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London: “Somewhere in Between” and “Ayurvedic Man” @ the Wellcome Collection

I recently went to see the new special exhibition at the Wellcome Collection: “Somewhere in Between,” which runs until 27th August (my birthday!). I normally wouldn’t exactly rush out to something arty like this, but I wanted to make sure I also got to see “Ayurvedic Man: Encounters with Indian Medicine” in the first floor gallery, which ended on the 8th of April (also I had a hankering for roti canai, which was the main reason I needed an excuse to go to Euston (there’s a Malaysian restaurant near the station)).

  

Like all Wellcome exhibitions, “Somewhere in Between” is free, and was happily much less crowded than their exhibitions normally are, perhaps due in part to the open layout. The exhibition consists of four immersive installations that are the result of collaborations between artists and scientists, and are meant to be an exploration of art and science, or, I suppose, somewhere in between, hence the title.
  
The first “immersion” we ventured into was “Sire” by Maria McKinney. I don’t think I fully understood the exhibition when I was in there (I was more just like, “Ooh look, pictures of cows wearing silly sculptures. Oh, but wait, they’re being pulled by rings through their noses and they look like they might be in pain. Not great”) but after reading the exhibition catalogue, it makes more sense. Apparently the photographs are of stud bulls, wearing sculptures woven from semen straws (brightly coloured straws that are used to artificially fertilize cows with bull semen), and the sculptures themselves were inspired by genomes. So it’s a commentary on how genetic breeding has affected the modern cattle industry, but I don’t feel it was really a critique, more just that it was asking us to recognise that a lot of selective breeding has gone into creating the modern cow. As a vegetarian, I probably would have preferred more of a critique (though I don’t eat meat more because of pickiness than ethics, so I’m not really very militant about it), but it was fine, albeit not really what I would call immersive.
  
I can’t properly comment on Daria Martin’s pieces, because I didn’t get what the hell was going on. I went into two connected rooms, both of them showing videos of a woman touching a knife, but it was kind of weird (not in a good way), so I left pretty promptly. It was meant to be about synesthesia, but it wasn’t communicated very well. Martina Amati’s “Under”, whilst also a video, was a lot better; it was three video screens placed around a room showing her and others freediving, and because of the lighting and sound effects, did actually feel a bit like I was underwater, so was properly immersive.
  
But the best installation of all was John Walter’s “Alien Sex Club”, which was a maze themed around a gay sex club with a sinister side, as the threat of HIV was lurking around every corner. I loved the wallpaper in here, and Walter’s paintings (especially the tarot-esque cards on the back wall), and the cartoons, and even the creepy booths in the back with glory holes (I was the main creeper in them though – I think I’m far too good at creeping for my own good). It felt like he’d certainly put the most effort into his installation out of the artists here, and I liked that we could actually explore the maze and interact with it in a limited way. On the whole, the exhibition wasn’t as appealing to me as something history-based (rather than art-based) would have been, and I’m not sure I really got the message that most of the artists were trying to convey (the science theme seemed rather stretched), but it was free, so it was fine. 2.5/5.
  
We then headed upstairs to see “Ayurvedic Man,” based around an 18th century Nepali painting from the Wellcome’s collection, as well as many other paintings, texts, and artefacts relating to Indian medicine, specifically ayurveda, which is a branch of Indian medicine that translates as “the knowledge of long life.” This exhibition actually seemed larger than the one downstairs in the main gallery, and certainly contained much more detailed text panels than “Somewhere in Between.” I really liked the copies of all the letters exchanged between Henry Wellcome’s agent in India and Wellcome himself about the agent’s acquisitions, because they let us see colonialism in action in a way that the Wellcome normally shies away from, and were also a fascinating view into how the Wellcome Collection was initially curated (Wellcome advised against buying too much erotic art, as it was far too “common,” presumably in both senses of the word).
  
I thought the information about how British authorities attempted to deal with the plague epidemic of 1896 was extremely interesting (their public heath measures often failed due to their lack of cultural sensitivity, big surprise), and I liked the interactive cartoons about the plague measures from the Hindi Punch (though I didn’t get to explore the touch screen ones further, because a couple of guys were hogging it, and when I tentatively touched what I thought was part of a different screen (they were projected on the wall, so it was hard to tell), it turned out to be part of the one the guy was using, and he gave me such a dirty look that I just got the hell out of there).
 
Actually, everything in here was pretty interesting, not least the iPads at the end where you could explore healing recipes using one of eight healing spices in Ayurvedic medicine, and submit one of your own (I totally did, as you’ll see below, though I don’t think it was healing in quite the way they intended. It also isn’t my recipe (it’s from the excellent Taco Cleanse, but I know it by heart because I make it all the time), but I have altered it a bit to my preferences, and it is a very tasty sauce (warning, may cause stomach cramps!). And possibly TMI, but I should point out that I don’t, in fact, need a cure for constipation – I only phrased it like that because when I was writing the recipe, it had the prompt “I would use this recipe if” which I was annoyed to see didn’t turn up on the published recipe, as it completely changes the meaning!). I think this was a far more successful exhibition than “Somewhere in Between,” because it does play much more to the Wellcome’s strengths, which are of course history of medicine, and its fascinating collection of curiosities. Sorry that I’ve blogged about it too late for anyone to see it, but the upcoming exhibition on teeth in that gallery looks promising as well, if the adorable squirrel image they’re using to advertise it is anything to go by. 4/5.
  
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Oxford: The Pitt Rivers Museum

At last, here’s the museum I’ve been referencing during the whole Oxford adventure: the Pitt Rivers. The museum was founded in 1884 by Lieutenant-General Augustus Henry Lane Pitt Rivers (I believe he went by Henry), who was already a military man and a collector when he unexpectedly fell into a boatload of money in 1880 (a distant relative died and left it to him), which of course meant even more collecting. I get the impression he was a Henry Wellcome type figure (or Frederick Horniman, or any of the other thousands of wealthy male collectors who seemed to be floating around Victorian England, throwing their money at exotic taxidermy and amusing statues with giant phalluses). The original collection was about 30,000 objects which over the years has expanded to around half a million.

  

The museum is located at the back of Oxford’s Natural History Museum (both museums are free to visit), so you first walk through a room full of rather delightful taxidermy (and a dodo: the dodo is just a model, but is still pretty impressive (you can see him near the end of this post), and there is an actual preserved dodo head in the museum’s collections, though it is too fragile to display), but otherwise quite a light, airy, and open space, only to pop through a doorway at the back and be met with the sheer pandemonium that is the Pitt Rivers. I really don’t know how else to describe it, but you can probably get a sense of what I mean from the pictures (though it doesn’t fully convey the assault on the senses that the museum provides – well, sight and smell anyway, as there’s also a strong smell of mothballs that pervades the air when you’re inside).
  
The museum is unusual (well, maybe I should say one way the museum is unusual) because it is arranged typologically rather than chronologically or by location, or one of the other normal ways museums are organised. This means you get lots of cases full of just guns, say, or shoes, irrespective of where or when they’re from. If things serve the same basic function, they’re all lumped together, which is interesting because, to quote the museum’s website: “This way of displaying means that you can see how many different people have solved common problems and how many different solutions have been found over time or in different parts of the world.” This was originally done because Pitt Rivers was keen on the history of design (and ethnography, obviously), but the museum just decided to roll with it even after the signage no longer necessarily reflected this.
 
  

If it looks overwhelming, it is also because it is apparently the most “exhibited” museum in the world per square metre (this was something I overheard a tour guide say, and I think basically means that they have the most amount of crap piled into a space that it is possible to have. Exhibited sounds fancier though). The museum takes up three floors, and each case has extra drawers in it that you can open (though most of the drawers are not organised in any way, and have no labels, so there’s not much point) so it is really, really a lot of crap. I spent hours there on my first visit, but having already seen it, I could afford to be a bit more economical with my time (after all, I wanted to get in a stop at the original Ben’s Cookies before we had to catch the train home) on this visit, and go directly to my favourite artefacts.

  

Naturally, that includes these fabulous puppets, located near the entrance (I feel like I need to give directions, or you’ll never find this stuff otherwise). I think Professor England or random angry Russian woman is my favourite, though of course I have a soft spot for George Washington too (frankly, I’m surprised there was just a puppet of him here, and not his false teeth, because every other damn museum seems to own a pair. Maybe I just didn’t look hard enough). I love the “scare devil” to bits too. And I’m pretty sure one of the main reasons I visited Pitt Rivers in the first place was to see their shrunken heads, very non-PC though they are (the Natural History Museum in Cleveland had shrunken heads too when I was a kid, and they scared the crap out of me back then. I used to close my eyes and run past the case where they were kept, but I somehow still grew up into a weird adult who loves this kind of stuff).

  

I do think the ground floor in general probably has the most interesting artefacts in it, and, totally not an artefact, but they have a donation box that features curators performing a sort of begging dance for your donations, which I think is really cute (though I don’t seem to have a photo of it). There are varying amounts of text in the cases – some sections have quite detailed information about the background of the objects, others just have simple labels stating what the objects are and where they came from.

  

I also quite like the first floor, especially the display on games, which includes an early Italian deck of Tarot cards; and the rather large display on body modification. Well, the tattoo section was really interesting anyway; the sections on foot binding and head shaping just made me feel a bit ill. There’s also a display of artefacts collected on Cook’s voyages, which is damn cool (really looking forward to the upcoming Cook exhibition at the BL!).

  

The second floor reflects Pitt Rivers’ greatest passion, which was his collection of firearms and other weapons (thanks to his military background, that was how he first got into collecting). Unfortunately, guns are definitely not my passion (which is probably an unusual view for an American, I know, but I actually hate the damn things), so this is the floor I spent the least amount of time on. I do like the Japanese armour and the horned skull though!

  

I swear the Pitt Rivers used to have a shop, because I remember buying postcards the last time I was here, but they are in the process of doing construction work (as evidenced by the banging and drilling I could feel under my feet on the upper levels, which actually felt like a lovely massage (my feet always hurt), but was a bit worrying in terms of structural integrity), so it seems to have disappeared (the Natural History Museum has a shop, and they do have some good dodo merchandise, but nothing Pitt Rivers related). There was a small display on Tito in Africa in a ground floor gallery, which I was briefly excited by when I mis-read it as “Toto in Africa” (and had that song stuck in my head all day as a result) but I didn’t actually look around very much because I was anxious to get food before the train (in addition to Ben’s Cookies, we also stopped at a place called Dosa Park across from the station for an early dinner before we left, because I love dosa, and get real hangry real fast if I don’t eat (and actually, it was lucky we did, because the District Line was completely screwed when we got back, and what should have been like half an hour journey back from Paddington turned into a nightmare two hours, but that’s another story.)). But Pitt Rivers as a whole is an amazing experience, though admittedly not the most culturally sensitive in parts (I think some of the labels are probably decades old), and I definitely think it is worth seeing just for the experience of standing there and gazing at their awesomely cluttered galleries (and the Natural History Museum isn’t half bad either, if you have time. They let you pet some of the taxidermy!). 4/5.

  

Bonus picture of me on my first visit here almost exactly six years ago, which I think illustrates the vagaries of British weather quite well (and also possibly how much I’ve aged).

Oxford: “Sappho to Suffrage” and “Designing English” @ Weston Library

We didn’t have any trouble finding our next destination, the Weston Library, as it was across the street from the Museum of the History of Science.  I was planning on going anyway to see “Designing English,” which was a display of some of their collection of medieval manuscripts (I’m not gonna lie, I was hoping for butt trumpet marginalia), and then it turned out that there was a suffragette display there too, so that was a nice surprise.

  

The Weston is a branch of the Bodleian Library, but isn’t actually in the Bodleian, so it is just a nondescript building compared to the magnificence of the Bodleian (or so I imagine, since we didn’t have time to visit the actual Bodleian on this trip), but you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover and all that, so I was still eager to see their displays, even though the interior was kind of blah and dominated mostly by a very crowded cafe. The exhibitions were both free to visit, so after taking a moment to admire a large, tapestry-style map of Oxfordshire and the surrounding counties (being from Stratford-upon-Avon, Marcus was a bit miffed that it wasn’t included (Update: Yes, it is, listed as “Stretford.” He found it on the photo in this post.)), we headed in (fortunately, the Weston is one of those chill libraries that lets you take your bag into the exhibition galleries, unlike the National Archives, who still stick in my craw).

  

We started with “Sappho to Suffrage: Women who Dared,” which sounded pretty great from the name alone, and I wasn’t disappointed by the choice of artefacts or women featured here. There was a nice mix of stuff from big famous names and also lesser-known but equally interesting women. So of course Jane Austen’s teenage diary was amazing, as was Mary Shelley’s manuscript of Frankenstein (even though the copy on show was only a facsimile), but I also loved learning about women like Mary Lacy, who was probably the first woman to take an exam as a shipwright and receive a pension from the Royal Admiralty (she served in the navy whilst posing as a man, but applied for a pension in 1771 under her real name, and was granted it!); and Marjory Wardrop, who fell in love with Georgia (the country) after her diplomat brother travelled there, so she learned Georgian and eventually translated the most famous Georgian epic poem, though sadly didn’t think it was fit for publication, so it wasn’t published until after her death (it totally was fit for publication, by the way, and has become the standard by which Georgian to English translations are measured).

  

There were many more wonderful artefacts, like a drawing by Ada Lovelace, the only surviving copy of a board game called Suffragetto, as seen above (a game of suffragettes vs police where suffragettes try to occupy the House of Commons whilst also defending Albert Hall against the police, while the police try to defend the House of Commons whilst occupying Albert Hall), a scrap of one of Sappho’s poems, and lots of books and illustrations by various female pioneers in medicine, botany, photography, etc. etc. (I wish I had more pictures to share, but the lighting was poor and we didn’t know we were allowed to take them til the end.) How rad is that Oxford Women Suffrage poster though?!

  

We finished looking around the exhibition just in time, as a large group of students (ironically all male, though I suppose they were high school age rather than from the university) filed in just as we were about to leave.  Fortunately, “Designing English: Graphics on the Medieval Page” only had a handful of people inside. This was also a really amazing exhibition, filled with lots of beautiful manuscripts; though sadly, almost none of the marginalia I was hoping for (one of the books had a little monster in the margins, and I’ll certainly take it, but of course I wanted to see a butt trumpet or at least an aggressive snail).

  

However, what the exhibition lacked in hilarious marginalia, it made up for with the quantity and quality of the pieces on display, as well as the accompanying text, which was both interesting and informative. There was even a giant piece of vellum stretched across a hoop so we could see exactly how it was made in the display about book production.

  

My favourite book was probably one where one monk had started to lay down the notes for a religious song (a “nowell” which had me singing “The First Noel” in my head (for an atheist, I do really love Christmas carols) though of course this song would have pre-dated that by centuries), for which he promised the lyrics would follow, but then another monk stepped in and wrote down the lyrics to a drinking song instead. But so much of this was deeply fascinating, like a book with a poem that had every rhyming couplet written in a different colour ink, so the reader would understand that it was supposed to rhyme (which shows how poetry has evolved); and a fold-up vellum manuscript for an astrologer or doctor (really, there wasn’t much difference back then) to carry around and diagnose various ailments based on the astrological sign active at the time.

  

I suppose the exhibition was meant to be showing the evolution of graphic design, but I found the evolution of English itself much more interesting, both in the aforementioned poetry book, and in prayerbooks that show the transition from Latin into the vernacular.  For example, there was a book that quoted a poem by Caedmon, the earliest English poet, who was a possibly illiterate animal husbandman who had songs appear to him in dreams – the book was in Latin, but when it got to Caedmon’s poem, it switched to English that was slightly set-off from the rest of the text. They explained the reasons for this in a more detailed way that I can’t remember, but take my word for it, it was neat.

  

It was awesome getting to see all these beautifully preserved books and manuscripts that were hundreds of years old, and I learned a lot too (though have clearly forgotten some of it – I should have written this post first thing!). I think these two exhibitions were probably the best things we saw in Oxford (Pitt Rivers is amazing, as you’ll see it in the next post, but I had seen it before, so it wasn’t quite as awe-inspiring this time around), and I recommend seeing them both, if you can (“Designing English” is only on til 22 April, but “Sappho to Suffragette” will be there until 2019). 4.5/5 for “Designing English” and 4/5 for “Sappho to Suffragette.”

Oxford: Museum of the History of Science

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

  

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

  

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

  

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

   

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

  

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

  

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

   

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

  

Oxford: The Ashmolean Museum

Diverting Journeys turned five yesterday, which is pretty exciting (though admittedly I didn’t actually do anything to mark the occasion other than eating some oreo cake I made, and I would have done that anyway, but I think it’s still worth a mention). I’m currently up to 340 posts, and the most popular is still (still!) the Arnold Schwarzenegger Museum, which I wrote in my third month of blogging, so I suppose I could have just stopped there, but I really am glad I’ve been able to have so many adventures over the years, and that a very small (and very awesome, obviously) subset of the population seems to be interested in reading about them, so a big thank you to everyone who has stuck around and still reads (and comments on, especially – I love comments!) my ramblings – I hope you’ll all stick around for the next five years, or however long I manage to keep this thing going for! Now, on with the regularly scheduled post!

  

I’m pretty lazy most weekends – even leaving my flat can be a stretch, since I’d prefer to just sit on the couch in my jimjams all day, but if I actually take a day off work, I feel like it’s a waste if I don’t do something. So it was that I decided to head up to Oxford for a day last week, and get in some good solid museuming. My Cambridge expedition last year was such a success that it seemed only right to give Oxford its turn. I’d been to the Pitt Rivers years before, and was dying to go back and take some decent photos this time around so I could blog about it (or more accurately, for Marcus to take some decent photos so I could blog about it), and also explore some of Oxford’s other museums, which I hadn’t had a chance to do on my previous visit.

  

However, I only reluctantly agreed to visit the Ashmolean, despite it being one of the most well-known museums in Oxford (maybe even in all of England), since for a museum person, I am weirdly not that into art and archaeology. But Marcus knows how to sell me on things, and it was the “dish with a composite head of penises” that did it.  Also, the museum is free, which meant I could pop in and just see the things I wanted to see without being compelled to look at all the boring stuff in order to feel I got my money’s worth.

  

But the dickhead plate, as I chose to crudely refer to it, would have to wait, because there were other objects in the museum that commanded my more immediate attention, by virtue of being on the same floor as the bathrooms (look, I’m not going to use a train toilet unless it’s an emergency, so I needed to pee by the time I arrived), the first being Powhatan’s cloak (yes, THAT Powhatan, as in the father of Pocahontas). I’ve visited Pocahontas’s grave in Gravesend (or at least the spot where she was meant to be buried), and I was also interested to see her father’s cloak (above left). Well, it was more likely just a decorative piece of fabric than a cloak, and may not have belonged to Powhatan, but it did come from one of the tribes in his chiefdom, and was from the right time period, so still pretty cool.

  

Some other really neat things were in this area too (as you might expect, since it was the highlights of the collection gallery), like the lantern Guy Fawkes carried when he tried to blow up Parliament, and Oliver Cromwell’s death mask. I feel like I should have saved this area for last though (and you’re probably meant to, since the shop is down here as well, but my bladder doesn’t give a crap about my looking around a museum in the correct order), because the rest of the collection paled by comparison, especially in terms of the density of cool stuff.

  

The Ashmolean is the first university museum in the world, started by Elias Ashmole, who bequeathed his collection of curiosities to Oxford in 1677, which included earlier curiosities from the Tradescants, who were collectors themselves (I’ve been to their grave too – they’re buried in the same churchyard as William Bligh, which is now part of the Garden Museum), and has been greatly expanded in the ensuing centuries, so the collection is varied enough that there were other interesting things to look at, including more recent objects like robes belonging to T.E. Lawrence (aka Lawrence of Arabia. You’ll see him crop up a lot in this series of Oxford posts), but I have to admit that the bulk of it was not really to my taste.

   

Their ceramics collection was sadly nowhere as full of delights as the one at the Fitzwilliam, but I did find a couple of gems, like that James II and Anne Hyde plate, and the Frederick the Great teapot that I originally thought was George III (I just went to see Hamilton (after having to book tickets way back in January 2017), and King George was one of my favourite parts, so I think I have George on the brain (definitely his song, actually most of the songs. And Peggy)).

  

The ceramics, though mostly disappointing, were exciting mainly because I felt like I was drawing closer to the dickhead plate. And indeed, my hunch would have been correct, had the damn thing actually been there! (Actually, I did anticipate this, mainly because it seems like things I’m most excited to see are never on display, but that didn’t make it any less disappointing.) We were sadly met with this sign in lieu of the plate, which is really irritating, because the website didn’t mention that it wasn’t there, like it did with some of the other highlights, and also the exhibition it was in ended last September, so where the hell is it now? I know Tokyo is a long way away, but even if they’re sending it back via ship, it doesn’t take six months! You would think a museum wouldn’t be content to let one of its star objects just float around in the ether for that long, but I guess this is one of the dangers of having such a large collection – they barely miss something when it’s gone!

  

Honestly, after that disappointment, I was ready to just leave. I had a lot of other museums I wanted to see, and a limited amount of time, and I didn’t want to waste any more of it in here. But we were in the middle of the museum when we discovered the dickhead plate was gone, so I still ended up looking around on the way out, as you do. Most of it was really boring furniture and art (like early modern European stuff, and despite the fact that I liked early modern history enough to do a Master’s in it, I’m pretty meh about the art, especially shit commissioned by various European minor royals I’ve never heard of. Give me medicine and literature any day over that!), but there was one of Stradavari’s violins, and more excitingly (to me) those charming ducks (or maybe geese, but they look friendly, which is why I’m going with ducks. Geese are jerks).

  

A lot of the rest of the museum (as you might expect from an archaeology collection) was antiquities, which again, I’m not super enthused by, but I do have a bit of a soft spot for the Ancient Egyptians, so we detoured from the path to the exit to check some of it out, inadvertently absorbing some other ancient cultures on the way. That picture of me and the derpy lion is sort of unintentionally hilarious, because of the hand-wrapped-around penis statue looming behind me (it would have been more impressive when it was made, as he would have had a four foot dong). Even though the delightful dickhead plate wasn’t there, at least there was no shortage of penises (penii?) on display, thanks in large part (ha!) to the Greeks and Romans in the hall of statues.

  

Though there are undoubtedly many treasures here (probably many more than I saw, since I skipped two-thirds of the museum), it just wasn’t really my cup of tea. Except for the really rare objects from historical eras I’m actively interested in (the early modern stuff in the rarities section), most of the rest of these kind of artefacts blur together after a while for me (probably because I don’t understand enough about the cultures they came from, which I admit is my own failing), and I can only take so much before I get cranky and want to leave. They have an exhibition about witchcraft coming up this summer that I might consider returning for (though I’ll gauge the contents online first), but I think I saw enough to get a good sense of what’s here, and know that whilst most people probably love the Ashmolean, it’s not for me (except for the big, grinning sarcophagus below. He can move in with me if he wants to. Don’t know where I’ll put him, but we’ll work something out). 2.5/5. (I know, it’s such a low score for such a big important museum, but I enjoyed it less than all the other Oxford museums, so that’s really all I can give it.)

 

 

 

 

London: Fatberg + Votes for Women @ the Museum of London

During the week of the so-called “beast from the east” (I know other places in the UK had actual dangerous levels of snow, but we only got what I would consider a dusting in London, and everyone was still treating it like such a big deal), instead of only working three days a week, per usual, and having some time off to enjoy the rare snow sighting (there wasn’t really enough to make a snowman or anything, but all I mean by enjoy the snow is that I would have cozily wrapped myself up in blankets in my flat and drank hot chocolate), I had to actually work a full week, which included a training course at the Museum of London. While I didn’t really want to have to bundle up and fight my way across the city (in a place where “leaves on the track” are enough to shut the trains down, you can probably guess how well they cope with snow), on the plus side, I was excited to go check out the infamous fatberg.

   

I was originally supposed to have an hour break for lunch, but in light of the snow we all agreed to only take half an hour so we could leave earlier, which meant my time looking around the museum was going to be somewhat rushed. Fortunately, the fatberg takes pride of place right by the museum’s entrance. For those who may not know (probably most people outside of London), the fatberg was a huge disgusting sewer blockage discovered in Whitechapel last September, which was ultimately found to weigh 130 tonnes, and was over 250 metres long (still haven’t completely wrapped my head around the metric system, but I get that that’s big). So naturally, the Museum of London was keen to get their hands on a chunk (who wouldn’t be?) and following a rather delightful social media campaign that was an homage to The Blob, it is now on display.
  
The exhibit contained some information about the fatberg, its removal, and what we can do to prevent future fatbergs (basically, don’t flush things down the toilet other than toilet paper and actual bodily waste), but of course the highlight was the fatberg itself, which they keep segregated in its own dark mysterious room bedecked with warning signs like “enter if you dare!” Given all the hype, the fatberg is admittedly underwhelming, but still pretty gross, and if you take all the fatberg promotion in the roadside attraction spirit in which it was probably intended, then the underwhelmingness is in keeping with that (and it’s nice to see a museum that doesn’t take itself too seriously!). They actually have two small lumps: one that has started to break apart, and another that is still largely intact (rumour has it that sometimes flies and maggots emerge from it, though there were none in evidence at the time of my visit). I’m not sure what else I can really say about it – it is just a big fatty lump with some wrappers sticking up out of it, and I think this exhibit could have really been enhanced with some authentic smells; obviously it would be a public health hazard if they let people smell the actual fatberg, but I’m sure they could have piped in some imitation rotting meat combined with stinky toilet smells (paraphrasing from a man quoted in the exhibit who had to remove the damn thing).
  
I also had time to pop down and see some of the suffragette stuff they’ve got on display to commemorate the centenary of the Representation of the People Act of 1918, and though this too was smaller than I was hoping, they did have a few interesting pieces. I liked seeing the grille Muriel Matters and Helen Fox chained themselves to in the Ladies’ Gallery of the House of Commons (both to draw attention to the issue of female suffrage, and to remove the grille itself, which blocked women’s view of Parliamentary proceedings), as well as the body belt they used to do it. I also loved Kitty Marshall’s silver necklace which commemorated her three terms of imprisonment (she was initially imprisoned for throwing a potato at Churchill, which I think is amazing. Potatoes are a hilarious thing to throw at someone, plus Churchill needed to be taken down a peg or two).
  
The pendant given to Louise Eates of the Kensington branch of the WSPU was really interesting too, as was Emmeline Pankhurst’s hunger strike medal, and the letters from Winefride Rix to her daughter written whilst she was in prison were quite sad. I especially liked that the caption mentioned how Winefride did not go on hunger strike with the other suffragettes, and her husband even sent her a box of apples whilst she was in prison. I can appreciate this, because I think it makes Winefride very relatable.  Sure, I can say I would have been right up there with the suffragettes, but in reality, I don’t think I’m brave enough to endure force-feeding. I’d like to think I would at least have participated in marches and things that I could have been arrested for; but to go on a hunger strike on top of it?! I think I would have chickened out big time once they brought out the tubes. So I liked that this exhibition showed that there were a range of women out there fighting the good fight to the best of their abilities, and not just the diehards, commendably brave though they were, which I think is an important lesson, because it shows that everyone can contribute to social change in some small way, and not just those at the more extreme ends of the spectrum.
  

I also of course had a wander through the shop (since I love to torture myself by looking at all the amazing stuff museum shops can buy when they have a decent budget and the visitor numbers to back it up), and they had a lot of great suffragette stuff (sadly no sash, but I was tempted by the “Votes for Women” umbrella) and even better fatberg souvenirs, so I succumbed and bought a badge and a totebag (and a t-shirt for Marcus) reading “Don’t Feed the Fatberg” which I suppose is an environmental message, but thanks to the campiness of the design, feels more like merchandise for a B-movie, which is honestly why I was drawn to it in the first place. I don’t know if I can rate these exhibitions because they’re both very small, but they are free (as is the rest of the Museum of London), and though the fatberg is not all that impressive, I’m still glad I saw it. Not as glad as I would have been to have the day off, but it was better than actually being at work.

London: “Rhythm and Reaction” @ Two Temple Place

It’s that time of year again: there’s another new exhibition at Two Temple Place, and on paper, it sounded not dissimilar to the Jazz Age exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Art, so I was intrigued to see how it would compare.  “Rhythm and Reaction: The Age of Jazz in Britain,” which runs until 22 April, is described as bringing together “painting, prints, cartoons, textiles and ceramics, moving film, instruments and the all-important jazz sound, to explicitly examine the influence of jazz on British art, design and wider society.” I love much of the 1920s’ aesthetic, as I’ve well established on this blog, and at any rate, it sounded much less controversial than last year’s somewhat ill-conceived exhibition on the Sussex Modernists (featuring the work of incestuous molester Eric Gill), so I was eager to check it out. (If you count Ocean Liners at the V&A, there’s been a lot of ’20s and ’30s focused exhibitions on lately. I’m not sure why that is, since it’s still too early for the centenary.)

  

Although I said I thought this exhibition would be less controversial, I realised that wasn’t quite the case upon entering and being greeted by pictures of people in blackface (and really racist drawings of black people), but at least this time it was easy to understand where the curator was coming from – jazz was instrumental (intentional pun) in breaking down some racial barriers, and it was important to see how black people were depicted in British society in the early 20th century in order to understand the difference jazz made (although apparently performers in blackface regularly appeared on British TV until the ’70s, and you can still buy those awful “Golliwog” dolls, so maybe it didn’t make that much of a difference after all). It was also interesting to learn that even people of African descent used blackface in some cases because it was such a recognisable stylistic convention at the time for performers of ragtime music.

  

I soon realised that this exhibition wasn’t just an exploration of the Jazz Age on the other side of the Atlantic, but was in fact a very different kettle of fish to the one at the CMA. Whereas the CMA had focused mainly on material things and the joy of acquisition that in some ways led to the Great Depression, “Rhythm and Reaction” was mainly about music and the musicians themselves. Therefore, a lot of the objects in the downstairs part of the exhibition were instruments, including a wall of banjos (I still REALLY want to learn the banjo), a player piano, and some most excellent drum kits, especially the one from the Kit Kat Club, and my very favourite specimen of all: a chicken drum that laid eggs!

  

I also adored some of the cartoons that showed how people felt about jazz in Britain when it first became popular in the post-WWI era – the best one is pictured above, and shows a man being driven to insanity by hearing ragtime everywhere he goes (I don’t mind ragtime, but I can certainly symphathise by being driven mad by having to listen to other people’s music on public transport – my only consolation is that if I can hear it leaking from their headphones, I’m quite sure they must be ruining their own hearing, but whistlers are just plain obnoxious!).

  

After finishing up downstairs (which had more in it than it might seem – you could only photograph some of the objects), we headed up to a room filled mainly with books, and a handful of objects relating to this period, including a tea set and that rather wonderful TfL poster (I just checked, and copies of this design are still for sale at the London Transport Museum, because TfL doesn’t miss a chance to make a quid).

  

The room next to this (the final room of the exhibition) was both painting and text-heavy, and explained more about the impact jazz had on British society. After the First World War, travelling American bands first brought jazz over to Europe, and clearly, some people liked what they heard, and developed their own syncopation-heavy style of British jazz (which purists eventually turned against, trying to get back to the African-American roots of the music). It gradually seeped into the wider culture, and began to inspire artists and designers. It also led to African-American musicians travelling to Britain, and because of a law enacted in 1935 which banned whole American bands from performing in this country (which was itself a response to American musicians complaining about British bands performing in the States), famous band leaders like Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway travelled by themselves and hired British (often white) musicians once they got here, which helped integration, at least amongst the musical community (though its impact on wider society clearly wasn’t as great as the exhibition seemed to imply).

  

This was all well and good, and whilst I certainly enjoyed learning more about the role of jazz in 1920s and ’30s British society (at least some segments of British society), I felt that the exhibition tried to tell me about the effect it had on art and fashion rather than showing me, which I would have preferred (I realise fashion wasn’t included in the exhibition description, but I was hoping they’d sneak some in there). Sure, there were some examples of textiles, pottery, and those fabulous brogue-style heels from Liberty, which I would wear in a heartbeat, but the exhibition was mainly art and music based, and even the music aspect of it was shown more through signage or instruments than the music itself. There was jazz music playing on a CD player in most of the rooms, which did enhance the atmosphere, but I didn’t feel there was enough information about what I was hearing for me to really understand the difference between British and American jazz, since I have very little knowledge of musical terminology (this despite the fact that I played alto sax (poorly) for five years, and guitar (adequately) for seven, but I was just playing things other people had written, not composing my own music!).

  

I also felt like there was a fair bit of wasted space that could have been filled up with objects. For example, there was a very long glass case in one of the rooms stretching across half the wall, yet the only things in it were two small books plopped right in the middle of the case. Surely they could have found something interesting to fill the rest of it up with! Although it took up the same amount of space as every other exhibition I’ve seen there, for some reason the Ancient Egyptian exhibition felt bigger to me, perhaps because there was more in each room so it took longer to look around.

  

And though the text was mostly pretty interesting, some of it was hard to read!  This was partly the fault of the people in the exhibition, like one man who planted himself in front of a video and refused to move so I could read the sign his big shiny head was blocking, even though I was quite obviously trying to crane my neck around him to see it; but some of it was due to poor positioning – why was there a long sign on the wall next to a video in the first place, especially when the lighting was quite poor in that corner?

  

If there was some way that this exhibition could have been combined with the one at the CMA, then I would have been perfectly happy, as it had some of the things the CMA was lacking – a discussion of the way jazz impacted society, as well as some examples of the music itself – but lacked other things that the CMA did so well, like providing concrete examples of the way jazz affected style and architecture. Basically, I wanted all the beautiful things from the CMA, but with a bit more context and soul. There were no clothes to speak of here, except the quite racist costumes shown above, and very little in the way of other material goods, and I think when you’re talking about a period with a style as iconic as the 1920s, it would be nice to have some examples of both, particularly since they had enough space to include more. But it was a free exhibition, versus the CMA’s $15 admission fee, so I can’t complain overmuch. It was a fine way to kill half an hour or so, and I liked learning more about the jazz age in England, I just wish I could have been shown the impact of jazz in a more visual way (or in a more auditory way for that matter, since we are talking about music!). 3/5.

 

London: Ocean Liners @ the V&A

Judging by the inexplicable popularity of that rather awful Titanic movie, people like an ocean liner. And whilst I’m clearly no Titanic fan, and avoid cruises like the plague, I understand the appeal of an ocean liner back in the golden age of travel, if you could afford to travel in style. I definitely like the idea of cruising around on a big old ship with gorgeous art deco interiors, servants to attend to your every whim, a massive stateroom, and of course a beautiful array of clothing to parade down the grand staircase in every evening, at least in theory…though when I think about it, I’d find the grand staircase stressful – I tripped walking up the steps to the stage at my high school graduation, the vice principal laughed in my face (he was a jerk), and I still cringe at the memory – and I could probably do without the servants too, because the idea of having people hanging around you that you just ignore when you’re not making demands makes me really uncomfortable, but presumably if I’d been born into a life of opulence, I’d be fine with being the centre of attention and treating servants like garbage. Nonetheless, I was still pretty excited about the V&A’s new exhibition “Ocean Liners: Speed and Style,” so much so that I went out to see it during its first week open (it runs until June).

  

Though I carefully timed my visit during a weekday, the V&A seems to always be busy, and this was no exception. We had to queue for a bit at the main desk to buy tickets (which we could have avoided by buying tickets online, but we weren’t sure exactly when we’d arrive), and the exhibition itself turned out to be fairly crowded too, though not at a horrible Harry Potter at the BL level. Admission was £18, which I am much too cheap to pay – I got half price with a National Art Pass, but if I didn’t have one, I would have used a National Rail 2 for 1. There is no reason anyone should pay £18 to see a single exhibition!
  
At least it was easy to find. It was through the main shop (the V&A is so big, it has more than one), and down a hallway, but it was clearly signposted the whole way, which made a nice change from my experience at the Natural History Museum. We had to pass the Winnie the Pooh exhibition to get to it, and I was a little sorry I wasn’t seeing Pooh instead, but they made it look so child-orientated on the website that it’s put me off from going thus far, even though I quite like poor old Pooh bear (and Eeyore!).
The first few rooms of the exhibition seemed to be divided up primarily by era, starting with the 1890s, and progressing on through the 1950s. There were artefacts from a number of ships here, including the SS Normandie, Queen Mary, SS United States, Canberra, and even the Titanic, though I was somewhat relieved to see that the Titanic  wasn’t the focal point. I like a disaster story as much as, if not more than anyone, but it does kind of detract from the fact that most cruises turned out perfectly fine, and everyone had a lovely time (except for passengers travelling in steerage, of course. And the guys working in the engine room – hell, probably most of the staff. People are the worst anyway, and I would imagine entitled rich people are even more awful to deal with).
  
There was a splendid mural of the Normandie that I kept trying to snap a photo of, but some woman stepped in front of it just as I took the picture, and remained standing in front of it for some minutes, looking at her phone, so this is what you get. Fortunately, it was only one of quite a few good mosaic/tile things here, including some William de Morgan pieces that included sea monsters (above right)!  And I would probably have felt obligated to spend some time hanging out in the Cleveland room (pictured below) if I was on that ship, although obviously I would prefer to spend most of my time holed up in my room by myself.
  
As with any exhibition based around this time period, there were some fantastic objects on display, but it was so crowded that I wasn’t inclined to dwell as much as I was at say, the Cleveland Museum of Art’s “Jazz Age.” There also seemed to be a decent amount of text, but it was hard to read through the sea of elbows (pun not intended), and what I did read was so hurried that I’m afraid I didn’t absorb much, as I just tried to look at what I could, and pass through the crowded areas as quickly as humanly possible.  It did seem to me that the furniture got progressively uglier as time marched into the ’50s, but then I’ve never been a fan of mid-century modern.
  
Fortunately, the exhibition opened up when I got to the room on engineering, and I was finally able to look at leisure. I was fascinated by the Lusitania medals given to the German officers involved in her sinking (an attempt to justify it by making her look like a war ship), which I’m pretty sure were mentioned in Erik Larson’s book on the subject (a much better read than Devil in the White City, which scared the ever-living crap out of me), and I also liked the diagram showing how ships were camouflaged during the war. I’m also pretty interested in how ocean liners were turned into troop transport, as that was how my grandpa made his way to Britain in WWII.
  
The biggest and best room was about life on board the liners, and had clothing, furniture, luggage, and information about the kinds of activities available (to be honest, playing shuffleboard, swimming, or sunning myself on deck don’t appeal, so I really wouldn’t have done particularly well on an ocean liner, but my god, do I want some of those dresses). I loved the flags from the pool of the SS United States that spelled out “Come in, the water’s fine,” and I know I’ve said I’m not big on the Titanic, but the deckchair from it (below left) was pretty cool (it floated to the surface when the ship sank, and I’m horrible enough to imagine someone pulling that out of the sea instead of a drowning person, thinking they could resell it later, but I’m sure that wasn’t the case). I also liked the giant wall with an ever-changing sea view that you could stand in front of and pretend you were on the deck of a ship (with my heavy coat, I must be on an Arctic voyage!).
  
I was a little creeped out by how the beds on an early ocean liner looked like adult-sized cribs (I don’t think I could sleep all confined like that, and I’m not even including a picture because I’d rather show you the clothes), but the clothing did not disappoint, particularly the 1925 Jeanne Lanvin dress (below) that is evidently one of the exhibition highlights (I can see why). The exhibition did also make an attempt to portray how horrible voyages could be for poorer passengers and the staff aboard the ship, and in fact, it seems like early voyages, before the invention of stabilisers, were pretty awful for everyone. There was an illustration of one cruise where the ship rolled and people were thrown around the dining room to the extent that a dairy cow even fell in through the ceiling!  But of course, no one really wants to hear too much about the unpleasant side of things in this sort of exhibition (especially because it was sponsored by Viking Cruises, as the exhibition rather annoyingly kept reminding us), so it focused mainly on the glamorous aspects of ocean travel.
  
The final room contained another chunk of the Titanic (apparently part of the dining room where the ship had split, and the largest surviving piece of the ship), which hasn’t been displayed before, though unfortunately they stuck it on top of a screen with a wave effect which made it kind of hard to see. There was a video in this room showing clips from various ocean liner themed movies, and I had to stop and watch the one from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (which perhaps inappropriately, I seem to end up watching every time I’m on a long flight, and desperately wish I could be on that ship instead, with Jane Russell’s personality, but Marilyn Monroe’s wardrobe (Jane Russell’s hats are a little too out-there for me), though for the reasons discussed throughout this post, I think I’m better off flying). We exited through the shop (of course), which had some excellent straw cloche-style hats in it, but they were £50, and little ocean liner brooch pins, which were £30 (if I made more money, I would have happily dropped £80 that day, but unfortunately museums don’t pay enough to actually shop at other museums), and I was jealous of how excellent museum shops can be if you have the money and visitor numbers to do it.
  
I would say I enjoyed this exhibition a middling amount – there was more furniture in here than I would have liked, especially chairs that basically looked the same as other chairs, and way less clothing than I found ideal, given how much the exhibition kept talking about how fashion was influenced by what was happening on ocean liners (because people would take about a million different outfits with them and of course parade down the grand staircase at night, though apparently British ships irritated Cecil Beaton because they did away with the staircase).  I have to say that I liked the Jazz Age exhibition at the CMA way better, even though it also didn’t have enough clothing (not exactly comparing apples to oranges, since they both had art deco-y themes), and it was cheaper, even without factoring in the exchange rate (then it’s way cheaper), and I only gave that 4/5, so I guess this one gets 3/5? I would have liked it more at a less busy time, but I think if you’re going to charge people £18 to see something, you should really deliver more content than this (especially if Viking Cruises is splitting the bill for putting the exhibition on).  At least I learned that if I ever travel back in time, I can safely skip the ocean liner and head for a World’s Fair or really unsafe old-school amusement park instead – I think those would be much more to my liking!
  

London: “Nature Morte” @ Guildhall Art Gallery

This is the third post I’ve written about the Guildhall Art Gallery, but the first one that has actually made it on to the blog. My initial post on it was sort of a panic-post written a few years ago as filler when I thought I would run out of things to write about, and was based on a visit from before I started blogging, so I had very few pictures (the post was actually mainly about their toilets). The second version was a revamp of the first that included a temporary exhibition I went to see there, as well as a few more pictures, but it turns out that I didn’t have much to say about the temporary exhibition either, and it was still mainly about the toilets, so I never ended up publishing it. This post, however, is a completely new effort, primarily about the special exhibition on until 2 April, called “Nature Morte” (though I will mention the toilets at some point).

  
Even though I’ve been to the Guildhall Art Gallery at least three times, I still get lost pretty much every time I’m trying to find my way there, because Bank is the most confusing station. There’s about a million exits, and even if you go out the one you think is right, you’re probably wrong. This time, I actually did go out the correct exit, but got confused by the street signs and ended up having to walk in a complete circle whilst crossing a number of busy roads, but I eventually made it. Probably because of its proximity to important financial stuff, they have fairly tight security at the gallery – there’s always at least a couple of guards standing around the entrance, and they put your bag through an actual airport style scanner, but to be honest I find that less embarrassing than someone opening my bag and poking around in there, because I usually have something odd in there like a book about murders or witches or diseases, or food (not even something normal like a granola bar, but maybe a brownie with buttery grease soaking through the bag or a baguette or some other weird thing), or an extra pair of flip flops (only in summer, because I live in fear of flip flops breaking when I’m out and about, and I am totally gross enough to wear flip flops out on a dirty city street) just sitting on top my wallet.
  
I could see a sign for “Nature Morte” downstairs, so I headed down there, only to be greeted by a sign on the door saying that I had to buy tickets from the shop, so I had to walk straight back up again. Admission to the exhibition is £8, though they do offer half price tickets for National Art Pass holders (not advertised anywhere, I had to specifically ask). To be honest, I think I could have gotten away without paying admission at all, because there was nobody downstairs. Not only was I the only visitor, there were also no stewards or security guards (though I suppose one of the ones by the entrance could have run down and stopped me if he’d noticed me on the cameras), so I just awkwardly stepped around the sign and let myself into the exhibition.
  
I was pretty thrilled at being the only visitor, and I didn’t see any signs prohibiting photography, so I was free to snap away with gay abandon. Obviously, I was drawn far more towards the “morte” part of the exhibition than the “nature” bit, so I was pleased to see a couple of skulls greeting me when I walked in. The premise of the exhibition, according to the museum’s website, was: “Confront what it means to be human. Explore the transience of time and the problem of mortality as the 16th-century tradition of still life meets modern art in Guildhall Art Gallery’s new exhibition Nature Morte. Go beyond the two-dimensional as 100 works of art on the themes of flora, fauna, the domestic object, food and vanitas, invite you to pause and look anew at the human condition.”
  
The first room was divided by roughly the aforementioned themes, which were actually “House and Home,” “Food,” “Flora,” “Fauna,” and “Death.” My favourites were of course “Death” and “Fauna,” because taxidermy + skulls, though I have to say there wasn’t really as much of either as I was hoping (especially taxidermy). “House and Home” literally only consisted of two paintings, and “Flora” was similarly unremarkable, except for a video installation of moving flowers by Jennifer Steinkamp, which was at least cool to watch. I did like the photograph of the withered lemons in “Food,” as well as the cheeses, though what cheese has to do with death I really couldn’t say (I mean, the whole point of cheese is that it is meant to preserve milk, so it’s sort of the opposite of decay, really).
  
I loved Peter Jones’s painting of Ollie Monkey in the “Fauna” section though, as well as Nancy Fouts’ taxidermied Rabbit with Curlers. “Death” was definitely the largest (not that that’s saying much) and best section, and Rigoberto A Gonzalez’s So that they Learn to be Respectful was the most eye-catching piece, depicting a man decapitated by Mexico’s drug cartels (apparently one of Gonzalez’s family members was killed in this awful way).
  
I was a little confused by the second room, because when I walked in and found myself staring at some blocks and a pop-art style painting of chairs, it didn’t appear to be part of the same exhibition at all. It wasn’t until I spotted a skull and read a couple of the picture captions that I realised it was still “Nature Morte.” There were nonetheless plenty of pieces I really liked here once I ventured further in, like Matt Smith’s Looking for a Chicken Hawk, Paul Hazelton’s Fright Wig (apparently based on the wigs Andy Warhol used to wear), Matthew Weir’s There and Not There (piece with the skeletons and little boy), and Cindy Wright’s Nature Morte 2, meant to show the viewer the reality of eating meat (I don’t eat meat or fish anyway, so it’s hard to say if it worked, but the fish do look gross).
  
The final room of the exhibition was a cosy little nook with a couple of Dutch still-life-influenced floral paintings (including one with dead butterflies stuck to it. Ick!) and a video of a jug of flowers exploding, which I sat and watched for a couple of minutes. Even though the description of the video specifically said the vase would “suddenly explode,” I still jumped about a foot when it happened, having been lulled into boredom by just staring at a vase of flowers for three minutes.
  
Although I liked many of the works in this exhibition (I was definitely more drawn towards the ones inspired by old still-lifes rather than the modern art pieces, like the thing that was just random blocks on the floor), I can’t say that it necessarily made me “pause and think about the human condition” all that much. Very graphic pieces like Gonzalez’s severed head and Wright’s bloody fish certainly did make me think about death, but not really in a more profound way than “ugh, a violent death would be horrible!” I definitely, definitely don’t think it was worth £8, as it was pretty teeny, and even £4 was kind of debatable because the last exhibition I saw there, which was on telegraphy (the one I never ended up blogging about) was a similar size and quality, and was free. 3/5 for “Nature Morte,” based mainly on my enjoyment of experiencing an exhibition in complete blissful solitude (and also some of the art).
   

I probably will get around to blogging about the rest of the gallery (which is free to visit) at some point, but I’ll just quickly run through what’s in there now. The upstairs gallery is primarily Victorian paintings, with modern art being located on the lower levels. There are also the ruins of a Roman amphitheatre in the building, and despite my lack of enthusiasm for the Romans, I think it’s neat that you can walk through it. After my introduction, I don’t think I can close the post without mentioning the toilets in more detail, so here we are. Basically, the museum has really nice toilets. Extremely fancy, and very private, if that sort of thing matters to you (frankly, I think it sometimes matters to all of us), and probably worth the effort of having your bag scanned if you’re in the area and in need of a loo (also, if you’re in the City on a weekend, not much is open, so your options are limited. Even on a weekday, it is creepily deserted during times when everyone is at work, which is probably why I really quite like the City (although if I had to work there, I’m sure I’d change my tune pretty quick). I was there on a Monday afternoon, and I didn’t see another visitor at the museum until as I was leaving).  I’m not the biggest fan of any of the art in their permanent collections, but it is worth visiting when they have free special exhibitions, or to see the Roman amphitheatre (or use the toilets of course!). Just don’t rush out to see “Nature Morte” if, like me, you’re expecting lots of taxidermy, because you will inevitably be disappointed that there’s only one example of it there (not counting the butterflies, because I hate them).

  

London: “Red Star over Russia” @ Tate Modern

Though I feel like I’ve gone to an excessive amount of Soviet exhibitions over the past year (so many that people are going to start thinking I’m a communist, which is not the case at all), looking back at it, it seems like I actually only went to two: the Russian Revolution at the BL, and “Imagine Moscow” at the Design Museum.  And in my defense, 2017 was the centenary of the Russian Revolution, which is why there’s been so many Russian themed exhibitions in the first place. So now I feel less guilty telling you that I also went to see “Red Star over Russia” at the Tate Modern a couple of weeks ago (it closes 18 February, so hurry up if you want to see it!).

  

I know I just said in my last post I probably go to the NHM less often than any other major London museum, but I totally forgot about the Tate(s). I go to the Tate(s) way less than even the NHM, because modern art and British art are not my favourites. It has to have been at least 5 or 6 years since I last set foot in the Tate Modern, and I was kind of surprised by how grubby it all seems now. The giant carpet at the entrance (the one that slopes down, with the massive ball overhead) was absolutely filthy, and I couldn’t believe how many people were laying down on it. Could they not see the bits of dog poo from people’s shoes, and residue from other people’s lunches? Blech! Even the main galleries of the museum proper just seemed kind of dirty, like all the walls could use a good wash.
  
We made our way to the ticket desk, and paid £5.65 each for entrance to “Red Star over Russia” (National Art Pass holders receive 50% off; it’s normally £11.30). When we asked the guy at the desk where it was, he told us on the third floor, which was super unhelpful, because it turns out it was actually on the second floor of the other building (the Tate Modern is now in both the Boiler House and the Blavatnik Building, which only opened a year and a half ago, so this was my first time seeing it).  We went up to the third floor, realised the exhibition was in the other building, and then had to go all the way back down to the first to find the bridge that connected the buildings, and then back up to the second once we’d crossed over, which was slightly worrying because he issued us with 1pm tickets when we arrived at about 1:20, and the tickets said they were only valid for half an hour after the stated time, so we felt the need to rush (I mean, it wasn’t all that busy, and I’m sure they would have let us in regardless if we explained, but it was slightly more stressful than it needed to be).
   
Having found the exhibition, I was pleasantly surprised to see firstly, that it wasn’t all that crowded, secondly, that this new building was much nicer inside than the Boiler House, and thirdly, that we were allowed to take photos, as many art museums don’t seem to allow it in temporary exhibitions (probably due to copyright issues). “Red Star over Russia” was divided into six rooms, each with a different theme, but most of the pieces on display came from the collection of David King, a graphic designer who eventually collected over 250,000 pieces of Soviet art, which have served as the basis for this and other exhibitions at the Tate Modern.
  
The first room “Art onto the Streets!” was one of the most visually appealing, with a graphic display of posters that splashed over the (appropriately) red walls. My only complaint in here is that I would have liked a lot more text. There was a paragraph or two on the wall explaining the theme of the room, but the only information provided for the posters was their title and artist, which doesn’t do a lot for me (and is the reason I normally avoid exhibitions at art museums. I like more context than they tend to provide).
  
The second room, entitled “The Future is our only Goal” was also very bold visually, with some fantastic posters of Stalin and Lenin, and a book with a fold-out image of a parachutist that I thought was really cool. The focus here was on mass-produced images, and as such there was a series of prints designed by El Lissitzky, as well as a number of magazine covers. There was also a video off in a side room showing clips of Trotsky and how he gradually disappeared from the Communist Party, which I found interesting more for what people at the time were wearing than for Trotsky himself.
  
“Fifty Years of History” was probably my favourite room. In fact, if it hadn’t been for this room, I probably would have felt cheated, signage-wise, but here, finally, were loads of detailed captions, along with a lot of great images from the time of Tsar Nicholas II up until the 1950s. I was most fascinated by the photograph of the outside of a gulag, because it looked so damn unexpectedly cheery – I suppose as a way of hiding the horrors that went on inside, and the contrast was incredibly jarring – presumably especially so for the people who were held inside.
  
“1937, a View from Paris” was about the International Exposition in Paris in 1937, for which the Soviets designed a massive pavilion topped with a stainless steel sculpture imaginatively called “Worker and Collective Farm Woman.” The drab name does nothing for this rather splendid art deco sculpture that was represented here by a wall-sized painting. I’m not a fan of Frank Lloyd Wright, but I know he’s a big name in architecture circles, and he said that the Soviets deserved to win all the prizes for architectural innovation for their pavilion, so I guess that’s impressive? Also interestingly, the Soviet pavilion was positioned opposite the Nazi one, which must have led to some awkwardness. (I found this post that has pictures of both pavilions: the Nazi pavilion was deliberately more imposing, but the Soviet one is much nicer to look at, not least because it’s not bedecked in swastikas, though I suppose a hammer and sickle isn’t exactly the most welcoming symbol either.)
  
The room on “Ordinary Citizens” was undeniably the most moving, dominated as it was by images of people purged by Stalin, accompanied by a book that told us more about their “crimes” (typically nothing more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time). I was especially drawn to the photo of a lovely young woman with haunting eyes named Tamara Litsinskaya, who was a 27 year old student killed for basically nothing, as far as I could tell (apparently I’m not the only person who found her photo compelling, as David King himself used her image on the cover of his book about people killed in Stalin’s Great Purge). There was also a series of photos showing the way that people were erased from images when they fell out of favour with Stalin (typically, a photo would have a whole crowd of people in it, then be gradually reduced until it was pretty much just a photo of Stalin; see example above). This room really drove home the horrors of Stalin’s regime, and I’m glad it was here to balance out all the lovely art.
  
The final room, called “The War and the Thaw” was about WWII and the post-war era, after Stalin’s death. There were again a lot of bold images in this room, like “Fascism – the Most Evil Enemy of Women” (there were two copies here to show how the image had been modified when the war moved into Azerbaijan to make the woman look more Azerbaijani). There was also a rather intriguing image of a soldier apparently making out with a peasant (exchanging a kiss was actually a sign of respect amongst Slavic peoples, so it sadly wasn’t an early celebration of gay culture).
  
Although I do wish there could have been more text in places to explain what I was looking at, there was at least a blurb on the wall of each room, and typically more information accompanying at least a few of the pieces (and quite a lot of text in the third, fourth, and fifth rooms). I enjoyed it more than I thought I would have (I know I like Soviet art, but exhibitions in art museums are often hit and miss, as I’ve said), though I’m still glad I only paid half price. Definitely worth a fiver and a bit, not so much 11 quid!
  
We went up to the tenth floor of the Blavatnik Building before we left, as I had never been, and I snapped a few photos, but it was pretty cold, and the Thames was all grey and blah looking, so we didn’t stay out long (the rumours are true, and you can totally see into the windows of all the flats nearby, but to be honest, most of them looked like show flats with no one living in them, or else rich people live much more uncluttered lives than I do!). Also kind of disappointed that I didn’t get to try the swings downstairs (shown near the start of the post), but people kept hogging them and in the end I just wanted to get home before rush hour, so I gave up. 3.5/5 for “Red Star over Russia” though!
Oh, and I have an update on something! Remember that derpy chipmunk painting I wrote about in the Franklin Park Conservatory post last month? Well, I’m happy to report that it has found a good home! Marcus contacted the artist, and when he found out it was still for sale, he ordered it. He just gave it to me for Valentine’s Day, so I am now the proud owner of “Chipmunk with Strawberry”!