Steampunk

Oamaru, New Zealand: Steampunk HQ

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What Oamaru is known for, insofar as it’s known for anything at all (I’d certainly never heard of it before planning this trip, but then, I’d never really researched tourist destinations in New Zealand before I knew I was going there), is its cute Victorian town centre, and its colony of little blue penguins (it’s on the coast, so they come ashore here to make their nests). The penguins don’t come out until evening, so we missed seeing them, but thanks to Steampunk HQ, “New Zealand’s Premiere [only?] Steampunk Attraction,” we did get to spend some time appreciating Victoriana (well, neo-Victoriana, anyway).

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In the past, I’ve admitted that I don’t quite “get” the whole steampunk subculture (I understand being fascinated by the Victorians, but the gears’n’goggles thing seems a bit unnecessary), but that doesn’t stop me from visiting steampunk museum exhibits and the like from time to time.  And Oamaruans are clearly very keen (in addition to this attraction, the town hosts a steampunk festival every year!), so I decided Steampunk HQ was definitely worth seeing.  It is an art installation type dealy right near the centre of town (it’s not that big of a town) that is hard to miss on account of the huge steampunky airship (I feel like steampunks would say airship rather than blimp) sticking out of the side of the building.  Admission is 10 NZD, which I guess is not too bad in the grand scheme of things.  I mean, I’d probably part with a fiver to see something this intriguing in the UK.

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When we got there, we were greeted by a couple of guys sitting outside at a picnic table, one of whom turned out to be one of the artists featured in the museum, and also the person working the admissions desk whenever a visitor showed up.  We parted with our money, were given a brief introduction to the interactive bits, and somewhat apprehensively entered a dark, industrial-looking room, to be met with a slightly sinister, delightfully bonkers mechanised world.  This strain of steampunks are clearly fans of the skulls-and-black-clothing aesthetic that I embraced in my youth (I guess that’s where the “punk” part comes in), as the HQ was full of monsters, skeletons, and weird Minotaur looking figures.  A female robotic voice welcomed us when we entered, and various things made noises as we made our way through the dimly-lit space (we were also the only people wandering through for most of our visit, which definitely enhanced the creepy atmosphere).

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The first interactive we encountered was the organ, pictured above, which played a variety of random sounds when you pressed the keys.  Sounds like that Close Encounters of the Third Kind noise they beamed into space, drumbeats, or random dialogue that I guess was supposed to blend together into a sort of song, but in practice you couldn’t really play chords because one noise stopped when you pressed down a second key.  It was still cool though.  There was also a mechanical elephant you could ride for $2, but it specifically said for under 10s only, so I didn’t risk my adult-sized ass on it, though I dearly wanted to.

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The back room of the installation/museum was similarly full of splendidly random and disquieting sculptures, including a ship used in some Russell Crowe film (I think) made by the Weta Workshop (Peter Jackson’s company; same guys who did the Gallipoli exhibit in the Te Papa post) and re-purposed to be more steampunk.

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The other main interactive thing, and in my opinion, the best part of the whole experience, was also back here: The Portal.  Upon pushing a big red button (because who doesn’t love to do that?!) and closing the door behind you, you were transported into a mirrored sound and light show that was really, really cool looking.  I enjoyed it so much I wanted to go back in, but more people showed up by the time we finished with the courtyard, so I didn’t get the chance.

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The courtyard was also pretty cool; it was full of random broken-down looking junk (including a big vat thing with a hole in the middle amusingly labelled as “toilet,” though by the looks of the floor, someone may well have used it for that purpose).  I wasn’t too sure if you were actually supposed to climb on the “art,” as everything looked rusty and unsafe, but my tetanus shots are up to date, so I took a chance, and didn’t injure myself on anything!  It was fun climbing up and into stuff; kind of like an semi-dangerous playground for adults.

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There was also a small gift shop attached to the front, selling postcards, pins, and black t-shirts and things, and a few more pieces of steampunk animal sculpture, along with a story about their creator, who sadly died from cancer when he was only 37 (and only 10 days after the birth of his daughter, it really was a sad story).  Although it didn’t take us more than half an hour to see the entire attraction, it was definitely a really unusual stop, and I don’t regret going (in fact, I think I would have actually regretted it if I missed it, if I had somehow seen how neat it was inside).  Plus it was a great way to break up the long drive from Christchurch to Dunedin.  4/5.

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London: Ships, Clocks, & Stars + Longitude Punk’d

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And so my treks around London continue (for once, I think I might actually see every special exhibit currently here that I wanted to see, plus some I didn’t!).  Lured by those Brazilian churros yet again, I made my way out to Greenwich last week for the first time in months, only to discover that the churro stand isn’t in Greenwich Market on Wednesdays anymore.  Thankfully, I was planning on visiting some museums out there anyway, so my voyage was not made in vain (though I was very hungry and cranky going churro-less).

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Although I often don’t really see the point of steampunk, I’d nonetheless wanted to see Longitude Punk’d at the Royal Observatory for a while, and as £8.50 currently gets you a combined ticket to the Observatory and the special exhibit at the National Maritime Museum, there was really no time like the present.  I began with Ships, Clocks, and Stars: The Quest for Longitude, housed in the downstairs galleries of the National Maritime Museum, as it seemed like it would probably be the less interesting of the two exhibits.  I wasn’t wrong about that.

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Basically, as ship technology improved and sailors were able to travel farther distances, the main thing holding back exploration and navigation was the problem of calculating longitude at sea (well, and scurvy, but they were working on that too).  Latitude was no problem, as you can just do some quick calculations based on the angle between the North Star and the horizon (I use “you” in a general sense here, as I certainly am not going to be calculating any damn angles.  I hate geometry), but to calculate longitude, you need an extremely accurate clock, which for reasons I probably got into when I was writing about the Clockmakers’ Museum, was a tricky thing to achieve at sea.  To this end, rewards of up to £20,000 were offered, until John Harrison came through with his crazily complex clock. Actually, I’m pretty sure I also said this in my post about the Clockmakers’ Museum, but I still don’t really want to get into the science or the technology here, because I don’t fully understand it, and it kind of bores me.  This is probably why I didn’t enjoy The Quest for Longitude very much, as 80% of the content was about the science behind longitude and the way the clocks were made, and I found my eyes glazing over as I was trying to read the captions (side note, I only just discovered, from the video inside the exhibit, that British people pronounce “longitude” with a hard “g.”  I don’t know how I lived here for six years without knowing that.  No wonder the guy at the admissions desk initially seemed confused when I tried to buy a ticket).

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However, I do seize on any points of interest where I can, so the exhibit wasn’t a total bust.  There was a small room devoted to the voyages of Captain Cook (and that dishy Joseph Banks), which I remain fascinated by, and even more enticingly, a lone case containing objects belonging to Captain Bligh, that notorious captain of the Bounty who was set adrift in a small boat with 18 of his men by the mutinous Fletcher Christian.  I think Bligh’s feat of navigation was just incredible (really must get around to reading that book about the Bounty that’s been sitting on my bookshelves), and I was enthralled by the artefacts here from that journey:  a bullet Bligh used to weigh out bread, a small cup (shot glass sized) for liquid rations, and a coconut bowl that he took his own meagre meals from.  If the whole exhibit had been on Cook, Bligh, and other explorers like them, I would have been thrilled (maybe that’s what they should have next?) but alas, the title did promise longitude, and that is mainly what was delivered.  One other item of note was an insulated suit worn by Nevil Maskelyne, Astronomer Royal, when he was taking calculations in the freezing Royal Observatory, of which more later.  Anyway, it seems like I mainly took issue with this exhibit for living up to its description, so it’s really my own fault that I didn’t enjoy it, knowing that I’m not that interested in technology and such.  So I’ll give it 3/5 with the caveat that if you’re like me and aren’t very mechanically minded, this probably isn’t the exhibit for you.

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Moving on…I next talked myself into taking that long, steep trudge up the hill to the Royal Observatory (if you’ve ever been there, you’ll know what I mean) to see the steampunk wonders of Longitude Punk’d.  It is sort of the partner exhibit to The Quest for Longitude – whereas the National Maritime Museum was all business, the Royal Observatory took on the fun side of navigation.  The premise behind the exhibit, as outlined in a cute little booklet at the entrance, was that a mysterious Georgian Commodore took on the task of solving the problem of longitude…with the help of trained Kiwi birds.  The exhibit was thus dedicated to the strange explorations of this imaginary Commodore, and the “alternative history” of many of the other figures of the time.  It was based inside Flamsteed House, and spread out throughout the building; initially with one piece in each room, and then a final gallery doused with cheeky steampunk madness (the pictures throughout this post are taken from Longitude Punk’d, as The Quest for Longitude didn’t allow photography).

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This included a range of fantastic clothing, like Captain Cook’s jacket with a map painted on so he would never get lost again, a constellation dress (shown before the previous paragraph, and absolutely gorgeous), the solar system dress shown above, and another example of a useful quilted suit that wasn’t too far off from the actual suit used by Maskelyne (I have to wonder if the designer saw the original). My favourite part was undeniably the gallery right at the end though (and this despite the presence of many loud obnoxious teenagers who didn’t know how to conduct themselves properly in a museum), which was a mix of steampunk creations and normal looking maritime art with hilarious cheeky captions.  For example:

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And (assuming you can read the caption through the shadows of the weird way I curl my fingers when taking a phone picture):

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And so on, as most of the captions in here literally gave me a good chuckle (which probably looked creepy, as I was there by myself, quietly laughing in the corner).  I guess it’s even funnier if you know the real history behind it, so I suppose it was useful in the end that I went to the National Maritime Museum first (and also that I just happened to be reading a book on maps at the time that discussed the conference that led to the Prime Meridian being set in Greenwich); I guess these museums know what they’re doing after all.

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I really really loved how clever and beautiful everything in this exhibit was; I think the creators must have a sense of humour similar to mine, and I really do recommend checking it out before it finishes in January.  Longitude Punk’d is only in one building of the Royal Observatory, and the combined ticket gives admission to the whole of it; weirdly, I’d never visited the non-free galleries of the Observatory before, so I had a good look around.  I liked that there was a camera obscura, though it was somewhat ruined by the constant parade of tourists who didn’t seem to understand how it worked and so kept failing to close the curtains properly, and the giant telescope was pretty cool, even though there were some guys repairing it whilst I was there. There were a few galleries with clocks and stuff, but it wasn’t ultimately that memorable or different from the stuff in the free galleries or the Clockmakers’ Museum I seem to keep mentioning in this post, so you’re really primarily paying for the steampunk stuff.

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(The picture above left is of the magic longitude tracking kiwi birds in diorama form, and is pretty adorable in person).  So I’m going to give Longitude Punk’d 4.5/5, even though I don’t think it’s worth £8.50 by itself (and therein lies the beauty of the combined ticket) because it really meshed with my personality and interests a lot better than The Quest for Longitude, but if you’ve got the ticket to both, you may as well see them both, right?  Just don’t make the mistake I did of visiting on a non-churro day, as even though I really enjoyed my steampunk adventure, I still regretted the lost opportunity to consume a fried-to-order pastry piped full of oozing dulce de leche.

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London: Crossness Pumping Station

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If you’ve done any kind of reading on Victorian Britain, especially on cholera, the Great Stink, or Bazalgette, you’ll have heard of the Crossness Pumping Station.  Officially opened in 1865 by Bertie, the (then) Prince of Wales, Crossness was one of two main pumping stations (the other being Abbey Mills) for the new London sewer system, and was rumoured to have a splendid interior with cast iron detailing.  Therefore, when I heard Crossness was having one of its rare opening days last weekend, you couldn’t have kept me away.

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By necessity, Crossness is located pretty far out in East London, near Bexley, I believe, and down a random road of an industrial area.  As you can see, even the exterior is impressive, and the whole complex was immense.  Admission was £5, and this is another one of those place where you must bring cash!  We never seem to have any for some reason, but the nice man at the admissions desk allowed us to pay after our visit via bank transfer, rather than having to drive all the way back into town to try to track down a cash machine, which was very much appreciated.  This is also a place where you must wear the obligatory hardhat (I seem to visit a lot of those lately) which is provided for you, and Crossness goes one further and requires flat shoes, probably because of all the gratings (does anyone really try to tramp around an industrial building in stilettos?  I suppose they must, or the rule wouldn’t exist.).

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There’s no getting around the fact that this place is basically Steampunk heaven.  Giant steam-powered, noisy machinery, gorgeous Victorian architecture, and volunteers dressed in period costume all contribute to make it so, yet most of the visitors were older people.  I don’t really get the whole Steampunk thing (why does the past have to involve time travel and random gears and goggles?  Can’t we just appreciate the past for what it was?) but the atmosphere in here was admittedly fantastic.  Crossness’s website refers to it as a “cathedral on the marsh,” and it don’t think they’re far off; it is like an amazing shrine to Victorian ingenuity.

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Before I go any further, I should perhaps explain how the pumping station worked, at least as far as I was able to understand it from the signage scattered around.  Essentially, all the sewage of London flowed out through the sewers as far as Crossness, where it was pumped up (hence the name) into a reservoir, and then held until the Thames was at high tide, when it would be released out to the sea.  Now, bear in mind that the waste wasn’t treated in any way, so tonnes of raw sewage were just being dumped in the sea, but better out than in, right?  At least the Thames wasn’t quite so stinky anymore.  Obviously, although they have the machinery up and running on open days, it’s not really doing anything, but it still looks cool.

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One of my favourite observations on Crossness is something I read once in regard to the opening luncheon with the future Edward VII.  There’s a picture of all the men in attendance in their top hats, as was the style at the time, and then another one of them all sitting down to lunch in the Engine House, sans hats.  The author very sensibly wondered what had happened to all the top hats in the interval, and as I can attest, there really isn’t a good storage place in there, especially if the station was operational.  Maybe they set up special tables somewhere?  I wish I could remember what book this was from; Inventing the Victorians is my best guess, but I read so many damn books about the Victorians, it’s hard to say, though if anyone else knows, please comment!  Anyway, this anecdote is an interlude to allow me to cram more pictures in this post, since this place was awesome looking, and I’ve had a real dearth of pictures on here lately.

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One of the things I’ve enjoyed about starting this blog (besides visiting the museums, obviously), is all the connections I’m starting to see between the various places I visit.  For example, the above tiles had a sign explaining that they were made in Jackfield, which was exciting to me since I was just at the Jackfield Tile Museum a few weeks ago.  I’ve always gone to a lot of museums, but since I’ve been blogging about them, I’ve been visiting at least two new places every week.  I know England isn’t that big, but seeing how all these little random places are somehow interconnected is fascinating to me. And, the above tiles look eerily similar to the tiles on my doorstep, so now I’m thinking those might be Jackfield tiles too.  My, such excitement!  It doesn’t take much, sadly enough.

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Getting back to the actual Crossness experience (after that lengthy detour), you are just left to wander around up and down various sets of stairs that lead down to basements and up to a massive loft area.  There are volunteers stationed throughout who seemed happy to answer questions, and there are enough signs to get a general idea of how the machinery worked. It’s not an actual museum, and only half of it is restored, so it’s more of a chance to gawp at some excellent Victorian machinery than anything (and this is coming from someone with no mechanical sense whatsoever, so it must be good).

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That said, there were still a few neat little displays which perfectly appealed to my love of scatalogical humour.  The above obese Bart Simpson style rag-on-a-stick was part of a larger sampling of material people used as toilet paper throughout history, including hemp (lovely and soft), and corncobs (unless you want piles, I’d avoid them).  There was also a small case of chamber pots, some background information on the Great Stink and the creation of the pumping station, and a collection of other steam powered objects, including a teapot waterfall.  It wasn’t a huge amount of stuff, but everything was nicely labelled.

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I think you can probably tell that I definitely enjoyed this trip to Crossness.  It was incredible to be able to see something that was so instrumental to the sanitation of Victorian London, and indeed, something I’d read so much about prior to visiting.  Their next open day is 23 June, and I recommend planning a visit if you haven’t already been.  Not to sound too cheesy and cliched, but it really was like getting to experience an authentic piece of history, in a way that visiting something like a living history museum just isn’t (even though I stand by my love for Blists Hill!).

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Random shot of the Thames Barrier which we stopped at since we were quite near it, but I can’t comment on the visitor’s centre as it was already shut. Still fits into the theme of the post though, I think.

4/5 for the Crossness Pumping Centre.  It’s not a museum, but it’s definitely a curious destination.