museums

London: The Havering Hoard @ Museum of Docklands

Much as I’ve missed visiting museums, I have to admit that I am primarily a food-driven individual, and I have missed visiting markets even more. One of the places I’ve been dying to go back to is Greenwich Market, solely for the sake of getting a Brazilian churro, surely one of the most delicious foods ever invented. But Greenwich is an awfully long way to travel just for the sake of a churro (though I have been known to do it in the past), and so I tried to tie a museum visit into the experience. The National Maritime Museum is usually a prime candidate, but their special exhibition is currently just portraits from the National Portrait Gallery, and I frankly don’t see why I should pay to see that when I can just wait until the NPG reopens and see it for free. But the Museum of London Docklands is not terribly far from Greenwich (I tend to think of everything on the DLR as being close together, even though it’s actually not, but it’s fun to ride, and where else can you find places named Mudchute and Island Gardens right next to each other? (Spoiler: Island Gardens is not any nicer than Mudchute. The names are meaningless)), and they currently have a temporary exhibition on the Havering Hoard, which is on until 22 August and is free – you just need to pre-book a free general admission ticket to see it.

  

My interest in hoards is admittedly pretty minimal, but Marcus was interested in seeing it, and when a friend wanted to meet up that day, I suggested he join us as well. Even though it was a Sunday, the museum wasn’t all that busy, especially the Havering Hoard gallery. I guess we should have researched what the Havering Hoard actually was before turning up, because we were all envisioning a collection of precious objects in silver and gold, maybe some coins and jewellery, you know, nice stuff that someone would keep hidden away for a reason. Well, the Havering Hoard is not that. Instead, it is a collection of late Bronze Age pottery shards (sherds) and other practical items, like axe handles, found in the London Borough of Havering (that I had really only heard of because they were one of the few London boroughs that voted for Brexit, which pretty much automatically put them on my shit list) in 2018. It is apparently the third largest Bronze Age hoard found in the UK, consisting of 453 separate objects, though if most of those objects are broken pieces of pottery, is it really that exciting?

 

Well, maybe to archaeologists, but not really to me or Marcus or our friend. The exhibition wasn’t very large because only a selection of the objects were on display (either because all sherds basically look the same, or because they just didn’t want to excite us too much), but we did take the time to read all the signage, which mainly consisted of descriptions of how the objects in the hoard would have been made, and theories as to why they may have been buried (personally, I would say it was because it all looked like garbage, and that was actually one of the theories! The others were to keep it safe, as an offering to the gods, or as a symbol of status, though I can’t see how the last one could be true. How could you show your power by hiding everything away where no one could see it?). In my opinion, the best part of the exhibition was the foot pedals that illuminated x-rays of the hoard on one of the walls. Covid safe and fun! My friend had somehow never been to the Museum of Docklands before, so we went for a stroll through the permanent galleries, which looked the same as the last time I visited, except for a cool treadwheel thing I had somehow never noticed before (maybe because it was always full of children in the past), so Covid be damned, we had to give it a go (there was a hand sanitiser dispenser nearby, so we just sanitised before and after) and it proved to be super fun but also kind of dangerous, because it was very easy to fall over once it got going.

   

Having finished with Museum of Docklands, we finally headed over to Greenwich to grab that sweet, sweet dulce de leche filled churro, and god was it worth travelling for. I just wish they’d get another stall somewhere closer to me (if I ever have a belated wedding reception, I’m going to ask them to cater it). And more delights awaited us when we walked over to Deptford to see the Peter the Great statue. I don’t know how I’ve lived in London as long as I have without laying eyes on this masterpiece, but it is seriously one of the most hilarious statues I have ever seen, and so inexplicable. Why is Peter’s head so small? Why does the little person have flies on his coat? Why does the throne have what is either Pan or a demon head on the back (I assume the eyes and ears are to show that Peter was all-seeing and all-hearing)? Why are there random dishes of food on the back of the sculpture? So many questions.

 

The plaque on the sculpture wasn’t massively helpful, telling us that it was here because Peter visited Deptford in 1698 to learn more about shipbuilding, and the statue was a gift from the Russian people to commemorate this, though it wasn’t built until 2000. I did a bit of research online, and the stories about Peter’s time in London are frankly as insane as the sculpture. He visited London under an assumed name, though as he was almost seven feet tall and the ruler of Russia, this probably wasn’t all that effective in disguising his identity. He was trying to modernise Russia, and learning about shipbuilding in London was part of this effort. He rented the diarist John Evelyn’s house, and by all accounts, completely destroyed it with his drunken carousing. His entourage included a little person (Peter was known for his fascination with genetic abnormalities, and he had a retinue of people with dwarfism as well as an army of extremely tall people) who he allegedly pushed on a wheelbarrow through Evelyn’s famous gardens, thus wrecking them. His head was a normal size in real life, but the sculptor who made this (Mihail Chemiakin, who was forced to leave the USSR in the 1970s for being too controversial) seems to only be able to sculpt tiny heads, so I guess that explains that one. The rest of it is still a mystery, but it is glorious (Prince Michael of Kent did the unveiling, and I would have killed to be there. How could you not die laughing when the cloth got pulled off to reveal this?), and we spent a good hour sitting on a bench nearby, chatting and basking in the weirdness of this statue (and watching the reactions of other passersby also seeing it for the first time), and I decided that if I ever become emperor of the world, I will have a throne just like this one. Highly recommended, much more so than the Havering Hoard exhibition!

London: “Epic Iran” @ the V&A

With a name like “Epic Iran”, you’d expect something, well, epic, right? Did the V&A’s new exhibition live up to expectations? Read on to find out (with a lot of waffle in between, though sadly not actual waffles).

I had not been to the V&A in a very long time indeed, considering how regularly I used to go. My last visit was in the last of the pre-Covid days, back in February 2020. I did try to see the “Bags Inside Out” exhibition last December when they were briefly open, but it was sold out on all the days I could visit (it’s still on, so I will hopefully make it there eventually). So when they opened slots for pre-booking in April, I hedged my bets (since we still weren’t 100% sure museums would be able to open on the “Covid road map” schedule at that point) and booked a ticket to “Epic Iran” for early June, because it looked more appealing than the Alice in Wonderland exhibition (which I’ll probably see too eventually, but I’ve never liked the book, and it looks like it will be a case of style over substance).

On a very hot day, we queued up outside the Exhibition Road entrance of the V&A (the main entrance is currently exit only) and got processed more quickly than the people who had just booked a free ticket to the permanent collections. Admission to “Epic Iran” is £18, or £9 with Art Pass, and it runs until September. It wasn’t super clear where we had to go when we first entered the building, as staff seemed mainly focussed on directing people to Alice, but we soon caught sight of some signs and made our own way there. The exhibition aims to explore “5000 years of art, design, and culture” which is quite a big ask for an exhibition space that isn’t even the V&A’s largest, but they certainly took a stab at it.

The Persian Empire got its start in the sixth century BC under Cyrus the Great, who conquered what was once Babylonia and united the region. At its height, the Persian Empire was massive and went well beyond the boundaries of modern day Iran, stretching over much of Asia, to the Balkans in Europe, and parts of Libya and Egypt in Africa. Early Persia was firmly Zoroastrian, which I remember learning about in a World Religions class I took as an undergrad. I found the religion memorable mainly for its practice of ritual exposure or “sky burial”, the idea being that to bury a corpse would be to pollute the earth, so better to leave it out to be picked at by vultures. Other than that, it seems to be your standard good vs. evil mostly monotheistic religion that Christianity and Islam both borrowed from. If you like little clay pots with animals on them, and vases of men with erect penises holding water jugs, you’ll like Zoroastrian art.

There were an awful lot of objects in this exhibition, objects that, to be fair, probably shouldn’t even be in British collections, including the Cyrus Cylinder, made in about 539 BC, which tells the story of how Cyrus the Great established the Persian Empire, and normally lives at the British Museum. Also some bad-ass animal horns and various things made from gold.

There were also some pages from a manuscript of the Shahnameh, an epic poem that tells the story of the Persian Empire through the rise of Islam in the seventh century. Like most epic poems, it involves a lot of killing, so those made for some fun illustrations. There were also early Islamic manuscripts with illustrations of various monsters and demons, which of course I loved. And brutal looking armour with pointy kneecaps, I guess so you could poke someone’s eyes out with your knees. Fun!

The little lion incense burner on the left reminds me of the robot devil from Futurama. He was in the section on poetry, which also featured a recording of someone reading out poems in Farsi. There were of course some Persian rugs here, but honestly they were probably the least interesting things in the exhibition. Who wants to look at rugs when you could be looking at paintings of people with aggressive eyebrows, women included? If I relinquished my tweezers, I think I would fit right in.

Obviously, most of history is male-centric, but the exhibition did have a section of the role of women in Persia. Women went from having some rights to having no rights, back to some, and then finally back to no rights again after the Iranian Revolution. In much of recent-ish (the last few centuries) history, women lived in harem-type arrangements where they were sequestered from men, and couldn’t leave the house without being heavily veiled; however, from the Victorian era onward, fashions within the harem setting changed greatly depending on the whims of the ruler at the time. I was interested to learn that skirts gradually got shorter, inspired by Nasir al Din Shah’s love of ballet, until the women in his harem were basically wearing miniskirts (in the 1870s!). Women eventually got to modernise and reclaim some rights, just in time for the Islamist Revolution to send them right back (actually quite a bit further back than) where they started.

The exhibition, having taken us on an accelerated ride throughout history, got to contemporary art by the end, and I really loved some of the pieces here, especially the photograph by Azadeh Akhlaghi recreating the 1974 shooting of activist Marzieh Ahmadi Oskuie, the photographs of modern Iranian women done in a Victorian style, and a shrine style collage piece with dancing blue lights. This was also the part of the exhibition where we encountered a pair of exceptionally annoying school-aged children who had borrowed a pair of those fold out chairs intended for people who struggle to stand for long periods and were proceeding to smash them repeatedly into the floor, much to the consternation of the gallery attendant, so it was fortunate we were spared them for most of the exhibition (it was half-term, but maybe a more child-friendly exhibition would have been a better choice for them). So this is maybe not one to bring the kids to, but as an adult, I really loved it. I thought the art was fabulous, and I enjoyed learning a bit more about Iran’s history, though obviously a seven or eight room exhibition about 5000 years of history is never going to be comprehensive. Maybe not quite “epic”, but it was certainly a good attempt. 4/5.

Mainly including this photo so you can see my apricot dress, because I ❤ it.

London: Ritual Britain @ the Crypt Gallery

I went to see the “Ritual Britain” exhibition, a collaboration between artist Ben Edge and the Museum of British Folklore, at the Crypt in Euston a few weeks ago, and though the exhibition ended on the 4th of July, I still wanted to post about it so people who didn’t get the chance to go can at least see some photos and read about what it was like.

I’m interested in folklore generally, maybe because America hasn’t really been around long enough to have developed folk traditions in the way they exist in Europe (though I guess we have urban legends that are gradually becoming folklore – it’s been a while since I’ve read Ghostland, but I seem to recall Colin Dickey addressing this very subject more extensively than I can do here), so I’m trying to fill the void with other countries’ traditions. Given all the super weird and highly regional British customs and practices (straw bears, Burry Men, cheese rolling, shin kicking, etc), I think it’s a bit odd that there isn’t a permanent folklore museum here, since I’ve certainly been to ones in other European countries, though maybe it has something to do with the legacy of imperialism and some British traditions being a bit controversial (burning Catholics in effigy springs immediately to mind). At any rate, the Museum of British Folklore normally only exists online, with occasional temporary exhibitions hosted in various galleries and museums around the UK. This was the first one I’d heard of taking place in London, so I was excited to attend.

The exhibition was free and there no pre-booking required, which is a bit novel in itself these days, but I was worried that it would get crowded on the weekends, so I took a Friday off to go (I mean, it wasn’t just for this. I also wanted to hit Borough Market, because it’s too busy on weekends and I never get to go anymore since I changed jobs and thus my working days last November, and I had to use the leave up soon anyway), and there was only a handful of people inside, so this was obviously a good plan. I’d been to St. Pancras Old Church (my computer wants me to change Pancras to pancreas so badly) before to see their awesome tombstone tree, but never St. Pancras New Church (which was built in 1819, so isn’t really that new anymore), and the Crypt is an awesome and creepy venue, as you can see from the photo at the start, which made it perfect for this exhibition, as I tend to think a lot of British folklore is vaguely sinister in a Wicker Man sort of way.

The exhibition consisted of Ben Edge’s “Frontline Folklore” series of paintings interspersed with objects from the museum’s collection. Now, I LOVE Ben Edge’s paintings (I just ordered a print of that Clown Church one for my house to go with the clown eggs Marcus made – I have a real obsession with creepy-ass clowns lately, maybe because of the clown episode of Wellington Paranormal, which literally made me laugh until I cried), but the real stuff is even scarier, and an old crypt that was full of actual stacks of tombstones was an excellent way to showcase it.

Just look at the unsettling stares of those Morris dancer dolls (designed to showcase the costumes of different troupes) or that giant corn dolly (those always make me think of that Jeffrey Ford “Word Doll” story, which I recommend if you haven’t read it). I actually took a Morris dancing class once, and it is a LOT harder than it looks, so I’m impressed by anyone that can actually do it, but I have to admit that there is something a bit off-putting about the whole thing to anyone who is a bit of an outsider, especially the sides (fortunately not many, these days) that still insist on using black face (when I went to the Morris class, I deliberately picked an all-female side with more progressive views (they dance at Pride and stuff), but I was still scared they’d hear my accent and tell me to get lost or something, and I really had to work up my courage to actually attend. They turned out to be perfectly nice, but it was still a blindingly white affair, and I can see why, if I felt intimidated about going just on account of an American accent), and I would say that Morris is actually one of the more accessible British traditions. Some of the hyper-localised customs give me Tubbs and Edward from The League of Gentlemen vibes (“this is a local shop, for local people; there’s nothing for you here.”), I guess because they seem designed to make outsiders feel like outsiders, but I suppose that’s also how places develop an identity for themselves, so maybe I’m interpreting things in an overly negative way due to my lack of exposure to these customs until moving to the UK as an adult. With all that being said, I think it is the fact that a lot of these practices are contained to one specific village or area that makes them so strange and fascinating to me.

There was a video at the end of the exhibition, made by Ben Edge, where he had filmed some of these practices in action back in 2019, including the Mari Lwyd, which is basically a skeleton ‘obby ‘oss (hobby horse) used in Wales in a sort of caroling tradition, where men carry it from house to house demanding food and drink and singing a special song in Welsh, and if you aren’t expecting it, it has to be way freakier than any carolers at your door (though I would hide from them too). He had also filmed himself in 2020 talking about the way that the pandemic and the BLM movement were changing British folk traditions, such as the elimination of black face from Morris dancing (except for the resistant troupes I mentioned earlier). It seemed really interesting, but it was also very long, and I wasn’t inclined to sit there for an hour and a half in a tiny room with strangers watching a video, so I only caught about ten minutes of it, but maybe it’s available somewhere online. They did have an events programme tied in with the exhibition that included some film screenings and Morris dancing, but I’m still not super keen on the idea of standing in a big crowd, even outside, so I deliberately didn’t visit on one of those days.

Even thought the exhibition was fairly small, I really loved it. The venue was ideal, and the stories behind Ben’s paintings were fascinating (they’re all available to read on his website if you click on the individual paintings), as were the objects selected from the Museum of British Folklore’s collection. I do wish the museum had a more permanent home, because I’d love to see more of their collection as well as learn more about the history behind the traditions. I also think a larger space would give them room to address the ways that some of these traditions have become problematic, and the ways that other customs have evolved to stay alive to the present day. I’m sorry I’m blogging about this too late for you to see this exhibition for yourself, but if it sounded appealing, at least now you’ll know to keep an eye out for any future Museum of British Folklore/Ben Edge exhibitions popping up near you! 4/5.

London: Thomas Becket @ the BM

Back at the British Museum again, and oh man, was this a spectacularly bad time, though it was not the fault of the exhibition…or was it? More on that in a minute. So, I’d booked Thomas Becket way back in April, and unlike, say, the Sneakers exhibition, this was something I was genuinely excited to see. I’ve always been more into early modern history than early medieval, but when I was in my late teens, I read The Book of Eleanor by Pamela Kaufman, which is about Eleanor of Aquitaine, and liked it so much that I re-read it three or four times in a two or three year period. It was basically a highly romanticised and fictionalised version of Eleanor’s life where she was secretly in love with one of her knights, and Henry II was a creepy rapist with paranoid delusions (based on what I know about medieval kings, that part is pretty believable). Anyway, Thomas Becket features in part of the book, and though I’m sure Kaufman’s account of his death was super historically inaccurate like the rest of the book, it definitely gave me an interest in his story (as did the The Canterbury Tales, though to a lesser extent, as I was more focused on Chaucer’s excellent gross-out details about the people on the pilgrimage than the pilgrimage itself), so I booked my tickets for this exhibition as soon as I saw it advertised.

  

Thomas Becket: Murder and The Making of a Saint (the BM writes their exhibition titles in all lower case letters, but I just can’t do it) runs until 22 August (which frankly doesn’t seem like enough time in this Covid era of unanticipated sudden closures, but whatever) and admission is £17, or £8.50 with Art Pass. We turned up at the appointed time, and except for an overzealous security guard getting a bit snippy with me during the bag check, all was fine. We got into the exhibition and started looking at a reliquary (the very reliquary shown above, in fact, so avert your eyes if you don’t want to take chances), and then the bad time started.

 

You know how saints’ relics are supposed to cure ailments? Well, I must be pure evil or something, because Thomas Becket definitely cursed me with his mouldy old bone fragments and brown coagulated blood smears. Earlier that morning, I had gotten a bit of eye cream in my eye when doing my daily (probably excessive) moisturising routine. It burned for a bit, but I used some eye wash and put drops in and it felt better, no big deal, and I went into town without thinking anything more about it. But then, as soon as I got into the exhibition, my eye started burning with the fire of a thousand flames. I’ve never experienced anything like it. I normally carry a bottle of eye drops with me (I don’t wear contacts, but my eyes are pretty dry) but of course I had just switched purses that morning and neglected to transfer them over, so I had absolutely nothing to alleviate the pain, and as I had just entered the exhibition, I couldn’t very well leave again immediately, especially thanks to the Covid protocols. So I walked around the exhibition in absolute agony with one hand clamped over my right eye, tears streaming down the side of my face, barely able to see anything. My eye was turning redder and redder until I practically looked bionic, and people were definitely staring at me. It got to the point where I couldn’t read any of the captions or look at any of the artefacts anymore, so £8.50 be damned, I ran out of that exhibition and into the toilet to splash water on my throbbing eye, which just made it burn even worse (I didn’t think such a thing was even possible at that point). By this point, all I wanted to do was get home, so my plans for an early dinner in town were completely scuppered, and we headed for the train. Fortunately, Marcus was with me, because as soon as I got in the bright sunlight, my sensitive burning eye refused to open, even with sunglasses, and so I had to walk back to Waterloo with Marcus leading me by the hand because I was effectively blind. My eye finally started to feel better when I was almost home, after closing my eyes on the train for half an hour, and was back to normal a couple of days later, but my god, what a horrible experience. I was also having a flare up of TMD at the same time, so eating was causing me terrible jaw/inner ear pain. The gods were frowning on me that week.

 

Needless to say, I don’t feel that I really saw enough of the exhibition on the day to adequately review it, but I did ask Marcus to take a lot of photos there so I could look at them later and take a stab at writing something in this post that isn’t just about the stabbing pain in my eye. The exhibition opened with some information about Thomas as a boy, and I got the impression that there isn’t much known about his childhood, but he was very much a commoner, born in Cheapside in London around 1120 to French parents, Gilbert and Matilda. He attended Merton Priory as a child, but never completed the schooling that a clergyman would normally have – rather, he worked his way up from a position as a clerk to a trusted assistant to the then Archbishop of Canterbury, where he caught the attention of Henry II and was promoted to Lord Chancellor, and eventually to Archbishop of Canterbury himself. There weren’t really any artefacts from his childhood, just generic stuff from the time period, like bone ice skates, because boys in London enjoyed ice skating, and a jug, because his father would have used jugs. Yeah, you get the idea. Slightly more exciting was the only surviving impression of his seal.

 

So Thomas become Archbishop of Canterbury, and life was good…until he developed a will of his own. Henry only wanted him there as his puppet so Henry could exert control over the Church, and did not like it when Thomas started coming up with ideas that Henry disagreed with (that book I used to read made it sound like they were drinking buddies, but I don’t know how true that is). Henry wanted clergymen to be tried in normal courts, instead of ecclesiastical ones, and Thomas refused (although I think Henry was right). He also refused to sign the Constitutions of Clarendon, which Henry designed to weaken the authority of the Church, and this pissed off Henry so much that Thomas was forced to flee to France in fear of his life. After six years, Henry finally agreed to let Thomas return from exile, but as soon as he got back, Thomas really messed up by excommunicating some of Henry’s pals for crowning Henry’s son, Young Henry, joint king to ensure his line of succession (spoiler alert: Young Henry rebelled against his father and ended up dying before him, so he never actually became king, and the whole thing was a bit pointless really) without consulting Thomas first, and that was the last straw. Henry issued his (probably apocryphal) command, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” Four knights rushed to do his bidding, and rather stupidly, confronted Thomas inside actual Canterbury Cathedral, and proceeded to hack at his head until he died, bleeding all over the tiles of the cathedral, which is a pretty good way to ensure you’re martyring someone in a way that will come back to haunt you.

  

Of course, Thomas became a saint only two years after his death, Henry II was forced to do public penance in the cathedral, and the Plantagenet line basically became known as the killers of Saint Thomas Becket, which probably didn’t do John any favours (“Too late to be known as John the First, he’s sure to be known as John the Worst.” Much as I love Disney’s Robin Hood, I have never understood that lyric. He was John I, or would be if there had ever been a John II to make it necessary to call him something other than just John. Are we just supposed to pretend that he didn’t become king after Richard died?). As you might expect from the medieval church, who loved a good martyrdom, there were some excellently grisly illuminated manuscripts and such depicting Thomas’s unfortunate demise, and I really wished I could have seen them properly in the exhibition, because they look amazing.

  

Following a fire in Canterbury Cathedral in 1174, shortly after Thomas’s canonisation (I think that’s the appropriate term – hopefully all those years I was forced to go to Sunday School were good for something), Canterbury became THE Becket cathedral and Thomas got his own special shrine in the Trinity Chapel. Unfortunately, another jerk Henry, Henry VIII (probably a bigger jerk than Henry II, if I was rating them, because at least Henry II was capable of faking penitence. Henry VIII was a straight-up psychopath) saw Thomas’s dead body as a threat to his authority and had his shrine destroyed along with many others in the process of creating the Church of England. However, the exhibition had a video recreation of the shrine, based on drawings and descriptions, and it looked pretty fabulous.

  

The exhibition also had a lot of other bits and bobs saved from the cathedral, including wood carvings, chunks of carved marble, and some magnificent stained glass showing various miracles Thomas’s relics allegedly brought about (Thomas’s relics were interesting in that they were very blood-centric, perhaps because of the way he was killed. People allegedly sopped rags in his blood shortly after he was killed, which brought about miracles. It all feels a bit Elizabeth Bathory, frankly), including my particular favourite, a man who was castrated and blinded, and had his testicles and eyes magically regrown thanks to Thomas. Glad to know he can restore sight when he wants to (less bothered about the testicles).

 

There was also a small section on The Canterbury Tales, probably the most famous Thomas Becket related piece of literature, including an illustration of the Wife of Bath. My personal favourite Canterbury tale is the “Miller’s Tale”, for obvious reasons, though it sadly didn’t get a flatulent mention here, nor did the Cook’s weeping knee sore that flavoured the blancmange, another favourite detail, but I loved the display of the badges that pilgrims would collect from Canterbury Cathedral when they got there. Collectibles almost make a pilgrimage sound like fun!

 

If I had been able to see properly, I think I would really have enjoyed this exhibition (certainly more so than Nero). Grisly martyrdom paintings and The Canterbury Tales are totally in my wheelhouse, and though I didn’t learn that much about Thomas himself, it was interesting to read more about the role his sainthood played in the development of the medieval English church and monarchy (could definitely be a good dissertation topic, though I’m sure someone has already done it). I’ll downgrade him a bit for temporarily blinding me in his exhibition, but it’s still a solid 3.5/5.

London: Nero @ the British Museum

Regular readers will know that I generally avoid Roman history like the Antonine Plague – I’ve just never been a fan of classical history, and the Romans in particular bore me. However, one of my friends wanted to visit a museum with me (a rare occurrence, since he normally just wants to go to the pub), and I know his tastes are quite different to mine, so I suggested a few things that I thought might appeal, and we settled on Nero: the man behind the myth, which runs at the British Museum until October 2021 (and honestly, I was quite happy to look at Roman artefacts if it meant avoiding the pub, though of course we ended up doing that too). Admission is an extremely pricey £20, or £10 with Art Pass.

 

We went on a bank holiday Monday, and though I had no problem booking tickets the day before, the exhibition was dispiritingly crowded when we entered, which seems to be a recurring issue at the British Museum (this was definitely less crowded than the Arctic exhibition though). We politely joined the end of the queue for a while, but it was creeping along so bloody slowly, particularly the man and his daughter in front of us – he was taking about fifteen minutes to read and explain each caption to her, even though she was probably nine or ten and clearly more than capable of reading the captions herself, since she seemed to know more about Roman history than her dad did – it was sweet that he was taking his daughter to a museum, I guess, but I just don’t have the patience to stand behind someone reading at such a leisurely pace, so I ended up doing my usual thing of zipping ahead to whatever case was empty and then doubling back to read the things I’d missed once the people in front of them cleared out, which was possible here since there didn’t seem to be a one-way system in place.

 

As you can probably guess from my lack of enthusiasm about the Romans, my knowledge of Roman history is definitely patchy at best, and I didn’t even know that Nero was the adopted son of Claudius. The whole premise of the exhibition is to provide an objective perspective of Nero so that you can use the facts presented here to decide if he actually was as evil as history has led us to believe, or if he’s just gotten a bad rap over the centuries. Therefore, the exhibition started with information about Nero’s childhood and a sculpture of him as a child, I guess to show us how innocent he once was. Unfortunately, it then progressed into an entire wall showing the genealogy of various Roman rulers, and I rapidly started losing the will to live.

 

But I perked up a bit when I got to the section on Roman Britain, because there was some interesting stuff here, particularly the slave chain worn by native Britons enslaved by Romans. Other than Boudica, I don’t think anything especially significant took place in Britain during Nero’s fairly brief reign, so this was probably an excuse for the British Museum to give some of their collection that is normally in storage an airing, but I’m OK with that.

 

In an attempt to show a more human side to Nero, there was also a section on his family life, including the above sculpture of what his daughter Claudia Augusta might have looked like if she hadn’t died in infancy. She’s holding a butterfly, which, much as I hate the things, I can admire the skill it must have taken to carve something so delicate yet sturdy enough that it’s still intact millennia later. There were also sculptures of his wives – I think the one above might be Octavia – but it’s hard to see Nero as much of a family man when you realise he had her executed. And of course he had his mother, Agrippina, killed as well, even though they were once close. Oh, and allegedly kicked another one of his wives to death. What a charmer!

 

We also learned more about Nero’s interests. In addition to murdering and the traditional Roman blood sports, he was also fond of music and acting, apparently to an extent that his fellow upper class Romans found strange. He even appeared on stage when he was emperor, and apparently wasn’t that bad of an actor, though really, what are you going to say about an actor who has the power to kill you and isn’t afraid to use it? I picture him forcing his way on stage despite the protests of the other actors and gleefully ruining the play with hammy overacting just because he could.

  

The thing Nero is probably best known for is starting the Great Fire of Rome and then merrily playing his fiddle whilst Rome burned, but this is wrong for several reasons, the first being that his instrument of choice was a lyre, not a fiddle. Seriously though, he wasn’t even in Rome at the time of the fire, and he later organised a relief fund for victims of the fire and allegedly even let some of them stay in his palaces. However, the fire conveniently cleared space for him to build a new massive palace in Rome, which may have fueled some of the later claims that he played a role in starting it. On the plus side, his new palace looked fabulous – I loved the frescoes of sea monsters and the collection of tiny arms and heads taken from mosaics. They were so small and perfect! I was also fascinated by the giant decapitated statue of Nero with his awful hairstyle that must have looked hilariously derpy when intact, if the sketch here (below right) was anything to go by!

  

Because Nero died when he was only 30, the exhibition soon ran out of things to say about his life and moved on to his downfall, which basically happened because he pissed off the wrong people with his tax policies, and his governors started rebelling. Eventually, his guards deserted him, and he decided to kill himself rather than wait around to be killed, but he of course had to exercise his imperial powers one last time and force one of his servants to help him commit suicide. Some guy called Galba took over the Roman Empire after Nero died, but people didn’t like him either, so he was killed after a few months, followed by three other randoms who all only ruled for a few months before either killing themselves or being killed. Eventually, Vespasian stepped up to seize the reins of power, and he proceeded to pay various historians to trash Nero’s memory, which is allegedly why people think ill of him today, but honestly, it sounds like he brought a lot of it on himself by being a terrible person, though I guess not significantly worse than any other Roman emperor. They all sounded like assholes, at least according to (the famously historically inaccurate) Horrible Histories.

 

Since I didn’t know all that much about Nero going on, I did learn a thing or two, but my friend, who is much keener on the Romans than I am, was not impressed. Weird though it sounds, based on the inclusion of special signs aimed at children, I suspect they were attempting to make this exhibition somewhat child-friendly. Perhaps because of this, they left out some of the juicier rumours about Nero, like the one where after killing his second wife, he had a boy who resembled his dead wife castrated, married him, and anally raped him. Even if that particular rumour isn’t true though, I think it’s pretty clear that this exhibition did nothing to win me over to the idea that Nero wasn’t a shit – he may not have been completely evil 100% of the time, but he was still a despicable human who was responsible for a lot of deaths. For £10, I probably got my money’s worth, but this was certainly not big enough for a £20 exhibition, and based on my friend’s experience, if you like Roman history, you probably won’t learn anything new, but you might enjoy looking at the artefacts. If you can get a half-price ticket, I think it is worth going to see some of the objects on display, which are better than the normal Roman crap they dig up, but I don’t think I’d pay full price for this one. 3/5.

 

London: “Sneakers Unboxed” and Margaret Calvert @ the Design Museum

That’s right, I’m back to visiting museums again! Unfortunately, my first time in a museum as a visitor since December was a bit of a letdown, but it was my own fault for choosing the exhibition poorly. I pre-booked “Sneakers Unboxed: Studio to Street” way back in March in hopes that museums would actually be able to open in May, and there weren’t a lot of exhibitions available for booking that far in advance, so I chose something that I would have probably not bothered with otherwise.

 

When the day in May finally arrived, we turned up to the Design Museum at the appointed time and were let straight into the museum after scanning the Test and Trace QR code. The Design Museum gives you a bit more freedom than some other museums in that once you’re in, you’re in, and you’re welcome to look at the free exhibitions as well without booking a separate ticket (unlike at the British Museum, for example). Admission to Sneakers is normally £12.50, but we only paid £6 with Art Pass. The exhibition is located in the basement exhibition gallery where we’ve seen quite a few other things here, and we were the only people in the first room when we walked in; though we were quickly joined by others, it was definitely much less crowded than other exhibitions I’ve been to recently, possibly because we were there on a Monday afternoon.

    

When I booked tickets, I was anticipating that the exhibition would be about the history of sneakers, with maybe some fashion elements thrown in, but it ended up being more like a shrine to the cult of expensive kicks. Honestly, I’m not even super into sneakers – I wear a lot of dresses and jumpsuits and things, so I tend to opt for slightly dressier shoes most of the time, and sandals 100% of the time as soon as it’s warm enough (I hate socks), so I only own a few pairs of sneakers that I wear regularly, which are black Vans slip-ons (I’m wearing them in the photo at the start of this post, but I was still breaking them in and they tore up the backs of my heels so bad that blood started gushing out and pooling in the bottom of my shoes on the way to the museum. Fun!), black Converse high-tops, and black Ash high-tops, which are like a more comfortable version of Converse with buckles instead of laces – so I am probably too boring sneaker-wise to have been the target audience. This was more for the Air Jordan/other overpriced sneakers crowd. Most of the shoes here were the ugliest things I’ve ever seen in my life, especially those white ones, above left, with the giant gross treads. They seriously remind me of the bottom of a horseshoe crab or something else disgusting.

  

Because most of the signage just consisted of a label under each pair of sneakers with their name and date of production, we ended up going through this pretty quickly. The most interesting parts were the section on Converse, because I liked looking at all the old advertising posters and the early models of the shoes from the 1910s and ’20s, and a short video at the end about the evolution of sneaker shapes, which was the only bit of the exhibition with the history I was looking for (and I think the video was part of an advert for a sneaker brand, rather than something the Design Museum had created). There was also a small section about the sustainability of the materials used in sneaker production, and some great photos of various subcultures that placed an emphasis on specific types of sneakers, like hip-hop culture in the 1980s, and intriguingly, a Latin American subculture where teenagers wear clothing featuring religious iconography and elaborately decorated Converse. I would have loved to learn more about these subcultures, particularly the latter group, but I forgot to take a picture of the sign with their name, and Google has gotten me nowhere (I’m not even sure which country these teens are from – I thought it was Mexico, but I could be wrong). The rest of it was decidedly meh, and I was glad we only paid £6. If they had spent more time focusing on the evolution of fashion and the development of the aforementioned subcultures, rather than just displaying loads and loads of sneakers, I think this exhibition could have had some real potential, but as it is, unless you’re really into sneaker collecting, I’d give this a miss. 1.5/5.

 

However, the trip wasn’t a total loss (it wouldn’t have been a total loss anyway, because it gave me an excuse to go to High Street Ken and get reunited with two of my loves – Ben’s Cookies, and chocolate chip muffins from Whole Foods – after an absence of more than a year), because the museum also had a free temporary exhibition on typography, specifically the work of the designer Margaret Calvert, who developed some of the most iconic signs and typefaces in Britain, including a new font for National Rail, the pictograms for British road signs that have been in use since the 1960s, and the typefaces for British airports, British Rail, and the gov.uk website. It’s pretty crazy to think that one person designed so many fonts, especially a woman who started her career in mid-century Britain, and I was completely fascinated by this exhibition. It detailed Calvert’s design process, which involves hand-drawing so she can have more control of design; her desk space, with many quirky signs; and the research that goes into the design process to determine how big fonts have to be, whether they should be all upper case or if upper case and lower case letters should be used, and where signs should be positioned in a train station or airport.

  

I honestly wish this could have been the main special exhibition instead of Sneakers so it could have had a larger space devoted to it and we could have learned even more, because words and fonts are so much more my jam than elaborate sneakers, but I’m glad it was here at all so we could learn about Margaret Calvert (who is still alive – she starred in a short video in the exhibition). Definitely recommend seeing this – it runs until August, and I think you can book a free ticket to see this and the small temporary display on artificial intelligence without having to pay to see Sneakers, which I would advise doing if your footwear preferences are the same as mine.

 

8 Years of Blogging + A 2011 Coastal Tour of England

Last Saturday marked eight years since I began blogging, so I thought it was probably time for me to emerge from hibernation and do a post again. I wanted to celebrate by doing a throwback post to just before I started blogging in 2013; however, I was so desperate to try to populate my blog with content at the start that I was posting nearly every day and working my way through every museum I had visited even semi-recently. This means I had to go all the way back to 2011 to find a trip that I hadn’t already blogged about, so here we are! Back in April 2011, Marcus and I embarked on a coastal tour of the Isle of Wight and southwest England – I seem to recollect that this was because Will and Kate got married then and everybody got an extra bank holiday, so we decided to spend ours heading to some parts of England I hadn’t yet been to at that point in time. Because it was so long ago and we didn’t take nearly as many photos as we would on a trip now, some of my memories are vague, so I’ve decided to do it more as a pictorial tour with captions rather than my usual lengthy review. Not to worry, as the bad bits are vividly seared into my mind!

We started by driving to Portsmouth to catch a ferry to the Isle of Wight so we’d be able to take our car with us. Based on subsequent experiences with the Isle of Wight, I would say this was definitely the way to do it, as their public transport system is unreliable at best, and downright terrifying at worst (the bus driver on the Osborne House route was a complete maniac).

The first stop of the Isle of Wight was the surprisingly excellent Donald McGill Museum. McGill was an illustrator who created many of the iconic saucy British seaside postcards, which lined the walls of this small museum. I was clearly quite taken with his novelty scales, which showed me to be somewhere between the weight of a sickly old man and a bathing beauty.

Here is me and my terrible hair at the time (reminder to self: this is why you should NOT cut bangs again) at the Garlic Farm, one of the many “must see destinations” on the Isle of Wight (said only semi-sarcastically). This is basically a glorified farm shop selling garlic-related products, and we never even got to try their “world’s best” garlic bread, since it was the take and bake kind and what with being on holiday and all, we didn’t have access to an oven until after it expired. The rhubarb, pear, and garlic ice cream was actually quite alright though.

We stayed in Shanklin, where you can see me doing what is clearly my standard “grimacing whilst holding up food” pose with some seaside treats (Mr. Whippy and a “green” flavoured slushy). This was memorable solely because of how revolting our hotel was. It was a particularly grim traditional British seaside hotel with ancient floral coverings on everything and dubious cleanliness – Marcus had to pull out a clump of some previous guest’s hair clogging up our sink that was so large I still gag thinking about him touching it with his bare hands. It was enough to put me off seaside “resorts” for life, and I genuinely think I have not stayed in another such hotel since this trip, though I have stayed in many awful British non-seaside hotels.

After that charming hotel experience, we headed up to the Donkey Sanctuary, which is THE place to see big donkey dicks (if you’re into that kind of thing) as we found out. I decided to spare you by not including the photo of the giant black erect donkey penises (they were so obscene I was legitimately worried my post would get reported), but it was essentially just us walking around and being annoyed that you couldn’t feed or pet the donkeys, though we admittedly didn’t much want to once we noticed their visible arousal (in retrospect, considering the degrees of tumescence on show, this may have been more for our protection than the donkeys’).

Then there was Alum Bay and the Needles, where I was freshly annoyed by the inability of everyone on the boat except us to follow basic instructions designed to keep them from falling overboard. Oh, and we made a sand bell (which involves filling a glass bell with layers of different coloured sand, though they also had more modern (ugly) designs like teddy bears), which is apparently an Alum Bay tradition dating back to Victorian times. We still have the bell, so that’s something.

We spent the night in Weymouth after this, I think because they had some sort of artisan bakery where we could get breakfast (Marcus knows me well) but I seem to remember it being underwhelming. However, this statue of George III is nothing short of fabulous. I’m not sure what he did for Weymouth to deserve this honour, but it must have been amazing!

I swear this trip gets much less phallic after this, but here is a cock rock from the incredible Museum of Witchcraft in beautiful Boscastle. This place was dark, creepy, old school, and all about witchcraft, so what’s not to love? I very much want to go back here when they reopen and do a proper post about it, because this place deserves one.

After this, we drove out to Penzance to spend a couple of nights there in what was probably the only nice B&B I have ever stayed in (very plush carpets and one of those really high comfy beds). Unfortunately, the niceness of our room was marred somewhat by the literal crappiness of Penzance. We happened to be staying there at the time of the 2011 MasterChef final, which I was very invested in, so we set out that night for an earlyish dinner in town to be sure to be back in time to watch it. Our B&B was a couple of miles from the centre of town, so it was quite a walk. As we were walking down the road in the middle of town, nearly at the pizza place we had decided to dine at, I obviously strayed too near the overhang of a building, and the world’s largest, nastiest plop of bird crap fell on my head. I say bird, but part of me thinks it might have been someone doing a “Gardez l’eau” with a chamberpot, because this shit looked human. I have never seen brown bird crap before, and this most definitely was, but maybe it was just from an unusually large seagull who is a fellow IBS sufferer. The poop was everywhere – in my hair, in the hood of my hoodie, down the side of my face, everywhere. Those of you who read my blog regularly will know that I am not unfamiliar with being covered in crap on the streets of a city, but it’s normally my own and in my pants, where it (sort of) belongs. However, there was no shitting way (pun intended) I was walking two bloody miles back to the B&B and then two miles back into town again, so we pressed on, figuring I could at least rinse out my hair in the restaurant sink. Only guess what? This establishment didn’t have a bathroom, and they directed me into the exceptionally disgusting public toilets down the road, which had a sharps bin, but not a proper sink. It was one of those wall mounted dealies with the integrated extremely weak water pressure sink, thin watered-down hand soap, and an ineffectual hand dryer. I couldn’t even stick my damn head in this thing, not that I much wanted to from the looks of it. I did my best, but in the end, I confess that I 100% ate a pizza pie with poop crusted bangs (another reason not to get bangs!) and a smelly jacket with a turd in the hood, had as long of a shower as I could manage without missing MasterChef when we returned to the B&B, and never went into Penzance again (this photo was pre-poop, obviously).

This is the Lizard, and the photo at the start of the post was at Lands End, respectively the most southerly and westerly points of Great Britain (as in, the big island, not all the little ones like the Isle of Wight and the Scilly Isles and junk). We went there the day of the pooping incident I think, and were too cheap to pay for a photo with our specific hometown in, as you can see at the start of the post. We did hang around for a bit hoping some fellow Londoners would show up and we could sneakily grab a picture of the sign once it was changed over, but no dice. They have pasties at the Lizard (because Cornwall) and not much else, but I hate pie pastry, especially in savoury applications, with the exception of empanadas, particularly my homemade seitan empanadas, because the masa does something to the dough that is *chef’s kiss* (fact: the only kind of sweet pies I ever make are cream or ice cream pies with crusts made from ground up biscuits and butter, because Oreo and digestive biscuit/graham cracker crusts are eight million times more delicious than crappy normal pie crust), so the lack of non-pasty food did nothing for me or my mood.

This is the seal sanctuary in Gweek, which we presumably chose to visit because the town was called Gweek (hilarious, obviously), because I don’t even like seals. I find them to be gross amorphous blobs (see exhibit A, above). Given a choice between this and the donkey sanctuary, I’d pick the donkey sanctuary, because donkeys are at least cute, even with huge disturbing erections.

The Eden Project! I remember this being mega expensive, even ten years ago, but we undoubtedly had some sort of 2 for 1 deal or we wouldn’t have gone.

The tropical biome was the hottest place I’ve ever been within Britain, so I was thrilled when I spotted a baobab smoothie stand. Unfortunately, said stand was cash only, so we had to make a very long trek back to the front entrance to obtain some whilst I was dying of thirst the whole time, just to get my hands on a refreshing smoothie. I would hope they would have changed this policy by now. We also made garlic breadsticks in the Mediterranean biome (also cash only) which were undoubtedly the highlights of the whole experience. I’d go back sometime though and blog about it properly.

We spent an awful night at a Travelodge in Torquay where some louts were yelling up and down the hallway all night long and kept rattling the lock on our door, so I was terrified they were going to break in and spent the night creeping on them through the peephole armed with whatever weaponesque thing I could find (god knows what that was in somewhere as bare bones as Travelodge. Even the hair dryers are attached to the wall). I did complain to the front desk the next morning, and they completely ignored me so I later sent a strongly worded email to Travelodge, only it turns out I accidentally sent it to the US chain which is apparently not affiliated with the British one, so that got me nowhere. At any rate, I have not stayed in a Travelodge since, in either country. Cheesy chips were the only good part of the whole Torquay experience. North Devon is lovely, but I am really not a fan of South Devon.

We couldn’t head home without detouring through Dorset to see Cerne Abbas (oh shit, I said there wasn’t anything else phallic on this trip. Totally forgot about this one, but who doesn’t like a chalk giant’s dingdong?!).

Also Buckfast Abbey, though I couldn’t tell you whether this was before or after Cerne Abbas as I’ve forgotten where they are in relation to each other and can’t be bothered to look it up. It was clearly undergoing some sort of restoration, but I seem to remember the shop full of monk-made products being quite good, and we picked up a bottle of the famous Buckfast Tonic Wine for a friend, though I certainly wouldn’t drink it myself. It’s caffeinated fortified wine. Deadly.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief tour through a small portion of England’s southern coast, since it’ll still be a while before we’ll be allowed to go see it in person (though remembering all those awful hotels has not made me particularly keen to spend a night away from home any time soon anyway). Museums aren’t due to reopen until at least 17th May (I am so not excited to go back to work in person, but I am excited to visit other museums! I’ve already booked tickets for two different exhibitions at the end of May, so fingers crossed they’ll be able to go ahead) so I think blogging will still be patchy around these parts for a while, though maybe I’ll surprise myself and find some other old, almost-forgotten trip to write about. Thanks for sticking around with me for eight years (or however long you’ve been reading)!

London: “Unfinished Business” @ the British Library

I had some unfinished business with “Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights”. I was originally booked in to see it the day before lockdown 2.0, but then I ended up getting married instead, which took priority. So I made sure that Unfinished Business was the first exhibition I visited after lockdown, and as it turns out, it was also the only exhibition I got to see during the brief period museums were allowed to re-open, since I got word the day after my visit that one of my colleagues had tested positive, so I had to leave work and immediately start self-isolating (I wasn’t able to get a test since I fortunately never developed symptoms (and my colleague had a very mild case, also fortunately), so I still don’t know if I’ve actually had Covid or not, or if I was infectious at the time I saw the exhibition, so I guess it’s good I had a mask on the entire time I was in central London, even when I was outside). I was hoping to get in one more museum visit when my self-isolation period ended on Wednesday, but then the government decided to move us into Tier 3 starting Wednesday (instead of just reassessing on Wednesday, which was what I thought they were meant to do), so there goes my one day of freedom!

 

But anyway, back when I was unaware that I was a potential Covid Jessica (I know I’m being a bit flippant, but I would honestly feel awful if I knew I got someone sick), I headed up to the British Library for the first time in well over a year to finally see this exhibition (time flies when you can’t leave your house…at least up to a point if you’re an introvert like me. I enjoyed working from home in my pajamas instead of having to go into the office (and I was only working from an office again for a month before having to self-isolate (and this is at a museum with a very small team), so that went well!), but I do miss visiting exhibitions every week). Tickets are £15, or £7.50 with Art Pass, and you must pre-book, though there were plenty of tickets still available on the day when we visited. It is meant to run until February 2021, though this may be extended now that they’ve had to close again.

  

We were already off to a better start than our recent experience at the British Museum as soon as we entered the exhibition, because it was pretty damn empty. There were maybe only ten visitors in the entirety of the large PACCAR Gallery, and the one way arrow stickers on the floor were huge, so there was absolutely no way you could miss them (and there was really only one natural path around most of the exhibition, so we wouldn’t have run into the same issues that we had at the BM anyway). The BL normally divides the space into a lot of smaller rooms, but in this case they had wisely decided to leave everything open, which made it a lot easier to social distance. No complaints about the appearance or configuration of this exhibition!

 

As for the content…I definitely consider myself a feminist, and am interested in the women’s rights movement, so I was really excited to see this exhibition, and it didn’t disappoint. Rather than being divided into individual galleries, the exhibition was divided into zones on Body, Mind, and Voice, though there was definitely a bit of overlap between the zones. As always, the BL presented fascinating historical documents alongside contemporary art and artefacts, and I absolutely loved the little cartoons on the side of each large interpretation panel, most of which contained wry observations on being a woman in male-dominated industries (totally my experience when I worked in brewing and people used to assume I was the head brewer’s girlfriend, though definitely not in heritage, which is heavily female-dominated, at least everywhere I’ve worked), though there was also a delightful cartoon about the Bronte sisters that made me laugh out loud (with any laughter particles safely contained within my mask) and a chart mocking the idea of an “ideal” body type with different food-based body shapes (I’m definitely a pierogi, not least because I eat a lot of pierogi when I can be bothered to make them).

 

“Body” contained sections on beauty pageants, cross-dressing female vaudeville entertainers, transwomen, menstruation, and more. I was fascinated to see the correspondence between American suffragist Caroline Kennard and Dahl’s Charwin, as I call him, aka Charles Darwin, about whether women were intellectually inferior to men. Darwin believed they were, and Kennard tried her best to set him straight by pointing out that women didn’t receive equal educational or employment opportunities, but Darwin presumably had none of it because he was kind of a jerk. There was also a small section on family planning, and the exhibition didn’t shy away from pointing out Marie Stopes’s racist views (similar to her American counterpart Margaret Sanger, she was a big believer in eugenics. It’s a shame all these early birth control advocates had such awful beliefs). I was also super interested to read Urania, an early 20th century gender studies publication written by feminist activists (definitely ahead of its time!), and see how badly I fail at dressing professionally for the office according to a 1970s guide for women on “power dressing” (I’ve been known to wear things close to that exact outfit, sans the slouchy hat).

 

I’m not sure exactly where “Mind” ended and “Voice” began, but I have to assume the education section was in “Mind”. Throughout the exhibition, there were charts showing the proportion of women represented in various fields, like politics, the workforce, etc. (and a really depressing one on domestic violence, which we all know has gotten worse during the pandemic as more women are trapped at home with their abusers), and the only chart where women were surpassing men was on higher education (though not when it comes to the make up of actual faculty, and the number of BAME female professors is particularly low). I was disturbed by the photograph of the 1897 protest by male students at Cambridge against granting degrees to women, which was full of boorish looking men throwing fireworks and suspending an effigy of a woman on a bicycle from a building, and was apparently successful, since the Queen Mother was the first woman to be granted an (honorary) degree at Cambridge, and that wasn’t until 1948!

 

“Voice” focused a lot on the suffragette movement, and made a point to mention the role women of colour played, and how they were basically ignored by white British suffragettes, who showed no concern whatsoever for the plight of women living under colonialism. In fact, during WWI, the Women’s Party put out a really revolting publication called Brittania, full of “patriotic” garbage extolling the “virtues” of Empire. Blech. I found the sections on solidarity movements by BAME women really interesting, and I loved all the protest art. Although much of the focus was still on white women, as that is still what makes up much of the BL’s collection, I do think they really tried to focus on women of colour as well and point out the many inequalities that still exist. This was really driven home in the case of Khadija Saye, one of the artists featured here, who tragically died aged only 24 in the Grenfell fire along with her mother due to the ultimately hideously unsafe conditions they were forced to live in.

 

As the exhibition guide said, although the exhibition tried to represent as many voices as they could, an exhibition of this size covering so much ground could never be comprehensive, and was really more of an overview, though I think it could be a great starting point to encourage visitors to learn more, and there was definitely a lot of interesting looking feminist literature available for purchase in the exhibition shop (along with some cool badges and stickers). The BL generally excels at including a range of interesting primary documents in their exhibits, and this was no exception, with poems written on toilet paper by suffragettes in prison (and my god, does it look like coarse, unpleasant toilet paper), to manuscripts of Jane Eyre and Middlemarch, and even a good range of artefacts from ordinary women, like a housemaid’s recipe for lemon ice cream and a rad uterus quilt.

 

I really liked “Unfinished Business”, and was definitely impressed with the social distancing, easy flow around the exhibition, and friendliness of the staff. 3.5/5. If you have time to walk around the building (which takes a bit longer than it used to due to the one-way system), there is a free display of more of Khadija Saye’s art on the first floor. I’m also including a photo of the small case on the Glasgow Women’s Library because I thought Anabel might like to see it, and you get a bonus photo of the BL’s cat, who we encountered as we left. One of the security guards told us her name was Daisy, and she is very cute!

 

London: “Arctic: Culture and Climate”@ the British Museum

This was the last exhibition I managed to see before lockdown 2.0, and after visiting this, I could kind of see why we needed another lockdown, because this was a free-for-all (as I’m sure you’ll see from the photos). When I visited “Tantra” at the British Museum a few weeks before this, I had no issues. The exhibition was fairly empty, and the pre-booking only system seemed to be working well. For “Arctic,” however, I suppose in their keenness to get as many people as possible through a major exhibition, the British Museum had let far too many people in at a time, and it was impossible to socially distance in some areas of the exhibition, because they were as rammed as they would have been pre-corona. Even the permanent galleries seemed significantly busier – there were lots of families and what looked like school groups, and I had to queue for ages to get into the toilets, even though, like my previous visit, this was also on a Monday at the exact same time in the early afternoon. Lockdown hadn’t been announced at this point, so I can’t even say it was a last hurrah; just a general loosening up.

 

But let’s get down to the exhibition itself. Regular readers know about my fascination with polar exploration, so I was very excited to see this exhibition on the ways the people who live in the Arctic manage to survive in such a harsh environment, and how they were adapting to climate change. “Arctic: culture and climate,” was originally meant to run until February 2021, though this may now be extended. Admission was a hefty £18, or a more reasonable £9 with Art Pass. It was held in the Sainsbury Exhibition Gallery, which is on the ground floor in the back of the museum – I don’t think I’d been to an exhibition in this gallery before, or at least not for a while, as all of the ones I’ve seen lately have been in that tower thing in the middle of the Great Court.

 

The gallery space featured one big corridor lined with the larger eye-catching artefacts that ran the length of the gallery, with smaller rooms branching off from it, and it was these smaller rooms that were the biggest problem, particularly as a lot of our fellow visitors seemed to be big family groups with the maximum allowed six people, and if you were stuck in a room with just two of those groups, there was no way you could put two metres between you. There was apparently a one way system in place, with markings on the floor to show you where to go, but neither Marcus or I noticed these when we were in the exhibition – we only saw them when we were looking at some of the photos after we left, so they need to make this a lot clearer!

 

The exhibit opened with a collection of traditional clothing worn by various Arctic peoples, and moved on to both the art and more quotidian objects that they have used throughout history. There was a lot of art featuring animals, especially the seals, whales, walruses, and various birds that the indigenous people have traditionally been dependent on for food and clothing – obviously, I loved this (says the woman with whale wallpaper in her living room)!

 

I also thought the tools associated with whaling were fascinating (though whaling is never a nice thing), especially a sealskin suit from Greenland with a hole in the middle. The wearer could crawl into the suit through the hole, and pull the hole closed behind him to create a waterproof suit. The suit would then be inflated via a straw to provide extra insulation and buoyancy. The most remarkable thing about this suit is that it was made some time before 1834 (presumably the date it was acquired by some explorer or another), since we tend to assume waterproof clothing is a more modern technology (I get the impression that most people were walking around in wet wool all the time in 19th century America and Britain, or at least that’s what it seems like in the Little House books).

 

As you might expect, a lot of the artefacts here were related to hunting and fishing; although many parts of the Arctic have more plant life than people might think in the summer, which the people living there of course incorporated into their diets, for the rest of the year, they needed to hunt to survive. And even the non-edible parts of the animals were very much used, not only for clothing, but for various intricate carvings using bone and tusk, many of which were quite beautiful. I loved the wooden seal helmet – it was used for hunting purposes, but it just looks so cute!

 

There was also a section here on first contact, much of it with the various polar explorers that I’ve read so much about, who were of various degrees of jerkishness – some were keen to befriend and learn from the native people, but others just wanted to claim the areas for their respective countries, and saw the people living there as a nuisance (which was just dumb, because if you’re planning on exploring a fairly inhospitable land, wouldn’t it make sense to learn a thing or two from the people who have managed to survive there for centuries?). There were some fantastic drawings from these encounters from the perspective of both the native Greenlanders and the European explorers.

 

There was a lot of great contemporary art here too, but my favourite things were probably the historical artefacts, many of seemed surprisingly modern like the aforementioned whaling suit, such as the snow goggles used to protect the wearer’s eyes from the sun glare coming off the snow, and the waterproof fish skin bags used for storage, which are far more sustainable than most modern materials (though I don’t particularly want to carry around a fish skin bag!).

 

A small section at the end had information about climate change and how it might affect the people living in the Arctic going forward, but most of the exhibition seemed to be on traditional ways of life, which I admittedly found more interesting, though obviously climate change is a huge concern. I did have to skip a few of the cases because there were just too many people hanging around in front of them who wouldn’t move and I wasn’t comfortable standing near that many people for a prolonged period, but I did enjoy everything I saw – it was just too busy! There was a shop at the end that directed us to wait outside if there were more than 15 people in the shop, but as you couldn’t actually see into the shop from outside the doors, and there was no member of staff there to regulate numbers (like they have outside the toilets), I have no idea how you were meant to gauge that yourself. The shop was quite a big one, with various crafts and food from around the Arctic (mainly Scandinavia and Canada), but maybe they could have cut back on the amount of stock in the shop and limited the amount of people in the exhibition more, because now is not really the time to be going all out on a museum shop (says the person who used to run a museum shop and had their budget frozen for the entirety of this year, even before Covid).

 

Anyway, the exhibition itself was good, though not big enough to justify either £18 or the amount of people they were allowing in the space. 3.5/5. Hopefully when it reopens after lockdown, they’ll be a bit stricter about limiting numbers or making sure people leave within a designated span of time.

 

 

London: Bruce Nauman @ Tate Modern

Was Bruce Nauman an artist whose work I could have identified before seeing this exhibition? No, but my quest back in October was to pack in as many exhibitions within walking distance of Waterloo on my two journeys into central London as I could (both to minimise my time on public transport and to build up a bank of posts, since by the middle of October, I strongly suspected we would go into lockdown again, and look, I was right!), I looked to see what was at Tate Modern, and here he was. Given a choice between what I could see of his work on Tate’s website, and the Andy Warhol exhibition, I chose Bruce, and after seeing the queue for Andy Warhol, I think I made the right decision.

 

You had to prebook to visit Tate Modern, even if you were just there to see the permanent collection (though those tickets were free), but there were still plenty of slots available for Bruce Nauman when I booked it the night before, which I suspect would not have been the case for Warhol. Tickets were £13, or £6.50 with Art Pass, and the procedure at Tate Modern was that you joined a queue upon entry for whatever you were there to see (Bruce had no queue, so we could breeze straight through, but Andy’s stretched the length of the Turbine Hall), someone scanned your ticket and told you where to go, and then someone checked your ticket again at the entrance to make sure you were there at the right time. There was also no queue at the entrance to the exhibition, and we could go straight in, but the queue for Andy was very long indeed (yes, I am quite smug about this, first of all because I don’t even really like Andy Warhol, and if I did, I know there’s a museum in Pittsburgh that I could easily visit any time I go to visit my family in Cleveland, though who knows when that will next be).

 

The exhibition was spread out over 13 rooms, and since most of Nauman’s pieces were installation style, there were only one or two semi-immersive pieces per room, making it easy to socially distance (and of course, face coverings were required inside). Bruce Nauman is an American artist (from Indiana) who has been active since the 1960s, and is probably best known for his neon sculptures and video installations, though he has dabbled in a range of media, including more traditional sculpture and photography. He’s the type of artist whose work you have probably seen without realising it’s his work. (And yes, that is Nauman’s butt and face in the above pieces.)

 

I could definitely see some of the pieces here as being the reason some people hate modern art, like “Walking in an Exaggerated Manner Around the Perimeter of a Square”, which is exactly what it sounds like – though we got the excitement here of looking at the square he had taped out on the floor and a plank of wood leaning against the wall, we couldn’t actually walk in an exaggerated manner ourselves, since it was behind a rope.

 

Nor could we go inside the “Double Steel Cage,” which is meant to provoke feelings of “anxiety and entrapment”, though since Nauman’s intention was that the door be left open so visitors could go inside and experience anxiety for themselves, I think this was probably a Covid-related decision made by the Tate. However, we could try out the “Going Around the Corner Piece” where we literally walked around a corner to try to catch a glimpse of our own backs on a TV monitor as we were being filmed on the opposite side of the wall, which was quite fun.

 

One of the reasons I decided to see this exhibition was because of Nauman’s clown pieces, since this visit took place in October when I was in full Halloween mode (as opposed to the partial but still enthusiastic Halloween mode I’m in the rest of the year), and I thought clowns were appropriately creepy and Halloweeny. This series of videos was called “Clown Torture” and filled the entire room, and was very creepy indeed. Nauman finds clowns very menacing, and this really came across here. There’s a clown screaming “no, no, no!” in one of the videos, and another where he keeps repeating the children’s rhyme, “Pete and Repeat sat on a fence. Pete fell off, who was left? Repeat. Pete and Repeat sat on a fence…” and so on, which I definitely remember reciting to irritate my mother when I was little (along with “The Song that Never Ends” from Lamb Chop. I was an annoying child), which made this installation very much an assault on the senses, as was “Anthro/Socio”, which is the piece pictured at the start of this post, with an actor shouting “Feed Me, Eat Me, Anthropology” and “Help Me, Hurt Me, Sociology” again and again whilst his head spun around on a video monitor.

  

Nauman also finds many children’s games quite sinister, as reflected in his “Hanged Man” neon, which was my favourite piece here (I mean, he’s not wrong about Hang Man – what a weird children’s game!). This was definitely not child friendly, as the hanged man goes from being alive with a flaccid penis, to dead with a huge erection, as you can see above, based on the old myth about what happens to hanged men (which maybe isn’t a myth? I don’t even know).

 

I liked the neons here generally – the coolest one was probably “One Hundred Live or Die” which is a grid of one hundred different declarations that light up in turn, such as “Live and Piss” “Die and Shit” “Smell and Live” etc. Unfortunately, I do not have a photo of it because it was impossible to photograph, so you get to look at “Human Nature/Knows Doesn’t Know” and “Black Marble Under Yellow Light” instead, and it is probably self-explanatory which is which.

 

There were also a couple more video installations; one featuring a mime (also creepy), and another showing sleight of hand tricks close up and various people falling, all shown in the RGB colour spectrum. Honestly, one of the coolest parts of the exhibition was all the huge period video monitors and projectors, mostly from the ’80s and ’90s, which reminded me of the technology we had elementary school.

 

Tate had a couple more of his installations scattered throughout the museum, including one on the wall of the cafe, and a sound installation in the stairs we used to exit. I think they have a couple pieces of his on permanent display too, but we didn’t attempt to go in the permanent galleries. Considering I’m not usually the biggest fan of modern art, I surprised myself by enjoying this quite a bit, since it was quite immersive – my only complaint would be that it only took us about half an hour to see the exhibition, even with lingering in some of the rooms, which is a bit light for a £13 exhibition, but since we only paid £6.50, I didn’t mind so much. 3.5/5 for Bruce Nauman – definitely worth visiting after lockdown if you’re in the area and don’t feel like spending your day queuing for Andy Warhol! It’s currently meant to run until February, and they might extend it further depending on when museums are allowed to reopen.