travel

Stockholm: The Swedish History Museum (Historiska Museet)

After dropping an absolute fortune on museums on the first full day of our trip (we saw ABBA the Museum, the Vasa Museum, and Skansen all on the same day), we decided to save some money on the next day by visiting some free museums (so we could spend that money on ice cream, Daim, and cinnamon buns instead, of course). So that’s why we opted to check out Historiska, the Swedish History Museum, which is free, over the Nordic Museum, which is not.

  

It was not located on what I call “Museum Island,” but was on the same island that we were staying on, which appears to be the centre of Stockholm. I think this helped cut down on the crowds, because compared to Skansen and the Vasa Museum, it was almost empty.  We started our visit in the famed “Gold Room” in the basement, which held lots of prehistoric and Viking gold. Unfortunately, I’m not really that interested in prehistory or the Vikings (though I did read Michael Pye’s The Edge of the World, about the history of the North Sea, prior to this trip, and it wasn’t that bad (despite his irritating habit of beginning sentences with “More,” when he meant “moreover” or “additionally,” either of which would have sounded less awkward)), so I could take or leave the gold (I mean, I’ll take gold if anyone’s offering, but I’m not so keen on looking at it).

  

That said, there was a temporary exhibit in here that I did enjoy, even though it took me a little while to understand what was going on. There was a video in one room that featured refugees telling their stories, except there was a big gold square over their faces. In another room, I found a display of precious objects that the refugees had managed to bring with them; for example, one Syrian woman had brought her high school diploma, because her dream was to get a Ph.D, but her education was interrupted by the war, so she hoped that by holding on to her diploma, she’d be able to attend university someday. So then I realised that the video and objects were tied together, and I guess the gold square was the way of tying them into the Gold Room, but it was an odd artistic choice, and I think unnecessary, when they simply could have said something like: “these objects are as precious to them as gold was to the Vikings.”

  

We then headed up to the main galleries, where the sensible thing to do would probably have been to start with prehistory, and work our way up to more modern times, but due to my aforementioned lack of keenness on prehistory, we headed straight upstairs instead to walk through a series of 11 “scenes” representing the 11th-21st centuries. This ended up being my favourite part of the museum; I knew I would like it when they promised a “sensory experience,” which always means there’ll be stuff to smell (maybe even authentic smells), and sure enough, there was a row of spice jars to sniff in the 18th century room.

   

But that wasn’t the only fun to be had in here! You followed a timeline in the floor marking key dates in Swedish history through all the sections, and along the way there were neat artefacts, games, stuff to touch, short videos, and even a quiz to find out whether you were a witch or not (I definitely am, which was not at all a surprise)!  And I learned a lot about Swedish history, which was nice, because I knew next to nothing before visiting.

  

After getting to the 21st century, the gallery led into an art installation about the eugenics movement in Sweden at the start of the 20th century, and all the racist ways other cultures had been represented at museums and universities around the city. This included a huge word map on one wall showing all the people who were propagating these horrible ideas, and the institutions they worked for (this wasn’t a public shaming so much as historical record though, since they’re all dead now), as well as mannequins taken from various old anthropological displays (the kind that still exist in some old museums).

  

There was also a gallery about the Battle of Gotland in 1361, which I had never even heard of before, but it was basically a massacre where Swedish farmers tried to defend themselves against the Danish army, and were slaughtered mercilessly (or so the Swedes say anyway, I’d be interested to know if the Danes see it differently). Their bodies ended up in mass graves, which were excavated in the 1920s, and now many of their remains reside in the museum, which is probably not what they would have wanted (well, they probably would have preferred to not be killed in the first place, so it’s probably a little late to worry about that), but damned if it’s not really cool. They even had videos showing how exactly some of the people were killed or fatally injured (using animation and no blood, so not as gruesome as it sounds) based on the marks in their bones, which I thought was fascinating!

  

Following that, there was a large exhibit containing religious artefacts taken from medieval churches, which I would normally be pretty meh about, but the Swedes didn’t disappoint here either. Some of the altarpieces were amazingly intricate, and my absolute favourite scene is the one on the left, above, which shows people calmly waiting to enter the dragon’s mouth that leads to Hell, with a couple demons acting as bouncers (Hell is apparently the hottest (literally) nightclub in town). There was also a fabulous head of John the Baptist, and a really comfy couch where you could curl up and listen to recordings of medieval organs being played, which were delightfully melancholy sounding.

  

There was a room at the end of this floor explaining how the curators choose the objects that go into the museum, and how they arrange them. I was very interested to see that they had a Buddha that I had just been reading about in that North Sea book in there!  It was also interesting learning about how modern curators feel limited by the 19th century cataloguing system that is still in place at Historiska, and are thus trying to digitise and recategorise all the items so they can tell different kinds of stories.

  

We then headed downstairs to the Viking gallery. I did enjoy the quiz before we entered where we found out which Norse god we were (I’m Odin, the quiz is here if you want to take it too!), but the gallery was more or less what I was expecting. It was undoubtedly well-done, but didn’t really win me over to the Vikings (maybe if there was a pooping Viking, like the one at Jorvik Viking Centre…). It was also really the only crowded part of the museum (they had a range of Viking clothes to try on, but there were way too many kids for me to even get near it), so I moved through here pretty quickly.

  

And straight into prehistory, because we were doing the museum backwards. This actually surprised me by being better than I thought…unlike the usual approach of just having case after case of primitive tools, rocks, bones, or what have you, they made the first section (well, second section if I had walked through correctly) into something inspired by an airport departure lounge (not the one in Stockholm, which was godawful, but a nice one). You went to different “gates” to learn about different topics, and they tied prehistoric civilisations to the modern world by grouping things by themes, such as families, homes, travel, etc, and showing how ancient peoples mirrored the world today.

  

The second part was somewhat more traditional, but had some cool facial reconstructions based on ancient skeletons, and little doors hidden near the bottom of each room that made animal sounds (they were definitely meant for children, but I still bent down and opened every one) that were meant to show what kind of animals prehistoric Swedes would have kept. Most of this section (unlike the rest of the museum) did not offer English translations, except for a brief object guide in each room, so we went pretty quickly through here too.

  

On the whole though, I really liked this museum. It felt very interactive and modern, which they managed to achieve without dumbing anything down or getting rid of actual artefacts (take note NAM!), and I learned a lot!  It also helped that it was one of the least crowded museums we visited, which is surprising, given that it was free and pretty large (but it wasn’t near any other tourist attractions, so a lot of people probably didn’t know about it). I think this was actually my favourite museum out of all the ones we visited in Stockholm (and not just because it was free, though that certainly didn’t hurt). 4.5/5.

 

Stockholm: Skansen

Built in 1891, Skansen is apparently not only the first open air museum in Sweden, it is “the world’s oldest open air museum” (I assume they mean the oldest one still in operation, because it was based on an earlier open air museum in Denmark). It is located on what I’m calling “Museum Island” and we initially weren’t sure if we wanted to visit it, having passed it on the search for a supermarket earlier in the day and seen the queues of people waiting to get in. But, when we returned at mid-afternoon, the crowds had mostly dispersed, so after a fortifying ice cream from one of the stands out front (with rainbow sprinkles, or “strossel” as they’re called in Swedish (which is fun to say)), we decided to take the plunge and check it out.

   

Admission was 180 SEK (nearly 17 pounds), which was another reason for our initial hesitation, but the park is huge. Too big, actually, at least for us at the end of a long day of museuming, because it is built on the side of a hill, and walking around got really tiring really fast. The sun had also decided to make an appearance, and it felt much stronger in Sweden than it is in England, so we had to stop and slather on sunscreen pretty sharpish after entering.

  

Anyway, Skansen was originally built because Artur Hazelius, Swedish folklorist and founder of the nearby Nordic Museum (which we sadly didn’t have time to visit), was concerned that the old way of life was dying out due to industrialisation, and he wanted to preserve some of the traditional trades and buildings while he could. This includes the snus industry, which has a small museum dedicated to it inside the park. In case you don’t know what snus is (are?), because I sure didn’t, it is a kind of moist tobacco that you stick under your upper lip (but is apparently different than dip), and was extremely popular in Sweden until relatively recently, despite the high rates of mouth cancer that occurred as a result. Even though I’m pretty sure the tobacco is flavoured (like something other than tobacco), it still sounds absolutely disgusting to me (and I used to smoke the occasional cigarette, so I’m not completely immune to tobacco’s lure).

   

The museum was not very big, but it had some interesting objects in it (and some excellent mannequins, as you may have noticed). I really liked the collection of “snus dog” boxes, and the surprisingly graphic “erotic” boxes (and I’m not exaggerating the graphicness…definitely don’t enlarge the picture below if you’re at work or something), which were kind of hidden in a case off to the side. I was also interested to learn that snus were a big industry in Chicago, due to the large Swedish population there, and there was even a mock-up of a snus shop in Chicago in the basement.

  

I didn’t notice any snus for sale in the actual museum shop though, which was probably a good thing, though they do still grow tobacco on the premises, and you can even take home a tobacco plant of your very own. All too soon for my liking though, we had to leave the pleasing darkness of the museum, and venture out into the rest of the park (especially bad because I thought I lost my sunglasses at the ABBA Museum, and there was nowhere to buy a new pair on Museum Island, so I had to wait until we got back to “Shopping Island” to get a cheap pair. And of course, about an hour after buying them, I found my old sunglasses buried in the bottom of my bag, so now I have two pairs. But my point is that the sun was really bright, and my eyes were killing me by the end of the day because I thought I didn’t have sunglasses).

  

Fortunately, there was an escalator to take us up into the part of Skansen where all the historic buildings were, so we didn’t actually have to hike up the steepest part of the hill ourselves. I spotted a bakery almost immediately, and I am not one to resist cinnamon buns, old timey or otherwise, so I ended up buying one and also a sugar-coated roll shaped like a pretzel (yeah, I know I had just eaten an ice cream, but we skipped breakfast that day so I was hungry (and hangry)!). Not as good as the oat crunchies at Blists Hill, but still pretty alright. (They had more food stalls in the middle of the park, but they were mainly selling carnival type food, like popcorn, cotton candy, and the ubiquitous Scandinavian hot dogs (ick) and nothing of any real nutritional value (not that cinnamon buns are nutritious, but they are fairly filling).)

  

Unfortunately, the rest of the historical village was just weird, quite frankly. In all my experience of living history museums (which includes the awful summer I did an internship at one), the whole point seems to be, you know, “living” history, in that there are actual people there in costumes to show you how candle dippin’ and wool spinnin’ and things were done. Aside from the bakery, the church, and one of the farm buildings, almost none of the buildings were open, so not only could you not see the interiors, you weren’t “living” anything, because there was no one there to tell you about anything.

  

We seriously wandered around for about an hour, with me pointing out buildings that looked cool, only to find that every single door was padlocked when we got close to them. If the buildings aren’t open at the height of tourist season, then when exactly are they open?

  

Happily, there were a few animal enclosures, because although I’m not crazy about the idea of wild animals being kept in zoos, I do admittedly like looking at them, and they were the high point of the whole experience. We saw lynx, bears, eagle owls, and moose (and looked for the buffalo in vain, but they were being penned up somewhere whilst their enclosure was being cleaned), but my favourites were definitely the reindeer, because there were so many of them, and the babies were pretty damn cute (not so much the adults, who appeared to be molting).

  

After seeing the animals, I was ready to leave, but we still had to wander through more of the park just to get out, and yep, those buildings were all closed too!  We did miss a few sections, because I was so tired of walking around that I couldn’t be bothered anymore, but I highly doubt they were any more interesting than the stuff we did see. From the sheer size of it (and had we gone first thing in the morning, when we had more energy) and all the neat looking buildings there, Skansen had the potential to be really cool, but due to virtually everything being shut, it was actually incredibly boring. I like historical buildings as much as (actually, probably more than) the next person, but most of the fun is in getting to go inside and see how people actually lived in them, instead of just staring at a bunch of exteriors. I enjoyed seeing the reindeer (and eating a cinnamon bun), and the snus museum was OK, but everything else was pretty lame (and their bathrooms were super gross, as you can probably tell from my face. Actually, that face sums up my feelings on Skansen generally), and 17 quid is a lot to spend to essentially just look at a few animals (they did have a few activities available, like carriage rides and a funicular, but you had to pay extra for those, and we’d already wasted enough money). 2/5.

  

 

Stockholm: The Vasa Museum (Vasa Museet)

Stockholm is spread out over something like 17 islands, each with their own distinct character, so, as I hinted at in my last post, I started giving them names to reflect that (different than the Swedish names they already have, because apparently I’m like some kind of jerk Victorian explorer or something). The island that ABBA the Museum shares with Skansen, the Nordic Museum, the Biological Museum, et al, naturally became “Museum Island” (though there are other islands with museums on them, it’s not the same concentration as here). Sadly, because “Museum Island” contains so many popular tourist attractions, it is extremely busy, meaning that our experience at what is arguably Stockholm’s most famous museum was never going to be an entirely pleasant one.

 

The Vasa Museum is built around a ship, the Vasa, which sunk in 1628 only 1300 metres off the coast of Stockholm on what was meant to be its maiden voyage (probably due to being top-heavy). After laying underwater for over three centuries, it was finally raised from the sea in 1961, preserved, which took decades, and eventually became the centrepiece of this museum, which opened in 1990. If you read my post on the Mary Rose a few years ago, this is probably all sounding awfully familiar, and indeed the museums are very similar, which is why I can’t help but compare them throughout.

  

There were long queues just to buy a ticket at the Vasa Museum, but by using the ticket machines, we were able to bypass them. Admission is 130 SEK, or about 12 pounds, which is cheaper than the Historic Dockyard in Portsmouth where the Mary Rose is kept, but you get to see other ships and museums at the Historic Dockyard too (including Nelson’s Victory), so you probably get more for your money there. Anyway, the Vasa Museum is basically just one huge room with the Vasa itself as the centrepiece, with various levels where you can get a view of the ship from different angles and heights and look at some exhibits.

  

The Vasa is in a much better state of preservation than the Mary Rose (the Vasa is about 100 years younger), though this has the unfortunate side effect of meaning you can’t really see inside the ship, other than what you can spy through the gun ports on the lower levels. It’s so fabulous on the outside that I wish I could have seen the inside too, and although they have re-created the officers’ quarters and one of the gun decks upstairs, it’s not as good as getting to see the whole of the interior.

  

As far as the exhibits themselves went, I think they would have been decent enough (but not great) had the museum been less crowded. The main floor contained a splendid collection of figureheads that I think were meant to be replicas of ones on the ship, though I couldn’t actually get close enough through the hordes to see for sure (everything was in Swedish and English, so that wasn’t an issue).

  

There was also a small set of tableaux off to one side re-creating scenes in the history of the ship, which were exactly the kind of thing I love, or would have loved, if again, there weren’t so many damn people that I couldn’t even wriggle in and get a picture with that gawping woman (I think she was watching the ship sink) without someone blocking me.

  

I was actually kind of fascinated by the section about how the ship was re-discovered and salvaged, simply because I hadn’t realised that people still used those kind of creepy old-school diving suits in the 1960s (though I guess I should have known, because there’s that scary claw suit guy in For Your Eyes Only, and that was in the ’80s. Apparently they’re still used for some things, but made of more modern materials). I also didn’t know that diving bells had been invented by the mid-17th century, when they were used to bring Vasa‘s cannons up to the surface.

  

One of the upper levels contained some objects that had been found on the ship, though there didn’t appear to be quite as many as were on the Mary Rose, or at least, they weren’t discussed in as much detail.  I remember the Mary Rose Museum had a lot of quotidian objects, and they talked about the sort of people they would have belonged to, which was really interesting, but the Vasa Museum seemed to have mostly weapons and stuff, and not as many personal items.  However, the Mary Rose had been in service for 34 years before sinking, whereas the Vasa didn’t even really make it out of port, so there probably wasn’t as much stuff accumulated on board.

  

Another one of the levels was about what was happening in Sweden at the time of the Vasa, and included some most excellent portraits. One of them showed a Polish nobleman from that time, and explained that one of the carvings on the ship was of a Polish man being crushed under the boot of a Swede, and that they could tell he was meant to be Polish on account of his distinctive mustache and eyebrows (I’ve got a fair bit of Polish ancestry, and though I don’t have the mustache (yet, anyway), I do pretty much have the unibrow if I stop plucking, so maybe they weren’t just being racist?). I learned that Sweden and Poland were at war a lot in the 17th century (my knowledge of most continental European history is abysmal (I know a bit about Western Europe, but almost nothing about Eastern Europe or Scandinavia)), and the Poles were even blamed for the sinking of the Vasa.

  

I have to admit that one of the highlights of the museum for me was a video that was definitely intended for children, about a piglet called Lindbom, apparently based on a children’s book. Lindbom ends up on board the Vasa, where he is about to be eaten, but manages to escape in the end, aided by the ship sinking. I literally stood there for ten minutes watching this video, just to make sure Piglet Lindbom was OK (he was very cute).

  

The other highlight was the osteoarchaeology section, which included the bones of some of the people who died aboard the ship, along with explanations of who they might have been and what conditions they were suffering from, and facial reconstructions of some of them. I took an online course in osteoarchaeology last year, and while I am definitely no expert (osteoarchaeology is hard!), it was nice to review some of what I’d learned. Plus skeletons are just cool, and facial reconstructions always crack me up.

  

Other than the people they’d done reconstructions for (ten people, including one woman and one person of indeterminate sex who may have been a woman), I felt like there wasn’t that much information about the people who might have been on board the ship, which is a shame, because that was what I loved most about the Mary Rose Museum, though maybe this was partly because only 30 people died aboard the Vasa, whereas almost everyone on the Mary Rose died, so there wasn’t as much osteoarchaeological evidence available for the Vasa.

  

Also, while there was definitely a pretty good explanation of the techniques they used to conserve the wood on the ship, Marcus mentioned that he thought they didn’t really seem to say how the ship was actually repaired, because it can’t have been as intact as it is now when they found it. For example, they mentioned that all the bolts in the ship had to be replaced, but didn’t say how they actually did it, just what the new bolts were made from.  They did attempt to explain how the ship was originally built, back in the 17th century, but even that wasn’t very clear to me, since they seemed to skip some steps.

  

So we both thought that the content was somewhat lacking (while there were some explanations provided, we both wanted more), and the crowds really did have a detrimental effect on our experience, as many of the people were particularly annoying about not moving out of the way (one guy was standing there for five minutes taking pictures of the same small section of the ship, even though we were clearly standing there waiting to get closer). I feel like the Mary Rose Museum went into a lot more detail about both the people on board the ship, and the ship itself, while the Vasa Museum only skimmed the surface of its fascinating story (though part of the problem (in addition to the factors already mentioned) could be that I know WAY more about British history, so maybe they had the same amount of historical background, I just needed a lot more about Sweden because I don’t know much about it). But the ship is absolutely fantastic, no doubt about that, it’s just that the museum doesn’t quite match the Vasa‘s glory. 3/5.

 

Stockholm, Sweden: ABBA The Museum

After spending most of an unusually hot summer working in an even hotter brewery (on days when we had the mash kettle heating and the pasteurisation tanks on, it got up to nearly 100 degrees Fahrenheit in there (37 Celsius)), boy, was I ready for a holiday (actually, I quit my awful job so now every day’s a holiday until I find something new, which hopefully won’t take as long as it took to find that job)!  And preferably, a holiday somewhere relatively cool, because I really do not cope well with heat, which pretty much left out everything south of Scandinavia and the Baltic states. I initially quite liked the idea of Estonia and Finland, but we couldn’t find any flight deals, so Stockholm it was!  Which actually worked out perfectly, because the weather was pleasingly cool (in the shade, almost too cold without a jacket), and it meant I got to visit one of my dream destinations: ABBA The Museum!

  

You might think I’m being sarcastic, because maybe I don’t really seem like the sort of person who would love ABBA, but I genuinely do (I’m also way more into Eurovision than I should be, which is probably also ABBA’s fault). And though I knew that ABBA The Museum would be super overpriced (I mean, c’mon, you can tell from the name alone), I didn’t even care. If I was going to Stockholm, nothing was going to stop me from seeing it.

  

Based on the crowds I’d seen the night before when we walked around the Old Town, I knew July was prime tourist season, and I wanted to ensure that other tourists didn’t ruin my ABBA experience, so we got there right after it opened, even though we had to skip the free breakfast at the hotel to do so (and they had Swedish pancakes on that buffet, so it was a sacrifice, though I made up for it by eating obnoxious amounts of them the next two mornings). This was a smart move, because there were only a handful of visitors in the museum, and we didn’t have to wait for any of the activities, but by the time we left, there was already a queue to get in (it’s located on the same island as a bunch of other museums, so it attracts loads of visitors). And boy, was it ever expensive!  250 SEK, which is about 22 quid. A LOT more than I’d normally drop on a museum, but when in Stockholm…

  

Since the entire museum was in Swedish and English, we did not rent audio guides, but simply headed into the museum, which began on the floor below the admissions hall with an exhibition about Eurovision, including an array of famous costumes worn at the competition from Sweden and beyond (most notably the hideous tutu/blazer combo Celine Dion wore when she won it for Switzerland in 1988). There was also a Eurovision quiz, a chance to sing along with some Eurovision hits in front of everyone (which I was way too embarrassed to do), and some screens where you could watch videos of seemingly all the Eurovision grand final competitors, maybe since the competition started(?). I was too eager to get to the actual ABBA bit to find out how far back their Eurovision archives went, but I did stay to watch one of my favourite Eurovision contestants in recent memory – Sunstroke Project and their infamous thrusting saxophonist, representing Moldova. They originally competed in 2010 (video here), and though they didn’t come close to winning, they were such a fan favourite that they came back again this year, much to my delight!

  

After getting my fill of terrible Moldovan music, I ran down another flight of stairs into the museum proper, and it was pretty much an instant ABBA assault (as I was hoping). It opened with a giant semi-circular movie screen showing clips of all ABBA’s hits, and there were TV screens in pretty much every room blasting out more ABBA. The first gallery was really the only traditional museum room with lots of text. There was a biography for each member of ABBA before they all got together, as well as a few key ABBA artefacts, like the guitar Bjorn used when they won Eurovision in 1974 (which is what really put ABBA on the map).

  

The next room, in addition to containing a ’70s style crime against wallpaper, held the infamous ABBA phone. Supposedly, only the members of ABBA have the number, so if it ever rings and you pick it up, you will be talking to either Agnetha, Bjorn, Benny, or Frida, but somehow I highly doubt that it has ever actually rung. And if it had when I was there, I imagine it would have been a very awkward conversation, because what the hell am I going to say to ABBA anyway?

  

It was the next section where things really started to get fun. In addition to ABBA’s recording studio (either a replica, or they dismantled the whole damn thing and reassembled it, I didn’t really pay attention), it had three main interactive stations. The clever thing about this museum is that you had to keep hold of your ticket the whole time, and scan it for access to the activities, meaning everyone only got one try at everything and they couldn’t stand there hogging things all day!  Also, everything you did was recorded and loaded onto your own personal private page on the museum website, accessed by entering in your ticket number, which made for cringe-worthy viewing after we left. The first activity was simply to mix one of ABBA’s songs, and try to make it sound as good as the actual version, which was not easy.

  

Then, there were karaoke booths where you could sing along with ABBA songs to see if you had the chops to become the fifth member of ABBA (though not really, because they’re broken up). Fortunately, these were fairly private booths with a curtain that closed behind you, so I felt free to belt it out. As much as I would love to be the fifth member of ABBA (we would be called JABBA, obviously), my singing voice is terrible and I know it, so I don’t see it happening. I made up for my disappointment by going on to the next activity, which scanned my face and then “dressed” me in some of ABBA’s most famous outfits. I don’t think I can pull off Agnetha’s number, but I genuinely quite like Frida’s dress and hair on me (on the right, above). Maybe it’s time for a new hairstyle?

  

After walking past a hall of more ABBA-artefacts, we entered a rather confusing room which was dark and contained a stage. I think we were supposed to get up on the stage and dance around with ABBA holograms or something, but there was a women who worked there who was standing in the corner, ignoring us and staring at her phone, and since I didn’t really know what to do, and didn’t particularly want her watching me while I did whatever it was, we skipped it and moved on to the next section.

   

Which somewhat made up for missing the holograms (or whatever), because we got to be in an ABBA music video (we picked “Chiquitita” solely because of the creepy snowman in the background). And let me tell you, watching the video of us halfheartedly dancing around is way more cringing than listening to the karaoke, even (see above for evidence of my dancing ability, or lack thereof). Still fun though.

  

There was also an ABBA quiz, wax figures of ABBA, and some creepy ABBA puppets that came from some music video I’ve never seen before. The ABBA part of the museum concluded with a gallery of the actual costumes they wore on stage, and though many of them were remarkably ugly, I did dig the fox dress and of course the cat outfits, which were for sale in t-shirt version in the gift shop; and finally, there was a brief acknowledgement that the group had indeed broken up (and gotten divorced) long ago, though this clearly wasn’t something the museum was trying to dwell on (I guess ABBA lives forever in here).

  

The museum also contained a temporary exhibition about the musical artists that have performed at Grona Lund over the years (an amusement park that is literally next door to the museum), but as I have never been to Grona Lund (it was expensive just to get in, and then you had to pay for rides on top of it), I wasn’t terribly interested. I should also note that the museum contained the only clean public toilets that I encountered in Sweden, possibly because I was one of the first people to use them that day, but still, take advantage if you need to, because the other options on Museum Island are grim.

  

The gift shop felt more like a merch table at a concert than a museum gift shop, with prices to match, but they did have some excellent ABBA shirts, and I splurged and bought myself one of the aforementioned cat shirts (Frida’s version, simply because the yellow cat was derpier than the blue one, and thus obviously superior). So counting the shirt, I ended up spending about 50 quid here (not counting Marcus’s ticket), which is definitely a lot of money, but relative to what we paid to see some of the other museums in Stockholm, I can’t really complain too much (and at least I left with a wearable souvenir!). It might be light on content, but the interactive elements genuinely were a blast (except for the one I skipped on account of the unhelpful employee), and if you’re an ABBA fan, I think this is a must!  Non-fans can of course skip it, because you probably won’t get much out of it, though even Marcus admitted that he had fun here, just maybe not 22 quid’s worth of fun. I’m so happy I finally got to go though, and it did very much live up to expectations (including the overpriced part, but at least I was expecting it, so I wasn’t that bothered). 4/5.

 

London: Death in the Ice @ the National Maritime Museum

Yeah, that’s my butt.  Just so you don’t think I’ve gone full-on Tina Belcher and am posting pictures of strangers’ butts.

Unless you’re brand new to my blog (in which case, welcome!), I’m sure you all know by now how interested I am in the grim history of polar exploration. John Franklin’s final expedition was perhaps the grimmest of them all (not only did everyone die, but there is also evidence that the last people left alive ate the bodies of their dead fellow crew members), so when I heard last year that there would be a Franklin exhibition at the National Maritime Museum in summer 2017, I was pretty excited. And now here we are, less than a fortnight after the exhibition opened, and I’ve already been to see it!

“Death in the Ice: The Shocking Story of Franklin’s Final Expedition” costs £12, and is located in the basement gallery of the National Maritime Museum. As usual, I balked at paying that much, so I went with Marcus so we could take advantage of the National Rail 2-for-1. There was initially a bit of confusion going into the exhibit because there was a sign at the top of the stairs saying that no “rucksacks” were allowed in the exhibition, so Marcus went to drop his off at the cloakroom, only to find there was a £1 charge (which I know is not that much, but still). The guy working there said that he could in fact take it into the exhibition, he just might have to carry it in front of him, which was fine. So we went down, only for the woman at the entrance to tell him to put his backpack in what she claimed was the “free cloakroom.” Fortunately, after we asked if he could just carry it instead, she did allow him to bring it in, which saved us a trip up the stairs (and a pound), but it did show that there is a lack of communication amongst the staff about official museum policies. One thing there is no confusion about, however, is their policy on photography in their special exhibit gallery. It’s never allowed, and this exhibit was no exception.

The exhibit space was dark and atmospheric, which I quite liked, but it clearly wasn’t a hit with everyone, because I immediately noticed a woman there who was standing right on top of all the labels, and using the flashlight on her phone to read them, despite the large print guides that were available (I did hear a security guard offer her one, but she apparently preferred her method, other visitors be damned). The first two galleries provided a bit of background on the history of British polar exploration generally, starting with Martin Frobisher, and some background on Franklin’s expedition specifically.  However, it paled in comparison to the excellent and comprehensive history available at the Polar Museum in Cambridge, and I think that if you didn’t know much about Franklin going in, it was probably a little lacking. Because I don’t want to repeat the museum’s mistakes, let me give you a little background on Franklin and his expedition here:

John Franklin was a Royal Navy officer with extensive experience of surveying the Arctic. However, though he had mapped much of the Canadian coast, he still hadn’t uncovered the fabled Northwest Passage (a common belief for centuries was that there was open water at the North Pole, and if you could just find an entrance to it, you could cut journey times to the other side of the world in half), so agreed to undertake one final voyage in 1845 to try to find it. He took two ships, the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, crewed by 105 men and 23 officers, including Francis Crozier, who captained the Terror. Both ships had been used on a previous Arctic expedition, but to keep up with the latest technology, were now outfitted with steam engines and propellers in addition to reinforced bows and iron rudders (which added a lot of extra weight). Unfortunately, the work had been done in a hurry, and wasn’t of the best quality. In addition, Franklin, though experienced, was quite old to be undertaking this kind of voyage (59 in 1845, which I know is not that old by modern standards (just look at Ranulph Fiennes!), but Franklin wasn’t exactly fighting fit), and like most Europeans, was disdainful of Inuit ways, which might have helped the men survive after they abandoned ship. No one is entirely sure exactly what happened on the voyage, which is what makes Franklin’s expedition so intriguing even to this day, but it is certain that they all died, some while they were still on the ships, and many more in camps on land as they tried in vain to reach civilisation, and some recent discoveries (as discussed later in the post), might eventually help shed more light on it.  Now, back to the exhibition!

The third, and largest gallery was meant to be roughly the dimensions of the lower deck of the Erebus, Franklin’s flagship (I’m guessing they specifically arranged it that way, but perhaps it was just a happy coincidence), and this gallery had sort of sailory audio effects, with the sounds of men mumbling and coughing, and boards creaking all around us. I liked that this helped me imagine a bit what it would have been like inside the ship, and to further the effect, they had seats in there the size of a ship’s chest, which would have been shared by two men, in which they would have kept all their personal belongings (they weren’t very big). The downside of Franklin’s expedition being a complete and utter disaster (besides everyone dying, of course), is that aside from some letters mailed from Greenland, before Erebus and Terror set out for Nunavut, and a note found inside a cache (more on that later), there is virtually no information about what happened on board the ships – no diaries, logs, or unmailed letters have survived, so the museum didn’t really have a lot to say about ship life, other than using Franklin’s previous Arctic voyages, and other voyages around that time to infer what might have happened. Thus there was a display of games (used to keep up morale), accounts of the plays men often performed in on these kinds of voyages (again, morale), and a cat o’nine tails in a display about discipline, and not a whole lot else.

Anyway, because there wasn’t much to be said about the expedition itself, the exhibition quickly moved on to the search efforts. The expedition had been supplied for three years, so nobody thought too much of it when a couple years went by without hearing word from Franklin. Typically, ships would get frozen into the pack ice, and were then trapped until the summer thaw, which didn’t happen some years, so they’d have to spend another year trapped in the ice (more than one other expedition met disaster that way, though not to the extent that Franklin’s did). But when 1848 rolled around and nobody had heard anything, people, especially Jane, Franklin’s wife, began to get concerned, and the Royal Navy sent out some search parties, in addition to offering a £10,000 reward to anyone who discovered the fate of the ships (which was a lot of money back then. Hell, it’s still a decent chunk of cash now!). My favourite of these search parties was led by Dr. John Rae, a Scottish surgeon who befriended many of the Inuit and was a successful explorer because he used their survival techniques and lived off the land. Rae was the one who got closest to the truth, again, because he listened to the Inuit, which is why many people in Britain hated him, not least Jane Franklin, and when he dared to say that there was evidence that the men had resorted to cannibalism, his reputation was ruined.  (There was a letter here from Charles Dickens to a newspaper saying that he thought the stories of cannibalism were just the Inuit trying to cover their tracks, because they probably murdered and ate the men themselves, because you can’t trust an Inuit (his words). It made me hate him even more than I already did.)

Sadly, John Rae only rated about a paragraph in this exhibit, though a little more space was given to some of the other search parties, and some of the artefacts they’d left behind in the Arctic (including a metal food box with polar bear tooth marks in it!). But the main artefacts I was there to see were from the Erebus and Terror themselves. Yes, after over 160 years, the ships were discovered at the bottom of a bay off the coast of King William Island. The Erebus was found in 2014, and the Terror even more recently, in September 2016, hence the timing of the exhibition. There was a video of scuba divers exploring the wrecks, which was pretty cool, and some neat stuff that they’d dredged up from the deep, including the ship’s bell, various metal bits and pieces, and even a bit of cloth from a uniform. There were also artefacts found in the camp of the last men to die (it’s thought about 30 or 40 men made it to the northern coast of mainland Canada. Inuit actually encountered some of them, but they didn’t help them because the Inuit themselves were starving that year, and had no food to spare), and these were really neat, including a hymnbook, a small beaded purse, a pair of mittens with hearts stitched into the palms, and a few pieces of silverware with one of the officers’ family crests on them which had initials crudely scratched into them, so it’s thought that the crew might have shared out the officers’ possessions after they died and discipline broke down.

Speaking of artefacts, there was also the aforementioned letter left by some of the officers in a cache, initially in 1846 when the voyage was still going relatively well, saying that they’d wintered on Beechey Island, where three crew members had died, and then again in 1848 after the boats sank and Franklin had died (he died in June 1847, probably well before most of his men. As I’ve said, he was not in the best of shape, so the voyage would have been quite taxing even without starvation and frostbite and everything else) along with 9 officers and 15 men.  I saw a facsimile of this at the Polar Museum, and was excited to see the real thing, but unfortunately, the real thing was all ripped and stained, and harder to read than the facsimile!  The same could be said of Jane Franklin’s letters to her husband, sent when she thought he was still alive (obviously, he never got them, and they were returned to her), not because the condition was poor, but because she had absolutely appalling handwriting.

My absolute favourite part of this exhibition was the medical section. In one room, they had very clear photographs of the bodies of three men (William Braine, John Hartnell, and John Torrington) who had been buried at the first camp on Beechey Island and exhumed in the 1980s. They were still remarkably well preserved on account of the cold, and it might have been a little grisly for some, but I loved reading accounts of their injuries and what diseases they might have been suffering from whilst getting to look at their actual remains (and I wasn’t the only one…there was a child in there asking his mother which corpse was her favourite. I don’t much like kids, but this was a child after my own heart!). There was also a display on what might have killed the men of the Terror and Erebus, because starvation alone apparently doesn’t explain all the deaths, especially because a cache of food was found near some of the bodies. Theories range from botulism, scurvy, tuberculosis, hypothermia, lead poisoning (the food for the expedition was prepared in a hurry, and some lead solder contaminated it during the canning process, plus the ship had a water distillation system that also leached lead), and others, but none of those conditions provides a complete explanation (it was probably a variety of causes of death that did them all in), and the exhibit explained why, as well as offering a helpful interactive screen showing a breakdown of exactly how men did die on other naval expeditions of that period. The interactives in this exhibit were generally quite good, with a few that played short videos of Inuit oral testimony that explained what they witnessed happening to Franklin’s men and ships (recorded by modern Inuit people, from oral traditions that had been passed down), maps of the probable expedition route, and a 3D virtual model of the wreck of the Erebus that you could “explore.” Because it wasn’t too crowded when we visited, I actually got a good look at all of them, though of course the disease one was my favourite.

Although it was exciting getting to see some of the artefacts from Franklin’s final expedition, something about this exhibit just felt rushed to me…perhaps they wanted to get it out quickly in order to capitalise on interest about the discovery of the Terror? They mentioned how much time it takes to preserve artefacts that have been left underwater, and it seems to me like they hurried to get some out in time for the exhibition, when it might have been better if they’d held off for a year or two til there was more to look at, and maybe some conclusions could have been drawn from the ruins to tell us more about what went wrong. I also felt the content was a little lacking…I read Anthony Brandt’s The Man Who Ate His Boots (mainly about Franklin) a while back, and while the book wasn’t perfect, it was quite interesting because it pieced together what might have happened on the voyage from accounts given by Rae, other search parties, the Inuit, and modern historians. This exhibition really didn’t do that, perhaps because they didn’t want to use speculation rather than fact, but trying to tell more of a story about Franklin’s voyage would have made it a more cohesive exhibition, rather than it skipping abruptly from the interiors of the ships to search parties. It was interesting enough, it just didn’t give the complete picture (unlike their Emma Hamilton exhibition, which was excellently comprehensive). I’m glad we only paid £6, as it didn’t take that long to see it, and I don’t think it was worth £12. It runs until the 7th of January 2018, so you’ve got plenty of time to go visit, which I would do if you’re as keen on polar exploration as I am; otherwise, I think you can safely give this a miss and wait for their next special exhibition instead. 3/5.

Hove, East Sussex: Hove Museum and Art Gallery

I’ve been to Brighton quite a few times over the years, and except for the Old Police Cells Museum, which I’m never around at the right time of day to visit (it’s by pre-booked guided tour only, and the only tour time is 10:30 in the morning), I feel I’ve pretty well exhausted its limited museum options at this point.  So on this trip to the coast (which turned out to be much colder than London, so not a good seaside day after all), I turned to its smaller neighbouring town of Hove, and the Hove Museum and Art Gallery, which was rumoured to have a nice collection of magic lantern slides.

  

The Hove Museum falls under the authority of Brighton Museums, which makes sense, because it is very similar in feel to the larger Brighton Museum.  Fortunately, admission to the Hove Museum is free to all, and not just residents of Brighton and Hove, like the Brighton Museum is. At the time of my visit, there was a special exhibit about puppets on the ground floor, so that’s where I began.

  

I’d be the first to admit that a lot of puppets are kind of menacing, but most of these ones were actually quite charming. I particularly liked the ones of Miss Fox and Miss Cat (above previous paragraph), and of Bluebeard, Bluebeard’s wife, and the ghost of one of his previous wives (not pictured, because I don’t have a photo for some reason). There was a woman in there at the same time as me who was apparently one of the creators of a Rikki-Tikki-Tavi puppet theatre, and she was explaining how she made it to some other woman, but I was too distracted by her pronunciation of “Tavi” to pay attention. I’ve always said “taa-vee,” but this woman kept saying “tah-vee.” I guess it’s one of those British/American English divides…I just asked Marcus how to phonetically spell the “aaa” noise I make in “Tavi” and “apple” and he couldn’t do it because it’s not even a noise English people make. Just picture a sort of annoying nasally “a” noise.

  

The bulk of the museum was located on the first floor, and as I was keen to see the magic lantern stuff (Professor Heard from that Brompton Cemetery event last year fired up my enthusiasm for the medium), I headed to the film gallery first. This turned out to be two small rooms, plus a neat little cinema (I loved the wall decor) where you could watch short films starring puppets (dunno if this was connected to the puppet exhibit, or if they show them all the time).

  

The slides turned out to be all mounted together in a large panel that you could press a switch to illuminate. I think my favourites are the dog and cat in the fourth row from the bottom (they’re a little hard to see, but they’re dressed in people clothes, and the cat is reading a book), but there were enough entertaining slides that I stood there studying them for a good long while (longer than the light stayed on for anyway, I had to press it again). There were also a few thaumatrope and flipbook type things to play with, and some early silent films of the Brighton area to enjoy.

  

Next was a small room devoted to the history of Hove, which segued into an equally pint-sized art gallery. I didn’t spend too much time in the local history section, which was a bit wordy, even for me (plus I’m just not that interested in the history of Hove), but it seems like Hove was built up during the Regency period, same as Brighton. Also, Edward VII apparently liked to hang out in Hove when he was still the Prince of Wales. The art gallery had a few paintings in it that I quite liked (which is impressive, given that there were only about ten paintings in there), including a whole wall with a giant monkey painting.

  

The “Wizard’s Attic,” which was presumably aimed at children (though they’d have to be fairly brave children, as you’ll see once you get a look at some of the toys there), was without question my favourite gallery in the museum. The premise was that a wizard (pictured above) lived there (you had to be quiet so as not to wake him up), and he liked to collect and repair old toys. So the room was chock-full of Pollock’s Toy Museum style cases of antique toys of varying degrees of disturbing. I have to admit that I quite liked those George V, Queen Mary, and young Edward VIII (in his pre-Nazi sympathiser days) dolls, even if they were a bit creepy.

  

But their creepiness was nothing compared to those clown dolls pictured above. I’m positive if you let them into your house, they would kill everyone you cared about in the night, and wait until you woke up and saw what they had done before they killed you too. It’s a good thing the sensible Wizard has them contained behind glass. Tricycle boy there is a bit unsettling too…to be honest, there were a lot of shit-scary toys here. I’m not sure how much children would actually like this terrifying collection, but I loved it. It was like being in an episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark? or something (god, I used to love that show, but I had no idea it ran until 2000!  I must have stopped watching at some point in the mid-’90s).

  

The final gallery was devoted to different crafts and how they were produced – I’m not terribly interested in crafts, but a few objects did catch my eye, like the figure of Lucretia stabbing herself, above, a pumpkin teapot (which you may be able to spot in the photo on the above left), and some cute little monster dolls (below left).

 

I ended up spending less than an hour at this museum, which is fine because it was free, but it definitely felt like Brighton Museum’s less impressive little sister (which is kind of funny, because apparently Hove likes to think of itself as being posher than Brighton). It matched Brighton Museum’s eclecticism, just on a reduced scale (there was even a pavilion-y structure outside the museum that I think was some sort of war memorial). I really enjoyed the magic lantern slides, and the toy gallery, but the rest was a little hit-and-miss. I think it’s worth a visit if, like me, you’ve been to the area a lot and want something new to see, but if you’re only in this part of Sussex for a day or two, I’d just stay in Brighton and see the Royal Pavilion and Brighton Museum instead (and eat some ice cream! Scoop and Crumb or Boho Gelato are both good options), or maybe go for a walk at Devil’s Dyke (and then get ice cream!). I’d even recommend the Booth Museum over this one (if you’re into taxidermy), just because it’s so gloriously old fashioned. 2.5/5 for the Hove Museum.

 

Bournemouth, Dorset: The Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum

The Russell-Cotes House is exactly the kind of house I’d like to live in…if it wasn’t a museum, and also wasn’t in Bournemouth (not knocking the town, because it’s the first time I’ve ever been there and I didn’t really go anywhere except Russell-Cotes House, but it looked kind of seedy as we were driving through, like most English seaside towns. The beach did look quite nice though, if it hadn’t been freezing cold. In May).

  

It is a gloriously quirky Victorian mansion (completed in 1901, shortly before Queen Victoria died, it is also technically one of the last Victorian mansions ever built, as the museum kept reminding us) perched on a side of a hill overlooking the sea. Apparently it is built in an “Art Nouveau” style, but the turrets, bold colours, and big wrap-around front porch reminded me of Victorian houses in America, rather than the more boring sedate brick Victorian buildings that are much more common in England (like the one I live in, which has been divided into flats and stripped of any character it might have had, save for the fireplace and high ceilings), which is why I probably loved it so much.

  

Admission to this fabulous building (its official name is East Cliff Hall) is £6 (or £5.45 if you decline the Gift Aid), and the self-guided tour starts with a short film about the history of the house. Built by Merton Russell-Cotes for his wife Annie, it was their dream home and a place for them to display the many, many objects they had collected on their travels through the years. They seem to have been a rather sweet and devoted couple, what with travelling the world together, and dying within a year of each other (don’t worry, they were able to enjoy their house for about twenty years first). They were also clearly extraordinarily wealthy and well-connected, though where their money came from is a mystery, at least to me, because it wasn’t discussed anywhere in the museum (I suspect there’s a dark secret somewhere in their past, albeit with absolutely no evidence to support this theory).

  

The house is meant to be set up pretty much as Merton and Annie would have had it (except for a few of the more museum-y rooms), and you’re free to wander through and pretend you’re visiting them, I guess. So nothing is really roped off (though obviously you’re expected to not touch things) and there aren’t signs on anything, just a a large informational guide on a stand in each room (we came right after they opened, so there were only a handful of visitors, but I suspect this gets annoying at busier times, because those books were seriously like twenty pages each, and based on my experiences in way too many National Trust properties, I can imagine that some people stand there for ages reading every page). We got a taste of their enviable lifestyle right off the bat, when we walked into the dining room and were greeted with an octagonal table and a wine cooler (above right) once owned by Napoleon that they managed to snap up whilst they were visiting St. Helena (as you do…oh wait, you haven’t been to one of the most isolated islands in the world?! Me either). I also immediately learned that Merton really liked birds (as do I, admittedly. Well, some birds. Not those white ibis in Australia. Or emus or cassowaries (also in Australia)), and had chosen to decorate the room with a splendid peacock border.

  

There was a collection of busts in the conservatory, my favourite being good ol’ Wellington (looking rather dashing), though his rival (archnemesis?) Napoleon was there too.  However, the conservatory was locked, so we just had to peer out at them from the dining room.

 

Napoleon’s table wasn’t the only famous person’s furniture that the Russell-Cotes’s owned. They also had a sofa and chairs that were Queen Victoria’s (I don’t think she ever visited this home, since she died shortly after it was completed, but I believe she did visit them in a previous residence, and her daughter, Princess Beatrice, took tea here with Annie), and a cabinet belonging to Empress Eugenie of France, who they knew personally. Actually, the story behind the cabinet is that Eugenie didn’t realise it had been sold, and got a nasty shock when she went to East Cliff Hall for a visit and saw it in pride of place in the drawing room.  The dress in the picture above is a re-creation of Annie’s wedding dress, based off of a photograph taken on her wedding day.

  

The main hall of the house was similarly extravagant, and contained even more busts, paintings by Rossetti et al, and a fountain inspired by the Moorish room at Leighton House (which was one of the only parts of Leighton House that I didn’t complain about).  The ornamentation even carried on into the public restrooms…I strongly recommend that you use the ones in the actual house rather than the ones in the gift shop or cafe, because they are worth seeing, in particular the ladies’ loo (I peeped into the men’s and it was nice, but not as elaborate as the women’s toilet).

  

There was an extension added on to the house for art galleries (done whilst the Russell-Cotes’s were still alive, as they had always planned to donate the building to Bournemouth after they died (they had children, by the way, they probably just reckoned they didn’t need the house), and had some of the house open to the public once a month whilst they were still living in it), though unfortunately only a couple of the galleries were open, because they were in the process of putting together a new exhibit.

  

Merton and Annie definitely seemed to be partial to statues and busts (though apparently Merton collected most of the art; Annie was more into natural history), and my favourite piece here was a bust of George Bernard Shaw (above right) done, oddly enough, by Kathleen Scott, widow of Robert Falcon Scott of polar fame (bust on the left is Nelson, no idea who the sculptor was).

  

Now, I want to talk about the stained glass on the cupola over the main hall, because that is what convinced me that I needed to visit the house in the first place. As you can hopefully tell from the picture above (click to enlarge), it has bats and owls on it, flying through a night sky. If I could only have one element from this house in my imaginary dream home, this is what I’m taking, no doubt about it.

 

Though the upstairs rooms admittedly weren’t as grand as the ones downstairs, they were nonetheless my favourite section of the house, because they were more straightforward museum rooms, with actual labels, and I got to learn more about Merton and Annie’s travels and the things they collected. One room had objects ranging from a decorative band that was on the outside of Queen Victoria’s wedding cake (Merton and Annie were both born in 1835, so I imagine they were too young to have actually attended her wedding), to an instrument made from a crocodile’s head, and, in keeping with the crocodile theme, some child-sized ankle bracelets found in the stomach of a crocodile in India, meaning some unlucky little girl got eaten.

  

There was also a “Mikado Room” built to house Merton’s Asian artefacts, and another room with souvenirs from their trip to Russia and Scandinavia, including a child’s sled embellished with some scary toothed geese. The signage in here included extracts from Annie’s diary entries during the Russia trip, which were pretty interesting. They visited about twenty years before the Revolution, but apparently could already see signs of unrest.

  

Lest you think that the things poor Annie collected had been left out, never fear! There was also a whole room full of natural history stuff, like a case full of stuffed kiwis that she acquired in New Zealand (obviously). The bedroom she was forced to move to shortly before she died was also up here; she had to move because it was near the only room that could accommodate her nurse (I guess because all the other rooms were too nice?).

  

My favourite decorative border in the house was in what I’m going to call the “Crow Room” (unless those are blackbirds? I like birds, but I’m not great at identifying them). I especially love the golden moon that’s been added in. (Many of the rooms also had beautiful gold stars painted up near the ceiling. This was really my kind of house.)

  

The strangest room had to be the Henry Irving Room, which was like a bizarre shrine to the actor Henry Irving. Apparently he was a good friend of Merton and Annie, and they loved his acting, so were devastated when he died, and set a whole room aside for Irving artefacts. I know Irving was a famous actor, but I don’t really know all that much about him, so I couldn’t fully appreciate the Irvingness of this room, though I did admire the weirdness.

  

More stained glass of note (because those damn Victorians really excelled at stained glass); the piece over the centre of the upstairs hallway. It’s a little hard to see, but the corners of each larger square are the signs of the zodiac. I was particularly partial to Taurus, who you might just be able to spot (and I’ve just noticed that Aquarius looks rather like the Mannequin Pis).

  

There were so many more fabulous details in the house that I’d love to show you, but we’d be here all day, so let me move on to the gardens. Apparently, the gardens once stretched for quite a ways around the house, but they’ve all been swallowed up by real estate, so all that’s left now is the grotto area, and a small Japanese garden. Unusually, the Russell-Cotes’s didn’t have any live-in servants, instead relying on staff from the hotel next door to keep their house running, so there was a secret gate in the garden that they could cut through on their way over. (Merton and Annie did own the hotel too at one point, though I’m not sure if it was while they were living in East Cliff House. I do hope that the staff were properly compensated for their work, and not just expected to do two jobs for the same pay, but knowing Victorians, my hopes aren’t high.)

  

I certainly enjoyed pretty much every aspect of this house’s appearance, inside and out, though I’m still not sure how I feel about Merton and Annie – they were definitely a fascinating couple who had amazing experiences, but I feel like them using the hotel’s staff is probably a bit shady, and I’m still bothered that I don’t know the source of their wealth. But, they are long-dead, and the house as it stands today is magnificent, and worth the relatively modest price of admission (I mean, can you imagine what the National Trust or English Heritage would charge to see something like this? Probably at least 15 quid, if not more!).  I do love labels, so I would have liked to see some in the actual house, but I can understand that it would detract from the experience they’re going for. Perhaps if they put a couple smaller guides in each room in place of the big books, it would be better, because some of the books contained stuff like a list of restoration expenses, or a lengthy history of some of the artistic styles represented in the paintings, and it was way more than I cared to read and came at the expense of information about some of the smaller, but more intriguing looking objects. Because of that, I’ll give it 4/5, but it is a most excellent looking house, and I think Merton would be happy to see all the birds that still frequent the garden.

  

 

Tolpuddle, Dorset: Tolpuddle Martyrs Museum

This is an odd one, and not only because “martyrs” is surprisingly hard to spell. Having never heard of the Tolpuddle Martyrs before, when Marcus first proposed going to this museum, I assumed they were Protestants burnt at the stake during the reign of Mary I, like the Oxford Martyrs, Lewes Martyrs, et al. Or at least hanged, or otherwise killed for their beliefs, as the term martyr usually implies. But no. The Tolpuddle Martyrs were a group of men in the 19th century who were transported to Australia for the crime of swearing a secret oath, but allowed to come back to England after a couple years when the public outcry got to be too much.

  

I admit that when I first heard this story, I was probably offensively flippant about the whole thing…when you’re expecting people to have been killed brutally to have earned the title of martyr, somehow a brief spell in Australia doesn’t really compare (I may have said something to the effect of, “So they got a lovely free Australian holiday? Some martyrs!”). But, this is clearly something that the people of Tolpuddle take very seriously, even hosting a yearly festival and procession in their memory, so I was willing to see the museum to learn more.

  

Tolpuddle is a “blink and you’ll miss it” sized village, so I wasn’t expecting the museum to be particularly large either, and I was right. But it is free, so there we are. 95% of the museum simply consisted of posters on the wall, in the style of protest or trade union banners, with several touchscreens and only a small glass case in the centre for artefacts, of which very few were particularly interesting. However, the posters did contain a lot more information about the story of the martyrs, so at least I learned something.

  

Basically, in 1834, a group of villagers formed an early example of a trade union to protest their low wages (six shillings a week, which according to the chart on the museum’s wall, wouldn’t have even been enough to buy adequate food for their families, let alone pay rent or buy clothing). Though trade unions weren’t technically illegal, swearing secret oaths was, and that was what got the men in trouble when one of their fellow labourers sold them out. A “rigged trial” followed, and six men: George Loveless, James Brine, James Hammett, James Loveless, and Thomas and John Standfield (they were father and son), were sentenced to be transported to Australia for their “crime.” (The museum was real salty about Lord Melbourne and the Whigs.) Protests back in England ultimately forced the government to pardon them, although they took their time about it, and the pardon took a couple of years to reach Australia. The men eventually returned to England, and were given plots of land in Essex to make up for their ordeal, but most of them realised they no longer felt safe in England, and emigrated to Canada together, where George Loveless, the “ringleader,” wrote several books about the martyrs’ plight, which is why the story probably has stuck in the minds of villagers to this day.

 

As you might expect from all this, Tolpuddle is an unusually left-leaning village (which you wouldn’t think was the case in the 19th century, given what happened, but the earliest commemoration was in 1875, when the only martyr to remain in Tolpuddle was given an engraved watch), and the shop was essentially full of Labour-themed souvenirs, including Jeremy Corbyn mugs, a rather splendid (and expensive!) Tony Benn bowl, and some pretty cool t-shirts (though they were definitely walking the line between politics and straight-up propaganda. I could see those of a more conservative bent not feeling entirely comfortable here). The building the museum is housed in, as well as the surrounding cottages, were built in 1934 to commemorate the centenary of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, and were intended to house retired agricultural trade unionists (which may still be the case today; the website isn’t entirely clear on this).

There are apparently a few other related sites around the village, including the tree that the martyrs initially met under, creatively called the “Martyrs Tree” (you can get a t-shirt featuring it), and the grave of James Hammett, one of the martyrs, but we were in a bit of a rush, so didn’t stop to see them. While I still think the term “martyrs” is a bit, well, misleading (…or maybe just confusing?) in describing their experience (maybe they could be the Tolpuddle Six?), they were nonetheless extremely unfairly treated (transportation was definitely no picnic), as were many other working men and women throughout the 19th century (and beyond), and the publicity their case attracted played an important role in the shaping of British trade unions and the fight for workers’ rights. Though it is undoubtedly an interesting story, I could have just read it on the website, as the museum didn’t really contain any artefacts worth noting, other than the court (police?) book recording the names of the six and a physical description of each man. So it’s worth stopping in if you’re passing through the area anyway as we were, but I wouldn’t make a special trip for it unless you’re coming for the festival, which takes place in July, and seems to be a pretty big event. 1.5/5.

Blandford, Dorset: The Blandford Fashion Museum

I make no attempt to hide the fact that I have the most juvenile sense of humour, so I’ll just admit it up-front: I only visited the Blandford Fashion Museum because it was built by Bastards.  Yes, the Georgian building that the museum is housed in was literally built by a pair of Bastards; the brothers John and William Bastard. I’m pretty sure bastard has been a derogatory term since at least medieval times, so I’m not quite sure why the two were saddled with such an unfortunate surname, but they don’t seem to have lived up to it in either sense of the word, since they were both legitimate Bastard children, and they rebuilt most of Blandford after the fire of 1731, and it is a reasonable looking town (despite it also having an unfortunate name).

  

Anyway, our visit to the Bastard House, I mean, Blandford Fashion Museum, got off to a somewhere awkward start due to some confusing signage outside. The museum is also home to a tearoom, and the sign outside that said they were only open til 4…as it was already 4:02 by the time we arrived, we thought we were too late. However, when we walked around to the museum entrance, there was an “Open” sign hanging from the gate, and a sign saying that their spring hours, which began on the first of April (this was the end of April) were from 10-5. There was a gentleman working in the garden just next to the front door, so we asked him if they were still open, and he seemed uncertain, but told us to go in anyway and see if anyone was at the admissions desk. Fortunately, there was still a volunteer there, but she was busy counting up the day’s takings when we walked in. Feeling uncertain, we offered to leave, but she assured us that it was fine, because they were supposed to let people in until 4:30 anyway, so we paid her a fiver each, and began to look around the museum.

  

Unfortunately, while the admissions lady was perfectly nice, and didn’t seem to be in any particular hurry, the same couldn’t be said of the tearoom staff. Though we had absolutely no intention of taking tea, and told them as much, we had to listen to the continued grumblings of the tearoom ladies throughout our visit, as they bitched about having already closed the tearoom, and wanting to go home (and to be honest, I’m not quite sure why they couldn’t have just gone home. They certainly didn’t contribute anything positive to our visit). They had already turned the lights out in most of the museum, so the poor volunteer at the admissions desk, who clearly had some mobility issues, had to come over and turn them back on for us (which is why some of the pictures are really dark), and unlock the rooms that they had already locked up. We felt really horrible and guilty about the whole thing, but we had already paid, so we just rushed through the museum as quickly as we could, feeling uncomfortable the whole while.

  

As for the museum itself, I think I would have quite enjoyed it if I didn’t have to hurry through. The collections were arranged in 10 or 11 different rooms of the house, and whilst there were only a handful of outfits in most of the rooms, the signage was generally quite good, and some of the clothes were really neat. Take that fruit-print dress from the ’50s, above left, which I would totally wear (actually, I have a pineapple dress, but it’s not as good as that one!).

  

Sadly, there was no mention of the Bastards in the house (the admissions lady was telling us a bit about the history of the museum, which was started by a lady called Mrs. Penny, and I was already biting the inside of my lip so I didn’t start laughing in anticipation of her talking about the Bastard brothers, but she left them out altogether. Eagle-eyed Marcus did spot one mention of them outside a different building, as you’ll see at the end of the post to prove I’m not making them up), but there were a few amusing anecdotes amongst the object labels, including one about the man who devised and wore the first top hat in 1797. Apparently, “passers-by reacted with horror” and he was later fined for daring to wear such an unusual piece of headwear. Of course, a few decades on everyone was wearing the damn things!

  

And, as you can see, the mannequins were also pretty good (i.e. creepy)!  The earliest pieces of clothing were Georgian, and there were a couple Victorian dresses, but most of the collection was 20th century. There were also separate displays of hats, shoes, lace, buttons (including Dorset knobs, for which the bread products are named, due to their resemblance to the buttons), and coats.

  

I am not a fan of winter; in fact, pretty much the only positive, as far as I’m concerned, is getting to wear a good coat, so I really enjoyed the coat room. I probably have about ten winter coats already (in fairness to me, they’ve been acquired over a number of years, and that’s pretty much all people see of your outfit for four or five months out of the year, so I don’t think ten is an excessive number), but I would definitely happily add that cool reversible coat from the ’20s (above left) to my collection, though it doesn’t look all that warm.

  

Anyway, I definitely think this museum had some potential (though a fiver might be a bit steep), but our visit was unfortunately tainted by those tearoom ladies and their attitude problem. If the museum is actually open until 5, as the sign outside and the website claim (and the volunteer agreed with), I don’t understand why it was a problem for us to visit at 4 (and we were out the door by 4:30, so they still technically got to leave early). I think they need to sort out what their opening hours actually are, and make sure all the employees and volunteers are aware of them. Also, although I enjoyed most of the signs, one of the rooms mysteriously had none, just empty stands (perhaps it was those tearoom ladies being overzealous in shutting the place down early?) which is a shame, because additional information was definitely crucial to the experience, and I would have liked to know something about the dresses I was looking at in that room. So 2/5 for our particular awkward experience, which I would like to stress is not the fault of the volunteer, just those mean tearoom ladies (who were presumably being paid), but I’d be willing to bump it up to 3 if that hadn’t happened, because the displays were clearly lovingly arranged by someone, and the signage was surprisingly good (save for a mention of Barbra “Streisland” and of course the missing labels) for a small local museum.

London: Grayson Perry’s “The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever!” @ the Serpentine + A Few Random Art Exhibitions

Whew, that’s a long title, isn’t it?  I have more Dorset posts, but this post covers a couple exhibitions that are ending in the near future, so I wanted to get to them first while there’s still a chance to visit them if people are interested. I recently went to go see Grayson Perry’s new exhibition at the Serpentine, and used it as an opportunity to do a whole day of arty stuff around London (I might have gotten an ice cream and a bubble tea too. It was a hot day, and I needed the energy!). I’ll talk about Perry’s exhibition first, and get to the rest later.

  

I first encountered Grayson Perry when he was a panellist on Have I Got News for You way back in 2009, when he appeared as his alter-ego “Claire.” Not being up on the modern art scene, I’d never heard of him before, and I didn’t know quite what to make of him. But then I finally saw some of his art: tapestries at the Foundling Museum back in 2014, and I had to admit that they were really pretty cool. I’ve since been to a couple more of his exhibitions, and watched a few of his TV specials, and now I’d definitely consider myself a fan – after watching his recent TV programme about Brexit, where he made vases representing “Leave” and “Remain,” Marcus and I were keen to see the vases in person, so when we learned they’d be at the Serpentine, in Hyde Park, along with some other select pieces, we headed out to see the exhibition about a week after it opened.

  

“The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever!” runs until the 10 September, and is free, although there is an opportunity to donate via a piggy bank Perry created with different slots to represent different identities – you could choose the slot you felt best represented you.  Although I’ve of course been to Hyde Park before, I’d never actually been inside the Serpentine Gallery, and I’m glad I managed to visit on a weekday, because I bet this exhibition lives up to its self-consciously grandiose title by being absolutely rammed on the weekends. As it was, it was plenty busy on a weekday, though not to the point where we had to queue or anything.

  

Perry’s chosen media are typically ceramic pots and tapestries, and there were plenty of both in here. What I particularly love about his work is how detailed it is – he often uses collages, and you really have to walk completely around each of his pieces to appreciate every element.  There’s often a fair bit of text incorporated within the pieces as well, which I can appreciate as someone who’s generally drawn more towards books than art.

  

But there were also a few other types of art in this exhibit, my favourites being the custom designed motorcycle with a special box for Perry’s teddy, Alan Measles, in the back (Alan Measles is a recurring motif in Perry’s art), and the “Marriage Shrine” with figures of Perry and his wife. I’d love something like that in my house (or garden, if I had one)!

I also had to laugh at the “Kateboard,” above, which is a skateboard deck with an image of Kate Middleton on it, and there were some excellent woodcuts, including the one pictured at the opening of the post, which features Perry himself.

  

And the Brexit vases (above) were of course excellent, though my favourite vase was actually the first one in this post, showing Trump, Farage, Theresa May, Boris, Corbyn, et al all worshiping Alan Measles.  But I really enjoyed almost every piece in this exhibition, which is a rarity for me and modern art, as you all know. It’s certainly very timely (it actually opened on the day of the general election, which was an exciting one for me as it was the first election since I’ve become a British citizen, so I actually got to vote! Not that it did much good in decidedly Tory Wimbledon, but still), and I highly recommend going to see it if you get the chance. 4.5/5.

  

We went to see two other exhibitions the same day, both of them at art galleries (and as gallery installations are so fleeting, I’m not going to bother to give them a rating). I normally shy away from galleries because I’m slightly intimidated by them; it seems like whenever I walk into one, there’s just some harried person talking on the phone at the back of the gallery who completely ignores my presence, and I feel really unwelcome. But I saw these listed in Time Out London, and I was intrigued enough to take a chance (albeit with Marcus for backup; I’m still too intimidated to do it on my own).

  

The first was Ann Craven’s Animals 1999-2017, at Southard Reid in Soho, which ends on 24 June.  This was a collection of animal paintings inspired by Youtube and memes and things. I can’t really complain about adorable paintings of kittens and deer, so I enjoyed it, even though the woman working there was indeed on the phone when we walked in, and we felt pretty awkward the whole time we were there. The gallery is also hidden down some pretentiously named “Royalty Mews” off of Dean Street that we accidentally walked right past the first time around, which made the experience that much more awkward, because it wasn’t the kind of place you could pop in whilst passing – you had to actively seek it out.

  

The other exhibition was Wayne Thiebaud’s retrospective 1962-2017 at White Cube Mason’s Yard, near Green Park, which ends 2 July and was poshly intimidating enough that I was worried about walking in wearing shorts and a tank top, with all my tattoos exposed. But except for the stern looking security guard in one of the galleries, it was fine. I wanted to see this one because I read that most of his paintings were of desserts, and indeed, food and landscapes were pretty much the themes.

  

I did like some of his paintings (particularly those of ice cream and doughnuts), and the layered paint effect was kind of cool, but I’m still not really enough of a fan of the gallery experience to be won over to doing this sort of thing very frequently in the future.

  

The last “arty” experience I wanted to mention, while I’m on the subject, was something I did a couple of weeks ago. It was part of the Merge Festival in Bankside, which seems to have been held quite early this year for some reason (I think it’s normally in September). I saw (in Time Out, yet again, because I’ve been reading the print edition every week lately on the train) that there was an opportunity to have your portrait drawn by a robot for free, if you booked a slot in advance, and for once I managed to book while there were still openings.

The actual name of the event was “Machine Studies” by Patrick Tresset, and what he’d done was create three robot arms that drew three separate pictures of you while you sat still and posed, as you would for a conventional portrait. This meant sitting perfectly still for over half an hour, which I realised I am incredibly bad at. An eyelash fell into my eye only about ten minutes in, and though I tried my best to blink it out, I eventually just had to rub my eye, which I think is why my one eye is blurry in some of the portraits. You can see the finished drawings above, and I think they’re quite cool, even with the wonky eye. If you’re familiar with (were traumatised by as a child, more like) the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books, Stephen Gammell’s illustrations are what I think the middle portrait looks like. I’m kind of like the girl who had a spider lay eggs in her face without her realising until all the spider babies exploded out. (Link here, but don’t click unless you want to be kind of grossed out. And bear in mind, these books were intended for children, and this is definitely one of the less scary drawings in them. No wonder I was so nightmare-prone.) You had a choice of buying your portraits for something like 150 quid each, or leaving them there to be part of the exhibition, so you can probably guess which I chose. At least I was able to get a few good photos of them first though!  And it was definitely a neat experience, though somewhat marred by the fact that the London Bridge attack occurred the same night, not very far from where the installation was located (though fortunately I’d been home for hours before it happened) – as a result, it was closed on what would have been its final day (and now there’s been the Grenfell Tower fire, and the Finsbury Park attack. London’s having a tough time of it lately).

Anyway, that’s it for the artistic interlude; I’ll carry on with more Dorset museums next week.