museums

Cambridge: The Whipple Museum of the History of Science

Though I’m really more of a fan of medical history, I also try to show an interest in the history of science from time to time (admittedly not enough of an interest to do that Ph.D I was planning on when I realised there’d be only history of science and no history of medicine classes available for my first year, but still, an interest), so I definitely wanted to see the Whipple Museum of the History of Science whilst we were in Cambridge.

  

We were a little confused by the entrance; because the museum is located inside the Physical Chemistry building, we thought maybe the main entrance was for students only, and we were meant to use the back entrance for the museum (incidentally, I still don’t really understand how the whole Oxbridge system works. I thought students joined a college, and only took classes within that college, but it appears they just have some normal university buildings as well. I guess it’s one of those weird upper class British things I’ll never wrap my head around. Like their fondness for horse racing. Or fox hunting). So we walked all the way around, passing the Museum of Zoology on the way (which had an excellent whale skeleton that we could see from the outside, but it’s under construction so not open to the public at the moment), and ended up having to ring a doorbell for access, only to be gently chided by a somewhat annoyed man who obviously had to run from somewhere upstairs to answer the door. So learn from our mistake, and just go in the main entrance, unless you need step-free or group access. Then you still have to go around to the back.

  

Due to what was apparently our foolish misstep, we had to walk through the whole museum to get to the room where we were meant to start, though honestly I don’t think it mattered that much, because lots of the collection was just miscellaneous crap, with no real narrative (also, the museum’s not that big). And I’m not just using “crap” here to be pejorative; the museum itself admitted that some of its collections were junk.  Like a display of shitty plastic protractors that got taken off the market after a teacher realised they were basically worthless, and were screwing up students’ measurements.  Apparently they have a policy of collecting all things relating to the history of science, whether valuable or not, and even proudly displayed an old Telegraph column written by shaggy-haired douche canoe Boris Johnson, criticising their collecting policy. I can’t help but feel that if BoJo thinks it’s a bad idea, then it probably isn’t.

 

But amongst the junk, there were also some beautiful and historically important artefacts. Like one of Herschel’s telescopes (I went to his house, remember?). Or the grand orrery (a moving model of the motions of the Earth, Moon, and Sun) which is the dome-shaped thing on the right side of the first picture in this post. They also have a whole collection of frog-related things, which obviously I loved.  And I was really taken with the case of anatomical models, shown above, made by the Frenchman Dr. Auzoux in the 19th century to combat the shortage of bodies for medical dissection.  In retrospect, they were probably my favourite things in the museum.

  

I also really liked the labels in the first room, because they explained in detail why every object had been selected for display, and they had sound reasoning for every choice, even the “junk” (although with the museum being British, I feel like they didn’t actually say “junk.” Rubbish, maybe?). Take that BoJo!

  

Unfortunately, for me anyway, the second gallery wasn’t as successful as the first. It was eye-catching, but it was divided by different branches of science, with loads of the same sort of objects from each branch, and I’m just not enough of a sciencey person to have really understood what they were and given them the appreciation they deserved. I did find a pretty cool anatomical illustration in one of the drawers though.

  

I have to admit, I saw the sign for the “Victorian Parlour” when we walked in (since we came the wrong way), and I was pretty much just biding my time until I could get upstairs and check it out. It promised to be a room where you could interact with everything, and whilst that wasn’t quite true (there were signs on a few things saying not to touch them), they did have a whole chest of drawers full of games + hats to try on, which is always a bonus.  I do think it was aimed at a younger audience than me, because it wasn’t quite as much fun as I was hoping, but I still did try out most of the games, as did an older lady who was there at the same time as me.

  

The Globes Gallery was to the rear of the Victorian Parlour, and it was fine if you like globes. I mean, I like old globes where the countries are all wack, and “here be dragons” and that kind of thing (which I think is actually a modern conceit, but you know what I mean), but most of these were astronomical globes, which don’t do that much for me. I took Astronomy in high school and everything, but I’ve never been that into space, save for a fondness for the moon that probably dates back to my brief Wiccan phase (OK, I have moon sheets on my bed right now, and my favourite commercial when I was a kid was that creepy McDonalds’s moon one (funny because I hated McDonald’s food, even back then), and I even have a small moon tattoo, so I guess I REALLY like the moon, but that still doesn’t mean I’m thrilled by celestial globes).

  

Honestly, aside from the Polar Museum, this was the Cambridge Museum I was most excited about, but unlike the Polar Museum, it didn’t really deliver. I liked the first gallery a lot, but everything else was downhill from there, and it’s probably telling that my favourite objects in here had to do with medical history, because I will always love that more than the history of science. But I could definitely see science enthusiasts enjoying this museum more than I did; it wasn’t bad, it just didn’t thrill me like I was hoping it would. I think it would definitely be improved if instead of the “more is more” approach of the second gallery, they followed the example of the first, and put fewer things out, but with better and more explanatory labels, so that visitors of a less scientific inclination understand what they’re looking at. 3/5.

Don’t stand there confused like I was…this IS the correct entrance.

 

Cambridge: The Fitzwilliam Museum

The Fitzwilliam is probably Cambridge University’s most famous museum, and rightly so, because it’s also by far the largest (at least of the ones I visited).  So I knew I wanted to see it, but I also knew that with the busy day we had planned, I wouldn’t have time for a thorough perusal.  Fortunately, the Fitzwilliam is an art museum, and art museums are the easiest sort of museum for me to deal with in a hurry, because there’s usually not much to read, and I’m not really one for contemplating art, so I can breeze through, only stopping to look more closely at things that really catch my eye (especially if the museum is free, like the Fitzwilliam is, so I don’t feel like I have to look at boring things just to get my money’s worth).

  

And the first thing that caught my eye was the museum’s interior, which, as you can probably tell from the photo opening the post, is incredibly ornate, and really rather gorgeous.  The second thing I noticed were the large cabinets meant to house Wunderkammer, which were prominently displayed in the first room. Because I am way more into cabinets of curiosity than old European paintings, I spent a healthy amount of time studying the inlay on these cabinets, as well as the treasures that would have been kept within (which included a wee ceramic frog).

  

I was pretty much able to dispense with the whole of the first floor in record time, because other than the Wunderkammer, it was all just boring old-ass European art (much of it religious). OK, there was a bit of modern art too, but I’m not any more a fan of that than I am of Italian Renaissance painters, so I didn’t feel the need to linger.

  

The only significant amount of text up here was in the temporary exhibit “Madonnas and Miracles: The Holy Home in Renaissance Italy,” which runs til 4 June, and did not allow photography.  This was a fairly interesting exhibit about how Catholicism crept into every aspect of early modern Italian life, including the home. The most memorable object in here was a creepily realistic Baby Jesus doll that was made for some sort of famous nun hundreds of years ago (I can’t remember the exact details) and resided at the convent until just a couple of years ago, when the convent was destroyed by one of the recent earthquakes. However, the doll survived, and the nuns agreed to lend it to the exhibition, so here it was, staring up at us eerily like a real baby.

 

Moving on…I need to talk about the gallery full of English ceramics on the ground floor, because this was the best part of the museum by far (the Fitzwilliam’s ceramics game was strong in general, as you can probably tell from the Italian-made bust of an old woman a few paragraphs up).  I already had a fondness for antique Staffordshire figurines (I still really want the Red Barn Murder set, but considering one sold for almost £12,000 in 2010, that’s never going to happen), and also royal memorabilia, specifically really old and crudely drawn memorabilia, like the plates shown above, so my expectations were high as soon as we entered this gallery and I got a taste of what was inside, and happily, the Fitzwilliam exceeded them.

  

My favourite royal family plate had to have been the William and Mary one, above left.  I’m hard pressed to even tell you which one is William and which is Mary (OK, I think William is the one with the moustache, but still). There were so many fabulous things here that I could have happily spent my entire visit in just this room. I want to show you everything, but I’ll restrain myself to just a few more pictures (and how sad are those poor chained bears?  I want to free them!).

  

Here’s some of those Staffordshire figurines I was talking about. I have a crude knock-off of the tiger one, but in mine, it looks as though the tiger is merely sniffing the soldier’s head, rather than an active mauling (though I have to say that the tiger in the real one still looks remarkably sweet for being a vicious man-eater). It’s based on a real-life event that took place in India in 1791 where the soldier, Hugh Monro, later died of his injuries, so I guess I shouldn’t be so flippant about it, but that tiger is very cute.

  

And here is Isaac Newton (looking rather foxy), and a piece showing the murder of Jean-Paul Marat by Charlotte Corday, though surely if you know anything about his assassination, it’s that he was stabbed in the bath, so I’m not sure why he is fully clothed and just sitting on the ground. Perhaps a nude Marat would have offended Georgian (early Victorian? not sure when it was made) sensibilities too much, but obviously violence was just fine.

  

There was so much more splendid stuff, including a giant owl jar (I’m not including the photo because I’m in it, and I look terrible), but I’d better move on to the rest of the museum. Or what we saw of it anyway; based on what was in the gift shop, I feel sure we missed some kind of modern print room, and there was also a sign in one of the rooms telling us to check out the exhibit on Victorian life in Gallery 33, which I was more than happy to do, but we found Gallery 33, and it only had random (not delightful, or Victorian) pottery in it, so I’m not sure what they were talking about.

  

There was a hall of armour, and though this would probably normally be my favourite part of the museum, it was completely overshadowed by the excellent English ceramics (except for that modern sculpture of a skull in chain mail…it didn’t photograph well on account of the case, but man, it was cool).

  

We concluded our visit with a brief stroll through the Roman and Egyptian stuff.   I normally love sarcophagi, but they simply paled by comparison to those charming damn ceramics (I’m sorry, I realise like 80% of this post is about stupid ceramics. Maybe I should just re-title it “The Pottery Post”).

  

So, while I would like to return to the Fitzwilliam one day and be able to spend more time there, I honestly don’t feel like I missed out on anything on our fairly quick visit (to be fair, we probably spent twice as much time here as any of the other museums, except maybe the Polar Museum, which was small, but I felt like I needed to read everything in it). I’m obviously completely and totally captivated by their ceramics collection (and not just the English stuff; there was a pretty good German room too), but I think there are probably many things here worth seeing, especially for people who know more about art than I do (which frankly, is not that hard to do.  For a museum person, I am shamefully uninterested in most art). 4/5; it’s clearly a world-class museum, but I was really only interested in maybe 40% of what was inside (which is my problem, not theirs, but I’m the one giving the scores). Oh, and don’t miss the decorative gold pineapples on the railings outside the museum – I thought they were a nice touch!

Cambridge: The Polar Museum

Ever since learning of its existence through Bill Bryson’s The Road to Little Dribbling, I have wanted to visit the Polar Museum, aka The Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge.  My love for doomed polar expeditions has been well-documented on this blog, and the thought of seeing artefacts that actually came from Scott’s failed Terra Nova Expedition was irresistible.  And there were lots of other museums in Cambridge that looked great too, but somehow I just never got around to going.  However, I just started a new job (I’ve been unemployed for over five years; basically the entire time I’ve been writing this blog, and then some. So this job is a really big deal for me, but it’s also totally not the type of thing I thought I would ever be doing, and I’m genuinely not sure how long I’ll be doing it for, because it is hard physical work!), so on my final week of freedom, I wanted to venture out of London, and because it was too late (and expensive!) to book anywhere abroad, I settled for a day trip to Cambridge.

  

Getting up there was actually a cinch…it took about as long (45 minutes) to get from our flat to King’s Cross (10 miles) as it does to get from King’s Cross to Cambridge (55 miles) on the direct train (getting around London is always the hardest part). Marcus and I had about six and a half hours in Cambridge before the museums shut, and a long list of museums to potentially visit, so I thought it would be best to start with the Polar Museum, both because it was closest to the station, and the museum I most wanted to see (we ended up making it to five museums in the end, as you’ll eventually see, which I think is really pretty good going. My feet were killing me by the end of the day, but it was worth it).

  

Happily, the Polar Museum is free, as are all the museums that are part of Cambridge University (there are a couple of museums in the city of Cambridge that do charge admission), so this was shaping up to be a very budget-friendly trip.  We were greeted by a couple of volunteers at the admissions desk, who instructed us to begin in the entrance hall (back out the doors we came in) and work our way clockwise around the museum. So we dutifully trooped back outside to admire the beautiful entrance hall ceiling that I had missed on the way in.  It had maps of the North and South Poles on it, with ships from all the major polar voyages painted in on them, which I loved, and strained my neck trying to read all the labels (you can see one of the maps in the first set of pictures). The museum proper began with a section on the native peoples of the Arctic (since obviously there is no native human population in the Antarctic), and displayed some of their traditional crafts (I want some traditional Greenlandic boots, or at least I would if they weren’t probably made from baby seals. Maybe they could use faux fur for mine?).

  

At the time of our visit, the museum was hosting a small exhibition of Dick Laws’ art (it looks like the exhibition ran slightly over, because the website says it was on until 25 March, and we were there on the 26th). Dick Laws was a marine mammal scientist who travelled to the Antarctic to study seals and whales, and he was also a keen artist who produced some very cool (literally) little paintings.

  

But it was the main room, containing artefacts from almost all the major polar expeditions of the 19th and early 20th centuries that I was most keen to see, and man, this did not disappoint.  This room was a veritable treasure trove for polar history nerds like myself.

  

It touched on a few of the earlier expeditions, but it really had loads of stuff relating to John Franklin’s ill-fated attempt to find the Northwest Passage. I mean, a surprising amount, given that the Erebus and Terror just mysteriously vanished, along with all their crew. Most of it was admittedly from the search parties that went out looking for Franklin, but Inuit recovered items from one of Franklin’s ships before it sank (mostly made of metal, like the set of spoons bearing Franklin’s crest), and some of those items eventually made their way back into English hands. I thought the coolest thing was one of the actual letters left in a cache by Franklin’s men before the ships had been lost, explaining how they had spent their first winter in the Arctic (a letter was also left by Franklin’s men after Franklin died (of natural causes) and the ships had been abandoned, but the museum only had the facsimile of that, the real one apparently residing at the National Maritime Museum (but I’ve never actually seen it there. Hopefully it will make an appearance in the special Franklin exhibition at the National Maritime Museum this summer, which is also meant to have artefacts recovered from the wreck of the Erebus! I can’t wait!)).

  

And then there was Scott, the museum’s eponym (well, the research centre’s eponym anyway. Does anyone else get namesake and eponym confused? I had to look it up for this post to make sure I was using it correctly). I thought the Franklin collection was impressive, but this was even better, probably because although Scott and the four men chosen to head for the South Pole with him all died, their other teammates (shipmates?) survived, and the tent Scott et al died in was discovered soon afterwards (they were only 11 miles from their nearest depot, which was full of supplies), so pretty much everything could be recovered.  One of the (many!) great tragedies of Terra Nova is of course that Scott was just pipped to the Pole by Roald Amundson, as Scott discovered upon reaching the Pole himself, and he was then stranded in a tent on the return trip by a bad storm and frostbitten feet. So he died knowing that he failed to accomplish his goal of being the first man at the South Pole.

 

But out of tragedy comes a hell of an interesting story, and some amazing artefacts.  The most poignant things by far were the actual letters and diary entries written by Scott and the men who accompanied him on the doomed dash for the Pole when they realised they were going to die. Lawrence Oates, who I wrote about in my very first post, developed bad frostbite early on, and felt he was holding the others back, so essentially sacrificed himself by wandering outside during a storm, where he froze to death (he died on his 32nd birthday, if you needed it to be even sadder). The museum had a letter from Edward Wilson (one of the other men who would die) describing Oates’s heroic death to his family. There was also a letter from Scott to his own family, bidding them all farewell, which was terribly sad.

  

Speaking of Oates, the museum had his actual sleeping bag, which was slit so he could get his damaged frostbitten feet in and out of it, a pair of Scott’s polar goggles, and actual food from the expedition, including a massive tin of Colman’s mustard powder, and a product made by Bovril specifically for the voyage that contained pemmican on one side, and cocoa on the other (the staples of the explorers’ diets were basically ship’s biscuit, pemmican, and cocoa, and they usually combined the pemmican and biscuit with water to make a stew called hoosh. It’s a shame that the European-made pemmican, unlike the native stuff, was simply dried meat and fat, with none of the traditional dried berries that might have at least helped to stave off scurvy (one of the missions to find Scott was aborted because they were trying to save another man who had developed scurvy. Vitamin C was actually discovered in 1912, just slightly too late to have done Scott’s expedition any good)).  I think it’s fascinating how many special products were produced especially for various polar expeditions (and I think they should bring back a special “polar edition” Colman’s mustard powder tin. I’d buy the hell out of that (another of my weird food quirks is that I hate actual pre-mixed mustard, but I love Colman’s mustard powder. I dump an inappropriately large amount into my rarebit sauce)).

  

They also had a small case of stuff from Shackleton, but I’ve been kind of down on him since I learned he ordered Mrs. Chippy shot (I know explorers killing their animals to survive is par for the course (Scott even took ponies with him with the intention of killing them for meat once they’d reached a certain point, because ponies are meatier than dogs), but they weren’t at breaking point yet, and they didn’t even eat the poor cat. They just shot him. I don’t know, if you read Mrs. Chippy’s Last Expedition you’ll probably share my outrage), and anyway, Scott was really the main 20th century explorer they focused on in the museum. All they had from Mawson’s expedition was his theodolite (but I think most of the Mawson stuff is in Adelaide, which makes sense, since he was Australian. I wonder if he saved the soles of his feet after they peeled off and he had to stick them back in his boots to be able to go on walking. Now that’s a gross artefact I would LOVE to see!)

  

The museum concluded with a small display about modern scientists in Antarctica, but it was kind of an afterthought, because clearly everyone is coming to see the actual artefacts.  And rightly so, they are awesome!  I was incredibly pleased with this museum, and when I left, I talked about how it was a 4.5/5 museum (I think it was a bit too small to be 5/5, but they did a great job with the space they had, I’m just always hungry for more!), and that’s what I’m sticking with; even after seeing the other Cambridge museums (some of which were excellent) it was still my favourite, simply because I’d read so much about the things here, and it was amazing to be able to see them in person. And they had an adorable husky statue outside, which didn’t hurt either.  This museum is a must-see for any polar exploration fan!

 

 

 

London: Grant Museum of Zoology

Like the Petrie Museum which I visited some time ago, the Grant Museum of Zoology is part of UCL, and is one of those unusual lesser-known museums around London that you occasionally hear about on offbeat travel shows, or blogs that showcase weirdo destinations (like my own). So, perfect for me then, you might think, right? Well, I had actually been to the Grant Museum once before some years ago, and was so unimpressed that I was in no hurry to go back and blog about it, hence its absence from my blog (until now).  However, I recently needed to kill some time in the vicinity of Bloomsbury, and rather than wander around the British Museum as I normally would, I decided to give the Grant Museum another chance.

 

And I’m so glad I did, because it turns out that the Grant Museum I saw, in a basement gallery, was just temporary housing whilst they were preparing a new museum space, which opened back in 2011. Meaning my experience of it must have been from 2010 or even earlier…I think I’ve been living in London for too damn long!  Anyway, the first time I experienced the Grant, it also wasn’t under the most auspicious circumstances.  As I recall, Marcus and I had attended a public lecture somewhere in UCL, and a cocktail reception was held in the Grant Museum afterwards.  All I remember is being crammed into a corner of a tiny museum with about two hundred other people, whilst clutching a glass of cheap wine and struggling to see into the cases around the mass of people. I think we bolted down our wine, and left as quickly as was humanly possible.

  

The new(ish) Grant Museum is fortunately in a larger space, one where, despite a few narrow rows of display cases, it is actually possible to read the labels, and you know, breathe comfortably (it probably helps that it’s not full of people clamouring for free wine, or not when I visited anyway. I probably still wouldn’t want to take my chances with a wine reception there though).  The museum is free, and whilst still not terribly big, there’s enough stuff crammed into the cases to keep a visitor entertained for a while.  Like a whole jar full of moles. Or one of bats. (I’ll ignore the one full of centipedes, because bleurgh.)

The Grant Museum was founded in 1828 by Robert Edmond Grant, who was kind of a big deal in the world of zoology.  Charles Darwin was one of his students, and Grant helped influence his theories on evolution (though interestingly, Grant’s own views were formed in part by his admiration for the work of Erasmus Darwin, Charles’s grandfather. So really Charles Darwin was being influenced by his own grandfather, albeit indirectly). It is the only remaining zoology museum in London attached to a university (and probably the only exclusively zoological museum in London?  The Hunterian Museum has some zoological specimens, but its focus is more on its human specimens), which unfortunately means that it was full of some incredibly annoying students at the time of our visit, but you can’t win ’em all.

  

Once the students (finally) cleared out, it was blissfully quiet, however, and we were able to look around without risking catty remarks from the young people.  The cases were completely crammed with stuff, as you can probably tell, and the specimens were a good mix of “awws” and “eews.” I didn’t spend too much time looking at the cases of disgusting crabs and insects, but there were some pretty adorable preserved baby mammals (and the elephant shrew, which is not really adorable).

 

There weren’t quite as many labels as I would have found ideal, because it seemed like only the prize specimens had them, and even those were just a sentence or two.  There were a few weird looking things that I couldn’t identify that only had a hand-written sticker on the jar, and I’m not even sure if those contained the actual name of the animal, or were just some random word for classification purposes.

  

The museum offers a deal whereby on becoming a “friend” of the museum (starting at £15 a year), you get to “adopt” one of the specimens, and have your name on it.  However, it appears that all the best specimens have sadly been taken, some apparently by famous people (there were animals that had been adopted by Bill Bailey and Tony Blackburn et al (I mean, I don’t even think Tony Blackburn is all that famous, but I used to listen to “Pick of the Pops” if I was in the car on a Saturday, so I know who he is), but those are probably fairly common names, and may not have been the actual celebrities, though I could definitely see Bill Bailey wanting to adopt a cassowary heart so maybe it was actually him. Not that it matters, I’m not a fan or anything), so I hope they consider offering more specimens for adoption, since only a few of the remaining specimens had “adopt me” tags attached.

 

But anyway, let’s ignore the “adoption” aspect of the collection for now, and get back to what was actually on display. There was a case full of specimens from extinct animals that I particularly enjoyed, which included the bones of a dodo, and the skeletal hindquarters of a quagga. There were even some bones from extinct animals so obscure I’d never even heard of them, like the thylacine, which was part of Robert Grant’s original collection (thylacines were Tasmanian marsupials that kind of resembled wolves, without actually being related to them, because, marsupial).

 

The thing pictured on the right, above, was a hall of microspecimens, aka, the Micrarium, that would be too small to display without a microscope, so they blew up photographs of them, and put them on the walls of a small nook.  It pretty cool, especially because it had a mirrored ceiling so you could view them from all angles, although only one or two people can squeeze in there at a time.

  

And I can’t neglect to mention that they had the penis bone of a walrus (and a few other, much less impressive penis bones), because it was huge and hilarious (sadly, that has of course been adopted too.  I imagine it was one of the first specimens to be snapped up).

 

As you can probably imagine, since you all know how much I love in stuff in jars, I quite enjoyed this place, even though, as I said, they could do with more labels, fewer students, and perhaps a way to access the upper tier, because there were specimens all the way to the ceiling, but no good way to see them without uncomfortably craning your neck.  3.5/5 for the Grant Museum.

While we were on campus, I remembered that so is Jeremy Bentham, whose auto-icon (basically a stuffed version of him, with a wax head. I think his actual skeleton is inside the stuffing, which is excellently creepy) I have always wanted to see, so we figured out where it was (the South Cloisters at the end of the main building) and popped in to check him out.  He’s actually rather charming (the hat helps), and well worth braving the hordes of even more students for. Apparently his actual head is in a box somewhere in the building too (though it’s in a wooden box, so you can’t actually look at it, or at least I don’t think you can), but I didn’t know that at the time, so didn’t look for it, which probably means a return trip is in order.

  

London: The RAF Museum

There’s a reason I haven’t been to the RAF Museum before now, and it is this: London is a bloody big place, especially when you’re using public transport, and Colindale is absolutely nowhere near where I live.  In fact, it took so long to get there, I was tempted to write “London(ish)” in the post title, but that isn’t strictly fair, because Colindale is as much a part of Greater London as Wimbledon is (even if it did have me wondering if it would actually be faster to get to the RAF Museum’s Cosford location than their “London” one). As usual, my main motivation for finally taking the plunge was food-related. Namely, bagels.  Bagels are one of my favourite foods, and it is nigh-on impossible to get a decent one in London (I absolutely hate cream cheese, so I tend to either eat bagels plain, or with peanut butter or marmalade, but most bagels here are treated solely as vehicles for fatty toppings, and aren’t actually tasty enough to eat by themselves).  I’ve tried all the Brick Lane “beigel” places, and found them seriously lacking (and when a chunk of whatever one of the employees was gnawing on flew out of her mouth and into my bag one time, that was it for me. I’m gagging a little just thinking about it), and some place in Camden run by an American that was supposed to offer “authentic New York bagels” was even worse – they were soft and flabby. I’d been hearing good things about Carmelli’s for years, but Golders Green is a hell of a long way to travel just for bagels.  But if I combined that trip with a visit to the RAF Museum, which is only a couple stops farther up the Northern Line, I could just about justify it.

  

But more on the bagels later, let’s talk museum!  The RAF Museum was a short hike from Colindale station (fine on the way there, a bit too long on the way back when I was tired from walking around hangars all afternoon), and pretty much looked like a big construction site, because that’s what it is right now.  Two of the halls (Battle of Britain and Sunderland Halls) are currently closed for renovation (so I’ll probably have to do a redux at some point), but that’s OK because there were still five halls left to see, even though we had to walk past quite a lot of construction to get to them.  The museum is free, though they charge a fee to sit inside a couple of the cooler planes, or to go on the Red Arrows 4D “experience.” A sign outside had recommended that we start with the WWI Hall, but since we weren’t too sure where it was at that point, we just headed straight into the main building, which meant we inadvertently saved the best for last (we asked the guy at the admissions desk who halfheartedly tried to sell us a guidebook where to start, and he vaguely waved his hand in the direction of the hangar entrance, and didn’t mention anything about the WWI Hall, so we initially thought maybe that was closed for construction too. I got the impression that the staff weren’t tremendously enthusiastic about the museum).

  

I’ve been to a fair few aviation museums before, most memorably on this blog, the National Museum of the US Air Force in Dayton, where I got to go on FDR’s presidential plane, and Wings in Balcombe, where my ass touched the same place as Damian Lewis’s (it’s kind of a long story, if you haven’t read it yet).  The RAF Museum, at least the main building, was more old-fashioned and in need of updating than even Wings.  The aircraft didn’t appear to be arranged in any particular order as far as I could tell.  There was a neat shark-style WWII plane (the Curtiss Kittyhawk III) right when we walked in, next to the old gondola from “His Majesty’s Airship R33” (circa 1919…I don’t think the king ever flew in it, it was just named after him in the way that ships are, since it was considered a ship of the air. It did carry a band at one point though, to promote the sale of Victory Bonds, but people on the ground wouldn’t have been able to see or hear them, so pretty pointless really).  It just seemed like aircraft from the first half (or so) of the 20th century were scattered all over the hangar, with no real rhyme or reason to them.

  

Even worse was the signage.  I know I’m usually an advocate for old-fashioned signs, but these were particularly terrible examples.  The labels on the actual planes weren’t so bad, but there was additional signage about various RAF engagements on the walls, and this was just appalling –  boring, overly wordy, and neglected (there were whole sections of the text completely missing where it had given up the ghost and just peeled off the walls.  At one point, there was a section on nuclear power, and I was quite surprised to see it, because the signs genuinely looked like they pre-dated the nuclear age).  I can certainly see why they’re re-doing some of the other hangars, and I hope this one is next, because it sure needs it!

  

Actually, they do appear to be in the process of renovation, because there were sections closed off where they were removing the carpet in an attempt to make the hangars look more like hangars, apparently (though the carpet is the least of their problems). The singularly uninviting looking cafe in the middle of one of the halls certainly wasn’t helping with that authentic “hangar” atmosphere either.  After the hall of miscellaneous aircraft (in which there were admittedly some cool things, like a flying boat that had actually been turned into a houseboat at some point, before being restored), there was a room of helicopters, which was still remarkably unengaging, but at least there was a theme.

  

The hall of mainly WWII aircraft was better, in fact, it was the best part of the main building. There was a large display about American pilots who came over to Britain during the war, both American units which were stationed here, and Americans who joined the RAF prior to America entering the war, which I found quite interesting, despite it suffering from many of the same problems as the text in the first hall.  My favourite plane here was undoubtedly the massive Lancaster Bomber…you’ll see why at the end of the post (hint: it has something to do with my absolutely juvenile sense of humour).

 

This section was also more engaging because there was actually a plane you could crawl into (you can go inside the Spitfire too, but only if you pay a tenner first.  I think I’ll stick to the free planes, thanks), and a couple other aircraft you could peer inside (including a Chinook you could walk through the back of).  I also thought the small display about ejector seats was reasonably diverting.

  

After passing through the lame gift shop (the only postcards they had were those “Events from the Day you were Born” ones that looked like they’d been sitting around for a good twenty years.  They were all yellowed, with curled edges), we left the building in search of the WWI Hall that appeared to be somewhere around the corner (judging by the map outside that said it was still open, since the staff certainly weren’t volunteering any information), but on the way, we encountered the “Milestones” building, so stopped inside.  This apparently contained “milestone” aircraft from the last century or so of aviation, though there was nothing by the Wright Brothers (a 1909 Bleriot was the earliest I saw), save for a yellow line on the wall to indicate the length of their test flight at Kitty Hawk.

  

Having not learned our lesson from the disappointing first building, we climbed up to the enticingly-named “Control Tower,” only to be met with an empty room (that admittedly had good views of the hangar, but I was hoping for something more…interactive), but on the way up, we encountered a wall of “Flying Aces,” so I’m presenting to you the best moustache of the lot, so you can save yourself the bother of climbing all the way up there too.  For all that this were meant to be about “milestones” of aviation, and the hall clearly having been updated more recently than the main building, this was still not particularly impressive, and the displays concluded with a weird section sponsored by Oman about the relationship between it and the RAF, which read more like a tourist advertisement for Oman than anything else (didn’t convince me to go there though).

 

The final hangar currently open to the public is the WWI Hall, located, appropriately enough, inside the UK’s first aircraft factory building.  It has been very recently redone, thanks to a HLF grant, and it shows, because this was amazing compared to the rest of the museum. It actually still had the look of an historic building on the inside (my favourite part was the authentic “Thomas Crapper” pull chain toilets in the bathroom.  I love those.  It feels like you’re really accomplishing something when you pull the chain), but managed to incorporate modern, interactive, and entertaining elements.

  

The hall contained a number of really old planes, with display cases in the middle that explained more about the RFC and RNAS (the precursors to the RAF) uniforms, as well as other elements of early military aviation. The surprised fellow above is actually demonstrating a flight mask, as well as some early “electrically heated” clothing that apparently the pilots could only bear to turn on for a few minutes at a time, because the clothing got so hot, they risked burning themselves (it looks like that poor “surprised” pilot might have just burned himself in a delicate area)!

  

This hangar also had the interactive elements that were so sorely lacking in the other hangars.  In addition to a few activities including a game that involved matching up aerial photos of terrain with the actual terrain to see if anything had changed (surprisingly difficult), there was also a mock-up of a biplane, complete with gun and and communicating tube, so you could satisfy your inner Henry Jones Sr, only without blowing up your own tail fin (because there wasn’t one); and an old-school flight simulator that I quite happily flung myself around in for a while (it honestly felt like I was going to pitch myself out the side, because there was no seat belt or anything, but that was half the fun).

  

There was also that much needed personal touch in this hall.  Whereas the other hangars had just included long dull lists of the accomplishments of various well-decorated RAF pilots, this one actually had amusing anecdotes, like one from a pilot and his friend who flew over a beach and pelted German sunbathers with oranges, which was pretty hilarious (he said they laughed so hard, they almost fell out of the plane).  I love that kind of stuff.

 

If the WWI Hall is an example of where the RAF Museum is headed, then I definitely want to come back when they reopen the Battle of Britain and Sunderland Halls, and see what other delights they have in store (to be honest though, I was kind of relieved that not all the hangars were open when we visited, because we were there for ages, and I was exhausted by the time we left.  I didn’t want to see two additional ones!). I do hope they can afford to redo the main body of the museum too, because it is sorely in need of it!  Even with what’s there now, it is the kind of museum that takes hours to see, and might be better to make two trips if you’re very keen on historic aviation and don’t want to wear yourself out.  Because it is free, I can’t complain too much, but the difference in quality between old and new is too striking to ignore.  So, 4.5/5 for the new WWI Hall, but only 3/5 for the museum as a whole.  Oh, and about those bagels…Carmelli’s is where it’s at.  There were only a few flavours available (mainly just different types of seeds, which was OK, since I do really like seeded bagels, though I like blueberry ones even better), but they were fresh out of the oven, and pretty damn delicious.  I might have to make the trek out to Golders Green again sooner than expected, because now that I know I can get good bagels, I’m gonna want them all the time!

As promised, here’s that Lancaster Bomber. I think the big “Poos” speaks for itself, really.

 

 

London: “Electricity: The Spark of Life” @ the Wellcome Collection

Before I start with “Electricity,” I wanted to mention that this past Monday marked four years since I started blogging!  I didn’t feel the need to make a special post about it or anything, but sometimes I anthropomorphise Diverting Journeys a little bit, and I didn’t want my blog to feel bad that I didn’t acknowledge its birthday somewhere. Now with that out of the way, on to the Wellcome!

Since most special exhibitions in London cost £12 and up, and I have a constant need for new blogging material, I am grateful that the Wellcome Collection can be depended upon to provide an ever-changing series of interesting, and always-free new exhibitions.  The latest is “Electricity: The spark of life,” which opened on 23 February, and runs until 25 June.  The only downside is that the Wellcome doesn’t allow photography inside its galleries, so I never get to show you all the cool stuff on display!

I managed to get to the Wellcome a bit earlier than I would normally get up and out of the house, and was rewarded with an exhibit that while no means empty, was positively tranquil compared to the madness that ensues at lunchtime.  I think it also helped that there didn’t seem to be quite as much content in “Electricity” as there normally is in their exhibits, or at least, it was far more spread out than normal.  I am always impressed by the way they seem to completely rearrange the configuration of the gallery space for each new exhibition.  Instead of being fairly open-plan, as Bedlam was, this was more like a shotgun house style arrangement of large rooms that were closed off from one another, save for the entrances and exits to/from each (I initially thought it was railroad apartment style (probably thanks to reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn about twenty times), but apparently a railroad apartment usually has a hallway, and the configuration I was thinking of is actually a shotgun house.  You learn something new every day!).  I actually preferred this, because when someone was blocking the displays and moving around at an irritatingly slow pace, it was easy to speed past them and leave them in the room behind me so I didn’t have to encounter them again, because there was really only the one path through the exhibit.

Because Henry Wellcome (the collection’s founder) was a pharmaceutical man, the exhibitions here generally have some kind of medical slant, and based off the description of “Electricity” on the museum’s website, which states, “this exhibition contemplates the contradictory life-giving and death-dealing extremes generated by electricity,” I was expecting it to be mostly about electricity and medicine; things like electrotherapy, ECT, accidental electrocution, and even the electric chair (although killing people is admittedly the complete opposite of what medicine is supposed to be about).  This was actually only a very small part of the exhibit, which turned out to be more about how electricity changed everyday existence, particularly in Britain. (Side note: Like me, Henry Wellcome was an American who moved to Britain as an adult, and I notice he is listed as “American British” on his Wikipedia page.  Now, I know Wikipedia is not a terribly reliable source, but I’ve been (jokingly) referring to myself as Anglo-American since I got British citizenship, and it seems like that might imply that you’re an American with English ancestry, which I definitely am not. So which is it? Can I keep using Anglo-American, or do I have to settle for the unwieldy and un-alliterative American British? Thoughts?)

The first things worth noting in the exhibition were the many, very entertaining short videos.  Normally, I don’t bother to watch videos in a museum, because they’re either too long, not particularly interesting, or there’s too many people crowded around them.  Well, the exhibit wasn’t very busy, as I said, and these videos were all around two minutes in length, so I couldn’t use that as an excuse.  When I saw the guy next to me was standing there chuckling whilst watching the first video of the exhibition, I had to see what was so damn funny for myself, and then I was sold on the rest of the videos.  The one that was causing all the laughter was from the 1950s, and showed a group of people in a laboratory receiving a shock from an electric eel.  The next one was a clip from the dishy Colin Clive version of Frankenstein of the scene where he’s bringing the creature to life.  Other videos included one of a 2.25 mile motorised walkway built in Paris in 1900 which showed adult Victorians behaving much like jerks of today, and hopping on and off and deliberately walking the wrong way on it, which was unexpected and delightful to see (and I thought motorised walkways were supposed to be the future (as in now)?  Why are they now all confined to airports and Tube stations?), and another of the electrically-lit cabaret scene of Weimar-era Berlin. But the video highlight had to be the Buster Keaton short about an electric house with a robot arm that grabbed books in the library, a bathtub that ran on a track (why?!), and escalator style stairs that of course went hilariously wrong and tipped everybody out the upstairs window into a conveniently placed swimming pool. (Here’s the full 22 minute film, if anyone’s interested…we were shown a heavily condensed version.) Maybe I was just relieved that there wasn’t a video of Topsy the elephant (ugh, though I will watch the Bob’s Burgers version.  Poor Tina), but these were all great.

There were also a few art installations, though one of them was closed for repairs. I did however, get to see the giant 3D frog projection, inspired by Galvani’s experiments with electricity, and it was pretty cool (frogs are one of my favourite animals, after toads. And bats. Frog and Toad forever!). (I wanted Marcus to try the spirit photography booth that I had so enjoyed on my last visit, but that was out of order too.  It wasn’t a great day for technology at the Wellcome Collection.)

The narrative of the exhibit took visitors from ancient times, when people knew that electricity existed, but didn’t really understand what it was, to Benjamin Franklin’s experiments with lightning in the 18th century, to the electrification of Britain and building the National Grid, onwards to the 1920s and ’30s and the concept of the electrified and automated house (as parodied in the aforementioned Buster Keaton film) that would make life much easier for the British housewife (there was even a women’s electrical board set up to show women how electricity could make cooking and cleaning easier, and they printed helpful tips on tea towels.  I’d quite like to get my hands on one of those).  I thought there was a good amount of text, though the exhibit did seem at times to lack a comprehensive historical narrative, instead kind of skipping around to highlights of the electricity timeline (I believe each room was meant to be unified around a loose theme, but that was only apparent in some of the rooms).

Memorable artefacts included a display on how Bovril got its name (obviously “bo” from bovine, but I didn’t realise that “Vril” was taken from a creepy sounding Edward Bulwer-Lytton novel about a master race powered by a weird energy-fluid called Vril. This certainly doesn’t make Bovril any more appealing, nor did the early newspaper advertisement that showed cartoon cows being electrocuted to obtain their energy), an 18th century “thunder house” and “thunder ship” that were used to demonstrate the power of electricity, and a drawing of an electric plant done by a young engineer named Sebastian Ferranti, in which he had doodled happy smiling faces on all the machinery.

All in all, I think I enjoyed this more than Bedlam, but less than Forensics. Although it was still somewhat lacking, it had a better narrative than Bedlam, and I picked up enough intriguing facts (especially the one about Bovril) to impress friends with later that day.  I think the gallery housing the exhibition was decorated rather sparsely this time, and I suppose that does keep the focus on the artefacts, but I definitely think they could have done something cooler using the theme of electricity, perhaps something like the entrance to the exhibit, pictured at the start of the post.  It was still pretty alright though, even without more interesting decor or the medical focus I was anticipating.  3.5/5.

London: The Charterhouse Museum

dsc00346_stitchI was flipping through a copy of Time Out London a few weeks ago (because I still prefer the print version to their website), when one of the photos in their “Instagram Posts of the Week” (or whatever it’s called) section caught my eye, because the caption underneath read something like, “a picture of the Charterhouse, London’s newest museum.” I think I may just be automatically drawn to the word “museum” at this point, but my interest was piqued enough that I investigated further.  Turns out that the Charterhouse, built in 1371, and variously serving as “a monastery, private mansion, boys’ school, and an almshouse” (according to the museum’s website), has recently opened a small section of its building to the public “for the first time since its foundation in 1348” (again, from their website. I guess they’re including the plague pit years in that timeline). There is a small museum, and visitors are welcome to tour the chapel as well when it’s not being used for a churchly function.

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Nothing (well, other than the promise of ice cream) gets me out of the house faster than the prospect of a new, free museum to visit, so Marcus and I ended up heading there later that week. It’s right around the corner from Barbican Station, in a rather secluded square that would probably be quite lovely if there wasn’t loads of construction going on, and a pervading smell of chicken shit from all the mulch being put down (confession: I actually don’t really mind the smell of manure or mulch.  It reminds me of the county fair, and thus weirdly gives me a craving for frosty chocolate milkshakes and french waffles).  It wasn’t a corner of London I’d ever had the occasion to visit before, and even with all the construction, I was pleasantly surprised at how nice and historical it all looked (especially because I hate the Barbican Centre so very much.  It’s a hideous piece of Brutalist architecture, and the tunnel you have to walk through to get to it is grim, but the Charterhouse is in a different area entirely).

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We received a friendly greeting upon entering, and were told we could either go through the door marked “Museum” first, or go through the chapel entrance first and then see the museum.  We opted for the former, and ended up seeing the museum in reverse chronological order (I think it does flow pretty well either way, but if you’d prefer to go forward in time, then see the chapel first and go into the museum that way).  The museum was located inside two very long, narrow rooms, but by keeping all the objects tight against the walls so they didn’t stick out past the partial partitions erected between each section, and by having white walls with lots of windows, the gallery never felt particularly crowded or claustrophobic like the one at the City of London Police Museum, even though there were more visitors here than there were at the Police Museum (though still only a handful).  So, props to them for good design.

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Because we were travelling backwards through the museum, we began by learning about its present-day occupants; the Brothers.  The term is one that has stuck around since the Charterhouse’s monastic days, though it no longer has religious connotations (mass is still held in the chapel every day, but attendance is not obligatory).  Rather, the Brothers are a group of 60+ year old men “in need of financial and social support, who are selected from a wide variety of professions” (they must also be in good health at time of application. Because there is an application process involved…they’re not just selecting seniors at random or anything, which was kind of what I thought at first). They live together at the Charterhouse, which provides them with a sense of community, since they take meals together, and are welcome to participate in various activities. Traditionally, Brothers have always been men, but now women are welcome to apply as well, though they will still be called “Brothers.”

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Next, we learned about the boys’ school, which was here from the 17th century until 1872, when it was moved to Godalming.  It had some fairly famous pupils over the years, including William Makepeace Thackeray, John Wesley, and Robert Baden-Powell (of Scouting fame).  Not unusually for the time, corporal punishment took place here, with “swishings” being the method of choice, using a bundle of twigs like the one pictured above. As you may be able to read in the caption, the school actually tried to do away with beatings in favour of monetary fines, but the boys voted against it because they felt that paying fines wasn’t “honourable.”

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Next came the section on Thomas Sutton, who was responsible for both the boys’ school and almshouse that exists to the present day.  Sutton was a Tudor businessman who got rich from coal mines, money lending, and other investments, and, as many wealthy people did back then, he left a number of charitable bequests in his will for the good of his soul.  Because the Charterhouse had been dissolved as a monastery under Henry VIII, and turned into a mansion, Sutton was able to purchase it and establish an almshouse for 80 Brothers, as well as a school for 40 boys.  He also left money to a few other people and institutions, the most intriguing of which was mentioned on a sign in the museum, “£100 to the poorest fishermen of Ostend…In recompense for an episode earlier in Sutton’s career which weighed on his conscience.” Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t see how you can mention an intriguing tidbit like that and not give people the whole story somewhere, but I couldn’t find anything about it, and a bit of googling has gotten me nowhere.  I can’t be the only one who wants to know what the “episode” was!

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Anyway, leaving the poor fishermen of Ostend behind, I entered the next corridor, which was all about the monastery that stood here from the 14th century until Henry VIII got his greedy fat paws on it.  Like many monasteries, the Carthusians at the Charterhouse seemed to have a damned impressive medieval plumbing system, and the manuscript describing it stretched out along the length of the whole room.  I was also interested to learn that the monks were strict vegetarians, and they had a separate “flesh kitchen” away from the rest of the monastery for when they had to cook meat for visitors. Being a vegetarian myself, with a fairly strict no meat in my flat policy (well, visitors can eat it if they must in the form of a takeaway or something, but they can’t cook it here using my pans and utensils.  It’s not even an ethical thing so much, I just really honestly find meat super disgusting, and don’t want it stinking up my flat, or gunking up my pans. I had enough of that when I had housemates), I quite like that idea, if I had somewhere to put it, but obviously people would have to cook their own damn meat in it (I’m not doing it for them!).  It would save having to listen to my old flatmate whining whenever he comes for a visit because I won’t let him cook bacon for breakfast.

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They also had a splendid little scrapbook people could look through in the monastery section, full of medieval illustrations (including one of people being stabbed by “Death the skeleton” which I just loved), but the best thing of all is something we didn’t photograph: the skeleton of an actual plague victim.  Before it was a monastery or anything else, this was the site of a burial pit for the victims of the famous 1348-1349 bubonic plague outbreak (aka the Black Death), and modern archeologists have unearthed the skeleton of a young man who died during the pandemic (I imagine they found more than one, but only one is in the museum).  It seems rather curious that the monks would choose the site of a relatively new plague pit for their monastery, but maybe they reckoned it would give them plenty of souls to pray for (since it’s estimated that half of the population of London died during the Black Death).

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Thus concluded our museum visit, but there was still a splendid little chapel to see. The room outside the chapel was full of memorials to the great and good who had some connection to the Charterhouse, including Thackeray, and Wesley, and also one to Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island.  As soon as we entered the ante-chapel, a volunteer came running up and said he was about to take his lunch, but his replacement hadn’t arrived yet, so he could quickly show us around if we wanted, which was nice of him.  He gave us a brief history of the chapel (the ante-chapel dates back to 1512, but the large chapel had been demolished during the dissolution of the monasteries, and a small chapel was tacked on to the Charterhouse for the use of the person living in the mansion.  When it became Sutton’s Hospital, the chapel was expanded, so most of it dates to the 17th century, with the exception of a bay on the side that was built specially for the pupils of the boys’ school (presumably to keep them out of the hair of the other parishioners), and pointed out some decorative details.  One of these was the monument to John Law (shown above right), Sutton’s executor, who died a mere three years after him (so he must have done some speedy work).  I loved the skull, and thought I’d like a memorial plaque just like it, until I saw Thomas Sutton’s monument.

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Damn, now that was a monument!  It took up most of a wall, and included not only a skull, but also some delightful little figures of Peace and Plenty, and a whole panel showing the Brothers and Scholars who existed thanks to Sutton.  And a life-size effigy of Sutton himself.

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But that’s not the only Sutton-y touch in the chapel.  There were also greyhound heads at the end of every pew, because apparently the greyhound was Sutton’s personal symbol.  So now I guess I need a personal symbol as well (in addition to a splendid monument, though I’d like mine built before I die so I can see how awesome it is. Also my sacrilegious ass would have to be somewhere other than a church.  Maybe a library or museum…or gelateria), I’m thinking maybe spy crow?

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So despite my decidedly non-religious inclinations, even I could appreciate this gorgeous little chapel, in particular the memento mori-esque monuments.  These are the only areas of the building normally open to the public, though they do offer Brother-led “behind-the scenes” tours for a fee of either £10 or £15 (depending on the length of the tour), which sound like they might be worth doing someday, since you get to see some Elizabeth I related rooms, and some areas used by the medieval monks.  Visitors (of a more religious bent) are also welcome to attend services at the chapel, which are held daily.  As you can probably tell, I learned a lot from this little museum, and very much enjoyed my time here.  The balance of signage to artefacts was excellent, the layout was good, and the chapel was wonderfully quirky.  The only thing I can suggest at the moment is to include the story behind the bequest to the Ostend fishermen (if it isn’t one of those things that’s been lost to history… I do realise they might not have included it because there was only a passing reference to it in the will, and not an actual explanation or anything), because I’m dying to know if there’s an amusing anecdote behind it.  Other than that, it is an excellent start for “London’s newest museum.” 4/5.

ETA: I posted this in the comments, but in case you don’t feel like scrolling down that far, I have discovered the story behind the fishermen of Ostend, in case anyone else is interested, thanks to an obscure entry in the Biographia Britannica found on Google Books. It still isn’t terribly clear, but as far as I can work out, he purchased “two prizes” of boats laden with cod some years before he died, for which he paid £200 – basically, I think this incident occurred whilst England was at war with the Dutch, and the boats were basically stolen from Ostend fishermen by English privateers, so he was essentially trading in stolen goods, and clearly felt guilty about it for the rest of his life. So he was trying to make up for it by giving back the value of the boats that he had taken, because there is a clause in the original will that states “I desire the same men, or their children, to have the same, if the true owners may be found out, if not, then I will the same £200 to be given among the poorest fishermen of that town.” He later changed the amount to £100 because Ostend had been destroyed by a siege, and he reckoned there weren’t enough fishermen living there anymore to need that much money. So not as generous as it initially appeared, nor as juicy of a story as I was hoping, but at least the mystery has been solved.

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See what I mean about the construction?!

London: “Sussex Modernism” @ Two Temple Place

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Despite trying to stay relatively well-informed about the London museum scene (or as well-informed as I can be without having to leave my house much or actually socialise with people), I only first discovered Two Temple Place last year, when they were hosting an exhibition about Ancient Egypt (the only time the building is open to the public is when they have an exhibition on, which happens from late January-April each year).  I really enjoyed both the house and the exhibit, giving it a lofty 4/5, so I was eager to visit this year when they re-opened with a new exhibit, even though this year’s exhibit, “Sussex Modernism: Retreat and Rebellion,” didn’t sound particularly to my taste.

img_20170222_143451088To reiterate from last year, Two Temple Place was built by super-rich American William Waldorf Astor in 1895, and the building is really rather fabulous (tycoons back then did gaudy right).  Fortunately, we got a few good shots of the interior last year when photography was allowed, as we weren’t permitted to take pictures of the exhibit this year due to copyright issues (most (all?) of the pieces here were on loan from various galleries around Sussex, including Salvador Dali’s Mae West lips sofa, which we saw at the Brighton Museum last year), so I’ll be reusing a few of those old shots in this post (although the metal cow sculpture photo is new; I don’t think the sculpture was even there last time).

DSC00622As always though, Two Temple Place is free, and they let us borrow a guidebook to walk around with again too, which is a much appreciated touch.  They do always seem to have nice, enthusiastic volunteers.  Since I didn’t need to do as much oohing and aahing over the house this year (having gotten that out of my system last year), I was kind of hoping the exhibit would have some impressive art to marvel at instead (but knowing how I feel about most modern art, I didn’t hold out much hope, which was probably a good thing. Saved myself disappointment in the end).

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Going into the exhibit, I knew next to nothing about Sussex modernism, so I was ready to learn! Unfortunately, as you’ll see, I didn’t really end up finding out enough to make sense out of the movement. But one of the things I did learn was that there was an artist called Eric Gill who moved out to Ditchling in the early 1900s, and he attracted a small community of fellow artists/protegees, including David Jones and Ethel Mairet.  However, Eric Gill was not a terribly sympathetic figure; to be blunt, he was straight-up disgusting. He not only had incestuous “relationships” with his daughters and sisters, but apparently had sex with his dog as well.  And that was really all about Eric Gill that I needed to know…clearly I am never going to be a fan.

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But as far as the rest of the Sussex modernists go, there didn’t seem to be that much biographical information provided, or if there was, it wasn’t memorable enough to stick with me (it probably didn’t help that I had never heard of any of the main artists featured here).  There was a bizarre, but amusing story included as an intro to the exhibit, about the poet Ezra Pound, and some of his artistic friends.  Apparently, they decided to throw a dinner party for some elderly artist that they admired (who also lived in Sussex), so they served him a whole roasted peacock, and presented him with a coffer they’d made with a naked woman carved on one of the sides. The elderly artist was evidently quite uncomfortable with this, and always kept the side with the woman on it turned towards the wall when he displayed the coffer (I would have been far more uncomfortable with the roasted peacock than the nude on the coffer, personally).  My issue with this anecdote (and most of the rest of the exhibit) was that it was never adequately explained who the artist was (they provided his name, which I’ve forgotten, but I have no idea what he was famous for), and other than it being a story about what happens when old and new artistic movements clash, and taking place in Sussex, I didn’t really understand what it had to do with the rest of the exhibition, since Ezra Pound wasn’t mentioned again.  Basically, the whole exhibit left me in a state of general confusion, because nothing was explained quite thoroughly enough, and I left feeling that I still didn’t really know what the defining traits of the Sussex modernists were (and not being able to take photos didn’t help, since I couldn’t review the pictures later to see if I’d missed some vital bit of information).

DSC00604Which is not to say that everything was so crazily modernist that I couldn’t tell what the pieces were meant to be, or anything (the exhibit contained various works of art produced by the modernists; mainly paintings, but some sculpture as well).  I just don’t think I always picked up on the meanings behind them, or what the ethos was of the Sussex modernists.  Some of the artists were atheists, yet they seemed to produce mainly religious art commissioned by several local churches. Eric Gill made a lot of nudes, and used his teenage daughters as models, which is really creepy when you know about his sexual proclivities. Some of the artists focused on their experiences in the First and Second World Wars, and produced sort of dystopian stuff, or art about the invasion of modernisation in the countryside. I understand that artists can produce different styles of art and still be part of a community, but it felt more like the art had been selected simply because all of the artists had spent some time in Sussex, not because they were actually all friends, or even contemporaries, or part of the same artistic movement. As for the art itself, it mostly wasn’t my cup of tea, but I did enjoy some of it, most notably a ceramic cat, a beautiful little bright blue painting (print?) depicting the night sky, and a photograph of Henry Moore hugging his sculpture Mother and Child (well, one of his sculptures with that name anyway, since he appears to have used it about 50 times for different pieces. I mean, if you can take the time to chisel out a damn sculpture, surely you can put in the effort to think of a unique name whilst you’re doing it). There was also a strange surrealist video playing in one of the rooms that intrigued me; the end of the film featured a lobster bursting from the menu of a fancy restaurant.

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Like last year, the exhibit was both in the ground floor gallery, and all the upstairs rooms, but I don’t think it took anywhere near as long to look at, because the descriptions simply weren’t as detailed (or as interesting, to me anyway) as the ones last year.  I have to say, if I hadn’t visited last spring and saw all the neato Egyptian stuff, I don’t know if I’d be particularly impressed with Two Temple Place after this.  I mean, the house is still gorgeous, but the exhibit was nowhere near as good as last year’s.  As it stands though, I know what they can do, so I am still planning on visiting next year’s exhibit, whatever that may be.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think this year’s exhibition was terrible or anything, it just wasn’t really my kind of art, and there was also an odd lack of continuity within the exhibit itself (and that disjointedness has carried through to this post, since I think I’ve failed at making it completely coherent). Maybe even the curators weren’t too sure how to tie all these artists together outside of Sussex, or they just assumed that anyone coming to see it would already have some background knowledge on the Sussex modernists that I clearly lack. For a free exhibit though, I think it’s probably alright if you like that style of art (though please, no one ask me any questions about what exactly that style is, because I still can’t tell you!), and worth a visit just to get a look at the interior, if you haven’t seen it before. 2.5/5.

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London: “Wounded: Conflict, Casualties, and Care” @ the Science Museum

dsc00120I was originally intending on mentioning this exhibit at the end of the “Robots” post, because I thought there was no way I was going to have very much to say about “Robots” other than “there were a shitload of robots.” But then I ended up running on for 1400+ words, as I do, and whilst I didn’t want to spend two weeks just talking about temporary exhibits at the Science Museum, neither did I want to shortchange “Wounded” because it really was a very nice little exhibition.  So here we are.

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“Wounded” opened in summer 2016, and will run until January 2018.  It is a free exhibition, but is somewhat hidden on what they call “Floor G,” which is not actually the ground floor, rather, up a short flight of stairs from the ground floor (I think there is lift access, but probably only from one particular set of lifts, because the Science Museum is built weirdly like that). This “hiddenness” is probably a good thing, because it is blissfully quiet up there compared to the rest of the museum (for the most part…bit of foreshadowing there).  (For real, don’t underestimate the value of a quiet gallery in the Science Museum, because it is normally absolutely crawling with school groups, and the place gets loud!  I briefly worked there some years ago (temp job during the London Olympics), and would spend my breaks retreating to either the Wellcome galleries on the 4th and 5th floors, or if I didn’t have time to get up there (because they can only be accessed by one set of lifts, or a hard-to-find flight of stairs), I’d go to this strange old-fashioned gallery on the 2nd or 3rd floor that was just full of old-timey farming dioramas, and never had anyone in there.  I’m not even sure if it still exists, to be honest, but its silence was much appreciated at the time.)

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Anyway, “Wounded” tells the story of medicine in the First World War, which is basically exactly the sort of thing I’m interested in (I guess more specifically it’s meant to be medicine at the Battle of the Somme, hence the July 2016 start date, but it seemed to cover medicine throughout the war years. I’m not sure whether this exhibit has any connection with Emily Mayhew’s book of the same name, which I just started reading, as they cover the same subject matter, but I don’t recall seeing any mention of it inside the exhibit.  Then again, I might not have noticed, because I didn’t know that the book existed until I spotted a copy at the library last week). Where I think “Robots” failed a bit by having the quality of the signage not quite match up to the glories of the robots on display, here I think the Science Museum got things just right, because the amount of text relative to artefacts was just perfect.  And it was really interesting stuff, too!

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The first room dealt mainly with the reactions of soldiers to war, and included a good selection of “lucky charms” that they carried with them into battle (I thought the black cat pin was cute, but a rather curious choice as a good luck symbol).  It also had an early gas mask, and mentioned that soldiers who weren’t familiar with them would often panic from the chemical smell coming from the gas masks themselves, believing that they weren’t working.  Because, as the exhibit said, gas attacks did just as much to destroy morale as they did bodies.

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The next room was probably the most interesting (to me, anyway). It was about battlefield medicine, in particular the four different stages of the casualty evacuation chain, from getting hauled off the field by stretcher bearers (who were trained in basic first aid), going to a dressing station (where they would do their best to stabilise a patient, but were really only equipped to deal with relatively minor injuries), progressing to a casualty clearing station (located behind the front lines, these could perform major operations, such as limb amputations), and finally to an actual hospital – typically a hospital ship or train would transport the patient back to Britain for further treatment or convalescence (the hospital trains were a necessity because incoming troops and supplies took priority over wounded soldiers, so sometimes trains carrying casualties would have to wait for days to move along the tracks, and the soldiers could easily die en route if the trains weren’t fully medically equipped).  This was where the exhibit probably related most to the Somme specifically, because early in the war, on the Western Front, casualty clearing stations were the first port of call for medical treatment, and they were really more for minor things like changing dressings, rather than performing operations. Any serious injuries would have to be dealt with in hospitals away from the battlefield, but so many men were dying before reaching this point that the RAMC realised there had to be a better way.  Thus the four stage system was born, and it was pretty much up and running just in time for the Battle of the Somme.

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The exhibit also discussed medical innovations during the war, such as blood transfusions (doctors were able to store blood thanks to the use of sodium citrate as an anticoagulant), and one technique that actually harked back to the otherwise dark days of Victorian medicine: the Thomas Splint.  Before traction splints were used, 80%(!) of soldiers with fractured femurs ended up dying from their wounds, many before even reaching a dressing station, mainly because the broken bone was located by the femoral artery; when they were being transported by stretcher, it would inevitably be jarred at some point, and it would sever the artery and they’d bleed out. Robert Jones, a Welsh surgeon, realised that a pioneering splinting technique invented by his uncle, Hugh Owen Thomas, the century before, could help stabilise femur wounds during transport; after this splint entered general use, the mortality rate from femur wounds dropped to 16%.

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Then came what should have been the most poignant section of the exhibit; the one dealing with the treatment and rehabilitation of soldiers who had received life-changing injuries. Unfortunately, this was also the point when a group of schoolchildren entered the exhibition, along with their teacher.  However, they weren’t actually looking at the exhibits, or being taught anything.  Rather, they were just running amuck, yelling, and occasionally stopping to point at pictures of injured soldiers, going, “Look, they only have one leg!” and “Look, they’re missing an eye!”  I sincerely hope these children don’t do this when they see disabled people in real life, and I was really annoyed that their teacher was letting them behave like this in a very serious exhibition, and doing nothing to stop it.  These kids were about 7 or 8, so certainly old enough to know better, and it could have been a good opportunity to teach them about compassion, but this teacher was just completely checked out, and didn’t care what they did.  I mean, really, the whole rest of the museum is open for kids to run through and act as obnoxiously as they like, so the teacher couldn’t have kept them out of this one exhibit that they would have had to go out of their way to enter?! OK, rant over.

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Mercifully, they did eventually leave (I was glaring at them the whole time, which might have helped), and I was finally free to give the displays the attention they deserved.  There was a fair bit of material relating to St. Dunstan’s Hospital for blind and wounded soldiers, including Braille watches and typewriters, which were really cool.  These were part of the attempt to help blinded soldiers adapt to their new life by giving them work to do so they could feel useful again.  There was also a collection of scrapbooks with illustrations done by convalescing soldiers, and some information on pioneering plastic surgery techniques developed during the war (though this is covered in more detail at the Hunterian Museum et al, so they didn’t dwell on it here).

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The prosthetics were also very interesting (Wimbledon War Worker’s Depot, which was located up the street from my flat, made prosthetic limbs and splints, though none of these seemed to be from there). Apparently one prosthetic arm from America was particularly in demand because it looked very good, but only officers could afford to buy it, and they soon realised that it was too heavy to be of practical use, so most of them ended up mouldering away in drawers somewhere. Siegfried Sassoon’s poem, “Does it Matter,” was printed on one of the walls, and it made me tear up a little (poem here, please read!). (I have a soft spot for most of the War Poets, particularly that rather dishy Rupert Brooke (who died from an infected mosquito bite, poor guy. Denied even the “glory” of dying in battle).)

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The exhibit ended with a small display of objects belonging to modern wounded soldiers, including a t-shirt ripped by shrapnel, and a small stuffed monster that one soldier used to personify his PTSD, which helped him cope with it.  There was also a short video about modern soldiers, which I didn’t have time to watch, because I had already spent way longer than anticipated looking around this excellent little exhibit.  Even though I have always been interested in medical history, I still managed to learn quite a lot in “Wounded.”  I think the Science Museum got it just right this time; informative, poignant, and entertaining.  Definitely stop by to see this if you find yourself near the Science Museum; I think it needs a little love!  4/5.

London: “Robots” @ the Science Museum

dsc00001“Robots,” at the Science Museum, is one of those rare exhibitions that I rushed out to see the same week it opened.  This was partly because I like robots (though I like animal robots the best), and partly because the Science Museum have been hyping it up for months on their Instagram account, but mostly because the week after it opened was half-term, and I can’t stand a crowd (sometimes when I say that I can’t stand things, I like to go full-on Lina Lamont from Singin’ in the Rain for emphasis). Also, after that unpleasantly overbooked Robot Sex night I talked about last week, I really needed some kind of non-disappointing robot event to lift my spirits.  I’m happy to report that “Robots,” while not quite living up to all the hype, didn’t actually disappoint either.

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Because I was still worried about crowds, it being opening week and all, we booked our tickets the night before for one of the earliest time slots in the morning (it takes a lot to get me out of the house before 10, especially in winter, so I was obviously keen), which meant we were able to stroll right into the exhibit.  I’m glad we did go early, because there was quite a queue built up by the time we left, which was just before noon.  “Robots” costs a very hefty £13.50 (without donation), so I was pleased that we were able to use our National Art Passes to get in for half that (the Science Museum also accepts National Rail 2-for-1s).  The first thing that greeted us when we entered the exhibition proper was a very creepy robot baby that moved eerily like a real baby (something about the fact that it was wearing a safety-pinned towel instead of an actual diaper made it even creepier, like it was a neglected robot baby or something).

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However, once we were past creepy-baby, the exhibit was off to a promising start, with a stroll through the history of robots, via the very earliest forms, including clocks and automata (which I suppose are a form of clockwork too).  There were also some fine early articulated prosthetics made by armourers, and some nifty anatomical wax models (my kind of macabre).

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Unfortunately, then the exhibit briefly moved back into the realm of things that freak me out (admittedly not that hard to do, since I’m terrified of stupid shit like butterflies. Even dead ones), because there were some 16th century religious automata, including a monk that bore more than a passing resemblance to Nosferatu that apparently can make his way across a table whilst making praying motions, and a crucifixion scene where Jesus moves his head around and cries tears of blood (fortunately, these things weren’t actually working.  Due to my Catholic upbringing and accidental viewing of a few religiously-themed horror movies, I spent most of my childhood living in fear that one of the Jesuses (Jesi?) on the couple of crucifixes my parents had hanging up would start moving, so this crucifixion automaton would have pretty much been my worst nightmare).

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But after I turned the corner and saw the Silver Swan, all the other automata were forgotten.  I have wanted to see the Silver Swan, which normally resides at the Bowes Museum in County Durham, for years, so I was thrilled it finally came to me.  They still turn it on every day at 2 in Bowes, when it’s there, but I’m not sure if they start it up in this exhibit (I suspect not, because there were no signs indicating that they did), though they did have a video of it in action (here’s one I found, please watch!).  Even without being able to see it move, it is still a thing of beauty, made in 1773, and composed entirely of silver (and glass rods for the water).

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There was an abrupt end to the history of robotics as we entered the hall of 20th and 21st century robots (according to the exhibition guide, actually three separate galleries, but they all flowed together), because after a very brief note about the rise of automated machines in factories, the exhibit sort of just stopped talking about technological developments in order to focus on the robots themselves.  The word robot was first used in print in 1920, in Karel Capek’s play R.U.R. (as I mentioned in my last post), though it was actually coined by Capek’s brother, who was also a writer.  From the ’20s onward, there seems to have been a real interest in creating humanoid robots (though why this was wasn’t adequately explained), and my absolute favourite in the entire exhibit is from that early period – the large seated fellow on the right, above.  Even though all the other robots had names, he didn’t get one, which made me feel bad for him, and he looked slightly sad, yet sweet (he kind of reminded me of Bert from Sesame Street).

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To represent the more sinister side of robots, there was Eric, a re-creation of the first British robot, built in 1928.  He can apparently walk and talk (as could the original), and I’m sure he means well, but I think if you give a robot pointy metal teeth, you’re just asking for trouble.  There was also a robot from Terminator, though as Marcus said, he wasn’t from one of the “good films.”  Sandwiched between Eric and the only moderately evil-looking Cygan was George, the poor dopey Wallace-esque (of Wallace and Gromit) robot shown at the start of the post (probably my second favourite, and the one I bought in badge form at the gift shop, since there were no “unnamed humanoid robot” badges.  I like my robots derpy, metallic, and nonthreatening, I think). The rest of this section was a bit of a waste of space, as it consisted of a wall of toy robots, with no text, when I think the exhibit could have been better served with a more thorough explanation of why these early robots were made.

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We then proceeded into the world of 21st century robots (who seemed to often have full lips, judging by these two femme-bots).  Apparently, the robot on the right worked at a reception desk at King’s College London from 2003-2015.  Even though I attended King’s from 2008-2009, I have absolutely no recollection of this robot whatsoever (and I’m quite sure I would have noticed and remembered a receptionist bot), and I didn’t get to ask her a question this time either, because her keyboard was being hogged by a small child.

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This section was probably the most construction-oriented of the exhibit, with a display case of robot limbs and brief explanations of how they were made.  But some of the robots were so horrifying that the explanations provided didn’t suffice (is there really an adequate explanation for a robot so terrifying that it makes you make the same face as the guy in Munch’s The Scream when you see it?!). Case in point: the robot on the left, who was meant to show how humans reacted to various facial expressions, but I don’t think you could obtain accurate results from any scientific study where someone was left in a room alone with that robot (plus wouldn’t it have been easier to just show people a video of actual humans making those expressions?).  The one on the right was meant to scan your face and ape your movements (I guess), though he didn’t seem very good at it, so they might as well have given him two eyes instead of making him a scary Cyclops.

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The last part of the hall o’ robots didn’t really provide any information in the captions other than the name of the robot, their country of manufacture, and their capabilities, but most of them were actually working and interacting with visitors, which was pretty neat, and somewhat made up for the lack of info.  Except poor Harry, who never seemed to play his trumpet.  He was the one I was most excited to see in action, and I don’t even think he was turned on (I did find this video when I got home though. He’s part of a quartet!).

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I was also disappointed that Pepper (on the left, above), who the Science Museum showed giving fist bumps on their Instagram, didn’t appear to be doing it in person.  She was talking, but thanks to the horde of people surrounding her (the exhibit wasn’t actually that crowded, but everyone who was there seemed to congregate around the interactive robots), I couldn’t get close enough to hear what she was saying.  No matter, it left an open space in front of Amico, who was another of my favourites, thanks to his expressive eyebrows (what can I say, I am a complete sucker for expressive eyebrows.  I mean, his acting skills (or lack thereof) are not the reason I’m a fan of a young Roger Moore (but it’s not just his raised eyebrow I like…I also can’t resist his taste in knitwear)).

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I’m just going to show you a bunch of photos now (rather sloppily arranged, as is my wont), because there were so many robots, and my commentary on each individual one will get very tiresome, but I don’t want to leave pictures of any good ones out.  They are of varying degrees of creepiness, which seems directly proportional to how human-like a robot was (i.e., the realistic ones were creepiest by far. Those child ones with the big heads are scariest though.  No contest).

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As I’ve said, most of the labels in here didn’t go into detail about the development of the robots or anything, which was probably fine in an exhibit for popular consumption (since I know pretty much nothing about engineering, I certainly didn’t want to read some long, boring technical description), but might disappoint the more technologically-minded.  Although I didn’t care so much about the technical side, I would have appreciated more discussion of the historical aspects, as the exhibit seemed to skip from the 18th to 20th centuries without much explanation of what brought robotics to that point (the initial section on automata was the only one that had a good balance of explanatory text to artefacts).  But I think most people were just there to see a shitload of robots, and on that, the Science Museum certainly delivered.  This certainly made up for my disappointing evening at the British Academy, though it was a little light on content for a £13.50 exhibition, so definitely try to snag yourself a discount.  It’s on until 3 September, so there’s plenty of time to see it, but it appears that the Silver Swan will only be there until April, so maybe best to get there before then.  3.5/5.

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