social history

Hamburg: Museum of Hamburg History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Glasgow: The People’s Palace

Merry belated Christmas everybody! I don’t have anything particularly Christmassy to post about this year, so I’ll just carry on with Glasgow. Looking back on it, we probably should have devoted a good few hours to the Kelvingrove, and slipped in the People’s Palace if and when we had time. But Marcus wanted to see Billy Connolly’s banana boots, and since the museum doesn’t have its own website, we didn’t have any idea what other treasures might be hiding away in there, so the People’s Palace became a priority. It is located in Glasgow Green, about a mile walk away from where we were staying in the centre of Glasgow, and it was very cold that day, so I was definitely not enjoying the walk.

  

I did, however, enjoy the sight of the Doulton Fountain, which we spotted from quite a distance away. This fabulous piece is apparently the largest terracotta fountain in the world, and was built in 1887 for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee and the International Exposition held in Glasgow. It celebrates the British Empire and contains figures representing Canada, South Africa, Australia, and India (I particularly enjoyed the Canadian moose, and what I think was a marmot). I’m no fan of empire, but I am definitely a fan of this fountain.

  

From there, we progressed inside the museum, which like every museum we visited in Glasgow, had these great wooden revolving doors at the entrance (and a giant ornate radiator right by the entry, which I needed to warm my legs after the walk there). The People’s Palace is free (with a name like People’s Palace, it would have been a little disappointing if it wasn’t), and since there was no front desk and we were a little unsure where the museum began, we went directly up the steps in front of us. It turns out we missed an introductory gallery on the ground floor, which we saw at the end instead (yes, the big welcome sign should have been a clue, but I swear we couldn’t see it from the entrance), but it was a very basic overview of Glasgow’s history and the exploits of the Scottish boxer Benny Lynch, who died at the age of 33 in 1946 from alcoholism.

 

So it didn’t really matter that we started with the first floor, and in fact, it meant that we saw Billy’s banana boots first thing (I mostly know Billy Connolly from that Columbo where he’s the murderer (not really a spoiler since the whole point of Columbo is that you see who did it at the beginning), but I don’t think I’ve ever sat there and watched one of his comedy routines, so the banana boots were a bit lost on me. That said, there was a video with Billy Connolly doing that very routine right next to the boots, so I definitely could have watched it then and there had I been so inclined). There was also Rab C. Nesbitt’s string vest, which Marcus was also excited to see.

  

The rest of the floor was given over to moments from Glasgow’s social history, so there was a section on crime and punishment (which I of course enjoyed, though it wasn’t very grisly). The gallows were located not far from the museum building, so there was a sign on the window telling us that this view was more or less the last thing condemned criminals would see. I was rather shocked by the sort-of game where you had to decide whether or not someone should receive the death penalty for various crimes, and then lift the flaps to see what other people answered (although most of the flaps were broken, so I could see their responses from the start) because most of the respondents were very very pro-death penalty, and since Britain abolished the death penalty in 1965, I didn’t realise so many people still felt this way. Yikes. Then again, it wasn’t clear who was surveyed or when the survey was done – the board kind of looked old enough to have been there since the ’60s!

  

There was also a small area on a famous dance hall in Glasgow, a few bits about visiting the seaside, and a section in the back about going to the “Steamie,” which was the Glaswegian term for the public washhouses (and not, as I thought, a bizarre sexual act along the lines of a Cleveland Steamer), and was where woman would meet to do their laundry and, most importantly, gossip. There was also a little bit of information about the World Wars (I liked the display that followed the story of a Glasgow couple who lived through the First World War, as their letters to each other were rather sweet, and the husband’s life was saved by a drill book he took from a German soldier as a souvenir, which was on display here), and a re-creation of an old dairy, although you couldn’t actually touch anything inside, and there were no authentic smells or anything, so it wasn’t really that exciting.

  

The appearance of this floor was very child-friendly, which was initially a bit off-putting, as I wasn’t sure whether we had accidentally wandered into the children’s section. The whole museum was like this though, so I’m pretty sure it was meant to be open to everyone. Aside from this, things did look a little bit run-down and in need of an update – some of the interactive bits had flaps broken off, as I mentioned earlier, and the signage looked a little grubby in places.

  

The second floor was similarly a little bit tired looking, though some of the displays appeared to be done more recently than the ones downstairs. One of the galleries was completely empty, but another contained information about political life in Glasgow, including labour movements and the like, and a handful of artefacts. The other gallery was about everyday life for Glaswegians, with small re-creations of a bathroom and teeny flat (which actually looked quite cosy if you had it to yourself, rather than sharing it with like ten people like most people had to (there was a report about 15 people living in a 6 metre square room in Victorian times). I mean, the bed was in a little nook, and you had your chamber pot right there, so you didn’t even have to get up if you didn’t want to). Glasgow had the highest population density of any city in Victorian Britain (worse than London’s even), and many people were forced to live in slums and appalling conditions.

  

On a cheerier note, there was also information about things people did for fun, like clothes, magazines, and music, and there was even an example of a best-selling product from Ann Summers in the 1990s – an alligator “pouch” for men. I also really enjoyed the little dollhouse showing the ways buildings were divided up into flats throughout the 20th century, though I wish it wasn’t quite so difficult to see inside.

  

Once we headed back downstairs, we had to wander over to the Winter Gardens, which we had already had a lovely view of from various places inside the museum. It is a large glasshouse tacked onto the side of the museum where people can presumably sit in the winter and enjoy loads of lovely plants. There is a cafe in there, but we had earlier purchased some doughnuts from Tantrum Doughnuts that we sat down on a bench to eat (a bit too bready for my tastes, but most British doughnuts are), and it was warm and fairly peaceful (or it would have been if not for all the children running through). I also loved the Shakespeare tiles lining the bathrooms!

  

The People’s Palace has a lot of potential, I think, but most of the displays just felt tired, and I think a social history museum needs more in it, as it only covered very specific aspects of Glasgow history, rather than presenting an overview of the city’s history and its people, which, as someone who had never been to Glasgow before, I would have preferred. However, I have learned in the course of researching this post that the Winter Gardens are set to close indefinitely at the end of this year for major renovations, and potentially the People’s Palace with them, unless they can find a way to make structural repairs independently to each structure. So I’ll give it 2.5/5 in its current state, but changes are clearly afoot, hopefully for the better, but knowing how these things work, I won’t get my hopes up (and do check first if you want to visit from January 2019 onward, since it appears they may not even be open!). Even though I didn’t love this museum, I do hope it is able to remain a museum in the future, because museums are so vital to the culture of a city, and it would be a shame to lose this one entirely.

This building opposite the museum used to be a carpet factory, but now houses a German brewery, as I found out later when I had one of their beers at a pub.

London: The Photographer’s Gallery – Mass Observation Exhibition

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This might seem another somewhat unlikely blogging choice for me, as I think I’ve established that I’m certainly no art critic (well, I WILL critique art, but not in any educated sense, only because I like to complain), and I don’t exactly frequent galleries, but when I read about a Mass Observation exhibit at the Photographer’s Gallery in The Times, I knew I had to see it.

For those of you unfamiliar with Mass Observation (MO), it was a project conceived in Britain in 1937, whereby its members walked the fine line between observing and spying on ordinary people in order to create a profile of quotidian British life.  They used written reports, surveys, and, most importantly for our purposes, photography, to build a picture of the average British citizen.  The project carried on through the war, even though the observers were at some risk of being considered actual spies, and I would imagine that the resulting records are pretty much a dream come true for social historians studying the 20th century.  I only wish something this comprehensive was around centuries ago, though I suppose having to sift through Pepys and Boswell for glimpses of routine existence isn’t the worst thing that could happen.  But even though I’m not a scholar of modern history, I find MO fascinating, and I wanted to learn more.

The Photographer’s Gallery is on Ramilles Street, which is a side street coming off Oxford Street that I’d never noticed before (probably usually too busy gazing into shop windows at things I can’t afford).  The gallery is perched right on the corner, and you kind of can’t miss it.  After confirming with the man at the front desk that entry was free, I bounded up several flights of stairs to check out the exhibition.  (They do have a lift, but I don’t like to take them unless it’s more than 3 or 4 floors up, or I’m with other people, because I feel like I could use the extra exercise.  As my mother would probably say, my legs aren’t broke.)

The full title of the exhibition is “Mass Observation: This is Your Photo,” but it consisted not only of photographs, but of written reports, and some newspaper clippings and magazine articles as well.  Most of the photographs were taken of working class people in Bolton and Blackpool, by Humphrey Spender, but there were a few other themed collections from the revivals of MO in the ’60s and ’80s, including panoramas of circus life and personal objects.  Because I am, at heart, attracted far more to words than pictures, I especially enjoyed the supplemental material, even taking the trouble to squint over the hand-written field reports.  I liked that the observations of strangers were so detailed as to include a description of a woman scratching her right buttock with her right hand (which she had to move shopping to the opposite hand to achieve), though it did make me a little concerned that a modern observer had ended up walking behind me at some point!  There was also an enthralling magazine article on war-time pin-ups, where soldiers were given ten different nudie shots to look at, and rate them in order of preference, and a few of the original response sheets were included in the case.  Their top choice was for a wholesome looking naked young lady scaling a rock, in case you were interested.

In the 1980s, MO changed into a project focused on self-reflection, rather than observing others, and the gallery a few floors above contained more written reports from participants, this time of their homes, and the history of their interest in photography.  Again, I took the time to read through most of the reports, and learned about wedding gifts in the 1950s, and the trials of living with a ferret, amongst other things. There was yet another gallery upstairs, which held a Mark Neville exhibition on the town of Corby, where 16 children were born with birth defects as a result of improper waste disposal by the local steel companies, which was interesting, but not really what I’d come for.

Now, I’ve read some scathing reviews of the MO exhibit, most notably in the Metro, where they described the photography as “terrible,” and stated that they couldn’t see the point of the exhibit.  I strongly disagree with that assessment, and I rather think they were missing the point of the whole thing.  Spender was a professional photographer, and as such produced some iconic photographs, and as for the rest of the collection, it was indeed an amateur effort, because it was done by amateurs!   To expect something else from MO is frankly ridiculous, and contrary to the spirit of the project.  Besides, I am a terrible photographer myself, and their photographs were certainly a big step above mine.  (I didn’t even bother photographing the galleries, because I didn’t see the point of producing blurry, crooked photographs of other photos). From a history perspective, this is truly an invaluable archive and if you’re interested in MO, or 20th century social history, I think the exhibit is well worth seeing.  I was inspired to join the modern incarnation of MO myself after visiting, but unfortunately they’re only taking young male volunteers at this time (seems a bit sexist, really, but what can you do?), so I suppose I must have found it inspiring.  4/5