitely the big wall o’artefacts, actually a wall of Roman ruins excavated from the site, which were beautifully arranged and had a rack full of tablets next to them that you could pick up and use to learn more about each object. I’ve never seen shards of pottery referred to as “sherds” before, as they were here, but perhaps it’s an Anglicism I’m unfamiliar with (I asked my curator colleague about it at work, and she informs me that you come across it occasionally, but shard is more common now. I guess they’re more or less interchangeable, except in the case of the building. Maybe I’ll start calling it the “Sherd” just to be weird). Had I known how underwhelming the other floors would be, I might have spent more time studying the wall, but as it was, I only spent about five minutes looking at it before heading down to the mezzanine level.

This contained replicas of exactly three objects, each with a touch screen where you could learn more about it: the head of Mithras, the Tauroctony (a plaque with a bull on it, basically), and a replica of the original temple. Now seems like an appropriate time to get into the history of the site that I’ve been neglecting up til now. Basically, like pretty much everywhere in the Square Mile, this area was part of the original Londinium, Roman London. In 1952, a temple was discovered during the course of excavating a bomb site. This was the Mithraeum, a 3rd century temple dedicated to the god Mithras, who appears to have been known mainly for slaying a bull. Not much is known about the Cult of Mithras, except for it was men-only and probably involved drinking in some capacity, but it was certainly popular, as 100 different Mithraea have been discovered all over the former Roman Empire. The one in London was dismantled in 1954 and reconstructed in a different site, but when Bloomberg bought the original site in 2010, they agreed to move the temple roughly back to where it was discovered, which is where it is today.

They clearly have tried to turn the Mithraeum into a bit more of an experience than what is merited by what is actually here. They only let people in every twenty minutes to the actual ruins, so you just have to hang out in the dark mezzanine area with the three illuminated objects in the meantime, which is why I regretted not spending more time on the ground level. Once you are actually inside, you experience, as they call it, “an ephemeral installation,” aka some sound and light effects: hazy light and a recording of some men mumbling in Latin. The lights gradually come up so you can actually view the ruins, which are underwhelming at best, but that is what I tend to think about all ruins. I was wondering whether I had to stay in here for the whole twenty minutes, because I’d more than finished with the ruins after about three (there being nothing to read within the temple itself), when some guy came out and told us a bit more about the site. Apparently 80% of the ruins are original, and 20% are a reconstruction, which I assume includes the metal figure of Mithras and a bull in the middle of the altar. Fortunately, after he finished talking, people started to leave, so I felt free to make my escape too.

As I always feel when something is free, I can’t complain overmuch, but the word “underwhelming,” which I’ve already used at least twice in this post, is the main thing that comes to mind. Apparently the old site wasn’t much visited, and I think they’ve tried to jazz it up a little to make it more of an attraction, but there’s only so much you can do with ruins. I suppose if they’d tried to get more artefacts in they could have made more out of it, but most of those, including ones found on the site (other than what’s on the display wall) are now housed at the Museum of London. So I’ll give it 2/5. It’s nice that they’ve tried to preserve it, and maybe people who actually like the Romans (not me, though Mary Beard tries her best (and to be fair to her, her programmes are interesting, I’m just not motivated to learn more after I finish watching them)) will get more out of it, but I certainly wasn’t thrilled.

 

 

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The Cheesy Side of Hamburg (Hamburg mit Käse)

This is the second and undoubtedly my favourite of my mop-up style posts on Hamburg. You all know I love a bit of cheese (or should I say käse?), and fortunately Hamburg was very rewarding on that score.

Three times a year, Hamburg hosts a month-long festival called Hamburger DOM, which is apparently the biggest public festival in Northern Germany. It is just a really big funfair/carnival in the middle of Hamburg (free to enter, though you have to pay for everything inside), and is worth mentioning here mainly on account of all the creepy anthropomorphic food adorning the stalls, as seen above and below.

I’m not super into rickety carnival style rides (though I would have happily gone on the dark ride if Marcus was brave enough to go with me), but I did use it as an opportunity to try a couple of local delicacies (though sadly not a pickle from one of the ubiquitous pickle stalls, because I hate them, though I was delighted to see that they’re a standard carnival food here) – spaghetti eis and schmalzkuchen.

Spaghetti eis is just ice cream pressed through a spaetzle press so it comes out looking like spaghetti, and is then topped with strawberry sauce and white chocolate for the sauce and cheese. I could have gotten it in probably any local ice cream shop, but eating it out of a cone was so fun it almost made up for the low quality ice cream (not really though. I am an ice cream snob). Schmalzkuchen are just little fried balls of dough with your choice of topping – I know schmalz usually refers to some type of animal fat, but I think these were just fried in vegetable oil, though I didn’t actually check. Bad vegetarian.

Wax museums are one of my favourite things on the planet, so of course I had to go to Panoptikum. It was only like €5 with the Hamburg Card, and I don’t think you can put a price on the amount of joy that creepy wax figures bring me. They had free audio guides, but we skipped them, which means I don’t know who most of the German celebrities in here were (and just to clarify, the guy on the right is an unfortunate-looking German celebrity, NOT Jimmy Saville), except for Lena (above left), because I also love Eurovision, and still find myself singing “Satellite,” her winning song from 2010.

But yeah, this wax museum was pretty great. They had the whole gamut, from political figures like Angela Merkel and (ugh) Donald Trump…

to historical figures like a wall of kings and a shelving unit full of famous historical heads (I guess they’re no longer famous enough to merit bodies)…

to a very un-PC (but entertaining) freak show/hall of horrors downstairs (Michael Jackson was here, appropriately enough, though I think he was technically in the musician section)…

and Robbie Williams circa 2006 and a German woman who appears to be famous solely for the size of her breasts. Fabulous.

Finally, we went to see Miniatur Wunderland, because not only is it the “world’s largest model railway,” it is also apparently Hamburg’s leading tourist attraction. This was a terrible mistake. We had to book in advance, because Miniatur Wunderland is inexplicably incredibly popular, so we did it as the last thing before we had to leave for the airport. The website recommends spending some stupid amount of time, like 3-4 hours here, but we figured we could do it in an hour, and we weren’t wrong.

Miniatur Wunderland is in this giant building filled with other tourist traps, and we had to walk up about a million flights of stairs to get there, presumably to build anticipation. It costs €15 to get in, though I think we only paid something like €12 with the Hamburg Card. Then you have to walk through two floors of shop to even get to the stupid entrance. We went at an off-peak time, and it was still the most crowded thing ever. You couldn’t even get a space to look at the miniature things at most of the tables, and the lights kept going on and off to simulate nighttime, but it just made it hard to find your way from room to room without bumping into people. Also, this super annoying German guy kept following me around and going, “Wow” at everything, but with a German accent. “Wow-uh!” I wanted to punch him.

In theory, there were buttons you could press in every display to make various bits and pieces move, but in practice, children would just sidle their way in front of you so you couldn’t get near them. I did queue at the end to press the Lindt factory button, which spit out a piece of chocolate, but I had to pretty much hold this Augustus Gloop looking kid back with my elbow until it fell out and I could grab it. Wait your turn, Augustus!

The impression I got before going was that they were supposed to have re-created most of the world in miniature, but all they have is Hamburg, the US (solely the bits out west), Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and bits of Italy. The only thing I was sort of looking forward to seeing was London, to see how it compared to the real thing, but they haven’t built it yet. Other than the display of miniature conspiracy theories that we had to wait about ten minutes to see, because some guy wouldn’t move his ass (that’s where the photo of Nessie comes from), and the piece of chocolate, I really hated this place. Don’t go unless you REALLY like miniature railways, and have a much higher tolerance level for annoying children than I do.

To end on a high note, because I did genuinely really like Hamburg, aside from Miniatur Wunderland, I will talk about franzbrotchen, as I promised to do some weeks ago. They are a sort-of flattened cinnamon roll that originated in Hamburg, and they are everywhere, although obviously some are better than others. They come in a number of variations, and I recommend the streusel, because streusel makes everything better (though if you don’t want to be laughed at, make sure to call it “STROI-sel” rather than “STROO-sel” as most Americans, myself included, say). I recommend Hamburg in general – there’s loads of museums, and a cool bleak maritime vibe, which made for a lot of excellent sailory souvenirs, if you’re into that kind of stuff (I totally am).

Underground Hamburg: ElbTunnel & St Nikolai Museum

Because we saw so many other things in Hamburg besides the three museums that were large enough to merit their own posts, I’ve decided to do something a bit different than my usual mop-up posts and split them into two posts roughly defined by subject matter. This is the underground side of Hamburg, and I don’t mean the U-Bahn, though it was super handy and we used it a lot, or Hamburg’s notorious sex district (which we obviously didn’t visit, though I don’t think female tourists are allowed in one of the areas anyway, which is pretty messed up), but attractions that are literally underground.

The first of these is the Alter ElbTunnel (also called St. Pauli Elbe Tunnel), which is not so much a tourist attraction as a practical way for people to get from one side of the river to the other, as indeed many of the people down there seemed to be doing. In fact, I like to think of it as what the Thames Tunnel could have been if safe lifts had been invented at the time of its construction, so it would have had a practical use which would have given it a hope of surviving (though obviously I would have loved to have visited it in its heyday in any capacity). The ElbTunnel opened in 1911, and was apparently modelled on Glasgow’s Clyde Tunnel, which I have never visited.

The tunnel is free to use for pedestrians and cyclists, but there is a small charge for cars (though there’s no point driving through it unless you are just using it to get from point A to point B, as you’d miss all the lovely terracotta ornamentation). Access on foot is via one of four lifts (two on each side, and they have a separate giant lift for cars) or a big metal staircase, and we opted for the staircase, somewhat to my chagrin, as I’ve got a little bit of a thing about heights (doesn’t stop me from going up tall things, but I don’t actually enjoy being up there), and I would have felt a whole lot better if the staircase had been visibly supported by something more than a handful of steel girders. It was worth seeing from a (scary) height though, so much so that I took the stairs down again on the return trip. Probably best to opt for the lift on the way up though, as there’s a LOT of stairs.

The main reason for going down at all, in fact, other than the views of Hamburg from the south side of the tunnel, are the aforementioned fabulous maritime-themed decorations that line the tunnel, which you can see above in collage form. I particularly liked the rats with the old boot. The tunnel was bombed during WWII, but the tiles managed to survive, and obviously still delight to this day.

The other underground(ish) attraction I wanted to talk about is the St. Nikolai Memorial and Museum, which was largely destroyed during WWII. The remaining spire of this church is clearly very much not underground, and is a prominent part of Hamburg’s skyline. However, the museum is underground, being housed in the former crypt, so I think I can get away with this somewhat tenuous link. (Whatever, it’s my blog, I’ll do what I want.) Admission to the tower/museum is €5, and you get a euro off if you have the Hamburg Card. We waited a short amount of time to ascend to the top of the tower in the lift, which was somewhat underwhelming, as you’re still inside the tower at the top, and there’s no viewing platform or anything (and if you thought Hamburg was cold at ground level, just try it at 76 metres). I couldn’t wait to get into the museum, which was substantially warmer.

The museum talks about the events leading up to Operation Gommorah in 1943, as well as the bombing itself, which destroyed much of Hamburg, including the rest of St. Nikolai Church, and killed 35,000 people. This was a much more comprehensive exhibition than I was expecting, and really got into the history of the church (interestingly, the minister at St. Nikolai when the Nazis first took power was a liberal who was sympathetic to the plight of those persecuted by the Nazis and tried to help them. After he died (of natural causes), he was replaced by someone much more conservative), which was redesigned by George Gilbert Scott (Sr) in 1846 (the iconic spire is still the tallest church tower in Germany, and the fifth tallest in the world), as well as what living conditions for civilians were like at the time of the bombing, including the fact that though there were public bomb shelters, the few Jewish citizens who had been permitted to remain in the city were not permitted access to them.

This was actually a very interesting museum – I liked that it talked about how people trying to hide from the Nazis could use the chaos resulting from the bombing to flee the city and assume new identities somewhere else – and it had a fair amount of wartime photographs and artefacts. The decision was made after the war to preserve the church’s spire in its blackened state to serve as a memorial to all victims of war and tyranny. As part of the memorial, there have been some sculptures placed in the former churchyard of various despairing figures that some people were rather inappropriately trying to take smiling selfies with when I was there.

I’m glad we paid St. Nikolai Memorial a visit – it was interesting to get a German perspective on the bombings, since you don’t always see the aftermath when you’re looking at it from the perspective of the Allies (other than when Germany bombed Britain, of course), and it was well worth €5 for the museum, even though the trip up the tower was less impressive than I had hoped.

 

 

Hamburg: MK&G (Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe)

The Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, in addition to being fun to say, is a museum of art and design very much like the V&A (right down to their use of initials with the ampersand). I’ll admit it wasn’t on my initial list of museums to visit since I could go to the V&A any time for free and this seemed like more of the same, but we were forced to book our flight back to London for 9:30 at night because all the earlier flights were too expensive, meaning we had a whole day to kill in Hamburg after checking out of our hotel at the latest possible time (noon. I was watching Frauen Tausch, the German version of Wife Swap, all morning, whilst eating lemon gugelhupf. Don’t judge), and as it was the coldest day of our trip yet, there was no way I was spending all of it outside. So walking around a big ol’ warm museum for a good few hours was starting to look awfully appealing.

Admission to MK&G is €12, or €8 with the Hamburg Card. However, this includes all special exhibits, which works out much better financially than the V&A, which is free but charges anything from £10-£24 for exhibitions, though I have to say that the V&A’s temporary exhibitions seem to be of a much higher calibre generally. At least almost everything here had English translations, except for a few of the temporary exhibitions (including the one I was most excited to see, of course). The gallery immediately in front of us when we entered the museum was a special exhibition on Greek vases (this one did have English labels. Shame I’m not more interested in ancient history) but after that we were a bit confused about which way to go, as we couldn’t actually see any other galleries. Turned out we had to exit the Greek vase gallery from the back of the space, which led to galleries branching out in two directions.

Marcus really enjoys taking photos of silly-looking lions (of which there were many), so he was happy enough, but I wasn’t super interested in most of the Baroque stuff or the Christianity gallery (except for some creepy religious imagery with a skeleton, as seen above), and the exciting sounding hall of mirrors was just a fancy reception room. It wasn’t until we got up to the Modernity and Art Nouveau galleries on the first floor that things started to improve.

And boy, did things improve. Robots! These were actually full-body costumes that a husband and wife dance team created in (believe it or not) 1919-1924. Considering Karel Capek didn’t even introduce the word robot (which had been coined by his brother) to the world until 1920, these were remarkably modern looking, and frankly, awesome! Sadly, their creators committed suicide due to financial hardship in 1924, so the world never got to see what else they were capable of producing.

I normally really like looking at clothing, but the stuff here was fairly run-of-the mill, so instead I’m going to show you this sweet sad little lion dog, above (I have kind of a soft spot for lion dogs), and the set of knight figures from the Art Nouveau section.

The special exhibition I was keenest on seeing (the one that didn’t have any English in it, as I mentioned above) was “Therefore, Vote!” which contained posters for Germany’s first democratic elections in 1919. Fortunately, they were such a bold graphic medium that you didn’t have to be able to read them to understand the messages they were conveying. There’s something really visually appealing about propaganda posters, even grim ones with skulls and dire warnings about the Bolsheviks, which I realise is obviously intentional.

Also upstairs was an exhibition on social design, which I think featured students’ plans for remaking Hamburg (it was hard to tell as nothing here was in English either), and “Pure Luxury” which explored the art of lacquer, though the actual preserved beetles that had been lacquered made me feel sick. The rather hilarious tapestry in one of the other galleries featuring a girl and a blue bowl made up for it though.

The second floor is also home to the far-more-fabulous-than-the-hall-of-mirrors Spiegel Canteen, which is the actual 1969 canteen of the former Spiegel Publishing House. Sadly, you can’t actually go into the room unless you rent it out, so all hopes of having a cheeky franzbrotchen and tea in there were smashed.

After viewing the photography and furniture sections, we headed back to the ground floor to see the medieval and ancient galleries, which we had missed when we were initially down there (you had to pick whether to go to Baroque or Medieval, as the two don’t intersect or lead into each other), and I’m happy we made the effort to see them, because the Wunderkammer room had some interesting artefacts in it, as you might expect from the name. Love a Wunderkammer!

I also liked the creepy disembodied eyes in the Egyptian gallery, and the ceramics part of the musical instruments room (poor ceramic boar head). This museum felt nearly as large as the V&A (though maybe had less on each topic, as the photography section was teeny, and most of the galleries seemed to be smaller than their V&A equivalent), and we were pretty tired from walking around, so we were grateful there were comfy seats scattered around, especially the sofa, below. The general tiredness is also why this post is less in-depth than many of my posts, and more me just pointing out things I liked. I couldn’t be bothered to read much at this point in the trip. Sorry.

There were definitely many cool things in here (those robot costumes, the best!), and I think €8 was certainly a reasonable price for all we saw. I’m glad we came because it was a nice respite from the cold, and even though it was similar in many ways to the V&A, the few galleries that were specifically on German art and design made it different enough that it was worth our while. Apparently, the MK&G used to have a lot more so-called “degenerate art” until the 1930s when the Nazis decided to destroy it all, so it’s sad to think about all the things we were missing out on, but I’m glad at least some of it still survives. 3/5.

 

Hamburg: Museum of Hamburg History

I generally try to visit a city history museum everywhere I travel to get a better sense of the place, if the city in question has one, and fortunately, Hamburg was happy to oblige with the Museum für Hamburgische Geschichte (Hamburg History Museum). I was initially a little wary about visiting, because their website was entirely in German with no other language options, which typically isn’t a good sign in terms of there being English in the museum. However, the reviews on Trip Advisor assured me that there were English translations available in the museum, so I was willing to take a chance. The museum is located in the middle of a rather nice park (or at least it would have been rather nice had there not been such an icy wind outside), so on a reasonably warm day you can grab yourself a franzbrotchen from one of the city’s many bakeries, and enjoy the stroll (I still ate the franzbrotchen, I just didn’t enjoy the stroll).

Admission to the museum is normally €9.50, but we only paid €6 with the Hamburg Card, and it was a big museum (never mind that this type of museum would be free in the UK). We started our visit on the first floor with medieval Hamburg, and I was pleased to see that the vast majority of labels did have an English translation available. Unfortunately, I realised I just wasn’t really that interested in medieval Hamburg, at least not in the dry way it was presented here, so I kind of skimmed over this section. Fortunately, I did enter the dark wood panelled space at the end of this gallery, because it unexpectedly contained the object I most wanted to see (which I learned about on Atlas Obscura before visiting) – a skull with a spike through it!

The skull was found during construction in 1878, and has been at the Hamburg History Museum since 1922, except for a brief hiatus in 2010 when it was stolen, then recovered. It is thought to be the head of notorious 14th century pirate Klaus Störtebeker (yeah, I’ve never heard of him either), which had a spike driven through it so it could be displayed on a post as a deterrent to others (the video there mentioned that the hole had been made “very carefully,” and I had to wonder whether it was done when it actually was a skull, or when it was a fresh head, with flesh and brains still attached, which definitely would have required great care not to splatter brains everywhere!). At any rate, though their methods of execution were horrible, they weren’t that horrible, and it was done after Klaus was dead (from beheading) – it’s not a Phineas Gage type situation, although it’s not like Phineas was walking around with a spike through his head for long either. The head next to it is a reconstruction of what he might have looked like, based on the skull. There was also a display showing what a full row of these skulls would have looked like (there was an occasion where 78 pirates were executed on the same day, so although it already makes for a grim display, it could have been much worse), and some tools of execution, including the wheel, which they basically just smashed into your body until you were dead (so I’m not quite sure why it had to be a wheel shape, when a stick would have worked just as well, but there we are). If, like me, you are interested in this sort of thing and have a strong stomach, I recommend Joel F. Harrington’s The Faithful Executioner, which is about an early modern German executioner.

One thing I learned at this museum is that Germans (or at least Hamburgers) really really love model-sized versions of pretty much everything. Houses, churches, ships, trains, you name it (my god, how they love a model railway, and don’t worry, I’ll get to the shitshow that is Miniatur Wunderland in a later post). Before we went to this museum, I was planning on also visiting Hamburg’s Maritime Museum, but I had read that it is basically just nine floors of model ships, and after looking at two galleries full of model ships here, I really couldn’t face any more. But Hamburg’s maritime history is genuinely interesting because it is such a massive part of what shaped the city, and I was especially excited to see that they had their own section on Ballinstadt, which frankly told me more of what I wanted to know than the Emigration Museum did.

For example, they had a chart showing the price of various voyages on the HAPAG line, and what those prices would translate into today, so I learned that my great-grandmother paid the equivalent of €600 for her voyage in steerage to the US (about what a flight costs today). They also had a chart showing more information about some of HAPAG’s ships, and I could see that the President Lincoln was included, but unfortunately, the relevant parts of the chart were covered up by other papers, so I don’t actually know what they had to say about it. There was also some information about the cholera epidemic in Hamburg and what that meant for Ballinstadt, and way more photos of the complex than were at the Emigration Museum. I don’t regret visiting Ballinstadt and seeing it in person, but I wish they could have incorporated more of this on site, rather than my having to accidentally stumble upon it here.

And to get back on the subject of models, the museum has its very own model railway, which runs every hour on the hour. There is a guy who sits in a booth above it, and gives what appears to be a running commentary on all the action (in German of course), which I found hilarious. What a job, model railway commentator! It was pretty big and impressive though, and (spoiler alert) a much better experience than Miniatur Wunderland, since there were only a handful of people in here, though I must admit that I’m not the sort of person that gets my jollies from watching a model railway, even at the best of times.

The museum also has a gallery on Jewish life in Hamburg, complete with a replica (life-size this time) of a synagogue, though only one small sign in each room was translated into English, so I couldn’t read most of it. There were more galleries on clothing and music, and this weird social history sort-of-house structure that you walked through, exploring the 20th century through each of the three different floors (though don’t bother going upstairs, it’s just where they store the chairs for events). Because I have the sense of humour of a teenage boy, I laughed way too hard at the dickmilch part of the sign below, which was in the replica dairy. Half a kilo is more than enough, thanks.

This museum is way too big for me to talk about each gallery in detail, but other highlights included the section on the Great Fire of Hamburg in 1842, which had various objects partially melted by the fire (seems like every city has to have a “great fire” at some point until they learn their lesson and start implementing better fire safety measures (hope that doesn’t sound too harsh in the wake of Notre Dame, but it does go to show that there’s still work to be done when it comes to preventing fires)), the interactive map where you could see how Hamburg expanded over time, and the replica ship you could climb aboard. I only gave a cursory visit to some of the galleries, because there was too much to read on one visit, and we still spent so long here we didn’t end up having time to visit any other museums that day. I think some of the history galleries could have been more interactive, because some of them were frankly boring and seemed to stretch on forever, but the more modern sections of the museum were great (in particular the ones about HAPAG and the fire), and there was enough here for something to appeal to everyone, especially model enthusiasts. 3/5.

 

Hamburg, Germany: The Emigration Museum

I spent last week in Hamburg, a holiday I had booked at the start of March at a time when I was worried that we might be leaving the EU before the holiday took place, so I wanted to be sure that even if the shit hit the fan, I’d be somewhere organised enough that getting in and out of the country wouldn’t be too much trouble (having had a hellish experience using the non-EU passport queue in Rome some years ago, before I had British citizenship). I hope I’m not being too horrible about national stereotypes, but Germany seemed to fit the bill in terms of efficiency. Having already been to Berlin and Munich, I decided on Hamburg. In addition to being the home of the franzbrotchen (a type of cinnamon roll I am very enthusiastic about, of which you will no doubt hear more in a future post), it is also a former Hanseatic League city, and of course a port city with an interesting history and quite a few museums, so I was sure we’d find plenty to do.

Because it was a port that ran various ships to the Americas, it also attracted a number of immigrants on their way to a new life, including my great-grandmother (my maternal grandmother’s mother), who had travelled from the Galicia region of Poland in order to catch a ship to the US. In 1898, Albert Ballinn, the General Director of the HAPAG shipping company (HAPAG stands for Hamburg-Amerikanische Packetfahrt-Actien-Gesellschaft, which is probably why it acquired the acronym in the first place) started to have emigration halls constructed on an island near Hamburg for the emigrants to stay in as they waited for their ships, a complex that became known as Ballinstadt. This was not so much done out of the goodness of Ballinn’s heart, but rather to make extra money for the firm, prevent the emigrants from mingling with the Hamburgers, and try to prevent the spread of disease (immigrants who were obviously sick on arrival in America would not be allowed in, and had to be returned to Europe at HAPAG’s expense, so it made financial sense to try to keep them healthy). The Emigration Halls fell out of use after WWII (after they were taken over by the SS, that was obviously the end of emigration, and during the war they were used as POW camps), and became a Portuguese restaurant in the 1980s. Eventually, in 2004, Hamburg city government purchased the property and turned it into a museum on emigration.

I knew that my great-grandmother had departed Europe through Hamburg (I suspect my maternal grandfather’s parents did as well, I just haven’t found their records) so I was eager to see this museum. She died before I was born, so I never met her, but I wanted to get a taste of things she might have experienced. We took the S-Bahn out from central Hamburg to Veddel Island, and found Ballinstadt only a short walk away (which was fortunate, because it was extremely cold and windy throughout our visit). Admission to the museum is €13, though we purchased Hamburg Cards at the airport (we normally don’t buy city passes, but these included free public transport for the duration of our stay and discounts at every museum we were planning on visiting, so in this case it was worth our while) which got us €2 off. I had read in advance that none of the signage in the museum was in English, and I was bit apprehensive when I saw an English guidebook for sale at the front desk for €9.90, because I thought €11 was enough money to be spending on a museum where I couldn’t read anything, but we were provided with a booklet containing English translations for most of the main signage free of charge, so perhaps the guidebooks were for those who wanted additional information.

The museum was spread out over the three remaining dormitory buildings, and only the first building told the story of Ballinstadt, which was what I was most interested in learning about, the other two buildings being a more general emigration museum. There were small numbers on each panel that you’re meant to match up with your booklet to find the English translation of the text – though in sections where they weren’t many images or things to look at on the signage, I just parked myself on a seat (which you can spot me doing throughout the posts – my feet hurt!) and read all the room’s captions in one go. Life at the Emigration Halls definitely sounded grim – whilst the accommodations, after being expanded in 1908, were sanitary, they didn’t seem to have been particularly pleasant to live in. Emigrants were not permitted to leave the complex, and were forced to undergo regular medical examinations. There were parks, a church, and occasional concerts, so the emigrants had some opportunity for recreation, but most of their time was spent preparing for their upcoming voyage, though since they weren’t allowed off the premises, they had to buy everything at the HAPAG shop (and I’m sure they weren’t offered the lowest prices). And then of course most of them (including my great-grandmother) were travelling in steerage or ‘tween decks, which by the early 20th century were cleaner and less cramped than those on earlier ships, but were definitely still no picnic. Ballinn himself was the person who came up with the idea of using the ‘tween decks on HAPAG’s cargo ships to transport emigrants, as they weren’t fit for any other purpose (though were apparently just fine for people) – he said he would have been financially ruined had it not been for the ‘tween deck passengers (he was actually financially ruined by the First World War, and ended up committing suicide in November 1918).

All of the information about Ballinstadt was super interesting to me, but as I’ve mentioned, it was solely contained to the first hall. The second hall was the largest by far, and was initially primarily about pull-factors and push-factors that lead people to migrate. This building seemed very modern, with bold displays and interactive elements where you were supposed to insert a special card at different stations, but we were never given this card, perhaps because the screens were only in German, which we obviously didn’t speak. It was still fun to walk through and see all the different displays, especially the large ship in the middle of the hall moored inside a small indoor pond, which you could board, but I wish they could have offered something interactive for everyone, especially as it’s not difficult to provide translations for something that’s already on a computer.

I found the section on Ellis Island informative, especially the list of questions that immigrants would have been asked when they arrived (I’ve been trying my best to use “emigrants” and “immigrants” correctly throughout this post, but I find the distinction between them a little bit confusing, so sorry if I’ve made any errors), but I found that as the museum progressed, less and less of the material had translations available. By the time we entered the third hall, which contained a temporary exhibition, virtually nothing had been translated in our booklets except for the stories of various immigrants in one of the rooms, which I very much enjoyed (one of them was from a German man who immigrated to Cleveland because he was offered a job after helping to save 25 people’s lives during a maritime disaster). The last section before the gift shop contained computers where you could search HAPAG’s records (via Ancestry), and I was able to confirm that my great-grandmother did in fact come through here (I knew she had come to the US on the President Lincoln, out of Hamburg, but didn’t have proof that she had stayed in Ballinstadt. Now I know she did) in 1910 at the age of 16, travelling alone to the US. I wish I had asked my grandma whilst she was alive if she knew anything about her mother’s immigration experience, because I bet it was an interesting story.

Though I enjoyed this museum on the whole, I must admit I am perplexed as to why nothing inside the museum was in English. I always struggle with what to say about museums in foreign countries that don’t have English translations, because of course they’re not obligated to provide them – I know of few museums in the UK that bother to have signage in anything but English – and I don’t want to be the ugly American or Brit who demands them, but if they want to attract tourism, I always think it’s a good idea, because I know that I’m personally hesitant to pay to visit a museum unless I’m confident I’ll be able to read at least some of the signage. In the case of Ballinstadt, I think it really doesn’t make any sense at all to not offer English right on the signage. I know they’re trying to be a more general emigration museum than just the story of Ballinstadt, but I’m sure there are plenty of people like me out there who have ancestors who stayed in Ballinstadt and want to know more. And, as I learned in the museum, although some people ended up in South America, the vast majority of emigrants who passed through here were bound for the US and Canada, where their descendants now speak English, so I’m not sure why they’re not doing more to cater for these visitors. We were the only people in the museum for most of our visit, and when a few people turned up near the end, they were all evidently German-speaking, so I can’t imagine they’re attracting many foreign tourists as it stands.

I guess I should be glad that at least they offer the booklet for free, and that the displays were visually engaging, even if I couldn’t always understand them. Having recently visited the Migration Museum in London, I’m tempted to compare the two, but they’re such different experiences – one in established premises with informative factual displays, the other an art installation in a warehouse that focuses more on stories and emotion – that I think it’s better not to. I’ll give the museum 3/5, but I suspect that score would have been higher if I spoke German, and was able to read and use everything in here, so I’ll just have to hope they improve the interactivity for all visitors in future. Regardless, it was neat to stand somewhere my great-grandmother did and contemplate her experience here, but I think visitors without that personal connection might not have gotten as much out of it as I did.

London: “Van Gogh and Britain” @ Tate Britain

I don’t think I even need to say how much I love Van Gogh to anyone who reads this blog regularly, but yes, I love Van Gogh! And so Marcus booked us tickets to go see the new exhibition at Tate Britain, “Van Gogh and Britain” whilst there were still tickets to be had (I assume there are still tickets at this point, since it runs til 11th August, but I also know that exhibitions in London can completely book up if you’re not careful to get in early). Because Van Gogh is such a big name that they can get away with it, admission is definitely on the pricier side at £22, though fortunately they do offer discounts for National Art Pass holders, so we got in for £11. And yes, we did have to stand in the queue you see above, even with pre-booked tickets, but it moved quickly.

The purpose of the exhibition, as you may have guessed from the title, was to cover both Van Gogh’s experiences whilst living in London (between 1873 and 1876) and his posthumous influence on British artists of the early-mid 20th century. Van Gogh moved to London when he was 20 to work for an art dealer, which lasted for two years until he was dismissed (he was developing increasingly radical ideas about art, which proved incompatible with his position) and dabbled with preaching and teaching in Isleworth and Ramsgate. Although he never returned to Britain after 1876 (he left before he had even begun painting, though he did make little sketches whilst he was here, some of which were on display), the experiences he had here clearly shaped his life and art, especially the time he spent visiting museums. The exhibition had his signature in the Dulwich Picture Gallery guestbook on show, as you can see above (I can definitely read the “Gogh” and maybe a “van”, but that doesn’t look like “Vincent” to me. Honestly, it looks more like Theo Van Gogh, but they said it was Vincent, so I’ll go with it).

The first four rooms contained a mix of Van Gogh’s paintings and paintings that he saw whilst visiting London that inspired him, some of which he copied in his own style whilst learning to develop as an artist. As you can see, calling this exhibition crowded is an understatement, but due to how things were laid out, I found that I was able to slip in and look at paintings with relative ease. However, although it was clearly beneficial for me as a blogger, and I know I often complain when exhibitions don’t allow photography, in this particular instance, I felt it would have been a much better experience without it. People were just standing in front of the paintings for ages whilst trying to get that perfect shot, and not even looking at what was right in front of them, which really annoyed me – especially because Van Gogh has a tendency to make me a bit emotional, and I wish everyone could take the time to really appreciate his talent for finding beauty in the mundane.

Like me, Van Gogh had a bit of a love-hate relationship with London. He said, “I often felt low in England, but the Black and White and Dickens [“black and white” meaning British prints] are things that make up for it all.” The exhibition contained quotes excerpted from Van Gogh’s many letters, to great effect, and even some facsimiles of his letters, the originals being too fragile to travel (Van Gogh spoke four languages, including English, so the ones here were written in English, and I enjoyed reading them). He discovered Gustav Doré’s engravings of London, and absolutely fell in love with them, collecting as many as he could afford. He even made his own version of Doré’s print of prisoners exercising at Newgate, as seen above right. There was also a painting of the Victoria Embankment (above left) about which Van Gogh said, “A couple of days ago we got a painting by De Nittis, a view of London on a rainy day…I crossed Westminster Bridge every morning and evening, and know what it looks like when the sun’s setting behind Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament, and what it’s like early in the morning, and in the winter with snow and fog. When I saw this painting, I felt how much I love London.” Which sums up how I feel when I cross over Hungerford Bridge at night. Oh, Vincent.

Like I said, it’s not hard for me to get emotional over Van Gogh, and that’s definitely what happened when I read the caption on the painting of a “sorrowing old man,” based on an earlier lithograph he did of a war veteran he sometimes used as a model. According to one of his doctors, when Van Gogh was mentally unwell, “he usually sits with his head in his hands, and if someone speaks to him, it is as though it hurts him, and he gestures for them to leave him alone.” Just like the man in his painting, which he did when he was staying at Saint-Paul Hospital. Reading that just about broke my heart.

There were lots of pieces here that I’d never seen before, including one of the hospital at Saint-Remy that I visited last year, which was one of my favourite pieces in this exhibition. I also really loved the sketch of Vincent and his brother Theo, done by Vincent’s friend Lucien Pissarro, which is thought to be the only image of the brothers together (and it’s gratifying to see that Vincent looks pretty much as he does in his self-portraits, so the picture we all have of him in our heads is probably fairly accurate).

My favourite part of the exhibition was definitely the half on Van Gogh and Britain, rather than on British artists and Van Gogh, but there were still some Van Gogh paintings to enjoy in the final five rooms, although they were heavily interspersed with those by British artists influenced by the Post-Impressionists. Obviously I enjoy the Post-Impressionists myself, but I still had to laugh at the cartoon showing “Post-Impressions of the Post-Impressionists” based on the first time these paintings were shown in London in 1910, twenty years after Van Gogh’s death.

There was a whole room devoted to Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, which was first exhibited in 1924 in the original location of the National Gallery at Millbank, in what is now the Tate. Since the painting moved with the National Gallery to Trafalgar Square in the 1960s, this is the first time it has made the trip back across town. The National Gallery was given permission to buy the painting by Theo Van Gogh’s widow Johanna (Theo died only six months after Vincent), who devoted the rest of her life to promoting Vincent’s work, and offered the museum the painting only a year before she died.

I’ve stuck to mainly including Van Gogh’s paintings throughout this post, but I had to show you this painting of a young Roald Dahl by Matthew Smith (above right), which was heavily influenced by Van Gogh’s style. In fact, the last room was entirely pieces by British painters, mainly Francis Bacon, not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I felt like I had to return to the room before it to look at some of Van Gogh’s work again so I could leave on a high note. There was some discussion in here of how Van Gogh’s mental illness affected British perceptions of him throughout the 20th century, which I thought was quite interesting, and I would have enjoyed hearing more about it, though I suppose that topic could (and apparently has, judging on some of the books on display!) fill a book.

The shop had some nice merchandise, including the very expensive, but very cute crocheted Vincent doll (I went for the cheaper miniature key chain version, but he was still £8!), and I also went home with a print of the above self-portrait. The exhibition mentioned that the last Van Gogh exhibition at the Tate, in 1947, attracted 5000 visitors a day, and judging by all the people that were there when I visited, I could easily imagine this exhibition surpassing it. I didn’t love the experience of visiting because of the crowds and the issue with people taking photos (which I know is a bit hypocritical since I had Marcus take photos for the post too, but I would have been perfectly fine with no one being allowed to take photos in this instance) – lest you think I’m exaggerating, have a look at the collage Marcus made, below. It was a fairly big exhibition, and I’m delighted I got to see so many Van Gogh pieces, including some that had never been on public display before, but I’m still glad I only paid £11, because £22 is an awful lot of money (and to be fair, I spent more than £11 on stuff from the shop, so they got the full admission fee out of me in one way or another)! Nonetheless, I think the exhibition was well done, and I especially appreciated all the text, which can be rare in an art exhibition – thanks to Van Gogh’s eloquent letters, I feel I understand certain aspects of his life better, particularly the time he spent in London.  I liked that the exhibition focused largely on the lesser-known parts of Van Gogh’s life, since I think most people who are willing to pay £22 to see a Van Gogh exhibition are familiar with the most well known parts of his life story by now, and don’t need to re-read it fifty times. And of course, Van Gogh’s art is always gloriously moving. So, 3.5/5 for the exhibition, even with the issues with the crowds.

London: Dorothea Tanning and “Magic Realism” @ the Tate Modern

I don’t think I’d ever heard of Dorothea Tanning until this exhibition came to the Tate Modern and I saw an article about it in the paper. Her art looked intriguing, but to be honest I still probably would have skipped the exhibition due to the admission fee, had Marcus not been keen. But since he was, and I had been wanting to see the exhibition about art from the Weimar Republic that was also at the Tate, so this seemed like a good chance to get a look at both.

Dorothea Tanning runs until 9th June and costs £13 (but National Art Pass holders get 50% off), and there doesn’t seem to be any need to pre-book, though it was reasonably full inside the exhibition when I visited on a weekday. Tanning was an American artist (from Galesburg, Illinois originally) who escaped the boredom of everyday life by reading Gothic novels as a child, and there is definitely a strong sense of the Gothic in her surrealist paintings. The gallery was divided into rooms reflecting the different stages in Tanning’s life and career, starting with fairly tame newspaper illustrations for Macy’s from the 1930s (though I’m slightly disturbed that “beaver fur berets” are even a thing), and moving on to her first flirtations with surrealism, via her Birthday self-portrait (shown above) with a very cute little dragony-griffin thing that I would 100% have as a pet.

I quite liked Tanning’s early surrealist pieces, especially as many of them incorporated a funny little dog modelled on her husband Max Ernst’s (a German painter) pet Lhasa Apso. I was less enamoured with the ones in a more abstract style, made after she and Max moved from Arizona to France in the 1950s – I liked her use of colour, but they weren’t to my particular taste.

In the 1960s, Tanning began experimenting more with soft sculptures, which she produced on her old Singer sewing machine. They were used in my favourite installation, Hotel du Pavot, Chambre 202 (above left), which was based on a song about a gangster’s wife who poisoned herself in Room 202 of a hotel in Chicago. It was excellently creepy, with stuffed body parts emerging from the walls of an old hotel room.

The stuffed dog with the tiny turd (as it was described in the exhibition) cracked me up, and I enjoyed the video at the end of the exhibition which showed Tanning at work making some of her soft sculptures and arranging them on some stairs in a menacing fashion. It was interesting seeing the ways her work changed over her very long lifetime (she died in 2012, at the age of 101), but I wasn’t crazy about some of the pieces, and I felt it was quite expensive for what we got, especially after seeing the “Magic Realism” exhibition, which I’ll get to in a moment. I also didn’t like how you had to walk back through all the galleries to get out, which I think disrupts the flow of an exhibition. I always prefer separate entrances and exits, and I’m always surprised when larger museums with the budget to do so don’t arrange their galleries in this way, not least because it’s easier to make them flow into a shop at the end! 2.5/5.

And now for “Magic Realism: Art in Weimar Germany 1919-1933,” which I was actually properly excited to see. My favourite band for years and years was the World/Inferno Friendship Society, who are rather difficult to describe – they’re sort of a blend of punk, klezmer, polka, and various other influences – and my favourite song of theirs is called “Ich Errinere Mich An Weimar,” which is about the Weimar Republic, sort of loosely based on the plot of Cabaret. So I’ve always been kind of interested in the Weimar, and this exhibition just made me even more interested.

“Magic Realism” was free to see, and runs until 14th July. It just so happened that the first room of the exhibition was the best room, so I was enchanted from the start. This room had the theme of “Circus,” mainly thanks to the excellent circus themed illustrations of Otto Dix, who was my favourite artist featured here. Lest you get too carried away with how charming all the artwork in here was, there was a timeline on the wall explaining how the Weimar Republic led straight into Nazi Germany, and how so many of the Weimar artists (who the Nazis would label “degenerate artists”) were strongly influenced by their experiences fighting in the First World War.

I was struck by how modern some of the paintings looked, particularly the woman on the right, above. I could actually see ties between some of the works in this exhibition and Dorothea Tanning. I’m not super well versed on art terminology, but after all, surely “magic realism” is just another way of saying surrealism? But I think I still prefer the style of “magic realism” to surrealism, at least judging by the pieces that were on display here.

Each room had a different theme, ending up in a particularly disturbing religion themed room (with paintings like the one below left), but I think there was nonetheless something to enjoy in each section, even the more depressing ones, and I learned a fair bit about Weimar Germany. All of the artists who remained in Germany after the Nazis came to power (some chose to flee) were forced to join the Cultural Ministry and paint only “inoffensive” things, like landscapes, and many of the earlier “degenerate” pieces that remained in Germany were destroyed, so I’m glad at least these pieces survived! I enjoyed this so much more than the exhibition we paid to see, but sometimes them’s the breaks, and there are definitely worse ways to spend money than on a museum exhibition – at least it will go to support a sector I’m passionate about. 4/5 – if you like slightly weird art, definitely go check this one out if you can before it closes!

 

London: Pitzhanger Manor and Gallery

 

I think we’ve established by now that I am not the sort of person that gets invited to premieres. However, because my friend works at Pitzhanger Manor, I was invited to their opening weekend (this wasn’t an exclusive event though, I hasten to add – anyone was allowed to book a spot, provided they did so early enough), and I was very happy to attend and feel like one of the special people for once, even though it takes about an hour to get to Ealing from where I live.

 

Pitzhanger Manor was John Soane’s country estate from 1800-1810 (because back then, Ealing was in the country instead of just being absorbed into the sprawl of London), and a place where he could show off his architectural skills to potential clients (Soane is known for designing the Bank of England and Dulwich Picture Gallery, amongst various other things). He actually worked on a wing of the house as a young apprentice, and this was the only part of the original 1768 building that he left intact after moving in. Soane was forced to sell the house after only ten years for a number of reasons, which I’ll get to later, and it passed through a number of hands over the years (including the daughters of Spencer Perceval, who has the unhappy distinction of being the only Prime Minister to be assassinated) before being taken over by Ealing Council in 1900. They decided to turn one wing into a library (which is one of the few acceptable uses of a historic home, presuming they leave the interiors intact as much as possible) which remained open until 1984, when it was decided to restore the house and open it as a museum. It opened in 1987, only to be closed again in 2015 for a major restoration/conservation project, and it finally re-opened on 16 March 2019, which is when I went to see it.

Pitzhanger will normally cost £7.70 to visit, but was free on opening weekend, which is one of the reasons it was completely booked up, with a queue of people waiting to get in if there were cancellations. I breezed past them all, because I was on the list (again, the same list that anyone could have gotten on by pre-booking. I’m really not any kind of VIP, though I like to pretend). I met up with my friend shortly after arriving, and she was obviously super busy and kept getting stopped by visitors to answer their questions, but she still managed to give me a little tour of the house, which I appreciated. The interior of the house is fairly empty – this is mainly because the vast majority of John Soane’s possessions reside in his house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, which is also a museum (which I still haven’t gotten around to blogging about! I guess I’m due for another visit), but the rooms have been painstakingly restored, and there are a lot of gorgeous features. My friend explained how Soane’s architectural style was heavily influenced by the time he spent in Italy during his Grand Tour, and that one of the ceilings in the house was modelled on the Italian sky.

 

You can see a bit of that sky ceiling in a corner of the photo above left, but my personal favourite feature in the house was the fabulous hand-painted bird wallpaper in the Upper Drawing Room, followed closely by the ceiling in the “Eating Room,” below left (which is what the dining room is called – maybe Soane liked to keep things casual?). I still desperately want a house with some Georgian blue and Scheele’s green interiors (though preferably sans the actual arsenic). John Soane and his wife Eliza were circulating whilst we were at Pitzhanger (or, you know, some actors playing them), so we had to get a picture with Soane that mimicked our photo with the actual Gary Oldman (which I realise most of you probably haven’t seen, because I only put it on my personal Facebook, but it’s a good one!), with Soane in place of Oldman.

But Pitzhanger isn’t just an historic home – it’s also an art gallery (the £7.70 admission price I mentioned includes both house and gallery)! The wing that used to be Ealing’s library has been turned into a gallery space, and the inaugural exhibition is by Anish Kapoor. I have to confess that whilst I certainly recognise Kapoor’s name, I’m not terribly familiar with his work, and this is the first exhibition of his that I’ve seen. I read before going that his “sculptures echo Soane’s complex use of mirrors and light and will enable visitors to Pitzhanger to see Soane’s architecture from a fresh perspective,” and I must have skimmed over the part about the mirrors, because what I was expecting from “sculptures” was certainly not this!

To be honest, at first glance I was underwhelmed, because it just appeared to be some mirrors on a wall. But after interacting with them, I realised they were actually pretty fun! I’m not sure if I necessarily saw the connection to Pitzhanger Manor, but it didn’t really matter because they were a good time, and people inside were really friendly due to obviously enjoying themselves as well (a lady offered to take our photo, as seen above).

 

The only critical comment I would make is that aside from an introductory panel to the exhibition, there was virtually no text inside, but I guess sometimes it’s better to experience than to just stand there reading something (my friend also told me they had a problem with people touching the mirrors and leaving fingerprints, so please, look but don’t touch!). The gallery is also home to the shop, which features quite a lot of merchandise inspired by the bird wallpaper, because why wouldn’t you highlight your most fabulous feature?

After finishing with the art gallery, we returned to the house to explore a few of the rooms in a bit more detail, including the basement, which talked about Soane’s desire to become a hermit (he apparently used to hide down there or wander his gardens pretending to be one, which I can certainly relate to), which is perhaps indicative of his mental state near the time he decided to sell Pitzhanger. He was feeling depressed because both his sons were ne’er do well types who had no desire to follow in his footsteps and become architects, as he was hoping, and because Eliza was suffering from ill health and disliked being in the country. I’m sorry that Soane had such a hard time of it, but I did like all the masks on the walls used to illustrate his changing moods.

Because my friend works here and gave me a special tour which is probably not the normal Pitzhanger experience, I don’t think it would be right for me to give Pitzhanger a score, as I normally would. But I will tell you what I liked and disliked. It is a gorgeous house, and it is clear that a lot of love and care have gone into its restoration. I also think the inaugural art exhibition is fun and interactive, but not very much else in the house was. There were a few areas for children to get more involved, and the Eating Room had some sound effects, but other than a few faux old books you could flip through to learn more about Soane’s life, and a neat little moving timeline diorama, there wasn’t a whole lot for adults to do other than admire the property. I think they would do well in future to try to get a few more artefacts and things in (maybe Soane’s Lincoln’s Inn Fields House could loan something?) to make the house more of an experience, because for £7.70, it is fairly small (there were only a couple of rooms open on each floor, maybe seven rooms overall?), even with the art gallery attached. Still, I’m glad I got to check it out on opening weekend, and thoroughly enjoyed my experience there, thanks in no small part to my friend.

 

London: “Spare Parts” @ the Science Gallery

I think it’s fair to say that I was pretty excited about the opening of the Science Gallery and their first exhibition, “Hooked,” on addiction, and shared that enthusiasm in my post last month. Which is why their current exhibition comes as something of a disappointment. (If you’ve read my post on the Migration Museum, you will notice that I’m wearing the same outfit as in this post. This is because I visited both on the same day, not because I have a weird closet full of twenty sets of the same outfit, like Jerry’s girlfriend in that one episode of Seinfeld. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

Based on my initial positive experience (and my passion for Kappacasein’s grilled cheese) as well as my promise to blog about their next exhibition in a more timely fashion, I went out to see “Spare Parts” only a week after it opened. Like the previous exhibition, this was free, and I’m glad, because I got a taste of the general underwhelmingness of this exhibition right from the start. We walked in and were greeted by the first piece of art, which was supposed to be a series of four lights that flashed when you put your hands on some sensors, but it wasn’t super obvious where the sensors were at first, and even after I figured it out, they didn’t do anything (I know the lights are on in the photo, but they didn’t flash on or off no matter where I put my hands). This didn’t bode well.

The theme of “Spare Parts” was meant to be the “art and science of organ transplantation and tissue regeneration” which sounds interesting enough, but I don’t think that came across well at all in most of the pieces. “Hooked” was made up of a series of themed galleries, and even though I don’t think the themes were always super clear, at least the space was divided in an atmospheric way so that you felt you were having an experience whilst progressing through the exhibition. “Spare Parts” was far more open, and there didn’t seem to be any smaller themes at all within the larger theme of body tissues.

Also, I presumed that many of the pieces here were meant to be interactive, or at least reactive, like the typewriter that was meant to type stream-of-consciousness thoughts, or “New Organs of Creation,” which was supposed to play sounds unattainable by the human voice. I think I may have misunderstood the descriptions that were in the exhibition slightly, as I got the impression that we were supposed to speak to both pieces to get them to react (so apparently I kept saying “It was the best of times, it was the blurst of times” to the typewriter for no reason, as it was never going to type it. I must have looked like an idiot), though according to the online description, they were already programmed to do whatever they were going to do and my presence was never meant to have an effect. Either way, since they weren’t doing anything, they were rather pointless.

Therefore, I was excited when I found one interactive element, or at least one that sounded interactive – a 3D printer where you could print a miniature body part (not one of your actual body parts, but you could choose one from a pre-programmed selection, which is still quite cool). But it said to ask a member of staff for help, and sadly, they were all huddled in the corner having an in-depth conversation about somebody’s wedding. Marcus even approached them to try to get them to help, and they completely ignored him. Not cool. I get that the pay is probably crappy (if they’re even paid!), but c’mon, at least make an attempt. I was pretty pissed off to be honest, but I just wandered away and returned about ten minutes later to find that one of them had finally broken away from the conversation and was willing to help us (and to be fair, she was perfectly nice once we had her attention, it was just getting it that was the issue). Because the printing process took about fifteen minutes, and we’d already seen most of the exhibition, we just requested one ear between us. The end result is pretty neat, though I wish we had been able to obtain it on our first attempt!

I did find a few more interactive pieces, like a giant pair of plastic globes you were supposed to wear over your ears whilst walking around the exhibition, and some pictures of organs you could colour (somebody needs to sharpen the coloured pencils though!), although the wall where you were supposed to be able to hear your own heartbeat was just a wall with some insulation over it (as you can see above the previous paragraph), and not actually fun at all. At least some comic relief was provided by a video of an artist who had received a kidney transplant dancing around the desert in a very tight bodysuit. There was a central space in the exhibition that I think was meant to be for various activities like playing a “Superturd” card game and grafting a cactus, but other than a pack of “Superturd” cards sitting on a pedestal, where they seemed to be more of a display than something you could pick up and play, none of these activities were in evidence at the time of our visit.

Because of the lack of text outside of the object labels, which in most cases weren’t comprehensive enough for me to fully understand the intent behind a piece, as well as the disappointing lack of interactivity, we finished with the exhibition in about half an hour (and it wouldn’t have even been that long if we hadn’t had to hang around for a bit waiting for the ear to print). I like that they offer a take-home element (like the 3D printed body part, or the cool terracotta tokens in “Hooked”), which, as a free museum, they certainly don’t have to do, but the rest of the exhibition was really not great. Honestly, it felt like a bit of a rush job, like they didn’t have time to set it up properly, an impression reinforced by the empty space behind the gallery still full of water bottles and used tea things that they evidently hadn’t yet cleared away after an event (and speaking as someone who has worked in both events and museums (and events at museums), sometimes you are too busy to clear something up immediately, which I completely understand, but if you have time to sit around and chat, you probably have time to tidy up. I’m turning into a real crab apple, aren’t I?). I will still go back because I like the concept of the gallery and the subjects of their upcoming exhibitions sound interesting, but I was really not impressed this time around. 1.5/5.