science

London: “Spare Parts” @ the Science Gallery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

London: “Hooked” @ the Science Gallery

Yes, you read that right. The Science Gallery, NOT the Science Museum. London’s got a new museum (at least, I think it’s new – more on that in a little while), and as usual, I’m first on the scene I visited the museum as soon as I found out about it, via a London Museum Development newsletter I get at work, because I am definitely not high on any publicity department’s list. “As soon as I found out about it” turned out to be a week before their first exhibition closed, which is why I am sadly blogging about it too late for anyone to visit. But they will have future exhibitions, with a new one every quarter, so I might as tell you about the venue anyway for future reference.

   

The Science Gallery is located on King’s College London’s Guy’s Campus (and as King’s is my alma mater (I think? Is your alma mater the first place you went to school or just anywhere you did a degree?), you’d think I might have heard about it through them too, but no dice. They can sure send me plenty of emails about donating (never gonna happen), but can’t seem to send ones about things I might actually be interested in) – if you go out the Shard entrance of London Bridge Station, you will find it directly in front of you, just across the street (the Shard will also be directly on top of you, looming menacingly). This means it is also conveniently near to Borough Market, so you can easily pop over for a toasted cheese from Kappacasein after, which I definitely did.

   

The Science Gallery appears to be part of a larger international organisation, with branches in places like Dublin, Melbourne, Detroit, and Rotterdam. Judging by their website, the London Science Gallery seems to have been active as a project since 2014, but if I understand it correctly, this is their first exhibition based in this gallery space. And looking at their exhibition programme for the year, it appears to be Wellcome Collection-esque, with a sort of science-art hybrid going on that I quite like, and I especially like that admission is free. The exhibition I saw was called “Hooked” and explored addiction through science and art.

   

Each section of the gallery was meant to have a different theme, but I didn’t necessarily get that throughout. The first room was called “Natural Born Thrillers” and was supposed to be about the sorts of things people can get addicted to, but that also seemed (more or less) to be the theme of the second section. Nevertheless, it got off to a promisingly interactive start with a machine with a slot you could insert a coin into to see what happened (someone had thoughtfully left a 2p coin on top, and since the whole point of the machine was that the coin came shooting back out at you with surprising force, it could be used again and again). There was also a virtual reality mask that allowed you to watch drunk mice, and a video of a guy playing Playstation whilst coming down from speed. The table made out of sugar grossed me out a little because of all the sticky spilt tea around it, but not quite as much as the marshmallow pants (not entirely sure what addiction those were representing. Perhaps something sexual?).

   

The second section was quite dark and moody and seemed mostly to be focused on the addictions unique to modern life, like video games and mobile phones. There was a game that tracked your eye movements (not entirely sure to what purpose) and a room full of flashing low battery symbols from phones. I did manage to resist pressing the “Do not like this” button on Facebook, and didn’t watch the video about twisted fairy tales because the room looked quite full and I didn’t want to step on anyone, despite the presence of comfy looking cushions in front of the screen.

 

The third section, entitled “Free Will,” was meant to be addressing the question of who was to blame for addiction, but I didn’t really get that from the “Hashish Club,” which was a hallucinatory video meant to recreate the experiences of 1840s pot smoking intellectuals. I did like standing in front of the Victorian parlour video screen with the trippy green lanterns though. I listened to “Short Periods of Structured Nothingness” for quite a while, which featured a woman talking about her experiences with her deadbeat dad after her parents divorced, and was eagerly awaiting the opportunity to answer some questions myself that I’d been promised early in the conversation (well, I say conversation, but I was just listening to a recording), but it went on for too long and I hung up as other people were waiting.

 

I have to confess that I didn’t understand the suit hanging in a geometric frame in one corner of the gallery at all, but I thought the curtain made from wedding rings in “Divorce Index” was quite cool, though I thought tying it into addiction was a bit forced (apparently it was chosen because addiction can often lead to divorce, but that didn’t really come across in the piece).

  

The final bit of the gallery, called “Safe from Harm,” featured a series of short films called “Twelve,” where people struggling with addiction re-interpreted scenes from films (which sounds like it should have been entertaining, but it was actually quite depressing and bleak) and a very frustrating video of someone only scrubbing one tile of a tiled floor clean, while I was sitting there dying for them to wash the whole damn floor. There was also a reading room where people could read books about addiction or share their own experiences of addiction.

   

I assumed we were finished at that point, and was already rather pleased with what I’d seen – even though I didn’t always understand how the pieces tied to the theme, it was interactive and entertaining, and most importantly, free, so I was glad I’d stopped in. But then we went downstairs to check out the shop and encountered the final piece of art, “AGAIN” by Lawrence Epps. I’ve seen those coin pushing machines plenty of times at the seaside, but never played because I hate gambling. Doesn’t stop me from watching the very stupid Tipping Point though, because those machines are mesmerising. Well, “AGAIN” was free to play – staff members gave you a small envelope full of tokens if you asked, and if you won any tokens, you got to keep them. Apparently some of them were meant to be actual 24 karat gold, but all the ones we won were just terracotta. They had loads of different designs, and I desperately wanted a white one, only to have one fall and get stuck in the chute, so I spent most of my other tokens trying to get it out. Unsuccessful, and the one staff member said the artist claimed it was purposely supposed to do that, but she suspected it was just a design flaw. Either way, it did demonstrate the power of addiction in a very clear and disturbingly fun way. (I stood there for a good fifteen minutes feeding in tokens trying to get that damn white one – so long that everyone else had moved off, but I did go home with some terracotta ones at least.)

   

This was overall a very fun and interactive experience (more interactive than the Wellcome usually is, I have to say, but I still love the Wellcome) and I will definitely return to see their future exhibitions (the proximity to Borough Market doesn’t hurt, because Padella and Kappacasein are two of my favourite places), including the next one, “Spare Parts” which opens at the end of February (and I will try to see that one in a timely enough fashion that other people can still go after I blog about it). It’s always exciting to see a new museum open in London, and if it’s free and has constantly changing exhibitions, so much the better, though I am a little upset this wasn’t a thing when I was a student, as it could have provided me with some valuable museum experience (so maybe it wouldn’t have taken me like 8 years to find a job in a museum)! 3.5/5 for “Hooked.”

London: “The Sun” @ the Science Museum

For someone who doesn’t think of themselves as a science person, I do seem to go to a lot of exhibitions at the Science Museum (of course, I don’t think of myself as a math(s) person either, but that seems to be what half my job consists of). But I suppose I am interested in the history of science, and that tends to be what most exhibitions there are about. I wasn’t too sure how much history they’d be able to work into their current special exhibition: “The Sun: Living with our Star,” but I was certainly willing to find out.
   
Based on our experience with “The Last Tsar,” when we discovered that the Science Museum is completely deserted after about 3pm, Marcus and I decided to visit “The Sun” mid-afternoon, which meant we could go out to dinner at Gopal’s Corner (sister restaurant in Victoria to the Roti King near Euston, which I speak about a lot on account of being addicted to their roti dhal) right after (though to be honest, I can happily eat dinner at like 3 or 4, since I skip lunch most days). And clearly once again, this was a good time to visit, as we were pretty much the only people inside the exhibition, apart from one annoying man who loomed over us in a goonish fashion whilst we were using one of the interactive elements, and when I politely moved away (even though I could happily have played with it longer) so he could have a turn, he left as well. I hate people.
 
Admission is £15, or half-off with the National Art Pass, which is pretty much the only reason I am able to visit so many special exhibitions (because there is no way I’d pay full price for all this stuff. I do have to pay for the National Art Pass, but I go to so many exhibitions that it’s worth it. Though if the National Art Fund wants to reach out and offer me a free pass, I’m all ears!). The exhibition opened with the “Days and Years” gallery, which explained how people have interacted with the sun throughout history, including ways of measuring time.
   
There was a display of watches, orreries, and sundials, and a little game where you had to read one of two sundials to tell an adorable monk the proper time to go for prayers (one sundial was much easier to read than the other). An “explainer,” as they’re called (and good luck becoming one, because those jobs are almost impossible to get, despite the not-great pay and having to be on your feet all day) came over and showed us how to use the unfamiliar sundial, and talked about how the railroads standardised time, which to be honest I already knew (I watch a shameful amount of Michael Portillo’s Great British Railway Journeys, even though I hate Michael Portillo as a politician) but I appreciated the explanation of the sundial. The other interactive element in this area was a screen where you could view a sunrise and sunset at various points around the world at different times of year, which was kind of cool, but I don’t think it was quite dark enough in the gallery to get the full effect.
   
The next gallery was called “Sunshine and Health,” and this was definitely my favourite, because it talked about the role the sun played in disease, and how it was used as a treatment for tuberculosis and some forms of lupus. There was even a special light therapy box designed by John Kellogg, and a fabulous sunsuit from the 1930s (shown below).  The gallery also mentioned how and when scientists realised that too much sun was a very bad thing indeed (much later than I would have thought, around the 1980s, which kind of explains why my mother didn’t seem all that concerned when I got hella sunburned as a kid (I mean, she cared that I was in pain, but she wasn’t all like, “OMG skin cancer!”)) and contained some great posters from both the pro-sunlight and anti-skin cancer eras (obviously people have never been pro-skin cancer, but you know what I mean, from the time before when they realised what caused skin cancer).
   
There was a cute little fake beach with palm trees and sound effects so we could bask in the sun, but it would have been much improved by the addition of some sun loungers (though who knows, perhaps they tried them and ran into issues. Considering some of the things I’ve seen going on in the museum where I work, anything is possible. People are awful and this post is turning out very misanthropic). The best thing was the screen where you could “try on” various pairs of historical sunglasses and snap your selfie in them. Clearly Marcus’s selfie game is much stronger than mine.
   
Next was “Power from the Sun” which for me was the most boring gallery. I’m certainly all for solar power, but I’m not terribly interested in learning how it works, and this section was very full of scientific detail that I didn’t really understand or care about. I was fully enraged, however, by the section explaining how Jimmy Carter installed solar panels on the roof of the White House and proudly gave a speech about how they would be providing renewable energy until at least 2000, only, nope, sorry Jimmy, because Reagan had them ripped out in 1986 to support coal and fossil fuels. I can’t say that Reagan is the worst, given the current administration, but he’s certainly up there! On a cheerier note, I did like the hallway that narrowed to a point to give that sort of shrinking/giant effect when you stood in either end, and the newspapers with articles on nuclear fission from the 1950s were interesting mostly on account of the other articles they contained!
  
The final gallery was “Observing the Sun,” which talked about the different theories developed about sun spots over the years, from Galileo right through to Richard Carrington who observed the first solar flare through an optical telescope in 1859 (there was a little cartoon about him, and the cartoon version of him looked rather like Marcus, but I tend to think that about anyone with red hair and a beard). There were a lot of cool light-up images that had been taken of sun spots (although thinking about sun spots freaks me out a little. Space does in general, frankly, as do the oceans. I don’t really know why, though I suppose the close-up images of sunspots could be a trypophobia thing) and a pretty fun game where you had to guess the severity of a solar storm based on the size and appearance of sun spots (and if you failed to predict a storm, everyone on Earth got pissed off at you).
   
The absolute last room of the exhibition contained an eight minute long video of the sun projected on a large screen showing some solar flares in action, but I only watched about a minute of it before I got bored. It did look neat though – the image at the start of the post is a collage of it. The exhibition shop was OK – not as good as the one for Robots or Cosmonauts, but then again, I’m just not as interested in the sun as a subject as those other things. I did get a badge though, and would certainly have bought a print or two if I didn’t already have way too many of the damn things.
  
I enjoyed the experience of visiting this exhibition quite a lot (except for the weird guy) because it was so empty that we were free to engage with most of the interactive elements for as long as we liked (and we definitely used that sunglasses thing for about twenty minutes), but content-wise, it was a little boring and not particularly memorable (it probably doesn’t help that I avoid the sun as much as possible in the course of my everyday life. I like staying pasty, thanks). So I’ll give it 3/5, and hope their next major exhibition is a bit more in line with my interests (not that it’s all about me, but it’s obviously going to get a better score on my blog if it’s something I’m interested in).

Oxford: Museum of the History of Science

The second museum we visited in Oxford was the Museum of the History of Science. To be honest, after the less-thrilling-than-hoped-for Whipple Museum in Cambridge, I was prepared to give this one a miss too (I know, I’m being ruthless, but I wanted to save plenty of time for the Pitt Rivers), but we passed it anyway en route to the Weston Library, and a sign outside advertising Anna Dumitriu’s “BioArt and Bacteria” exhibition drew me in (it ended 18 March, so unfortunately, you won’t be able to see it).

  

The museum is housed in the world’s oldest surviving purpose-built museum building, and it’s free to visit, so I suppose it was worth popping in for that alone, though to be honest, the big stone heads outside the museum were my favourite part. But I’ll say no more about those (because really, there’s no point in my rambling on about them when all you have to do is look at them, and you’ll see that they’re hilarious) and move on to discussing the museum, which was completed in 1683 to hold the original incarnation of the Ashmolean. So it was pretty obvious that the Ashmolean started out as a much smaller institution, because whilst this was a decently sized building, spread out over three floors, it was way smaller than the Ashmolean now, which was fine with me, since I didn’t want to spend loads of time here anyway.

  

We started with the entrance gallery, which was small and spread out around the (tiny) shop, and provided an introduction to the collection. I’m not entirely sure what the little carved skeletons have to do with the history of science, other than being skeletons, but I’m not complaining.

  

We then headed upstairs, which meant climbing a whole lot of wooden steps. I’m only in my early 30s, but I swear my knees are starting to go, because they were aching by the time I got to the top. The upstairs gallery houses the mathematical instruments, which fortunately for me included things like globes, so it wasn’t a complete waste of time walking up there only to be bored senseless by the collection. And a lot of the instruments up here (even the boring ones) were owned by famous scientists, which is interesting in itself. I have to say that my favourite artefact up here wasn’t even in the gallery, but was a pastel drawing of the moon from 1795 which was hung up next to the stairs. The level of detail was quite impressive, and I’m a sucker for lunar things anyway.

   

The temporary exhibition, which is the whole reason I went into the museum, was downstairs, but before going in there, I got sidetracked by the donation box, which was an orrery that rotated when you put money in it (I only paid for half a revolution, as a whole year cost £2 and I’m cheap, but I got to see it in action anyway, and honestly, it wasn’t that thrilling, so half a year was plenty. The carnival style sign on it was better than the orrery itself).  The medical collection was also kept downstairs, and though it was smaller than I was hoping, there were still some cool artefacts, like that model of a nervy head (the hair was the best/creepiest touch).

  

Actually, there was lots of neat stuff down here (even the gallery itself looked awesomely old fashioned, as you can probably tell). Early Marconi radios, a microphone that Dame Nellie Melba used to perform the first radio concert in 1920 (and subsequently signed), cameras owned by Lewis Carroll and T.E. Lawrence (of course), and a blackboard Albert Einstein wrote on when he was delivering a lecture at Oxford in 1931. Really cool, although I didn’t understand a damn thing on it!

  

Finally, I made it into the “BioArt” exhibition, which I really enjoyed (I was less keen on the steward who kept following me around the rather narrow gallery, but I’m sure he was just doing his job). There were dresses woven from fabric patterned with TB and streptococcus (I would wear the streptococcus one, below), old blue TB sputum collecting cups, which were strangely lovely (and safely behind glass, since I’m not sure if they were actually used or not), and (this kind of even grossed me out) an artificially grown tooth that was really big and deformed, set in a necklace of real teeth (the artificial tooth was by far the grossest part because it was so misshapen, so of course I’m including a picture. I feel a little sick just thinking about it, which is rare for me with medical stuff, since usually the grosser the better as far as I’m concerned). I was glad I came in to see it (the exhibition, not the tooth, which I could have done without), because it was interesting stuff (or “infectiously good” as Marcus cleverly put it in the guidebook), though I had a bit of a sore throat later that week and was just a teeny bit worried that something in there was actually infectious (I’m sure it wasn’t, and I’m fine now, but it did make me wonder).

   

On the whole, I think I enjoyed this more than the Whipple Museum (yet have still given it the same score), because it was the same sort of stuff (scientific instruments), simply displayed, which is not inherently that thrilling, but the fact that almost everything here was owned by somebody famous upped the interest level, and the temporary exhibition was good. I do wish that these history of science museums were more interactive (more like the Science Museum in London I suppose) or dynamic, but maybe that’s just the nature of this kind of museum (although history of medicine museums tend to be WAY more exciting to me than this, but that could just be because I know way more about the history of medicine. Maybe if I was a science nerd, I’d be really into history of science museums too). Worth seeing because it’s free, but you won’t need to spend a ton of time here, because the signage isn’t always the best (very matter of fact for the most part) and there isn’t a lot of explanation of how things are used for those of us who aren’t scientists, which is a shame, because I think I could take more of an interest if I understood exactly what I was looking at. 3/5.

  

London: Venom: Killer and Cure @ the Natural History Museum

I’m glad that I had so many posts from Manchester and the US on backlog, because I always find it really difficult to leave the house in January, and I just wasn’t motivated to go to many museums (it doesn’t particularly help that I work at a museum now – even though I still love visiting museums, I don’t always want to spend my days off in one). I was also battling a cold and jetlag for the first half of the month, which definitely didn’t help. But I finally dragged myself out of my flat in mid-January to check out the venom exhibition at the Natural History Museum, because the promise of stuff in jars is a great motivator, at least as far as I’m concerned.

I seem to go to the NHM far less than the other major museums in London (this is actually my first post about an exhibition there, though I have popped inside now and again over the years), I think because I perceive it as being always hideously crowded with screaming children, but I realised on this visit that if you go in the side entrance on Exhibition Road instead of the main one, it really isn’t any busier once you get inside than the Science Museum or the V&A, neither of which I seem to have any issue with visiting, so perhaps I’ve been unfair to the NHM. At least, it isn’t that bad on a weekday – I’m still not brave enough to attempt it on a weekend.

“Venom: Killer and Cure” was a bit tricky to locate; in fact, we had to ask for directions to it at the whale exhibit (the other special exhibition they currently have running), and we had to pass through several “zones” to get there (the museum is so big that things are assigned colour-coded zones), including the entrance hall with the blue whale skeleton (who is apparently named Hope) taking pride of place over the oft-mourned Dippy the diplodocus (honestly, I like Hope just fine, but I suppose I don’t have a childhood attachment to Dippy like other people do), but we eventually found our way. Admission is a whopping £10.50 (sans donation), but we got in for half price thanks to the National Art Pass (which is well worth getting if you live in London and go to lots of exhibitions).  (Apologies for the giant disgusting sting ray in the above picture – they scare the crap out of me, but the exhibition wasn’t that big, so I have a limited amount of photos and had to use it.)


The exhibition highlights on their website promised a lot of things, including:

“a live venomous creature,
the head of a gaboon viper, the species with the biggest known venomous fangs;
the insects with some of the most painful venoms known to science,
the enchanting flower urchin, whose venom can cause temporary muscular paralysis in humans;
the unusual love life of the emperor scorpion – where seduction has a sting in the tail,
the box jellyfish, whose embrace can kill humans in under five minutes; and
scientists whose ideas represent the cutting edge of venom research and its use in modern medicine”

and I suppose they did deliver, but in the most minimalist way possible. For example, they had exactly one live venomous creature – a tarantula in a glass tank. I was OK with that, because I definitely have no desire to touch a tarantula (though I’m fine with looking at them if they’re safely contained), but I was sort of hoping there’d be an opportunity to handle some snakes (though I guess not venomous ones!) or at least look at live snakes in tanks, because I love snakes, but dead snakes in jars were the only ones on offer (I mean, I do love stuff in jars too, but I like live snakes better than dead ones). Pretty much everything else on that list was there also in the form of dead and in a jar, or dead and tacked to a board, or dead and taxidermied…except for the scientists, which at least would have been interesting in a macabre sort of way. Again, I’m not really sure what I was expecting, because of course they’re not going to have a bunch of live venomous creatures hanging around, but I think I was just hoping the exhibition would be more engaging than it actually was. Because there was really no interactivity to speak of.

The exhibition opened with a large screen with a tarantula shadow projected on to it (which was a cool effect, particularly when you looked at it looming behind you in the mirror), which led into a very dark room containing cases of various preserved venomous specimens, with brief descriptions of each underneath. I enjoyed looking at these, but it didn’t take a whole lot of time to see them.

From there, the gallery segued into a round room with a tableau of a mongoose and cobra fighting in the middle, which was pretty neat. I also really liked the descriptions of the pain level of various venomous insect bites written by glutton-for-punishment researcher Christopher Starr. Most of them made me laugh, particularly the “W.C. Fields putting out a cigar on your tongue” one (I hope you can enlarge the above photo enough to read some of them for yourself!). The most venomous animal hall of fame was so dark that it was a little hard to see, especially some of the smaller insects, which had simply been pinned into place in the display. There was a short video featuring three survivors of venomous attacks telling their stories, which I didn’t really take time to watch because a family piled in there just as I approached (and although the exhibition was almost empty, there were a pair of really annoying visitors behind us who were pausing FOREVER in front of each display and blocking the case, so I wanted to make sure I stayed ahead of them).

The next room of the exhibition was probably the most interesting (and well-lit!) and was about historical medical treatments for people who had been attacked by venomous animals, as well as some uses modern researchers have found for various animal venoms. This included a great display with a big-ass jar crammed full of snakes (which was for some reason more exciting than all the jars with a solitary dead snake), and a preserved gila monster (I always seem to think they should be bigger than they actually are), as well as other cool cases full of medical stuff, like an apothecary jar and some venom-sucking syringes, and excitingly, some leaves that had been preserved on Cook’s first expedition(!).

The last object of note was a massive glass case with a preserved komodo dragon in it, which was given its own special room. I took the survey on my way out (I’m currently running the visitor survey at the museum where I work, so I feel obligated to do other people’s), and was interested to see that the things I was apparently supposed to have learned about in the exhibition didn’t seem to have been included anywhere, such as the difference between poisonous and venomous (I knew this already because I’m pedantic about these things, but I didn’t see it discussed anywhere inside). The shop attached to the exhibition was a bit meh – good if you’re into slow lorises, because they had about a million slow loris things, but not great if you prefer snakes and vampire bats.

I clearly can’t complain about all the specimens in jars, because that was mostly what this exhibition was, and I LOVE stuff in jars, but I could see that kind of thing in the free parts of the museum. If I’m going to pay to see an exhibition, I would rather see something more special, and with a bit of interactivity – there was one touch screen about ancient Egyptian treatments for snakebite, and that was basically it. Surely they could have come up with something cool and relevant to the subject matter (like a game where you had to try to tell whether snakes were venomous or not, or a screen or microscope where you could have examined some of the tinier insects up close, or some kind of electric zapping device that mimicked the sensation of an insect bite…well, maybe not that last one, but I’m just coming up with stuff off the top of my head here, and I think it’s more engaging than what they offered). It was also very repetitive, in terms of the animals represented – they must have had the same damn facts about the box snail (along with examples of said snail – maybe they got a whole case of them on discount) in there three or four times, so it really felt like they were desperately trying to bulk up the content to fill up an entire exhibition. I learned a bit about venom, and I enjoyed the descriptions of bites (and some of the more amusing object captions) and of course all the preserved animals, but for £10.50 (or even £5.25) I wanted more than what the NHM is already offering in its permanent zoological galleries. I think this would have been much better as a free display, rather than a special exhibition with a pricey admission fee attached. 2.5/5.

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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Bistra near Vrhnika, Slovenia: Technical Museum of Slovenia

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I know what you’re probably thinking, “A technical museum, Jessica?!  That seems like a unlikely choice given your distaste for engineering and technology.”  Well, that’s what I thought too when I first heard about this museum, but upon learning they had a collection of Tito’s cars, the shameless gawker in me simply couldn’t resist.  And I’m so glad I went, because this place was awesome!

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The Technical Museum is located in the village of Bistra near Vrhnika (I’m guessing “near Vrhnika” is part of the name, like a Stratford upon Avon situation), about 20 km outside of Ljubljana.  Thus, you’ll be forced to make some complicated arrangement that involves a combination of public transport and a taxi, or, preferably, if you’re lucky enough to have access to a car, drive there, which is what we did.  Of course, this will involve travelling through an absurdly green countryside that best resembles a Bob Ross painting on steroids, which is obviously a real hardship, but we managed.  The museum itself is a sprawling complex made up of various appropriately rustic buildings (actually a former monastery), all set beside a babbling brook and surrounded by lushly rolling hills.  Seriously, even the museums in Slovenia are ridiculously picturesque.  I’ve never seen anything like it.

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Admission was only 4.50 euros, which was so cheap I actually felt guilty, and I found myself stuffing euro coins into a donation box later to make up for it, once I had realised the scale of the museum.  We began our experience in a shed full of cars (none of them Tito’s), which opened onto a courtyard girded by outbuildings.  It would definitely be a good idea to pick up a map at the admissions desk, because the directional signs are in Slovenian, and it’s all too easy to miss things otherwise.

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The museum essentially covers every almost aspect of technology that is historically related to Slovenian life, though the collections seem to peter out somewhere in the 20th century, as there’s not much mention of computers or other modern technology.  Rather, the museum chooses to focus more on traditional occupations, which I find much more interesting anyway.  I don’t think I can even fully discuss all the collections of the museum, which if the map is to be believed, includes eighteen different “departments,” so I’ll just give an overview and mention some of the highlights.

Wooden things!  With moving parts!

Wooden things! With moving parts!

After the first car display, we spent some time admiring the water-powered mill, and various other sawmills that you could pop into and explore.  I enjoyed watching the waterwheel very much, as it’s not really the sort of thing you expect to see next to a museum (and I have to wonder if it was the sort of thing that the Wandle Museum has in mind if they get to move to a new location).  I guess it was a prime example of technology in action.

Waterwheel.  Woot!

Waterwheel. Woot!

Still, it was a rather chilly day (not really by British standards, but I wasn’t expecting it and didn’t have my customary backup jacket and tights in tow), so I was glad enough to enter the cavernous interior of the main building.  (Here’s a tip, keep your ticket handy, as people will actually stamp it at various points in the museum, I suppose because anyone could just wander in from outside otherwise).  There was an eclectic exhibit on the history of washing machines near the entrance, but just beyond (through a door we almost had to force open), the permanent collections awaited.  These included an extensive woodworking exhibit, and fishing and forestry departments.

Surprise!  It's a random moose above a door!

Surprise! It’s a random moose above a door!

My favourite part of the museum was actually another special exhibition, about food and eating habits in Europe (probably because I enjoy food more than technology).  Because honey is an important element of Slovenian cuisine, there was a whole section devoted to just that (though sadly, without samples of different types of honey to taste like you get at the county fair), complete with recipes you could take home with you!  I grabbed a copy of nearly every one (and here’s where I really filled up the donation box), and though I haven’t tried any of them yet, I think the dessert gnocchi with honey and walnuts shows great promise.

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Up until this point, almost everything had an English translation on it, but by the time we got to the hunting and wildlife galleries, I think they putzed out a little bit (not that I blame them, because the place was huge), because everything was only in Slovenian.  Fortunately, I don’t need a translation to appreciate some taxidermy, so it worked out just fine. At the end of the taxidermy section, there was a weird black light tunnel about wolves, which felt like it might be the museum exit, but nope, there was plenty more left to see.

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There was also no shortage of delightful wax figures.

Let’s see, there were still agricultural, textile, and printing departments (where I actually got to write my name on a Braille slate, just like Mary Ingalls), which I probably didn’t spend as much time in as I should have, as we had already been at the museum for half a day and wanted to fit in another museum in the afternoon.  I honestly thought the Technical Museum would only take maybe two hours at most, but I was pleasantly surprised at the variety of things to see and do.  The very last section was the traffic department, which contained, at long last, an entire gallery of Tito’s cars.  (Photography wasn’t allowed in this section, so I have no pictures to show you, much to my chagrin).  Many of them were gifts from other dictators, like Stalin, and were quite normal cars, such as Lincoln Continentals, though they were specially equipped with features like bulletproof glass (a must for the dictator on the move!).  There were also bicycles and motorcycles and things, but I quickly lose interest around cars and related contraptions (at least ones without a chequered past).

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The only complaints I have about this museum relate to Nikola Tesla.  Namely, that I couldn’t get my Tesla fix, because his gallery was shut without explanation.  I realise Tesla was a Serb born in Croatia, so there was no particular reason for a Slovenian museum to have to devote a gallery to him, but the map promised me a Tesla gallery, so I was anticipating it the entire visit.  To add insult to injury, they had this amazing Tesla t-shirt in the gift shop that I wanted to buy for my brother, but it only came in sizes Small, and XXXL. Thwarted yet again by an inexplicable lack of t-shirt sizes!

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I’m going to award the Technical Museum 4.5/5.  The collections were so extensive that there truly was something for everyone, and the setting couldn’t have been lovelier.  It’s a grand day out that I highly recommend if you find yourself in Slovenia!

This was not Jesus and a deer, as I initially thought, but some sort of knight and a stag.

This was not Jesus and a deer, as I initially thought, but some sort of knight and a stag. I think.